The new Netflix series Dark, which is increasingly being compared to Stranger Things, could not have had a better name. All its characters are moments away from slitting their wrists. No jokes are cracked, no clever quips are made, no peppy soundtrack comes to rescue the mood.
Dark is a serious, serious affair, and once the curtain has lifted over the mystery in this plot-heavy narrative, all that is left is a bunch of humourless and unremarkable characters.
Created by Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese, Dark is Netflix’s first German-language series. Its similarities to Stranger Things are only skin-deep: a boy goes missing in a small town. Everyone knows everybody. The local police is clueless. A bunch of youngsters team up to uncover the mystery. A sinister industrial plant is at the centre of the town. There are flickering lights that signal a glitch in the matrix. And there seems to be a secret universe that influences the proceedings in this small town.
But Dark, which revolves around time travel, might just be as similar to a bunch of other shows and films.
The series echoes David Lynch’s Twin Peaks in its sinister small-town, edge-of-the-world setting where no one is who he/she appears to be. Temporal paradoxes and the free will-versus-determinism debate, dealt with in time-travel classics such as Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future series (1985-1990) and Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (1995), play a strong part here. Even the trope of meeting oneself in the past or future has been treated with more ingenuity in films such as Rian Johnson’s Looper (2012) and the Spierig brothers’ Predestination (2014).
Although the time-worn premise is never too weird or too ambitious to leave a strong impression, the production values are top-notch. Despite its derivative nature, Dark gets a lot of things right on a controlled budget. Though the series deals with concepts that would invite CGI gimmickry, Dark is noticeably low on special effects, and instead, high on dread and atmosphere. The series is very well-cast, but sadly, no character gets a chance to stand out because the writers have put all their eggs in the basket labelled plot.
Since so much of speculative fiction is about rehashing old concepts, the key to the success of a new series or movie is the creation of enduring characters. A case in point is True Detective’s first season, which tipped its hat to time-tasted genre elements while staying fresh. Stranger Things itself is a great example – two seasons later, what stays with its fans are its characters and their relationships (Mike and Eleven, Dustin, Hopper, Bob Newby), not the paper-thin mythos of Upside Down.
If not that, then the story would need to take the genre in a fresh direction, and what new ground can be possibly be covered in time travel after Shaun Carruth’s exhaustive mindbender Primer (2004)?
And just as it happens with time-travel stories, at one point, the story of Dark hits the familiar roadblock presented by predeterminism. When every action intended for a resolution to the problem brings the story back to square one, what options have the writers got left to drag the story out of causal loops?
The contrived concluding sequence can be seen either as a cop-out or a set-up for a second season. The series creators need to build up a grand mythology. Dark momentarily cures the itch for Stranger Things fans, but offers nothing new in the larger context of science-fiction or crime television.