Station Eleven, review: mind-bending drama makes you wonder if the apocalypse would be all that bad

Himesh Patel and Matilda Lawler star in Station Eleven - Starzplay
Himesh Patel and Matilda Lawler star in Station Eleven - Starzplay

A post-apocalyptic drama in which a flu-like pandemic ravages the world, and everyone freaks out when somebody coughs? Sounds like fun. But Station Eleven (Starzplay) differs from most other shows of its kind, because it shows life after the decimation of the human race to be not so bad, actually. Well, if listening to a travelling band of hippies performing Shakespeare plays is your thing.

There is a deep strangeness to this drama, adapted from a novel by the Canadian writer Emily St John Mandel. At several points during the five episodes to which I had access, I didn’t really know what was going on. If you dislike multiple timelines, then steer clear. It moves back and forth, starting with the outbreak and moving to 20 years after, then hopping back to one year after, or one day, or 43 days.

In short, it requires commitment. The entire fifth episode is set in an airport, starring a character who was hitherto only a minor player. It was also my favourite episode, although that’s because I have a low tolerance for the ones set 20 years in the future, when a group called the Travelling Symphony traverse North America in horse-drawn wagons, putting on plays and dressing as if they live in a Marc Jacobs perfume advert.

The character who links it all together is Kirsten, played as a child by Matilda Lawler and as an adult by Mackenzie Davis. Pre-pandemic, Kirsten’s parents die and she is taken in by Jeevan (Himesh Patel), a loser-ish but likeable everyman who suddenly finds himself facing the end of civilisation with a kid in tow. The depiction of this deadly flu outbreak is odd – there is some panic and bewilderment but not much. We don’t see streets littered with bodies. Instead, everyone just disappears.

By the time we reach the Travelling Symphony, in which Kirsten is an actress in the troupe, the scenes are shot in hazy sunshine. It is a surrogate family, with children known as “pre-pans”, unburdened by loss. The group does face threats from outside, in the shape of a sinister prophet figure who tries to lure the young ones away. But they spend most of their time debating Hamlet.

The show brings to mind David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, a set of tonally different stories all linked. It asks us to think about big questions – the importance of community, memory, shared history and art. And it’s not entirely humourless: when one hopeful auditions for the Symphony, he doesn’t choose a scene from Shakespeare, but recites Bill Pullman’s speech from Independence Day.