Station Eleven

Station Eleven novel by Emily St. John Mandel, 2014

I feel a sense of urgency to write about the best television series made to date, due to the impending arrival of an adjacent show that will be highly acclaimed, The Last of Us.

But Station Eleven was first. It was very much first. The book was published in 2014. The TV limited series debuted in 2021 into a very much fresh-pandemic world. (Limited series meaning that it only consists of 10 episodes, it’s not an on-going seasonal TV series.)

Stop me if this sounds familiar, Station Eleven deals with a global pandemic that ravages the world and changes the way humanity approaches daily life and forces everyone to ask “What’s valuable?” and “What keeps us alive?”

The author, Emily St. John Mandel is demure when asked about her talent for prophecy. “What becomes really obvious, if you research pandemics, is that there was always going to be another pandemic,” Mandel says. “It’s just something that happens in our history. There will be something else after Covid-19, and something else after that. It’s like if a novelist had written a novel in the sixties about a fictional war. Does that mean they predicted the Vietnam War? No—there was always going to be another war.”She told Esquire magazine in December of 2021.

When this TV series came out in December of 2021, I was not ready to watch it and I even questioned why anyone would watch such a heavy show for entertainment. 2021 was post-vaccine but a variant-heavy time for the world dealing with COVID. I hadn’t heard about the book at all. So this world-ending due to a pandemic show seemed too raw, too real for me, especially since I was not too many months away from my own life possibly ending.

From word-of-mouth and podcast recommendations, I gave it a shot by myself on a boring Sunday night in the fall of 2022. By 2022 kids were going to school without masks on, meet-the-teacher was back, and things seemed to be in a mode of recovery.  The first episode was so heavy I considered stopping. But like all good TV it introduced characters, and you found yourself becoming attached to them– it made you ask questions about their immediate future.

I think the thing that kept me going was that there was an unexpected calm moment in the first episode. And I needed to know more about that moment.  (You’ll know it when you see it.)

Spoiler alert: The “Georgia virus” (only named in the novel) introduced in Station Eleven is way worse and a lot more deadly than COVID.

Most of the time, TV and movie adaptions do not hold up to the experience of reading the book that serves as the source material. The adaption takes short-cuts, the characters are not allowed to develop as much, sometimes entire parts are left out, and everyone walks away saying “The book was better,” with much confidence.  (Unless you’re my children, it seems.)

That can’t be said about Station Eleven. It’s an experience that is wholly different and richer than the book.  It appears that the author doesn’t take this as a slight. “Honestly, I wish I’d thought of that,” she told Esquire regarding the connection and of two central characters in the TV limited series that are both on independent journeys and only have a short, chance meeting in the novel.  

The TV limited series also adds plot elements that enhance the characters introduced in St. John Mandel’s  novel. There is a whole backstory and moving plot with one of the characters that crystallizes a moment in the TV limited series that’s not in the novel.

As I’ve mentioned Station Eleven deals with a global pandemic and its aftershocks on the surviving population. When we say surviving people, we’re talking about 1% of people left. The characters have to make choices about how to survive and what brings meaning to the world, all the while it has the feel like they’re living-in-someone-else’s-house–they move and live in what’s left of a planet that was historically built for a large populace but now has little to no usable resources remaining.  This sounds gritty and difficult– and it is. The novel and adaption don’t hide that but it’s not agony on the audience. A theme among some of the survivors is the phrase “Survival is insufficient.” It’s a phrase that originated in a Star Trek TV episode, but some character choose it as a motto to live by, some even getting a tattoo of the phrase. The novel and TV series are not about just survival but what meaning looks like when the world has to begin again.

The characters are that lived through the on-set of the pandemic (known as year zero) are forced to reflect on a dead world and its former comforts and ease, along with their own regrets and reflections on the missteps of that time. The people born after year zero say that most of those survivors “lost their minds.”

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