Why the Mysterious Spaceman in HBO Max's 'Station Eleven' Is Essential to the Series

He might seem odd at first, but Dr. Eleven is an important part of the show's larger time-skipping narrative.

hamish patel and matilda lawler in station eleven
Parrish Lewis/HBO Max

"Doctor Eleven can't feel time," says young Kirsten (Matilda Lawler) early in the second episode of Station Eleven, HBO Max's ambitious new miniseries adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel's 2014 bestselling dystopian novel. In the moment, Kirsten is speaking to Sarah, who will later be revealed to be "The Conductor" of the traveling theater troupe that grown-up Kristen, played by Halt and Catch Fire's Mackenzie Davis, will eventually become a key member of, but the line might as well be directed at the viewer attempting to make sense of the show's fractured structure. If Dr. Eleven, an astronaut glimpsed in the first episode who resembles MTV's Moon Man VMA trophy, can't "feel" time, what does that mean for the time-skipping series around him?

Like Mandel's novel, the Station Eleven miniseries explores the tension that exists between the past, the present, and the future. Creator Patrick Somerville worked on HBO's The Leftovers, another series about a seismic global event that reshapes humanity's understanding of itself, and Station Eleven shares a number of stylistic elements. Despite the grim subject matter — the first episode chronicles the outbreak of a flu that's even deadlier than our own recent pandemic — the writing has a wry, acerbic tone, which pairs well with the playful visual style of director Hiro Murai, who developed the surreal sensibility of Donald Glover's FX comedy Atlanta. The jumbled chronology, pinging between the "before" time and the "after" time, is key to maintaining that off-kilter mood, particularly in the first three episodes.

doctor eleven in station eleven
HBO Max

In the same way The Leftovers encouraged its viewers to "let the mystery be," Station Eleven resists the temptation to transform the novel's elliptical story into a more conventional, suspense-driven puzzle show. Don't expect rug-pulling Westworld-style reveals or Walking Dead-like twists. Instead, the non-linear storytelling approach resembles the omnipotent view of Dr. Eleven, the astronaut character from an in-show graphic novel (titled Station Eleven) written by Danielle Deadwyler's Miranda Carroll, the ex-wife of Gael García Bernal's actor Arthur Leander. The show passes between the before and after with ease and confidence, using text-on-screen to indicate when a shift has occurred. You feel unstuck in time, but rarely confused.

However, if you've never read Mandel's book, the inclusion of Dr. Eleven in the narrative might scan as obtuse. Is he real? A figment of Miranda's imagination? A manifestation of the world's anxieties? In the novel, he exists within the pages of the graphic novel; in the show, he's glimpsed floating above the earth. In a recent interview with Vulture, Murai revealed, "The reason we go out to Dr. Eleven at the end [of the first episode] is because you want to know how to receive all these stories. They are not just random stories; they are connected by his care for them and by his respect and attention to what could otherwise seem like trivial parts of their lives."

That combination of "care" and "respect" is what ultimately sets Station Eleven apart from so many post-apocalyptic tales at the outset. There are images in the series that can shock and unsettle: a plane falling from the sky, an overcrowded hospital filled with coughing patients, or a young character receiving horrifying news about a family member via a matter-of-fact text message. The show is not an easy watch or a pleasant hang; despite the flashes of humor and the sense of hope, it will likely not serve as a balm to people still unpacking their own feelings about the pandemic. But, by both emphasizing the long-view of history and dramatizing smaller intimate moments of human struggle, it provides much-needed perspective at a time when many other storytellers are simply retreating into the comforts of the past or darting ahead to even bleaker futures. With the help of Dr. Eleven, Station Eleven encourages you to see the bigger picture. 

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Dan Jackson is a senior staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.