Dipping one’s toe into science fiction is an antithetical. The genre itself deigns to dream for more, its history steeped in finding futuristic realities during times when the present feels impossibly distant from “the future’s” innovative prospects. Classifying a show as sci-fi gives it an alternative reality perception, and while Hulu’s 11.22.63 doesn’t fit neatly into this box, it fits better there than most other genres. Conversely, Netflix’s Stranger Things embraces its sci-fi banner boldly. Both are adaptations in their own way: 11.22.63 takes Stephen King’s 2012 novel and stretches it out over eight episodes, while Stranger Things essentially apes E.T. while sprinkling in Dungeons and Dragons lore. Their differences are vast, but the discerning factor remains their reticence or willingness respectively to embrace sci-fi and the mystical realism that accompanies it. While Stranger Things dives fully into the sci-fi waters, 11.22.63 only plunges its fedora-clad head in the pool for an instant, emerging quick enough that the jarring shock creates a dull headache throughout the duration of the series.
11.22.63 features James Franco in the starring role as Jake Epping, a divorced English teacher whose best friend is a local diner owner, Al Templeton (Chris Cooper). One day when Al emerges from the store’s kitchen and nearly collapses, he confides in Jake about the “rabbit hole” inside his diner. It sends him back to the same date and time in 1960 every time. He’s been going there for years, attempting to prevent the assassination of JFK. In typical Joseph Campbell fashion, Jake is hesitant to continue Al’s journey, but after finding Al dead, he decides to go forth with preventing Kennedy’s killing. Almost immediately after entering the rabbit hole, Jake is confronted by a gangly, dirty individual shouting, “You don’t belong here.”
Jake brushes it off, but the indication he doesn’t belong is repeated throughout the episode through random events that threaten his survival or mission. The premise includes a phenomenon/marketing phase: “the past is pushing back”. It’s a clever conceit that introduces random variables like illusions, falling chandeliers and other unforeseen but plausible hazards. Their insertion falls in line with Stephen King’s approach, creating a plausible reality imbued with just enough supernatural to keep you tugging at his unspooling yarn. The first two episodes feature this phenomenon frequently, but it is quickly placed on the back burner as the series continues. It makes sense, why introduce these random elements when your series centers on an assassination that sparked some of the most vehement conspiratorial arguments ever. Yet, it was hard to shake the feeling that the show lost sight of this thread, opting instead to go wholeheartedly on the apathetic performance of Franco, his brotherly relationship with his 1960’s companion Bill and the pursuit of true love with Sadie, a local school librarian.
The series plunges back into sci-fi near the end with a throwaway alternate reality that feels cheap, and I have to presume is further fleshed out in the book. Other than that, the mystical elements that seemed like omnipresent elements in the beginning give way to a rote period piece drama. My interest in the series remained heightened solely by an innate curiosity in the subject matter and a natural inclination to see the conclusion of a time-traveling story.
Exactly five months after 11.22.63’s release, Stranger Things cropped up on Netflix. The show is an overt homage to the Spielbergian sci-fi films of the 1980’s, with E.T. serving as a particularly apt roadmap for Stranger Things story outline. It weaves narrative threads through three distinct demographics, a collection of young, nerdy boys, one of the boy’s teenage sister and her high-school companions as well as one of the boy’s mother and the small town’s sheriff.
The creators (Matt and Ross Duffer) built the story around a high-stakes game of hide and seek. One of the young kids, Will, goes missing within the first five minutes of the series, which propels his mother, Joyce, and young friends, Mike, Will and Lucas. Meanwhile, a mysterious young woman with powers emerges, running from the Nuclear Testing facility and accompanying baddies that run the place. The show centers on the search for Will, and the efforts of these young boys to protect this powerful girl on the run. Meanwhile, Mike’s sister, Nancy, becomes embroiled in the supernatural plot when her friend Barb disappears without a trace.
Stranger Things never shies away from its influences or its supernatural roots. In fact, its initial reveal of the supernatural within its universe is handled with more restraint than 11.22.63 despite its decision to steer fully into the sci-fi skid, a choice that’s rather refreshing amid a time of modern, grounded dramas. Indeed, the choice of the creators to introduce alternate universes, Dungeons & Dragons creatures and telepathy lent even more confidence to the characters they surrounded with mysticism.
Understanding that the character beats and storylines were strong enough to survive on their own, the supernatural elements only heightened the suspense. In lesser hands than the Duffer Brothers, a world like this can become convoluted in a hurry, something it seems 11.22.63 feared when it backed off from its supernatural happenings. They used every part of the sci-fi carcass here, even mining the geography of alternate reality as an area to house and heighten a plotline temporarily when appropriate.
In lesser hands than the Duffer Brothers, a world like this can become convoluted in a hurry…
Even if it had taken a smarter approach to science fiction, 11.22.63 probably would not have approached the quality of Stranger Things. Issues like flat characters, uneven performances, abandoning its mystical mystery and an inability to create audience interest outside of its singular hero all mar what could’ve been a quality King adaptation. Instead, what’s left is a show that flashes promise, but ultimately fails with a motif that fails to transport the viewer to its period and relies on a droll protagonist.
Stranger Things taps into so many different emotions during its run. The fear of parenting, the confusion of high school, the camaraderie of grade school; these are universal themes that are woven together seamlessly to create a story where science fiction acts as the perfect accompaniment to this comfortingly recognizable show the Duffer Brothers crafted.