STRANGER THINGS: Turning TV upside down

From the perfectly 80s genre opening title card, through the eerie opening scenes, into that glorious, magnificent, hitting-every-pleasure-center title sequence, STRANGER THINGS started its journey flawlessly, and only got better from there.

ST titles

It was the breakout hit of the summer — the show we never knew we needed, but that we couldn’t get enough of. The showrunners — The Duffer brothers, identical twins — served up a beautiful mix of all the Spielberg movies and all the King novels that we loved from the 80s, along with a massive helping of other 80s movie references, but all done in an aggressively fresh and original way. It tapped those memories of long, hazy summers reading IT and seeing Stand By Me and E.T. And yet it felt so new, so modern, even as it hit those nostalgia buttons, and kept hitting them. Too much was never enough.

What made it perfect?

It all starts with the writing. This was storytelling at its finest. Swift characterization, distinct and authentic dialogue, and the careful unfolding of the mystery. The deeper we got into the story, the more the characters evolved. Over 8 episodes, each titled as a chapter, there were numerous arcs, surprises, reversals, shocks, and SO MANY EMOTIONS.

Without the great writing, we wouldn’t all be obsessed with the show. But without perfect casting, the show would be a shadow of itself. And the casting on this show was some of the best casting we’ve ever seen. The kids — Gaten Matarazzo as fan fave Dustin, Caleb McLaughlin as the conflicted Lucas, Noah Schnapps as the vanishing Will Byers, the epically named Finn Wolfhard as Dungeon Master Mike, and British newcomer Millie Bobby Brown as the mysterious Eleven — all looked like 80s-style Spielberg kids, which was a feat in itself.

ST kids

Even better, they were all fantastic actors who invested their roles with heart, humor and conviction. But it didn’t stop there: David Harbour, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton and Joe Keery all delivered grounding, haunting performances, as did Shannon Purser, brilliant in her first ever role, playing Barb, who ended up being one of the most beloved TV characters of the year. And of course, Winona Ryder and Matthew Modine brought veteran class and skill to their respective roles, Ryder’s highly strung Joyce, and Modine’s cool, sinister Dr. Brenner.

Assembling a legendary cast like that elevated the show to rare heights.

But those performances still need to be part of a bigger picture, a richer tapestry, and the Duffer Brothers more than delivered. They directed seven of the episodes, with exec producer Shawn Levy taking the eighth. This was such a visually rich show, with incredible cinematography from Tim Ives. Whether it was the wood-paneled suburban feel of Hawkins, Indiana, or the futuristic labs, or the horror-spookiness of the Upside Down, each world felt lived-in and authentic.

They played with the iconography of their favorite movies (E.T., Aliens, Stand By Me, Poltergeist, The Thing, and many others), but did it in a naturalistic way. All this, coupled with the hypnotic, immersive, none-more-80s, instantly iconic synth soundtrack from Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein of the band S U R V I V E (and that soundtrack is available in suitably epic form, 75 tracks across 2 albums, utterly essential listening), brought us a mesmerizingly atmospheric world, rich in detail and emotion.

ST soundtrack

It’s no wonder the show took off and generated instant and sustained buzz and excitement. This show is exactly what TV needed. It turned expectations upside down, and showed us a new way forward.

To be fair, it has had some criticisms, mainly for its supposedly negative treatment of women. But such criticism seems to almost willfully ignore the facts.

The show’s most powerful character, in all senses, including agency, was Eleven. No one and nothing on the show had more literal power than her. If it wasn’t for her, the boys, who, let’s face it, are often hapless idiots, would be dead. Also, probably everyone in the town would be dead. As she goes on her own journey, she helps the boys go on theirs. That kiss with Mike wasn’t just for his emotional development — they both needed that moment. Character and story were one in Eleven.

ST 11

The character with the biggest arc, the one who travels the furthest, was also female: Nancy, who, as played to perfection with always believable emotion and heart by Natalia Dyer, journeys from neat-sweater-wearing-girl-next-door-in-an-80s-teen-movie to Sarah Connor in T2 style badass.

ST Nancy

 

The show’s most beloved, legendary character was a woman. Let’s take a moment of silence and pour one out for Barb.

ST barb

Much criticism has been leveled for the fact that she goes out like a punk pretty early on. We should refocus that: she’s brilliantly written, and perfectly played, and that’s why we all so desperately wanted her to be saved. (And btw, she’s not 100%, absolutely, conclusively dead, you guys — sure, things didn’t look good at the end there, but she was just cocooned, and as fans of Newt from Aliens know, being cocooned ain’t necessarily the end)(apparently switching directors is the end, so let’s be grateful the Duffer Brothers are still on board).

The character who first figured that weird shit was going down was a woman — Winona Ryder’s heartbreaking Joyce.

stranger things joyce

It’s Chriiiiiistmaasssssss (that’s one for fans of UK Xmas music)

Of course, did any of the men in her life believe her? They did not. Kind of like how the boys don’t trust Eleven entirely until late in the game. Let’s face it, if the men did believe the women right off the bat, that would actually be less believable that the Upside Down and the monster.

Far from having a “female problem,” as some articles and commenters have suggested, it’s pretty much operating at Jim Cameron levels of female badassery.

It was, basically, a glorious love song to 80s Stevens (and Stephens), but one that couldn’t have been more now in its execution. Netflix sure made us sweat it out, but they finally announced that season 2 will be coming, set one year after the first season. Which means that the masterclass in how to make truly great TV will continue.

Stranger Things 2

We can only hope they call it this

Time to go fireball a demogorgon.

Rating: Five out of five Eggos.

LOST STARS by Claudia Gray: Journey to Stars Wars The Force Awakens

LOST STARS is Claudia Gray’s latest novel, and her first in the Star Wars universe, part of a raft of novels published to bridge the gaps between the original movies and The Force Awakens. It’s YA, focusing on two teenagers, Thane and Ciena, both growing up on the forsaken Outer Rim planet Jelucan, both dreaming of flying across the stars for the glorious Empire.

Lost Stars

The novel follows them as they grow up, go through training, and discover that the Empire is not all that it seems. The story weaves deftly through the original trilogy timeline, giving us glimpses at many moments from Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Return Of The Jedi, but all from angles and perspectives we’ve never seen before. This is one of the novel’s many strengths: if you’re a fan of the movies, you’ll get a kick out of seeing all-new Darth Vader scenes (what happened after he went spinning off into space at the end of Star Wars? You’ll find out!), deep dives into the Empire and the Rebellion from the inside at key moments including the blowing up of the Death Star, and a hugely thrilling take on the final space battle around Endor, to name just a few. But even if you’re not a huge fan, it’s ok, because Gray makes all of this make sense in a genuinely affecting and involving love story between two passionate, driven individuals who ultimately have to choose between wildly different paths.

Gray is great at making you FEEL the angst, the love, the passion, the hope, the despair, the excitement that Thane and Ciena feel as their story brings them together and throws them apart. Gray keeps the action and characters moving and developing, and brings the whole thing to an epic conclusion, before zigging off in a direction you wouldn’t expect, but which works really well.

It feels like a Star Wars novel, in all the right ways. It captures that sense of wonder at the distant stars, the thrill of space, the terror of the Empire, the fierce idealism of the Rebellion. It also has like, cool aliens and robots and shit. The only critique is that Gray doesn’t put you in their heads enough at the start of the novel — Thane’s burning desire is to fly a TIE fighter, but we never get to see or feel his first time at the controls of one, which is a shame, because any reader who is a Star Wars fan would love to see what that feels like. Yes we all know the Empire is bad but damn it flying a TIE fighter would be bad-ass! While she doesn’t give us that, by the midpoint on, we do get the visceral nature of Thane and Ciena’s experiences, and she dives into the Endor battle with gusto and force.

This book truly evokes the spirit of the Original Trilogy, magically weaving itself into the narrative tapestry of the OT.

It’s fascinating to see the psychology of the Empire (and the Rebellion to a lesser extent) laid bare. We really see how so many decent, intelligent people could be led to think that the Empire was a force for good, even as it begins to take ever-darker actions. Speaking of the force, the book also does a  great job showing how little impact the force has on the everyday folk. Luke really is the last Jedi, and not many people even believe that to be true.

LOST STARS also contains clues about The Force Awakens. If you’ve seen the second trailer, you’ll enjoy one of the revelations in particular (although the book cover does kind of give it away…)

All in all, this is an engrossing, engaging, exciting read, a thrilling look at the universe we know and love from a genuinely fresh angle we’ve never seen before.

Rating:

Four out of five Original Trilogy references