Warning: This contains spoilers. Not seen Dark? Read our spoiler-free review of the opening episodes.
After a messy opening two episodes, Netflix’s latest mind-bender, Dark, calms down a bit. Two boys are missing, another has been found dead, and now it’s time to solve this troubling mystery. But the steady progress is short-lived, as, time and time again, the show values wild sci-fi mythologising over character.
Midway through the season, Jonas’ (Louis Hofmann) father’s suicide, the event that opens Episode 1, is finally given a tragic explanation. With the reveal that young Mikkel (Daan Lennard Liebrenz) got stuck in the 1980s and grew up to father Jonas, the life-ending burden of that huge secret is palpable. But that’s all on the viewer’s empathy and the series barely acknowledges this moving reveal. Elsewhere, characters are dropped and forgotten about, as the small town show becomes swamped with subplots and muddled storytelling. The series lacks a developed emotional focaliser. Instead, there are so many characters and so many problems it becomes difficult to care about any of them.
As well as doubling or tripling the already bloated character count, Dark’s time travel runs into most of the normal sci-fi issues, but at least the characters acknowledge the paradox. More distinct, however, are the Back to the Future-style Oedipal adventures, and Dark is more than just mother and son tomfoolery: this is Mikkel’s wife having an affair with Mikkel’s father and Jonas fancying his aunt. Elsewhere, a DeLorean reference suggests it can’t be entirely accidental that the time periods – the 50s, 80s and 10s – match up with the first two films in that iconic time travel trilogy.
This incestuous subplot is an effective allegory for the town’s secrets and an entertaining psychosexual drama in its own right. So it’s a shame, then, that it too is shunned in favour of quasi-philosophical puzzles (Ariadne’s thread, Nietzsche etc.). Also, contrary to the relative simplicity of the internal logic in Back to the Future, Dark’s strictly implemented and reinforced predetermination nullifies the drama. Unlike Robert Zemeckis’ classic, there’s no sense that the protagonists can take control of their destiny and, as a result, the stakes go out the window.
The 1953 and 1986 scenes are welcome, although the invigorating change of pace of the entirely 80s-set Episode 3 does wear off. While the well-realised period sections are more distinctive than the 2019 “present day”, the series’ overarching narrative concerns remain.
On a technical level, slick, thematically relevant split-screens – particularly in a dynamic opening to Episode 5 – enliven an otherwise bland visual repertoire. One consistently reliable success, though, is the fully committed cast. Christian Pätzold is especially watchable as 80s police officer Egon Tiedemann, a rumbling Germanic giant nearing the end of a long career. Dark Season 1 is an unsatisfying debut run that is well out of its league compared to other Netflix Originals. There’s a gloss to it, but the ideas and execution are severely lacking.
Dark is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.