Created by Patrick Somerville
EARLY in the covid-19 pandemic, as people struggled to make sense of the unfolding global crisis, many turned to stories almost as often as the latest news and science.
In January 2020, Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion entered the top 10 of the UK iTunes movie rental charts nearly a decade after its release. And much to the bemusement of its author, Emily St John Mandel, the 2014 dystopian novel Station Eleven – in which the “Georgia flu” kills most of the world’s population – suddenly gained a new audience. “I don’t know who in their right mind would want to read Station Eleven during a pandemic,” Mandel said at the time.
The book has since been adapted into a 10-part miniseries by screenwriter Patrick Somerville, who also wrote for The Leftovers, another critically acclaimed drama about the collapse of civilisation. His adaptation of Station Eleven was released to rave reviews in the US and Australia.
Station Eleven follows Kirsten (Mackenzie Davis), first as a child actor (Matilda Lawler) orphaned by the Georgia flu in present-day Chicago and then 20 years in the future, where she makes a living as a roving performer in a theatre troupe called the Travelling Symphony. She and her friends tour the settlements of the Great Lakes performing music and Shakespeare plays to survivors, lifting their spirits and sharing their motto (originally from Star Trek: Voyager): “Survival is insufficient”.
These two timelines, year zero and year 20, blur and merge with Kirsten’s fears for the future and recollections of her traumatic past, both of which intrude on her present. In particular, her thoughts return to Jeevan (Himesh Patel) and his brother Frank (Nabhaan Rizwan), who took her in during the first weeks of the pandemic. Kirsten also repeatedly returns to a graphic novel, called Station Eleven, which she clung to as a child, and which takes on totemic importance in the post-pandemic world.
“The episodes in year zero show a world unsettlingly like 2020, with cities emptied and aircraft grounded”
Most of the characters we meet have some connection to the graphic novel and, in the series, its spaceman protagonist Doctor Eleven takes on a comforting presence, watching over Kirsten and her friends like a sort of benevolent god. The connections between characters are gradually revealed as the series slides back and forth in time. Miranda (Danielle Deadwyler) is the author and illustrator of the graphic novel, while her ex-husband Arthur (Gael García Bernal) is a movie star who was acting alongside young Kirsten in King Lear in the “before”. He dies on stage from Georgia flu.
Though the pandemic of the TV show is a near-extinction event, the episodes set in year zero show a world unsettlingly like 2020, with supermarket shelves stripped bare, cities emptied and aircraft grounded. It also captures the lockdown surge in creativity as Kirsten, Jeevan and Frank find purpose and unity in making music and plays as the end of the world unfolds around them.
By year 20, the parallels with our covid-19 pandemic are minimal. There is even a generation of “post-pans”: 20-somethings who never saw the world as we know it and who press Kirsten for stories of smartphones and Uber as if they were fairy tales. They weren’t that great, she reassures them.
Not everyone is at peace in the post-pandemic world, as Kirsten and her friends discover with often devastating results. However, without shying away from confronting the turmoil and trauma of massive societal change, Station Eleven paints a surprisingly uplifting picture of the future, showing how civilisation might be rebuilt with art and community at its centre. It is a comforting vision as we ease into year three of living with covid-19.
Mandel recently said she felt “profoundly uncomfortable” that her novel dealing with a fictional pandemic was being boosted by a real-world life-or-death one. But as these uncertain times continue, Station Eleven‘s vision of the future – where humanity endures, and beauty is cherished – is a reassuring one to share in.
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