I have been watching the new series of Stranger Things on Netflix. I knew about Stranger Things when it started back in 2016, but I only took a subscription to Netflix last year. It turns out I waited until it was going out of fashion, which is fine. First of all I wanted to see The Dark. I think Stranger Things is far superior. It doesn’t have young men wandering back and forth seemingly endlessly crossing the decades without ever needing a bath or toilet break, but it does have lots of exciting chases and fight sequences, and you can be sure that if someone’s in trouble then someone else will burst into the scene to rescue them. That’s better than waiting for the Eternal Recurrence.
Stranger Things is set in the mid 80s in the mid-American town of Hawkins, home to a secret research institute. It sees the action mostly from the perspective of 4 pre-teen boys obsessed with Dungeons & Dragons and other nerdy pursuits. As the plot evolves and the boys get older, female characters become close to them and part of the core team. We also see older teenage characters at the High School with 80s teen film problems of relationships, parties, and all the Breakfast Club themes.
There are many aspects of the show that are homages and references to a range of 80s horror films and children’s adventure movies. Small towns besieged by slow invasions or lurking menaces, such as Salem’s Lot, IT or Children Of The Corn. Children with superpowers that can be used for good or evil, such as Firestarter. Right back in the very first episode, Joyce Byers thinks a great treat for young Will is to get tickets for Poltergeist; some of the “gate” imagery used in the series has faint similarities to the paranormal portal that appears near the end of that film.
The 80s are now long enough ago to count as historical and so we can check for lazy anachronisms in fictional dialogue. “It’s not rocket science”, “Chill”, “positive spin” seem to pass the test that examples can be found earlier, but my memory is they only entered wider use in the 90s/00s (along with “political correctness”). A word that was around in the 80s was “yuppie”, but perhaps nobody in a town like Hawkins would have any occasion to use it. They do experience the rise of shopping malls, putting Main Street Mom & Pop businesses out of business; that story already had a sequel in which the malls were destroyed by on-line shopping. The soundtrack generally follows the times we are in on screen, though the use of “Hazy Shade Of Winter” by The Bangles is a bit too early as that was in the Less Than Zero soundtrack in 1987.
The kids in this world absorb much the same pop culture as in our world, although if you’re paying attention you can spot a few shifts and omissions that indicate they are a different timeline. In this world Back To The Future is a hit film (screening at the same time as The Stuff and Fletch) but the lead character is played by “Alex P.Keaton” not Michael J.Fox. In the early episodes Jonathan Byers promises young Will that he can listen to some of the cool new music he knows, which includes The Smiths – remarkable, since the scene is supposed to be set in 1982 and the group might not even exist at that point. The biggest gap is in the second series, which faithfully reflects what a phenomenon Ghostbusters was in 1984/5, but doesn’t mention Gremlins, the other big hit it was tied with. There’s an obvious reason Gremlins can’t exist in the Stranger Things universe: these boys couldn’t fail to mention the similarity between events in series 2 and that film’s plot.
In the new series we finally hear about War Games and the topic of “computer hacking” which had been oddly absent in earlier years. “The internet” is introduced as a great secret only a few nerds know about. Police Academy 3 gets a mention and we are told immediately that “it sucks”, so that’s the same as our world as well. They also have Freddy Krueger and Nightmare On Elm Street which is a nudge that series 4 is taking that franchise as its inspiration, and so Robert Englund gets a cameo as old Victor Creel, locked up in an asylum for 40 years after his family were viciously killed. The monster Vecna kills his victims by elongating his fingers, clearly a reference to the old bladehands.
In addition to these kids in the normal world, the show includes the mystery of the secret research centre, in which children are being trained to develop their nascent paranormal abilities. The institute is ruled by sinister old Dr Martin Brenner, a cold-blooded ethics-free-zone, and his prize inmate is young “Eleven” (these prodigies are identified by tattoos on their arms, and we are to take it that they are named in the sequence that they were taken from their mothers). As with the 2000 show Dark Angel, the long-term aim is to train some sort of special-ops assassination squad, and as with that show the experiment breaks down drastically. The Buffy The Vampire Slayer episode “Out Of Mind, Out Of Sight” also ends with the invisible Marcie taken away for secret training by the FBI to become a killer. This is a widely-used conspiracy theory, tapping into stories that Uri Geller and others were used to test out “remote viewing” and similar hypotheticals.
But the research centre also pursues experiments into the use of high-energy beams to open rather rude-looking gateways into an alternative “Upside Down” dimension overlapping the mundane Hawkins, and unleashing Lovecraftian horrors into our side.
Fun fact: Paul Reiser plays Dr Sam Owens. The scenes in series 2 in which Owens has to listen to the massacre of a military squad sent in to the Upside Down and ambushed by the monsters is clearly an homage to the 1986 film Aliens, in which Reiser was Carter Burke, the soulless company man more concerned with the commercial opportunity of the Xenomorphs than protecting the humans. He was also in My Two Dads and I predict series 5 will make a wry allusion to that when it has Owens and Jim Hopper both acting as dads to Eleven.
Eleven and her kind are not presented as being superintelligent or specially gifted in any non-paranormal attributes. There are a few inconsistencies about how much she understands about the mundane world and how fast she adapts to it. She develops into a relationship with Mike Wheeler yet is completely innocent about adult relationships and Max has to tell her she needs to look in a copy of Cosmopolitan. In series 3 it looked as though Will Byers might be kept in some kind of non-ageing state, left behind as the other boys matured, like the central character of “Jeffty Is Five”, however that road wasn’t taken in this new series. We still have the problems of childhood buddies growing apart and just not being as keen on the same things as they used to be.
One of the joys of Stranger Things is that it can be silly and make fun of its plot peculiarities, modelled on its 80s sources. The characters themselves are surprised as to why the school jock Steve Harrington should abruptly become a positive force in the story, and carry on being a buddy to the younger boys who need his help solving the mysteries. The conspiracy theorist journalist Murray Bauman has a moment of being unable to remember his own surname, since of course no one says it. When they call the secret contact number Owens gave them, it goes through to a guy who has a desk of phones labelled with bogus identities such as “Kennedy Space Center” and “Philadelphia Public Library”.
Some 90s films – Gremlins 2 or the Brady Bunch movies, or some of the fare that Winona Ryder starred in such as Reality Bites – tried too hard to show they were smarter than the material they were reacting to, leaving the whole experience a less-than-joyful chore. Luckily Stranger Things was made 20 years later, is comfortable in its artificial skin, and it knows when to have fun and be silly and also to play as serious as it wants to be. The relationship between Steve and Robin has all the 90s slacker humour you could want from films like Mallrats but done much better. In the new series we get jokes about video rental clerks checking which scenes the customers were rewinding to; the team figure out where the local weed dealer lives by looking in the computer records and seeing that he keeps renting Cheech & Chong films.
Not all of those 80s films were great anyway – Weird Science is actually quite bleak and miserable unless you find sad and lonely boys intrinsically hilarious, and Goonies was the end of an era as Spielberg was moving on to do more serious works like Empire Of The Sun. The obvious final development of Stranger Things will be for the team to reunite back in Hawkins in the 2020s when they are all middle-aged. That’s the plot of Stephen King’s IT, as the kids that beat the monster have to return to deal with its revival. There would be technical difficulties with this cast not being appropriately aged, and finding adult stand-ins would not please anyone. I suppose they could use methods similar to those with Jeff Bridges in Tron:Legacy.
If the projected series 5 carries on to 1987 then we might expect these kids to get keen about Tiffany, Guns’N’Roses and maybe the Beastie Boys. Jonathan already has an R.E.M. Murmur poster so maybe he’d appreciate Husker Du’s New Day Rising, which should already exist in his world. It sounded like a hardcore punk band playing an R.E.M. album, and it includes such solid pop songs as “Terms Of Psychic Warfare” and “Books About U.F.O.s”. What a pity they had to bury the backing vocals in the mix, like they were ashamed of having too much fun and not being a po-faced Serious Act.