First look UK TV review: Station Eleven
James R | On 30, Jan 2022
Station Eleven premieres on STARZPLAY in the UK on 30th January, with the first three episodes arriving together – and the remainder released weekly.
“People are already exposed and they don’t even know it.”
A post-apocalyptic TV show about a pandemic? Station Eleven doesn’t exactly sound like enjoyable viewing two years into the Covid-19, in the same way that finally catching up with (or rewatching) The Leftovers, despite it being on your lockdown watchlist, might have felt a little too close to home. But both HBO shows have something striking in common in the way they deal with big questions of grief, loss and trauma: they’re a thoughtful dose of catharsis. They also share something else in common: writer Patrick Somerville.
Somerville is showrunner on this adaptation of the novel of the same name by Emily St John Mandel, and rather than seek to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, the project finds its strength in the fact that the book was written back in the more innocent time of 2014. There are surprising differences in the way it depicts a pandemic to our real life experiences, not least the fact that this fictional outbreak is far more sever, with a 99 per cent fatality rate that wipes out almost all the planet’s human population.
But the opening episode is a nailbiting chronicle of the initial outbreak, which carries a chilling resonance, as people begin to get nervous around other people coughing. Ahead of the public curve in noticing what’s going on is Jeevan (the always-excellent Himesh Patel), who finds himself the only member of a theatre audience running to help an actor when they collapse mid-performance. Among the thespian company are Kirsten (a superb Matilda Lawler), an innocent child actor, and the famous Arthur Leander (Gael García Bernal).
Fate seems to throw Kirsten and Jeevan together, as he notices she’s without parents and seeks to help her home to safety. Along the way, they go to a supermarket, where he stocks up on essentials to barricade himself in an apartment with his brother, Frank (Informer’s Nabhaan Rizwan), a reclusive writer. The shop itself is implausibly empty, and Jeevan comes across as an anxious eccentric – but he’s proven right by the end of the first episode, as he and Matilda emerge, some time later, in a snow-strewn, seemingly alien landscape.
What makes Station Eleven work is not the differences between this fictional set-up and recent reality, but in the way it captures some haunting and moving similarities. First, the way that a familiar city can suddenly feel like a strange new place, as beautifully lensed by director Hiro Murai, who finds an engaging balance of serene visual composition and harrowing fear. Second, and more importantly, the way that humanity turns to art to find escape, comfort and connection in the face of a grim world.
Episode 2 takes us 20 years into the future, where Kirsten (the sensational Mackenzie Davis) is now a member in a roaming theatre troupe, called the Travelling Symphony. They travel the country performing plays – when we meet them, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, with Kirsten taking the title role – and looking after each other. Surrounded by lush, green scenery, and filled with laughter as well as worries, it’s an oddly upbeat and unexpectedly warm snapshot of a found family – we’re a long way from The Road here.
There are threats lurking in the undergrowth, of course, including a mysterious group called The Museum of Civilisation, and a sinister man who insists that he needs to join the theatre troupe. There’s also the enigma surrounding the fabled graphic novel titled Station Eleven that seems to carry some kind of prophetic power. But before you can say “Utopia”, rest assured that the opening episodes are more meditative than meta, and what draws you into this nuanced ensemble piece is the rich character work and performances – particularly from Davis as the vulnerable but resilient survivor, who will do whatever it takes to protect her new home.
What emerges, as we join this rag-tag group of people trying to spread positivity and preserve creativity among the few remaining strands of civilisation, is not a full-on horror story of loss but a tale of friendship – an ode to community and the shared comfort found in storytelling. It’s a post-apocalyptic drama brimming with profound hope and humanity, a bundle of catharsis wrapped up in a bundle of catharsis – and it might be just what your TV watchlist needs at the start of 2022.