Though HBO Max’s Station Eleven is about a deadly pandemic, it’s also a heartwarming exploration of humanity’s strength. We see these themes played out in the episodes set 20 years in the future after the cataclysmic event, in which we follow a Shakespeare troupe called the Traveling Symphony as they go from outpost to outpost in the post-apocalyptic Great Lakes region, keeping history and human connection alive through art.
At the end of episode four, which aired today, young Kirsten (Matilda Lawler) in the first year of the pandemic is watching “The Conscience of the King,” a Season 1 episode of Star Trek The Original Series. It’s an episode that largely takes place on board the Enterprise, but it also discusses heavy topics like famine and eugenics; like Station Eleven, it uses Shakespeare as a vehicle to explore the tragedy and complexity of humanity.
In “The Conscience of the King,” Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) discovers that a dictator from an old planet colony he lived on as a kid has been hiding from authorities under an assumed name, Anton Karidian (Arnold Moss), and masquerading as an actor in a traveling Shakespeare troupe. Karidian’s real name is General Kodos, and 20 years prior, he killed 4,000 people when a famine struck the colony planet Tarsus IV. Only nine people who witnessed the killings made it off the planet, two of which we meet in this episode, and one we already know—Dr. Thomas Leighton (William Sargent), Lieutenant Kevin Riley (Bruce Hyde), and Jim Kirk.
The scene in which Kirk confronts Karidian about his identity as the man who sentenced 4,000 people to die is the strongest connection to the themes found in Station Eleven. Star Trek is a show about humanity’s scientific advancements that take us out to the stars, discovering new worlds and civilizations. Even though the characters in Station Eleven have lost connection to our modern day privileges such as the internet and phones, they are traveling through an entirely new world, attempting to find a connection to what they once knew.
Karidian’s troupe of Shakespearan actors is a hold over of life before, and seems in direct opposition of where life exists now; the old-fashioned gowns and clothes the actors wear while acting out scenes from Macbeth and Hamlet look out of place amongst the Enterprise’s boxy and hard interior. Even while not performing, the actors wear their costumes, making them stand out even more. Karidian tells Kirk today’s society is too technologically-focused and lacking humanity.
Ironically, a few scenes before Karidian makes this statement, Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) sings a song in a moment that is reminiscent of the Traveling Symphony’s purpose in Station Eleven; Lt. Riley, stuck in Engineering, complains about how the department is dead, making him feel like the last person in existence. His complaint leads to Uhura performing her song over the intercom, while other crew members in the mess hall listen in. Kirk keeps emphasizing that Karidian is stuck in a performance, too in denial and weighed down by guilt to come out of it.
In Station Eleven, Shakespeare is the connection to the past that is keeping hope alive. The communities at the outposts look forward to the annual arrival of the Traveling Symphony. In one particularly moving scene, an older Kirsten (Mackenzie Davis) delivers her lines from Hamlet; the show uses this moment and the emotion Kirsten is exhibiting in her performance during the play to flashback to Year 1 of the pandemic when she learns her parents have died. By using Shakespeare to understand an older Kirsten, one we don’t know very well yet, Station Eleven elevates its nostalgic hook to universal themes of loss and grief.
However, Kirk’s point about Karidian hiding in a performance also rings true for Kirsten. When we catch up with Kirsten 20 years into the pandemic, she’s no longer with Jeevan (Himesh Patel), her friend from episode one when she was eight-years-old, and who got her through the first couple years of the pandemic. Kirsten doesn’t open up about her past much; she may love her family in the Traveling Sympathy, but she keeps the events of the first two years of the pandemic close to her chest.
Alex (Philippine Velge), the only “post-pan” person of the group (meaning she was born shortly after the flu struck), grows resentful of the Sympathy’s older members, including Kirsten, who cling to the past through their obsession with Shakespeare. She refers to them as liars, only focused on what happened before instead of forging a new future.
Both Kirsten and Kodos hide in their performances, and they each suffer the consequences of it. Alex leaves the Traveling Symphony to join The Prophet, a man whose entire philosophy hinges on the idea that “there is no before.” Kodos, in his effort to run away from his terrible past, leads his own daughter to murder, and subsequently, his death.
“The Conscience of the King” is not the only reference to space in Station Eleven. The comic book young Kirsten keeps with her, also called “Station Eleven,” is about a lonely astronaut who, even in – or maybe due to- the vastness of space, feels disconnected from the larger world and the people in it.
Station Eleven is half way through its season; so far, we still don’t know what happened to Jeevan and his brother. Before Kirsten can get really far into “The Conscience of the King,” she realizes Jeevan never came back to their cabin in their woods. He could still be out there, wandering this near wasteland searching for Kirsten. If that’s the case, then that makes Station Eleven’s reference to Star Trek even more profound. After all, the grand idea of Star Trek is that no matter how far we go, we’ll always find something new in our path that might bring us together with those we left behind—our fellow survivors of life’s most traumatic tragedies.
Station Eleven airs new episodes every Thursday on HBO Max.