Stranger Things

Stranger Things season 1 poster by Kyle Lambert

Although the most obvious (and avowed) influences on Stranger Things are the early works of Steven & Stephen (Spielberg and King), I think the real core of the show’s success comes from a less obvious direction, and one not rooted in the show’s celebrated evocation of the 1980s. Because, for me, the impact of Stranger Things comes not from nostalgia but from its depiction of childhood, both as a time of extreme vulnerability to the darker forces of the world (as experienced to the greatest degree by the characters of Will and Eleven), and of imaginative engagement in the world’s wonder & strangeness (the D&D boys, whose Dungeons-and-Dragoning has perfectly prepared them to deal with a world of monsters, parallel dimensions, and mind-powered super-kids). Innocence, in our post-Game of Thrones era of TV where cynical, self-interested characters are the norm, and are often the shows’ heroes, is a very rare quality, perhaps because it’s so difficult to do convincingly (without lapsing into sentiment or mere victimhood, for instance). But when it is done convincingly — and when it’s brought face-to-face with real darkness — it has genuine power. The most obvious recent example I can think of, and the thing that feels, to me, closest in many ways to Stranger Things’ success (including its reliance on a very talented young cast), is the Harry Potter films.

This is perfectly brought out by another Netflix series, the German-made Dark (from 2017), which at times seems like it was created as a result of someone describing Stranger Things (perhaps down a crackly phone line) to Werner Herzog in one of his more sombre moods. It contains many of the same elements of Stranger Things: missing children, a small-town setting, a sinister government scientific establishment where science-fictional experiments seem to be going on, a link to the 1980s (Dark opens in the present, but some episodes are set in the 80s, and there’s a strong generational link to that decade), supernatural travel between two realms, flickering electric lights, abandoned railway tracks through woodland, and your by-now-standard emotionally damaged police detectives. But whatever the similarities, the differences in tone are polar. Dark, for instance, has plenty of montage sequences in which we see various characters isolated in states of lonely misery, with the occasional couple hugging in a desperate need for solace, all backed by the more dour kind of pop song. (Stranger Things does do this, when a body is removed from the quarry lake and Peter Gabriel’s version of “Heroes” plays in the background. But Dark seems to do it at least once an episode, and not as a moment of dramatic climax, more as a feeling that this, in the world of Dark, is what daily life feels like.)

Dark (which, at the moment, I still haven’t finished watching, so it may change) is all about how people are fundamentally isolated from one another, and how everyone picks up dark secrets and emotional wounds as they enter adult life, which further isolate them and undermine their attempts at relationships. Stranger Things (which I’ve now watched twice through in the time it’s taken me to get halfway through Dark) is about the complete opposite: how facing darkness can bring people together, and how the way to overcome the darkness is, ultimately, to break through the barriers of isolation and make human connections (most obviously, for instance, in Eleven’s learning to trust other people after her horrendous upbringing at the Hawkins National Laboratory, but also in the way memories of kindness are used to break through the Shadow Monster’s control of Will in season 2). Stranger Things’ catchphrase is, after all, “Friends don’t lie.” I’m not sure if Dark has a catchphrase. It’s a show that’s more about silence; perhaps its image of dead birds falling from the sky would serve.

Having said that, I do think Stranger Things’ darkness is properly convincing. On first watching it, my initial impression was that someone had made a list of all their favourite scenes from 70s and 80s horror and kids’ adventure movies, particularly of the Spielbergian variety, and arranged them into a workable story. But then I realised the show’s creators were using those scenes’ existing associations to give them an interesting twist, usually taking them in a more disturbing direction. Even when the reference seems just a subtle joke — as when Mike, Lucas and Dustin dress Eleven in a blonde wig, echoing the way, in ET, Eliot’s sister dresses ET in a blonde wig — it can’t help adding an emotional resonance. ET in a wig is funny because it’s a ridiculous image; Eleven in a wig underlines the fact that she’s been treated throughout her young life as somewhat less than a human being (her shaved head and number tattoo have obvious associations with Nazi concentration camps), which has left her as much an alien in our world as ET was. There’s a palpable sense that, in looking through Mike’s sister’s bedroom, or being dressed in a play-box blonde wig, she’s been given a tiny glimpse of the upbringing she was denied.

The sort of darker twist I mean can be seen in another ET parallel. In Spielberg’s film, when Eliot’s mother comes home while Eliot is showing the alien his Star Wars toys, Eliot has ET hide in the closet, which becomes a joke when his mother looks in the closet, sees ET, and assumes he’s just another toy. In Stranger Things, when Mike and El are at Mike’s house (he’s showing her his Star Wars toys) and his mother comes home, Mike has El hide in the closet but she’s terrified, as it reminds her of the isolation cell her “Poppa” Dr. Brenner would lock her in if she didn’t do what he wanted. The scene feels that much darker for being an echo of ET’s light comedy.

The best parallel, for me, was another ET swipe, when the kids, reunited after the first season’s quarrels, are escaping from the “bad men” of Hawkins National Laboratory on their bikes. In the equivalent scene in ET, when it looks like the kids are finally cornered, ET uses his powers to lift them into the air so they can fly away, still pedalling. It’s the film’s signature wonder-moment. In Stranger Things, a much more down-to-earth and practical El lifts an oncoming government van and throws it at their pursuers. ET is an alien temporarily stranded on our world; El is a young girl forced to become a weapon by government “bad men”.

The theme of innocence brought up against darkness is at the heart of many of my favourite films, and certainly the ones that affect me the most, including Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and the more recent book & film of A Monster Calls. (Another favourite, Amelie, contains no supernatural darkness, but is still about an innocent, in this case a young woman facing the much more mundane darkness of loneliness. In fact, Alien is about the only one of my top favourite films I can’t fit into the innocence-versus-darkness theme, but perhaps that’s because it’s even more primal, being about sheer survival.) Anyway, Stranger Things (seasons 1 & 2) certainly grabbed me in the same way, and I hope it manages to keep some of that innocence going in future seasons.

Play for Today: Z for Zachariah

It’s been a while since I wrote about “things that frightened me as a kid”, but I thought I’d revive the practice for a Halloween mewsings. The Play for Today adaptation of Robert C O’Brien’s 1974 novel was broadcast on 28th February 1984 (and this was the last year for Play for Today, a strand of one-off dramas that had been broadcast by the BBC since 1970). I didn’t see it at the time, but was shown it, perhaps later in the same year, in an English class at school — meaning it also falls into the narrower category of “things that frightened me in the classroom”, which includes a forced watch of another 1984 teleplay, Threads (still the bleakest thing I’ve ever seen), and a far more pleasant classroom watch of the 1977 BBC adaptation of Dracula. (And I’ll also add to the list a story a supply teacher, Mrs Mud (or perhaps Mudd), told us at the end of one day in my penultimate year at primary school — probably making it up on the spot— called “The Ear”, about a man persecuted by a reanimated Van Gogh-style severed ear.)

This adaptation of Z for Zachariah moves the events of the novel from the USA to a remote valley in Wales, whose isolated weather system protects it when the rest of the world is destroyed and/or poisoned in a nuclear war. 15-year-old Ann Burden’s parents go off to check for survivors in the locality but never come back. Ann (Pippa Hinchley) soldiers on, keeping the farm as best she can, then one day sees a weird tent set up on the road that leads into the valley.

She retreats up the mountainside and watches as a man in a radiation suit (Anthony Andrews), lugging a survival kit on wheels behind him, enters the valley, tests the water, and, finding it radiation-free, disrobes and jumps into a stream. Ann, watching, realises his mistake — the man only tested one stream, which she knows to be clean, but didn’t test the other, the one he’s jumped into, in which she found dead fish. (One stream has its source in the valley, the other brings in water from outside.) The man soon falls sick with radiation poisoning, and Ann overcomes her fear to come down from the mountains and tend to him.

He describes the symptoms of his coming sickness to her:

“It goes through stages. First you have two or three days’ vomiting. Second stage, radiation causes intercellular ionisation. Molecules within the cells are destroyed. Cells can no longer grow or divide. Plus, you’ll be much sicker. With a high fever. Blood cells are damaged. They can no longer reproduce, resulting in anaemia. No resistance to germs or infection… Susceptible to… mild impurities in food and water, resulting in vomiting, and, more seriously, dysentery.”

He is John Loomis, an organic chemist who, before the bombs dropped, had been helping develop a form of magnetised plastic. The magnetism wards off radiation, hence his radiation-proof suit and tent, which allow him to survive in the post-holocaust world. In his fever, it soon becomes evident that his story of how he got the suit may be more complicated. There were two researchers — John, and a man called Edward, who was his senior on the project — but only one suit.

As he recovers from the sickness, John tries to instil in Ann a sense of the delicacy of their situation. This valley, he says, is now a colony, the one chance for the human race to survive. He gets her to think about the sort of crops they’re going to need — wheat for flour, beets for sugar. And, somewhat mockingly, he says of her regular visits to the valley chapel: “Next time you go to your church, pray for a bull calf.”

Things take a darker turn after Ann celebrates her sixteenth birthday. She wakes up one night to find John sitting on her bed, touching her. She escapes his assault, and the next day offers a truce, saying she’ll continue to help farm the valley, but she’ll be living elsewhere. John, though, starts to impose control, keeping the key to the tractor, padlocking the local shop they’ve been using for supplies and, finally, using Ann’s own dog to track her to her hiding place. The play ends with Ann taking John’s radiation suit and survival kit and leaving the valley to find other people, rather than continue to live with this dangerous man.

It’s a bleak story, feeling like one of the darker one-off episodes of Terry Nation’s Survivors from the previous decade. It’s hard not to watch this adaptation of Z for Zachariah and feel pretty little hope for mankind. John Loomis seems too little like an unbalanced individual, too much a representative of men in general, or scientists in general, or adults in general, casting them all as a bunch of control-hungry rapists and murderers.

Reviews of the teleplay over at IMDB rate it low in comparison to the book, certainly for its lack of moral shading (the book is written as Ann’s diary, and she can be read as an unreliable narrator, a possibility the TV adaptation doesn’t address), as well as the general coldness of the two main characters’ relationship. But I suspect it got the green light at the Beeb not because of its potential for moral complexity but for its basic message — one that was desperately hammered home throughout the 1980s, in a barrage of pop songs (“Two Tribes”, “99 Red Balloons”, many others), films and TV dramas (Threads being the main one, but the nuclear threat was omnipresent, and the standard threat in thrillers like Edge of Darkness and Defence of the Realm), documentaries (two major ones about nuclear war were shown the same week as Threads), and so on — that nuclear war is BAD, that it could be the END OF EVERYTHING, and, if it happens, it’s all MANKIND’S FAULT.

We can become fond of and familiar with most characters from supernatural horror. No one, I think, would be too shocked at seeing a kid dressed up as a vampire for Halloween. But I can’t imagine anyone ever being comfortable at seeing a kid dressed up in a radiation suit, with a clicking Geiger counter in their hand…

Play for Today: Z for Zachariah can be watched at Daily Motion. (It’s just under two hours long.)

Break in the Sun

The Hill and Beyond by McGown and DochertySome time ago I bought Alistair D McGown & Mark J Docherty’s The Hill and Beyond: Children’s Television Drama — An Encyclopedia (published in 2003 by the BFI), and one of the things I was hoping to find out from it, aside from as many obscure telefantasy offerings as I could, was the name of a serial I remembered watching in the early 1980s, about a young girl running away from home, which I remembered as having quite a bleak, realistic feel to it (compared to other kids’ serials of the time, anyway), and which had made enough of an impression that I was still thinking about it more than thirty years later. It turned out to be Break in the Sun, but I had to wait till the BBC Store made it available last year to watch it again.

Based on a 1980 novel by Brian Ashley, and adapted for TV by Alan England, it was shown in six parts between 11th February and 18th March 1981. It starts with Patsy Bligh (played by Nicola Cowper), living with her mother, stepfather and new baby half-brother in a tower block in London somewhere close to the Thames. Patsy, whose terror of her take-no-nonsense stepfather has resulted in a cycle of wetting the bed because of worrying about being hit for wetting the bed, longs for the days when it was just her and her mum living in Margate, in the house of the grandmotherly Mrs Broadley. One day, walking home from school, she gets talking to a young woman on a boat who’s part of a travelling actors’ troupe. They’re in need of a girl to play a minor part, and Patsy tricks her stepfather into writing a letter (she tells him it’s so she can go on a school trip), which she uses to convince the troupe she can spend half-term with them. Her ultimate aim is to get to Margate and live with Mrs Broadley once again.

A Break in the Sun - Eddie and Kenny

Although I mainly remember it being about Patsy, the story actually follows a pair of plot strands. On the one hand, we’ve got Patsy developing as an actor while trying to keep her fellow troupe-members from finding out that she’s run away from home, and on the other we have her stepfather, Eddie Green (played by Brian “My karate means a lot to me, Mr Fawlty” Hall), setting off after her with her schoolfriend Kenny (who’s there because he’s the only one who can recognise the boat Patsy went off on). As they make their way to Margate, Eddie reminisces about his own childhood, how he feared and hated his father, and how it led him into playing some pretty dangerous games as a way of either proving to himself he was worth something despite what his father thought of him, or, if nothing else, as a way of ending his childhood misery for good. It still takes, of course, young Kenny to point out the obvious to Eddie right near the end — that he’s been acting towards Patsy exactly as his own father did towards him, and that’s why she’s run away — but at least it means that, rather than simply being the story of a young girl running away from a monstrous, abusive step-parent, it’s about both sides coming to understand each other better, and overcoming the problem together.

A Break in the Sun

It certainly makes for a highly dramatic (Patsy threatens to throw herself off the top of a tall slide in an amusement park when finally cornered by her stepfather) and emotionally satisfying ending, without seeming cloying or unrealistic. Patsy’s frequent lapses into silence are, no doubt, what gave the series its bleak, thoroughly convincing air when I first saw it, but on this second watch, Eddie’s bluff, laddish lack of self-reflection adds a welcome second strand, preparing you for his ultimate rehabilitation.

McGown and Docherty say that “Break in the Sun was almost certainly the toughest serial made for children by the BBC up to that point. What makes it so affecting is that the dramatic threat comes not from a bank robber or smuggler [as was common in kids’ adventure serials of the time] but from within an unstable family unit.” And it certainly feels, apart from being in colour, like a direct descendent of the Kitchen Sink dramas of the 60s, without, at any point, overplaying the misery card.