I accidentally created a UFO video library when I was 17. It was a rubbish video library with a single, rubbish video in it: UFO Secrets Of The Third Reich. Yes. That was a crappy year for a lot of reasons and I dealt with it by diving headlong into escapism. And, that one particular month, persuading eight friends to kick a pound in for a video that HAD to be worth watching with a title like that.
It really, really was not.
I mention it here for two reasons. The first is that UFO Secrets Of The Third Reich perfectly embodied the pre-millennial tension that defined the late ’90s. The paranoia of Watergate and the various polite British scandals of the previous three decades had festered and transformed into active fear in many circles, and there was a sense, even living adjacent to England, of the country being a large, polite, privately-owned library. We were all allowed in. We were all monitored. We would be punished if we transgressed.
Which of course made movies like Defense of the Realm, shows like the original House of Cards and, of course, The X-Files even more attractive. We knew SOMETHING was out there. We just had to work out what it was before the MiBs did. Or if not, at least wait until they’d finished their dance number.
That fictional transition from political conspiracy to science fiction conspiracy to “Oh god, I hope they bring back Elvis!” was one of the reverberating bass notes of my adolescence. It’s also one of the bass notes of Stranger Things, which touches on Stephen King, The Thing, E.T., and The X-Files, amongst other pop-cultural gems in its mad sprint through the worst week in Hawkins, Indiana’s history.
The second reason I mention UFO Secrets Of The Third Reich is that I get the feeling Will, Lucas, Mike, and Dustin would have enjoyed hating it in much the same way we did. Four of the five leads of Stranger Things, they’re a gloriously unromanticized pack of nerds who play D&D together, couch their world in character alignments and goals, and stand back to back against the onslaught of adolescence. Mike is the Games Master, focused, theatrical, overly intellectual. Lucas is the fighter, pragmatic, sensible and fiercely protective of his friends. Will is the mage, smart and honest and sensitive. Dustin is the group’s magnificently grumpy cleric, making sure they’re all heading in the same direction, all fed and watered. They’re familiar kids. I’ve known, and been, at least two of them.
Then one night Will disappears.
That absence draws in the rest of the town, starting with Joyce, his mother. Played with incredible intensity and poise by Winona Ryder, Joyce is less a character than she is a force of nature. She absolutely refuses to let anything stand between her and Will and as it becomes clear something very odd is happening Joyce gains allies through her sheer determination and refusal to abandon her child.
Those allies initially do not include Jonathan, her older son, and Chief Hopper, the local police chief. Jonathan, played with a River Phoenix-like awkward sweetness by Charlie Heaton, has been the surrogate parent in the house for a while. He’s self-sufficient but not self-confident, trapped halfway between child and adult, just as his brother is trapped halfway between this world and the next. That uncertainty defines everything about him, from his antagonistic relationship with Joyce to the not-quite romance he has with Mike’s older sister, Nancy. Played by newcomer Natalia Dyer, Nancy is smart, focused and as uncertain as Jonathan is of what she wants—although that initially seems to be super preppy local bad boy Steve Harrington. Steve is a magnificent monster of a character, the sort of kid who’d drop out of the Cobra Kai dojo but still wear the gi so he could impress the girls. Joe Keery, the actor buried beneath some memorably large and terrible hair is, like Dyer, a relative newcomer. Like Dyer, he impresses every time he’s on screen.
The first time we see Chief Hopper he’s barely functional, a walking mess of 80s cop clichés. That introduction, like so many of the references in the show, is designed to lull us into a false sense of security. As the series goes on, Hop finds not only his old detective instincts reawakening but his parental ones, too. There are very good reasons why Hop is so damaged and while those reasons might seem a little off-the-shelf, the way they’re dealt with is anything but. The show is about Joyce and her search for Will. Hop’s presence in that search resolves his own emotional baggage in a way that’s almost offhand but desperately poignant. In particular, his flashbacks in the final episode feature some off the finest acting I’ve seen from David Harbour, whose work is never less than impressive.
And then there’s Eleven.
Eleven, played by Millie Bobbie Brown, is the distillation of everything that makes the show work. She’s found in the woods by the boys when they go looking for Mike. She’s got a shaved head, can barely speak and is absolutely terrified of everything. She can also, it soon becomes apparent, move things with her mind.
On the surface, Eleven is an absolutely standard, ready-made psychic child. She’s near silent, incredibly powerful and actually has a couple of conversations that approach “What is this human thing…called friendship?” levels of predictability. She shouldn’t work. She does.
A big part of that success is how well she’s written. Eleven is the key to everything that happens in the town, but she’s not all-seeing or all-knowing. She has an agenda of her own, regrets and choices that the boys don’t ever consider and is never, at any point, anyone’s victim. Better still, she and the boys massively change one another through co-existing. She and Mike are clearly attracted to one another and even clearer is the massive problem Lucas has with that fact. That in turn opens up one of the gentlest discussions of possible sexuality in recent TV history. One of the show’s best scenes involves Dustin calmly setting Mike straight on exactly why Lucas is mad and opening the possibility up that for Lucas, Mike may be, fairly soon, something more than a best friend.
Or may not. These kids are in the deep end of adolescence and for everyone below Jonathan and Nancy’s age, romance is very much off the table. But it’s not out of the room and to see the prospect of different sexual orientations even sketched in as it is here is inspiring and poignant.
But what really holds the show together is Ryder’s performance as Joyce and Brown’s as Eleven. Last seen as the magnificently foul-mouthed small girl assassin in Intruders, Brown is a revelation here. She hits every single mark the somewhat trope-y character requires but, like Ryder, brings immense depth and nuance to her role. Eleven’s clinical, horrific childhood is the subject of regular flashbacks and Brown’s gear-shifts from seething, silent, psychic death machine to terrified little girl and back again is as effortless as it is disturbing. Eleven is no one’s victim, but she’s also a survivor. What she’s survived and how she did it, along with what she and Joyce do next, is the dramatic engine that powers the show. Eleven is a little girl bowed under the incredible weight of the hideous things that she’s experienced. Joyce is a hard-working woman bowed under the incredible weight of expectation that life has placed on her. Neither break, both carry the series and, as the first season ends, both get to put at least some of their burdens down.
Where the countless influences, references, and clever nods make Stranger Things fun, the emotional complexity of Joyce and Eleven in particular make it soar. This is a show built around a single catastrophe which, in turn, brings countless others to light. No one reacts stupidly, no one has all the answers, and the ending is as satisfying as it is untidy and unresolved. It’s an intensely well-crafted, immensely satisfying eight hours of TV and one that continually serves you familiar ingredients in a very new and different way. The Marvel-produced Netflix shows have gotten all the recent attention but to my mind, this is arguably the best thing the company has produced so far. Go in spoiler-free and get comfortable—it absolutely rewards binge watching. If not now, certainly in preparation for the already-confirmed Season 2.
Now if you’ll ever excuse me, I heard a rumour UFO Secrets Of The Third Reich was on Blu-ray…
Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Podcastle, Cast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.