Editor’s note: The below contains major spoilers for 1899 Season 1.The news of 1899’s cancelation came as a shock, as yet another seemingly successful Netflix original was sent to the chopping block. But even if the show had been renewed for Season 2, any meaningful continuation after the ending of Season 1 would’ve meant that 1899 as we knew it was already finished. Season 1’s shocking final moments altered the course and tone of the show too drastically and in too many ways for a second season to feel the same. While the captivating mysteries may have continued into this new version of the show, the tone, themes, and characters would have been drastically altered in ways that would make it feel like a different show.
What Might Season 2 of ‘1899’ Have Looked Like?
As 1899’s first season ended, the Kerberos simulation had seemingly been destroyed. Maura (Emily Beecham) used the new key that Daniel (Aneurin Barnard) had created for her to escape, where she found some of the main cast in suspended animation onboard the starship Prometheus. This sets up a now-hypothetical second season where the characters we met on the Kerberos navigate this new reality and presumably attempt to stop Maura’s brother Ciaran from whatever nefarious things he’s been up to while he’s kept her and the others trapped in the simulation. This could exist entirely on the confines of the Prometheus starship, or it could involve diving back into Kerberos simulation or others like it.
All of this doesn’t sound like a bad premise for Season 2. It features the same core cast on a mysterious ship, probably without complete memories of how they came to be there, trying to figure out what exactly is going on. On its face that’s a very similar premise to the first season, just shifted 200 years into the future. There are all the same basic mysteries of “why are they on the ship?”, “who is telling the truth?”, and “what are these people hiding?” that Season 1 had. It’s possible there could be other people awake on the Prometheus with mysterious intentions that could fulfill the roles that Daniel and Elliot (Fflyn Edwards) did in the first season. Ciaran takes over for Henry (Anton Lesser) as the mysterious man behind the curtain manipulating everyone from afar. There’s even the possibility that the Prometheus itself is just another layer of simulation. All of this seems like it should work great, but the cracks in this premise start to show once you start considering the implications of this premise.
The Simulation Problem With ‘1899’ Season 2
In the earliest episodes of 1899, the uncertainty about what’s going on sucks you in. You’re bombarded by strange and seemingly inexplicable phenomena without any explanation, so all you’re left with are questions. Why are their strange geometry-defying rooms in the bowels of the ship? What happened to the people on the Prometheus (the simulated steamship, not the starship)? What’s with all the beetles? The show holds back on most of the answers to these questions until its final two episodes, letting the viewer’s mind wander across dozens of possibilities. Perhaps it’s the work of some strange, eldritch power out in the sea. Maybe Maura is right and her father Henry is running some bizarre experiment. Maybe there’s time travel involved. But ultimately the show reveals that it was all a computer simulation to achieve some unknown end. And that would’ve left Season 2 in an awkward place.
There are two possibilities about the Prometheus (the starship this time): it’s either a real starship in deep space, or it’s another level of simulation. And that ruins the core suspense and mystery that made the first season so effective. If the Prometheus is real, then all the reality-bending weirdness that made the first season so visually striking is gone. That’s a heavy blow, but it does mean that the events of Season 1 weren’t for nothing. Maura did escape, and the plot has progressed. If it’s not real, and we start seeing more rooms holding traumatic memories in the bowels of this ship, then we as viewers know that this ship isn’t real either. If the characters are savvy (and based on Season 1 we have every reason to believe they would be), they should also figure this out pretty quickly — and then the story becomes about escape, not solving mysteries, at which point the ominously mysterious tone is gone. Neither option is ideal. They both threaten the core of what made the show compelling in the first place, which is a problem when the show is already attempting to dramatically shift genres in the span of a single scene.
The Genre Problem With ‘1899’ Season 2
You could tell the story of 1899 in space without too much effort. Change up the costumes, create some disaster or awful conditions that drove them away from Earth, and say that the ship is en route to Alpha Centauri instead of America, and you’ve got a migrant ship cut off from the rest of the world on which to tell your story. Daniel spacewalks from the Prometheus (a starship serving the same role as the steamship) instead of swimming. Replace coal with rocket fuel or antimatter or any sci-fi fuel of your choice. Other than the time-period-specific context of flavors of prejudice and character backstories tied to historical events, you’ll have a show with a lot in common with 1899.
The issue arises when you try to make both that hypothetical show and the one we got coexist. Television is a visual medium, and while everything else that goes into making a show is essential, the visual aesthetic is responsible for a lot of how a show feels to watch. The sets, the costumes, the lighting, it all creates a very specific mood. A show set on a starship in 2099 is going to look and feel very different from a show set on a steamship in 1899. That itself will be a dealbreaker for some viewers, who signed up for historical fiction and not something that looks a lot like hard sci-fi. So at this point, we’ve got a set of mysteries that aren’t going to feel the same as last season on a show that looks very different. Even so, all of this might not be a problem if that third (and biggest) piece remained untouched.
The Character Problem With ‘1899’ Season 2
Characters are the primary way for an audience to become invested in a story. If you keep the continuity of your characters intact you can change almost anything else without losing viewers who are invested in those characters. The Umbrella Academy, another Netflix show based around sprawling mysteries and sci-fi weirdness, manages to successfully upend its entire world every season while never permanently upsetting the development of its main characters. They are a lone constant in the chronically apocalyptic world they inhabit.
It’s entirely possible 1899 could’ve pulled off a similar feat. But based on the way it established its characters in Season 1, it’s unlikely it would have pulled it off. Except for Maura, David, and Elliot, we have no concept of what any of these characters are like outside the simulation. It’s likely that all the traumas and memories we see in the simulation are a metaphor or twisting of reality, like how Maura manifests her grief over Elliot’s apparent death as a memory of a miscarriage. Henry tells Elliot that memories are “woven into our fabric,” impossible to fully erase, so it’s quite likely that there’s a nugget of reality in each of them. But is it enough? The difference that 200 years can make is massive, and it’s likely that whoever these characters are or once were is drastically different from who we’ve come to know on the Kerberos. And even if every trauma is the same sort of twisting of reality as Maura’s was, the time we’ve spent investing in them as if they were real will feel wasted. Season 1 only ever encouraged us to doubt Maura’s memories, but expected us to empathize with Eyk’s (Andreas Pietschmann) loss of his family or Ling Yi’s (Isabella Wei) accidental murder of her friend.
It is possible that 1899 could’ve produced a second season that managed to circumvent some of these issues. After all, the bowels of a starship are often not too dissimilar from a 19th-century steamship. The characters could still have kept their simulated memories from onboard the Kerberos as they explored reality. Perhaps there could have been some non-simulation force at work in 2099 that can provide the same level of reality-bending weirdness as the first season. But to circumvent all of them in a way that’s both engaging to fans and doesn’t invalidate everything that Season 1 did seems like it would’ve been an impossible task. Even if 1899 had produced the strongest second season in television history, it still wouldn’t feel the same as Season 1 did.