People sure as hell are feeling nostalgic these days.
Not that it isn’t a normal process in our cultural landscape – storytelling patterns and sociologically-charged imagery are very much cyclical, and know periods of resurgence after some years away from the spotlight. There’s a “nostalgia pendulum”, or “thirty years cycle” at work in here somewhere, to borrow terms frequently used in the film-criticy recesses of the Internet (1) (2). But there’s this ever-present song and tune about living in the age of the remake, of the homage – of nostalgia. Maybe it’s all due to the fact, that, well, times are hard, and when orange demagogues bring the delicate whiff of capitalist fascism to your inconvenienced nostrils, it’s tempting to barricade yourself beyond a prelapsarian fantasy of a time before we were all fucked. Or maybe it’s a consequence of the evolving trends of the TV market – in an age where event television, outside of Game of Thrones, is pretty much dead and buried, there’s quite a bit of room for targeted niche demographics, people that have money in their wallets and Netflix on their computers, and a desire to be pandered to.
It’s not like Who was escaping the trend either. If we take the beginning of the Capaldi era as a starting point – we saw in three series and four years the return of the Master, of Davros, of the Shadow Proclamation, of the planet Karn, of Gallifrey and Rassillon, of basically every Dalek variant ever, of River Song, of the Movellans, of the Ice Warriors, of the Mondasian Cybermen, of the First Doctor, of Ben and Polly. People are feeling nostalgic, I tell you!
But there’s nostalgia and nostalgia. All visions of the past are not equal, or equally worthwhile. Hence – Stranger Things.
[CONTENT WARNING: passing mentions of suicide and abuse]
As a show, Stranger Things is primarily defined as an aesthetic experience. A moody trip, where oppressive seas of synthesizer music weigh over the gloomy woods of a gothic America in the middle of a large, chaotic process of restructuration. And it’s largely good at it – it looks good, it feels right. As a piece of media that’s part of the current discourse, though … Well, its place is a little bit awkward.
Because nostalgia always carries meaning – let’s define it as taking a past cultural artifact into our modern storytelling landscape: that past object has significations attached to it, and the way these are going to integrate with contemporary tropes and themes is key to the success of one’s narrative endeavor. It’s possible, of course, to absolve yourself of that responsibility, of putting a big “this is trashy fun” sign in the front of whatever the hell you’re writing or directing. But Stranger Things is serious. Very serious, even – look at its promotional events, with its cast of teenagers all impeccably lined up in fancy tuxedos.
And here we bump into a problem. Because the signifiers the show adopts as emblematic, as key metaphors that almost act as lenses throughout which the sci-fi plot is filtered, are very much culturally relevant: punk rock, best embodied by the key point plot that is missing kid Will Byers’ passion for The Clash; Dungeons & Dragons, et caetera. Cinema, too – with the front of the local movie theatre becoming a place where one can plaster humiliating messages destined to slut-shame one of the characters. These are counter-cultural phenomena – fringe entertainment for fringe people. That weren’t just kept to the margins because, well, they were weirdos and nerds that didn’t fit in (insert joke about that speech from Riverdale here if you wanna), but because they were actively marginalized. It’s easy to forget this now that we have digested these tropes and imagery, but the reactionary moral panic thrown over that kind of entertainment was real, intense and furious. Joyce Byers mentions taking her son to see some slasher movie at some point – at a time where a rather tame product like Silent Night, Deadly Night could create a reaction like this:
“SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT opened regionally – to what Variety described as a “rising chorus of protests” – on Friday 16 November in 400 theaters in Tri-Star’s eastern and central divisions, extending to some key midwest cities including Chicago and Milwaukee. The intention seemed to be that the release would be rolled out to the West Coast and other territories if it was a success. Presumably, Tri-Star were hoping that the protest would make the film a cause-celebre and boost box office. It didn’t quite work out like that … (…) The protests often took a surreal turn. In Elyria, the mayor encouraged protests by the group specially formed to fight the perceived evil of SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT: ‘The committee to Save Santa Claus’. Lorrain City Councilman Angel Arryo dressed up as Santa and was joined by someone dressed as an elf to hand in a petition signed by 2,000 townspeople. In the end, their protests were in vain as the film ran its two week course to be replaced with THE MUPPETS TAKE MANHATTAN (as Jason would a few years later).” (3)
Not to mention Dungeons & Dragons, which, yeesh …
“At first, Patricia Pulling [mother of a student who committed suicide, which she blamed on the roleplaying game] attempted to sue her son’s high school principal, claiming the curse placed upon her son’s character during a game run by the principal was real. She also sued TSR Inc, the publishers of D&D. Despite the court dismissing these cases, Pulling continued her campaign by forming Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons (BADD) in 1983. Pulling described D&D as “a fantasy role-playing game which uses demonology, witchcraft, voodoo, murder, rape, blasphemy, suicide, assassination, insanity, sex perversion, homosexuality, prostitution, satanic type rituals, gambling, barbarism, cannibalism, sadism, desecration, demon summoning, necromantics, divination and other teachings” (4)
It even got to the point where an entire niche industry of anti-Dungeons & Dragons movies and books rose from the ground, like juju zombies thirsting for blood and experience points – Mazes and Monsters, or the amazingly bad Skullduggery (5), spring to mind.
Which makes sense, really. Counter-culture, is, by definition, rebelling against a cultural consensus, norms of good state – so of course, the agents of that consensus are going to fight it. But that’s the thing with Stanger Things (the thing that’s stranger?) – the little gang of misfits is not … Actually rebelling against anyone, or anything, aren’t they? Oh, sure, there are evil scientists, but there’s never the sense that they’re anything but a bunch of fringe lunatics that do not represent a coherent judgement on the US government and state institutions in general – especially when basically every single other authority figure is presented as unquestionably good. There are some bullies, throwing racist and homophobic slurs at them, but they’re nothing but a plot device to be used and then discarded, leaving the narrative almost entirely past the middle stretch of series one – the instances of abuse that are on record within the show, be it Max’s big brother, the bullies, or even the scientists, are outliers, rogue elements. Bad people. But there’s never a sense of systemic oppression. In part because the setting gets artificially nudged in an artificially brighter direction – call me cynical, but I have some major difficulties believing a young African-American kid would be allowed to gallivant with the children of the town’s elite in the middle of the 1980s – and in part because the text actively dodges any ounce of controversy. Will is a great example – he’s queer-coded to the point of hilarity (seriously, showrunner, how many phallic appendices are you gonna shove in his mouth per season?), from the insults he receives to key pieces of dialogue, like that scene in the penultimate episode of series 2 where his mother tells how he drew a “rainbow ship” with all his crayons when he was younger. Much like what JK Rowling has done recently, there’s a desire both to cater to the queer community while still not deterring any potential bigoted viewers, really.
Of course, there’s the obvious counter-argument – that Stranger Things is intended as an homage to the whole family of Spielberg and comparable movies from the time period, which were in themselves apolitical. But is that really true? Take something like ET – now, I’d hardly call myself a great fan, but there is still a culturally relevant reading to be made: it’s a film about a little boy having to deal with the loss of his father, with the alien friend acting as an exorcism – he gets the choice to help someone leave, to have agency in someone’s departure. Which in itself is very much linked to the sociological climate of the time, with new family dynamics emerging, and things like divorce, nuclear family and the like gaining an actual level of mainstream media representation. Not to mention, that, you know, calling Steven “let’s go have some Nazis melt face camera” Spielberg apolitical is a bit rich.
It’s not like there is not fun to be had with it, let’s be clear on that – at its best, the nostalgic imagery acts like a magnify glass, echoing and enhancing the feeling and experiences of the characters. It can use aesthetics to touch at some universal feelings – that party scene at the beginning of series one, where Nancy loses her virginity, for instance, is a superb bit of directing and sound design that can, without dialogues, capture something deeply naturalistic and personal without feeling exploitative. But it doesn’t want to just be a character study – all of the eighties have to be there, and that includes not just the personal, but also the political and the monstrous, the epic and the outrageous.
And in doing so, in positioning its constant call-backs to nostalgia on that kind of battlefield, it runs into the danger of being read very negatively. I don’t think it was intended that way, but when I watch that show, what I witness is a bunch of abnormal people being forced to fit in the narrow boundaries of society. When you’re faced with the supernatural feminine, what do you do? Name her. Give her a father, a typical familial structure. Teach her the petty jealousies that patriarchy has imposed on women. Teach her consumerism, make one of her first humanizing traits her love of corporate American junk good. These patterns are all over the show – strange families that must be set into the right path once again. Young men that must be taught responsibility. And son on. Into the convention we go. The “stranger things” of the title an enemy, something to be fought and repelled – they are not a call for the acceptation of everyone’s own strangeness. There is, admittedly, an attempt within the text of the show at dealing with that paradox, with “The Lost Sister”, the antepenultimate episode of series 2, and by far the best bit of the show, where Eleven goes to meet one of the other children that grew with her in the lab, who has now become the leader of a punk anarchist group that aim to take revenge on those that wronged her. There’s genuine potential for interesting conflict here – the good old tension between reform and revolution, the bond between the two girls, part genuine love, part manipulation and power games. It’s a great hour of television, but it’s telling that it ends with Eleven leaving them behind, coming back to “her family”. The actual counter-culture has rough edges, see. It’s ugly, it’s violent, it’s political and it’s angry. It’s horny teenagers gathering in basements to hack orcs to bits, getting away from their ill-fitting skins through pen, papers and greasy dices; it’s tattoo ink and blood and spit and broken glass. Stranger Things doesn’t want that – it doesn’t want you to think of the past, only of a biased, cleaned-up, aesthetically pleasing version of it. It doesn’t want to stimulate your existing nostalgia – it wants to artificially manufacture it. Because nostalgia is powerful. When you look at the past, when you see the changes that have taken place, when you hear the sound of the wheels of history turning and tick-tocking, you are inspired to change the present, and that’s just unacceptable – in the immortal words of Robert Holmes, its purpose is “‘to amuse… simply to amuse. Nothing serious, nothing political…” (6).
Of course, cleaning up the past can often have its benefits. It’s something Steven Moffat himself has stated – sometimes, you just want a better version of history. A safe space you can freely enjoy and be empowered by. Even if one knows that our police forces are violent and corrupted, one can still enjoy Brooklyn Nine-Nine. But Stranger Things doesn’t do that either – its female characters are constantly excluded from the counter-culture they want to integrate, just like women nowadays find themselves on the receiving ends of incendiary reports written by some Google anti-diversity ballbag; they are defined by the men around them, stuck in love triangles, looked at and desired but acting all too rarely. Homophobic and racist epithets are thrown around. You can’t actually challenge, see, but you do need to have your credibility, and in a post-Game of Thrones world, that goes by being needlessly and thoughtlessly dark and “gritty”.
So here we are, then. Stuck into a spiraling vortex of artificial nostalgia – which gets worse all the time, really, because when you reach the second series, it starts to try and create nostalgia for its own recent past. The plot is basically the same, just replace “kidnapping” by “possession”, and on we go repeating the same beats, the same scenes played in a different context, with a knowing nudge to the audience in passing – the show’s iconic in that it self-iconized itself, decided to worship itself. Like a capitalist ouroboros eating its own tail, it comes back to the same images, dividing them to their basic constituents and rearranging them.
From that vantage point, it’s interesting to step back and look at Doctor Who. Which, let’s be honest, has tended to drown under continuity call-backs and other kinds of nostalgia fuel these past few years, as the long introductory enumeration you’ve already have had to endure indicates. But see, it’s all about how you do things. Because when that show brings back a past Doctor or adversary, it’s with the explicit intention of bringing forward a dynamic of comparison, of evolution. The First Doctor and the Twelfth teach other lessons. The Ice Warriors try to become more peaceful in front of listeners who have to live through troubled times. The John Simm Master becomes a symbol of toxic masculinity the show has to leave behind in order to evolve, grow, and better itself. Who admittedly has an advantage in its fundamentally metafictional nature – it’s able to organically bring symbolically-charged objects and characters from the past without that much justification, and without the need to deal with the consequences for too many episodes; and it has of course a virtually infinite history to extract ideas from. But at the end of the day, it’s just a question of intent – because the show absolutely could, even with its build-in safeguards, fall into cheap pandering and nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. I mean, there is a precedent – Ian Levine’s short but oh so damaging tenure behind the scenes at the BBC, which did, if not outright kill the show, at least weaken it long enough so that the coup de grâce could end its run.
There is not only a meaningfulness, but also a sheer joy to Who’s approach to nostalgia. I mean, just look at the motif of the museum throughout the show – even in the Hartnell days, with “The Space Museum”, it was already a political space that was destined to be the stage for a revolution, which starts precisely because the TARDIS does not want to become a museum piece, frozen under glass and gazed at. Later, Rob Shearman would set the first Dalek story of the revival in a private collection: the arrival of the Doctor, of the show, revitalizing what was only a prop gathering dust; Steven Moffat would have his favourite archeologist scribble on top of priceless artifacts to leave messages to her husband; hide vital clues as to the fate of the Doctor in them; or use them as the stage of the revival of the companion and a subsequent timey-wimey chase with a killer alien. The show always moves, and tries to always move forwards. To make the all of time and space – including the past, brighter.
Basically, the lesson one can learn by comparing these two shows is simple.
There’s a difference between creating nostalgia and creative nostalgia.
(1) METZGER, Patrick – “The Nostalgia Pendulum: a rolling thirty-years cycle of pop culture trends”, The Patterning, 13/02/17, https://thepatterning.com/2017/02/13/the-nostalgia-pendulum-a-rolling-30-year-cycle-of-pop-culture-trends/
(2) A good explanation of the process is given in a video that also inspired this essay in general quite a bit – ELLIS, Lindsay, “Stranger Things, IT and the Upside Down of Nostalgia”, YouTube, 4/12/2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Radg-Kn0jLs
(3) KERSWELL, J. A., “Ho-Ho-Homicide: the Silent Night, Deadly Night controversy”, Hysteria Lives, http://www.hysteria-lives.co.uk/silent_night_deadly_night/
(4) ALLISON, Peter Ray, “The great 1980s Dungeons & Dragons panic”, BBC News Magazine, 11/04/2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-26328105
(5) By the way, the theme tune for that one is the most over-the-top thing and you definitely should listen to it – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V_-GfA_Qv-0
(6) HOLMES, Robert, “Carnival of Monsters”, episode 1, Doctor Who, 27/01/1973