Dark: a complex tale of time travel

Like many fans of science fiction, I enjoy tales of time travel. I read HG Wells’ The Time Machine at an early age and have sought out entries in this venerable sci-fi sub-genre ever since. Over the course of my reading lifetime, concepts from theoretical physics have seeped out of quantum mechanics, cosmology, and particle physics into the popular culture and heavily influenced sci-fi in general and time-travel tales in particular, inspiring novels, screenplays, and TV series that are increasingly complex, sometimes to the point of cryptic inscrutability. Wormholes, temporal paradox, parallel timelines in parallel universes that branch off and or into our own here and now. It would be reasonable to say that sci-fi has been the main vehicle for bringing these esoteric concepts into mainstream culture.

A really good time travel story often requires more than one reading or viewing just to be understood and to figure out whether or not its time loops, parallel and intersecting timelines, and paradoxes ultimately add up to a coherent whole without “holes” in the story. It’s a challenge for the creator and maybe even greater challenge for the audience. Meanwhile, like any story, a time travel yarn must hook the audience with compelling characters, dramatic conflicts, interesting settings and situations. When it all works, it’s sublimely fantastic storytelling.

Dark, a German TV series that ran three seasons on Netflix, is tagged (on IMDb) as a “crime, drama, mystery” and it delivers on all three genres. It begins with children disappearing and the discovery of other children’s bodies, establishes a set of complex compelling characters in manifold (and confusing) relationships, and sets up a mystery of who took the children, where and whe, and why. Personally, I would tag its genre blend as “mystery, drama, sci-fi.” Like any entertaining mystery, clues abound and intrigue deepens.

The overarching ambience and emotional tone of the series is best described by its title—it’s dark, with lots of guilt over sins of the past that ripples across generations. Underlying everything is a very complex science-fiction premise that explores the paradoxes of time travel. As if its large cast wasn’t complex enough, we see many characters at two or three stages of their lives, played by other actors in scenes from past and present storylines. Sometimes they cross timelines. One of the missing children from the present travels back in time whence he grows up to father a teenage protagonist (who had been a contemportary) in the present timeline) is dismayed to discover that his girlfriend is his father’s niece, a genetic first cousin. You really can’t tell the players without a program and it’s not surprising to find a Wikipedia article on Dark that attempts to sort it all out, going so far as to lay out detailed family trees of the main characters, including some strange loops. It’s still something of a mystery to me and I’m enjoying it. It requires some effort and, in a way, adds an interactive element to the experience.

I watched this first season in 2017 and found it very absorbing and very confusing. When subsequent seasons were released, I decided to watch it a second time before starting the second season. That helped me sort things out and I still wouldn’t be able to write a coherent season synopsis that was more than a ridiculously complicated logline. In part, that’s a function of my viewing habits—I like to watch several series in parallel and don’t watch that often. As a result, it took me six months to watch every episode a second time. Some shows cry out for binge watching and I think Dark would make more sense more readily, if watched over a week or a couple of weekends.

I intend to watch the second and third season and have high hopes that coherent comprehension will emerge. If not, I may have to watch the full series again. Dark may not be easy viewing but it’s highly entertaining (despite its gloomy style) and well worth a second (or even third) viewing to grok its fullness.  

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