Updated: Feb 28, 2021
When Dark producers Wiedemann & Berg announce a new sci-fi project, heads are going to turn. And when Quirin Berg, one half of the company’s leadership, calls the show an “epic saga” and a “milestone” production, it should come as no surprise that it has shot to number 5 in Netflix UK’s Top 10 TV Series. Commercially, Tribes of Europa has been another roaring success for the company.
The "epic saga” has humble beginnings. The scale of the first episode is modest, and the pace is palpably slower than those that follow. The year is 2074. The continent of Europe has been ravaged by anarchy in the aftermath of a general blackout in the 2020s. We are introduced to three siblings, Kiano, Liv and Elja, members of a tribe known as the Origines, who pursue an existence that keeps them close to nature. The three teens, like the viewer, begin with little knowledge of the world beyond their tribe’s territory. After an aircraft from a mysterious civilisation, evocatively known as Atlantis, crash-lands not far from their secluded home, their eyes are opened to the turmoil of the world beyond.
The year is 2074. The continent of Europe has been ravaged by anarchy in the aftermath of a general blackout in the 2020s.
Kiano and Liv are initiated into the ranks of the two main political players, the Crows and the Crimsons, and their roles are often limited to introducing us to the rival factions. Elja, meanwhile, seeks to return a mysterious Atlantian device to an as-yet-unknown location known as the “Ark”. This “Cube” is the sole object that links the three plots, and is arguably the only thing that gives the narrative any momentum.
With just six 45-minute episodes to work with, it is the show’s characterisation that suffered most in the editing room. The three siblings’ sense of camaraderie has only superficially been established by the time they are split up. Besides Elja’s partnership with the technology dealer Moses, a loveable rogue played by Dark’s Oliver Masucci, the show’s relationships seem rushed and underdeveloped. Romance is shoehorned into Liv’s storyline, while Kiano’s enslavement by the Crow Varvara is driven more by fetishistic obsession than any interesting interaction.
Emilio Sakraya does a stellar job to bring the best out of Kiano, although he has relatively few hard-hitting lines. Unlike that of the other two siblings, his trauma frequently bubbles to the surface and feels authentic. Ultimately, the moments of human connection, pathos and humour in the series fall far short of matching the grandeur of the backdrop.
Ultimately, the moments of human connection, pathos and humour in the series fall far short of matching the grandeur of the backdrop.
The world-building in the series is undoubtedly impressive, especially given the time constraints. The complexity of the post-apocalyptic European landscape is brought down to size with the show’s focus on three of its principal powers: the Crows, the Crimsons, and the technologically superior Atlantians. Though various other micronations and tribes get a mention in the series, the narrower focus helps us to get our bearings and allows for just enough time to develop Kiano, Liv and Elja’s journeys.
The Crows are a ruthless and secretive tribe, and live by maxims that are at times a little too simplistic. They certainly have no fear of dealing in absolutes, and we are repeatedly reminded that the tribe values the absolute commitment to dying for their cause almost as much as the willingness to kill. Being taken captive by one’s enemies, we are told, is a fate worse than death. Of the catalogue of hackneyed and dull phrases, one stands out, namely that “Crows never lie”. After I had been reminded for the fifth time, I couldn’t help but make the connection to Mikey Walsh’s much more inspiring catchphrase in The Goonies: “Goonies never say die”. Though their wisdom is surpassed by the protagonist of the 1985 cult classic, the tribe from 2074 undoubtedly have the superior wardrobe. A careful blend of steampunk, Berghain and emo fits perfectly into the environment.
The Crimsons, their rival micronation, are far more palatable, even if they indulge in some equally cringeworthy dialogue. Their decision to grant their constituent tribes considerable autonomy, along with their repeated references to the “European idea”, remind us at once of the European Union and of the US. Despite the Crimsons’ frequent claims to the contrary, both micronations are fundamentally expansionist, and seem destined to lock horns. It is clear from the start that the intentions of the “Republic” aren’t entirely benevolent. Ultimately, there’s nothing we haven’t seen or heard before, and it’s all a bit vanilla.
Their decision to grant their constituent tribes considerable autonomy, along with their repeated references to the “European idea”, remind us at once of the European Union and of the US.
However fragmented and fraught the political landscape may be in the “Europa” of the show, these are not the Dark Ages. The third big player featured in the show, the Atlantians, provide an interesting extension to the bombastic but unconvincing world of tribal warfare, and their technology provides a much-needed sci-fi wow factor. The fact that their presence is so minimal, and the location of their headquarters is unknown, makes them by far the most engaging mystery the show has to offer.
It is strangely fitting that a show depicting a war-torn post-apocalyptic Europe is the product of cooperation between people from across the continent. After all, it was a real-life threat to European cooperation, the 2016 Brexit vote, that prompted Philip Koch, the show’s creator, to pursue the concept. The decision to shoot across Czechia, Croatia and Berlin militates against the pre-apocalyptic map of Europe, and severs almost all ties to modern nation-states. While the European Union of old has fallen, “Europa” remains central to the characters’ vocabulary, and each faction is striving to reunite the continent under their own banner.
After all, it was a real-life threat to European cooperation, the 2016 Brexit vote, that prompted Phillip Koch, the show’s creator, to pursue the concept.
The show is interspersed with other European languages, with Italian, French and Spanish all audible in the background alongside German. However, the dissolution of national borders has only heightened the importance of English, which serves even more prominently as the lingua franca. The transitions from German to English are for the most part seamless and well-executed, but at times, the English sections of the script seem dry and unnatural, although grammatically faultless. Even James Faulkner, a native English speaker, is encumbered in his role as General Cameron by stilted, overwrought dialogue. Ultimately, the strongest scenes are those composed entirely in German, and it is a real shame that the show struggled to build on these solid foundations.
The strongest scenes are those composed entirely in German, and it is a real shame that the show struggled to build on these solid foundations.
Netflix would be missing a trick if they don’t build on the impressive, if largely unoriginal post-apocalyptic landscape that Koch and his team have constructed. There is no doubt that the series has the potential for global success on the level of The Walking Dead and The 100. But to achieve that, its creators will need to salvage a cohesive narrative from a messy web of plotlines. One thing’s for sure: that should prove light work for the production team behind a triumph like Dark.
Watch the official trailer for Tribes of Europa here: