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Stranger Things

Entry updated 19 November 2023. Tagged: TV.

US online tv series (2016-current). 21 Laps Entertainment and Monkey Massacre for Netflix. Created by Matt Duffer and Ross Duffer. Written by Paul Dichter, Justin Doble, Matt Duffer, Ross Duffer, Jessica Mecklenburg, Jessie Nickson-Lopez and Alison Tatlock. Directed by Matt Duffer, Ross Duffer and Shawn Levy. Cast includes Millie Bobby Brown, Joe Keery, David Harbour, Charlie Heaton, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Matthew Modine, Shannon Purser, Winona Ryder, Noah Schnapp and Finn Wolfhard. Eight episodes of 55 minutes in its first season. Colour.

A mother, a police chief and three young friends search for a missing boy in a Pocket Universe accidently torn open by a team of government-funded Scientists.

The trailer the Duffer brothers sent as a pitch for Stranger Things to production companies was famously composed of sequenced clips from more than two dozen movies from the late 1970s and early 1980s, including iconic imagery lifted from the films of Steven Spielberg – the Alien-inspired epiphany of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), the BMX-riding kids from E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), here hunting treasure and dodging traps, just as in the story Spielberg provided for The Goonies (1985), and on through other Spielberg-produced fare, each excerpt revealing the same dark kernel of Horror in SF amid the small-town American sentimentality evident in all Spielberg's work, from the truck-driving Paranoia of Duel (1971) to the imprisoned Precogs (see Precognition) of Minority Report (2002) – set to a synthesizer soundtrack lifted from John Carpenter and strung together by the visual syntax of 1980s Television.

That the resulting series achieves this never-ending chain of referents without tiring its audience is a testament to its technical acuity: the hairstyles are spot-on, the social attitudes rendered as knowing Satire, even the acne is carefully rendered; there is an interesting tension between nostalgia and period piece throughout. Here are the Children in SF of the 1980s, say the Duffer brothers: remember them with us for we were they. Devotees of Genre SF may soon be aware that Stranger Things alludes to the SF Megatext without really understanding its conventions: the human-sized world of the townspeople and their children does not cross-pollinate meaningfully with the "Upside-Down" Dimension beyond the town, plotlines are left to wither once they have done the job of reminding us, and there is little or none of that exchange of outer reality and Inner Space prevalent in the increasingly popular New-Wave writings of Philip K Dick and J G Ballard. If there is a literary antecedent to Stranger Things, it is the oeuvre of Stephen King: a decent but morally-compromised sheriff, a dangerous pubescent woman, a somnambulant town encircling the heart of darkness. There is none of the supercharged existential awe of the brothers Strugatski's Roadside Picnic (1972; trans 1977) or the arresting emanations of the strange and unknowable from Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy (2014). Stranger Things is all storyboard and no theme. As such, it is better television than it is science fiction.

It is the performances that raise Stranger Things above the level of pastiche – most notably that of Millie Bobby Brown as Telekinetic child "Eleven". The show comes alive emotionally when she escapes the clutches of the bungling government agents who are experimenting on her – James Blish is quoted as referring to this sort of device as an "idiot plot" in Damon Knight's In Search of Wonder (coll 1956) – and enters the broader narrative of the people searching for the lost 12-year-old Will Byers (Schnapp): anxious-but-determined mother Joyce Byers (Ryder), teenaged brother Jonathan Byers (Heaton), the younger Byers's Dungeons and Dragons-playing school-friends Lucas Sinclair (McLaughlin), Dustin Henderson (Matarazzo) and Mike Wheeler (Wolfhard), Wheeler's older sister Nancy (Dyer), her sometime school bully of a boyfriend Steve Harrington (Keery) and, not least, hangdog police chief Jim Hopper (Harbour), increasingly dependent on alcohol and Drugs after the death of his own daughter from cancer. There is a great deal of "hanging out with the gang" during the first two-thirds of the opening season of Stranger Things but every time "Eleven" enters a scene, she electrifies it. The three kids with whom she takes up – Sinclair, Henderson and Wheeler – are engaging enough, and certainly far above the norm for child actors (the Duffer brothers cast the kids before tailoring their lines and this approach works very well) but they too come alive when "El" is in their midst, telegraphing her confusion, anger and a yearning for familial connection as much with her eyes as with her psychokinetic Psi Powers.

Those characters untouched by Eleven's progress through the town of Hawkins do not linger as long in the memory. Winona Ryder is excellent as the mother of the missing child but her emotional impact is curiously deadened by playing second fiddle to police chief Jim Hopper from episode six onward. Nancy Wheeler's best friend "Barb" (Purser) is so semiotically perfect – ginger colouring, blue eye make-up, Lady Di hair-do – that she is immediately recognizable as a 1980s "type" little excavated by television until now, but she has only 25 lines in the series before dying with nary a backward glance from those who know her (see Women in SF). Perhaps most tellingly, the Supernatural Creature that lives in the "Upside-Down" parallel dimension, called a "Demogorgon" by the boys after a demon from the Role Playing Game Dungeons and Dragons (1974; rev 1977), does nothing but hunt and feed, teaching no one the error of their ways, or about what lies beyond, nor indeed bearing any communicative property at all. It emerges that Eleven has opened the doorway that allows the creature to enter the township of Hawkins, after being forced to enter the dark and frightening "Upside-Down" on a reconnaissance mission by the team of scientists based at Hawkins Laboratory led by Dr Martin Brenner (Modine) – a mistake for which, in the end, Eleven is obliged to take personal responsibility. The children are the moral compass of the adults in Stranger Things; one reason among many, perhaps, for its immense popularity.

Another is the level of entertainment on offer: Doppelgangers, Monsters and engaging protagonists vie for the attention of the viewer in an amusing melange of Clichés much refreshed by the modern context of watching entire tv series and then sharing one's thoughts online. It little matters that Stranger Things shows little of the narrative control and thematic knowingness of the best Fantastika: the show's journey is more significant to its target audience than its destination. [MD]


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