Here are a few thoughts I jotted down about the Netflix series Stranger Things, created by the brothers Matt and Ross Duffer. I won’t bother summing up the story, because if you’ve seen it you already know it, and if you haven’t then you don’t want to be reading this. Stranger Things is one of those shows which works best if you go in knowing nothing about it, so stop reading now because SPOILERS.
In one of Woody Allen’s early, funny films (I think it’s Love and Death) Diane Keaton tells him that sex without love is an empty experience and he says, ‘Yeah, but as empty experiences go, it’s one of the best.’ Which is kind of how I feel when I see people criticising Stranger Things online. ‘It’s just a hollow pastiche of 1980s movies’ they cry. And they’re RIGHT: it’s got nothing to do with real life at all, it’s been made by sticking together bits swiped from Spielberg and John Carpenter and Stephen King and Joe Dante. But as hollow pastiches of 1980s movies go, it’s one of the best.
It’s very compelling, and handles its hooks and cliffhangers better than anything I’ve seen on TV for ages. The small-town setting, surrounded by wintry woods, feels spooky even when nothing actually spooky is going on. It’s well acted, by an engaging cast which includes some great child actors (Millie Bobby Brown’s performance as ‘Eleven’ gives all the hokum some real emotional weight). And it neatly divides its action into three separate storylines, one about kids, one about teens, and one about adults. This not only means that there’s something for everyone, but also that when the three strands come together in the last few episodes nobody has to waste time convincing the grown-ups of the supernatural threat they’ve encountered, because the grown-ups have already worked it out for themselves.
It’s all filled with ideas and visual/auditory quotes from other things, which sometimes makes it feel a bit arch (when the monster’s lair turns out to feature empty eggs and cocooned human bodies it threatens at last to tip over from fan-boy references into weary copying). But within their 80’s echo chamber the Duffer Brothers create some memorable images of their own. I won’t forget in a hurry the scrawled alphabet on Winona Ryder’s wall, each letter decked with a Christmas light, which her missing son can use to spell out messages from the hellish dimension he’s trapped in. Nor the hellish dimension itself, the Upside Down, which looks exactly like the real town but plunged into darkness, covered with Gigerish goo and with the air filled with drifting specks of – what is that stuff? Thistledown? Ash? Wispy Flakes of Evil? – so you know at once when the characters have crossed the boundary between one world and the other.
It’s true that the main teenage characters have unusually good taste in clothes and music. But Stranger Things is a fantasy, not gritty realism, and if your fantasy is set in the 80s you want the Clash and New Order on the soundtrack, not Kajagoogoo. And the heroes of historical dramas often wear clothes and hairstyles which nod to the era the drama is set in without looking too ridiculous to the audience, so I could forgive Jonathan and Nancy for eschewing the double denim and puffa skirts in favour of clothes that look more anonymous and modern.
In fact the only serious problem I had with Stranger Things is the same problem everyone else seems to have with it, which suggests that it may be a real flaw and not just a matter of taste. Poor Barb (Shannon Purser, above) is the only one of the teenage characters who seems awkward enough to be a real teenager, sensible enough to be a real person, and badly dressed enough to live in the real 1980s. She’s instantly sympathetic, but unfortunately she’s also instant monster-fodder, dragged off screaming after a couple of episodes. Like a lot of other viewers, I spent the rest of the series vaguely hoping she would be all right. But she WASN’T, and that felt like a mis-step. I think if we’d seen her killed by the monster instead of carted off it would have been fine; just your standard horror movie bumping-off-a-sympathetic-character-to-establish-the-stakes move (rather as the bad guys establish their ruthlessness by shooting the kindly owner of the diner in episode 1). Equally if we’d met Barb again later in the Upside Down and she’d sacrificed herself to save Will or the others, that would have been fine too. As it is, Stranger Things just swaps its best secondary character for a guesome effects shot, and I stopped liking it so much at that point.
Not another obituary? I’m afraid so – I’ve hit an age where my teenage heroes are departing so frequently that pretty soon every blog I find time to write will be a tribute to one or another of them. But I had been planning to post something about Blake’s 7anyway, since I’ve mentioned it several times as an inspiration for Railhead and younger readers (and any outside the UK) probably won’t have the foggiest idea what I’m talking about. The sad news that its star Gareth Thomas has died just gives me an additional reason to write this.
Blake’s 7 was first broadcast early in 1978, just around the time that I started to get interested in sci-fi. To eleven-year-old me it felt shockingly grown-up, plunging the viewer into a dystopian future Earth governed by a totalitarian outfit called The Fedaration. The first episode introduced Gareth Thomas’s Blake to the resistance movement, but ended with them being betrayed; all his new friends were slaughtered, and he was sentenced to life imprisonment on a far-flung prison planet. It was all very 1984, I suppose, but I hadn’t encountered 1984 when I was eleven, and Blake’s 7 seemed about the bleakest thing I’d ever seen.
In the second episode, the transport ship carrying Blake to space-Australia encounters a derelict alien starship with an avuncular on-board computer, and Blake and a few others manage to steal it and take off into the wide black yonder to begin a campaign of guerrilla warfare against the Federation. It all sounds a bit Star Wars (although presumably Blake’s Seven was in production at the same time as Star Wars, so the resemblance is coincidental) but it’s far less black-and-white than George Lucas’s universe: Blake’s motives may be pure, but his right-hand man was the duplicitous Avon, a cold-hearted cynic interested only in looking out for himself, and their uneasy alliance was the heart of the show. Around them gathered a team of convicts, cowards and outcasts, forever pursued by the Federation and its sinisterly silky president Servalan (the excellent Jaqueline Pearce, wearing one of the great haircuts of the early ’80s). After a couple of series Blake himself cleared off, and his Seven spent the next few years searching for him, before eventually being reunited in a final episode which managed to be both a bit cheesy and startlingly uncompromising.
Blake’s crew take shelter behind his enormous sleeves.
As with Doctor Who and Quatermass, the imaginations of the Blake’s 7 writers often outstripped the BBC’s budgets and technology to a degree which was often almost surreal. Powerful alien computers were clearly just old cookers with a few bits of coloured plastic stuck over the hobs; laser blasts and teleporters were represented by primitive video effects, and the usual gravel pits, factories and wobbly sets stood in for distant planets. Watching it now, it seems bizarre – the episode where our heroes arrive at the Fedaration’s galactic communications hub and it turns out to be just a cement works with a wobbly robot on guard outside the chain-link fence feels almost like art. It’s like the scene in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville where Eddie Constantine drives his Ford Mustang to that far-off world down an inter-sidereal expressway which looks like a road outside Paris. But Godard knew exactly what he was doing, and the the makers of Blake’s 7 were just doing the best they could with resources stretched to breaking point.
Even as a child, I could see how cheap it all was. But (again like Doctor Who and Quatermass) it didn’t matter. The story had me gripped, and when the Liberator was attacked by Fedaration pursuit ships it didn’t bother me that they were all made out of washing-up liquid bottles; I knew what they were meant to be, and the idea was still exciting.
In fact, the very cheapness of the whole thing was inspiring. My dad’s old clockwork 8mm ciné camera had caught my eye at around that time. If I’d been watching only big budget Hollywood films it might not have occurred to me that I could make films of my own, but with shows like Blake’s Seven cheerfully building alien worlds out of perfectly ordinary rubbish tips and country parks it seemed quite feasible that I could achieve something similar. In fact, I couldn’t – twelve years of ropey movies later, when I came up with an idea about a moving city, even I realised that it couldn’t be done in cardboard, so I wrote it as a novel instead. But I’d found out quite a lot about storytelling in those twelve years, and Blake’s Seven was one of the things which helped me on my way.
I’m not usually a fan of remakes and reboots, but Blake’s Seven has always struck me as something that might be worth revisiting with new technology and new ideas. (In a way, of course, it has been – Joss Whedon’s Firefly has a very similar set-up). I’d be quite pleased, I think, if the BBC decided to try a new version, up-dated without too much reverence for the original, like Battlestar Galactica. But it’s a shame that Gareth Thomas won’t be around to do a cameo.