by Ste Wood
In terms of original TV series, the Science Fiction genre definitely doesn’t hold as much weight in 2016 as it did 10 years ago. Since 2006, blockbuster feature films like Avatar, Interstellar, Ex Machina, Cloverfield, and District 9 have all travelled to various corners of the Sci-Fi spectrum, offering different experiences and taking the genre to new heights. But after spending decades as a sub-cultural juggernaut, proven to turn even the most half-baked of ideas into sprawling piles of cash, the TV Sci-Fi genre has recently been sort of forgotten about. Gone are the days of Fringe, Battlestar Galactica, and The X-Files dominating the science fiction landscape. In their place, a dull E4 comedy The Aliens, an underwhelming and largely forgettable drama Under the Dome, and an X-Files reboot that everyone asked for (but no one wanted) are about as good as it’s been on the sciencey bullshit front. But that all changed six weeks ago.
And Stranger Things finally happened. First released on Netflix (get used to saying that) back in July, the original series has racked up a staggering 95% Fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes, enjoying widespread acclaim from critics and fans alike. And ten minutes into the first episode, I already completely understood why. The pilot does as exceptional job creating a world full of vibrant characters, each with enough personality flaws to leave me guessing who the villain would be in the fictional dead-end town of Hawkins, Indiana. And though it’s refreshing to watch an original sci-fi with a roster of interesting and contrasting characters, that’s nowhere near the biggest thing the show has going for it. What sets Stranger Things apart from any other sci-fi series I’ve seen is the world the story takes place in. Yes the acting is superb throughout, and the story is unlike anything else I can think of. We’ll get to all of that. But first, it needs to be said that though Stranger Things is a 2016 series set in the 1980s, it views more like a blockbuster Science Fiction film made in the 1980s.
The 80s aesthetic slaps you in the face right off the bat, with obvious nods to icons of the era like Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter, and author Steven King littered throughout the shows eight episodes. And in working hard to pay homage to their childhood inspirations, show creators The Duffer Brothers did a fantastic job of ensuring the world never comes off as forced. Teenagers struggling with the pressures of high school. Youngsters riding bikes, fighting a power far greater than themselves. A misunderstood entity being hunted by a corrupt government agency. Stop me if this all sounds familiar. The series is heavily inspired by cult 80s classics like The Goonies, They Live, and The Thing, as well as blockbusters of the time such as E.T, The Breakfast Club, and Ghostbusters. And though a lot of the tropes from the time have been worked into Stranger Things debut series, at no point does it feel like it’s trying too hard. Or at all, in fact. As the narrative slips between the disappearance of Will Byers, and the emergence of the silent and mysterious Eleven, the carefully crafted world remains a constant throwback to the bygone era.
That’s not to say that the show is all one-liners and montages. Like I’ve already said, the story in Stranger Things is one of the most mind-bending narratives in recent memory. Without spoiling too much, a young boy, Will Byers, goes missing after a big Dungeons & Dragons night with his three best friends. His distraught mother Joyce enlists town sheriff Jim Hopper to aid in her search, but has her sanity questioned after recounting a supernatural phone call she receives from Will and a second, indistinguishable voice. Her older son Johnathan, a social outcast with few friends, struggles to hold everything together at home, eventually finding an unlikely ally after “investigating” a group of his fellow students. Former big city sheriff Jim treats Will’s disappearance like any other small town case (being that he’s sure it’ll all work itself out), but slowly comes to realise he’s investigating much more than a boy who ran off to be with his father. Meanwhile, Will’s best friends Dustin, Mike, and Lucas embark on an adventure of their own, to find and save Will from the Demogorgon (I have no idea either) that kidnapped him. Despite not finding Will at what the Demogorgan’s lair (or scrapyard, whatever), they do not give up on their noble journey. And while all of this is happening, a silent young girl navigates her way through the outskirts of the fictional town. After showcasing her ability to manipulate others with gestures and facial expressions, as well as a handy set of telekinetic powers, she crosses paths with the three boys while fleeing from an undefined (but appropriately government funded) group of scientists. The first episode ends with Eleven joining the boys, revealing that she knows about Will’s disappearance, and she knows where he is.
It might sound redundant to say that the story progresses significantly in every episode, but the plot points Stranger Things jumps to make the series an easy-to-binge eight hour marathon of mystery and intrigue. Every episode ends on a bigger cliffhanger than the last. Every interaction between characters sheds new light on the growing threat of the forces behind Will’s disappearance and Eleven’s emergence. Every scene gives you another reason to care about the characters, more reasons to like or hate them. The only aspect of the story that isn’t explained to some end by the conclusion of series one is undoubtedly the biggest mystery of them all. The Demon. In an effort to avoid spoilers, I won’t go into too much detail on what exactly that means. Suffice to say, it will all make sense after about 30 minutes of episode one, and then the same amount of sense at the end of episode eight. Who is the old woman Hopper questions? Is Joyce Byers actually insane? Is Eleven the Demon? All this, coupled with a classic heroes return to glory, and the comedy genius that is Dustin Henderson, Stranger Things definitely has a lot more to offer than just an interesting premise.
Those interested more in the scientific elements of the show may find themselves disappointed. The show could arguably be considered more Science Fantasy than Science Fiction, but when comparing Star Wars to Star Trek, that can hardly be considered a bad thing. Admittedly, the science behind the show is dubious at best. But given its faithfulness to the characteristics of 80s film, that shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Another possible credit to Stranger Things success is the distinct lack of variety in box office hits across cinemas this summer. In a time usually packed with audience pleasing big budget releases, this year’s summer line-up was severely lacking in all areas except superhero. Civil War apparently made up for a lot of the disappointment audiences were left reeling from after watching Batman v Superman. The loud wet fart that is Suicide Squad drew in way bigger numbers than it deserved… And then there was something about another new X-Men film. But if superheroes aren’t your thing, you could still get a kick out of the new… Bourne film? Or there was the World of Warcraft adaptation you had to be fluent in Orc (or is that Orcish?) to be able to follow. And does anyone still remember Independence Day 2? You see what I’m trying to say. Aside from breathing life into a presumed dead genre, Stranger Things also provided the otherwise absent feeling of a blockbuster film worth the time and money invested into it. The comparisons to films like ET and The Goonies aren’t just a way of selling the 80s vibe of the show. The shots used, the depth of the characters, hell, even the soundtrack is better than almost anything else released this year (almost, because Suicide Squad did get one thing right).
It remains to be seen whether the show will continue on the incredible path it started down with season one, or if it will fizzle out and deliver a massively underwhelming follow up with season two. It’s hard to believe that the latter is possible, given the high standard the first season set for the show, but with Mr. Robot unfortunately unable to live up to audiences expectations with its second series, only time will tell if Stranger Things will take it’s place next to its spiritual predecessors in pretty much every film made in the 80s. For now, all we can do is ponder the future of the eight-episode epic, and eagerly anticipate the second season (or sequel, as The Duffer Brothers have dubbed it), which reportedly picks up roughly a year after the events of series one and is schedule for a release in roughly twelve months time.
Stranger Things is currently available on Netflix UK.
What do you think ? Is Stranger Things the pop culture hit 2016 was crying out for? Thanks for reading and comment below!
Follow me on Twitter @TheRealSteWood