Third-episode verdict: 1983 (Netflix)

Confusing sci-fi that only Polish people will understand

1983

Available on Netflix

As I’ve remarked before, globalisation is paradoxical, particularly when it comes to TV. On the one hand, it can bring us together and help different countries to understand others’ cultures; on the other, it can lead to homogenisation, with TV shows developed to appeal not to that country’s viewers but to viewers around the world.

The latter sounds bad, doesn’t it? Certainly, I’ve stopped watching UK TV almost completely because either the shows are all the same or they’re yet more ethnically cleansed period dramas geared up for international sales. Yawn. Show me something new.

Yet at the same time, watching the first three episodes of Netflix’s first ever Polish original, 1983, I did yearn a little for a bit more cultural homogeneity. Or maybe even a guide book. Perhaps Lonely Planet could start a new market for Netflix boxsets.

1983

2003

The confusion starts with the title. Despite its name, 1983 is actually set in 2003. However, it’s not the 2003 we know. Even if we knew what 2003 was like in Poland.

Instead, we’re in a parallel universe. Al Gore is the president of the US and Poland is still under Communist Party martial law thanks to a terrorist incident that took place in 1983.

Again, confusion since unless you’re well versed in the histories of various Central and Eastern European countries, what exactly the new state of affairs is and whether it is new isn’t obvious. It probably is to Polish people, but to me, at least, not so much.

As much as I can glean, the Soviet Union has fragmented, with Poland having risen up to form a new Second Republic that’s independent of the still viable Soviet Union – or at least not quite under the same degree of control from Moscow as there was. There’s still an East Germany and an East Berlin; there’s still an Iraq war; there’s still a West Germany occupied by the West.

But despite being 2003, everyone in Poland has flat screen monitors, uses Linux with well developed GUIs, and there’s a burgeoning social media app development ecosystem in Poland that’s got both China and Vietnam excited and investing in the country. There’s also a burgeoning market economy, too, by the looks of it, with all the queues of communism only there in flashback.

Was that true in 2003 for real? Is that even true now? Is there even now a police force called the Milica (or maybe Milicja)? I don’t know.

Or is this all supposed to be a highly nuanced, intricate examination of how Polish society might have evolved, reflecting inherent cultural trends? I don’t know.

1983

Conspiracy

Against that backdrop, we have a law student (Maciej Musiał), descended from one of the victims of the terrorist incident, who’s given a photograph by his law professor, who’s then killed in mysterious circumstances. In that 1983 photo are a whole bunch of people, including scientists and soldiers, who quickly ascended to power following the terrorist incident.

Meanwhile, police detective Robert Więckiewicz is investigating the mysterious epidemic of teenage suicides, which may be linked to a new underground rebellion. He quickly runs afoul of the authorities on his own side, as well as the Vietnamese, but soon he and Musiał start to work together to see if their two cases are linked. And there probably is a link in the shape of Michalina Olszańska, who’s a family friend of Musiał, the girlfriend of one of those suicidal teens and a big name in the underground rebellion.

All of which is reasonable enough, but it’s not exactly clear what sort of scenario or even genre we have here. Is this basically SS-GB, in which we’re sat in an alternative universe watching a regular old conspiracy thriller, or are we in The Man in the High Castle, watching a sci-fi parallel universe engineered by some Cold War-era scientists?

Neither is it clear why we should care. At least, if we’re not Polish. It’s certainly interesting to watch a “What If?” piece of television made by people in country who had to go through some terrible hardships and are now asking themselves “What if we never escaped that hellhole of a life?” – it’s different at least from “Here’s what would have happened if that hellhole of a life had happened to us, so let’s count our lucky stars.”

But with so little explained, from the history through to the culture to the political implications, it feels like an answer only Polish people might want to know. There wasn’t even actually a terrorist incident in Poland in 1983, so it’s not like it’s even a “What if?” in the style of SS-GB.

Instead, I’ve just watched three, quite slow-moving hours of drama, in which people talk about a photograph a lot, while I wonder if there’s a reason all the women in Poland are topless all the time, or whether that’s only in sci-fi. Is Olszańska’s character called Ophelia to reference Hamlet (girlfriend of a suicidal teen…) or is Ophelia a popular name in Poland? Was Amazon’s Comrade Detective actually a surprisingly accurate satire of Central European TV, judging by 1983‘s dialogue and the direction?

1983

Conclusion

1983 is at least different from the normal fare we get on Netflix. But seeing as it’s hard to tell:

  • What things are supposed to be different from modern/2003 Poland and what’s supposed to be the same
  • Whether the fact everything looks like it’s Equilibrium fan fiction is deliberate
  • What exactly the point of it all is

I can’t exactly recommend it. The acting’s fine. The dialogue might be brilliant, just not in subtitled English. The plotting is slow. Nothing so far has revealed itself to be ‘paradigm shifting’. I might stick with it, but I get the feeling that unless you’ve got a decent baseline of Polish cultural, geographical and historical knowledge to start from, 1983 is going to be its own biggest mystery.