Everyone’s favourite Spielbergian saga is back for nine hours of sci-fi madness. It might just be too long. At least a new dinosaur show provides Jurassic larks
We need to talk about Stranger Things (Netflix). Actually, what we really need to talk about is the length of Stranger Things.
In February, the show’s creators, Matt and Ross Duffer, announced that the sci-fi saga’s penultimate season would consist of two parts. Volume one (seven episodes) arrived this week; volume two (two episodes) will be with us in July.
The brothers also told us that the Stranger Things story had “proved too large to tell” in just four seasons. Let’s look at the numbers, shall we? Season four, volume one clocks in at a backside-numbing 539 minutes. That’s almost nine freakin’ hours of television. Sorry, I don’t care what the story is — if you can’t tell it in nine hours, then you’ve clearly done something wrong.
This isn’t bad TV — we know that already. Stranger Things is extraordinarily well made. It looks fabulous, it’s well acted, beautifully soundtracked and I guess I still care about what happens to teenage superhero Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and her ragtag gang of nerdy misfits. I’ll always love that first season, and that probably explains why I’ve stuck it out this long.
The problem is that, over the years, this once-remarkable show has turned into a walking, talking manifestation of all that is wrong with contemporary sci-fi storytelling. I call it the ‘more is more’ virus, where bigger supposedly means better (it doesn’t), an epic running time is just as important as plot and character development (it isn’t) and nothing ever really ends.
Look, Stranger Things is still Stranger Things. It just now comes with astoundingly thick levels of padding.
It continues to exist in a version of the 1980s that looks and sounds suspiciously like the 2020s, but without smartphones and facemasks.
It continues to borrow so heavily from Steven Spielberg and Stephen King that it has begun to indulge in some of their worst habits; chief among them King’s tendency to overspin the bejaysus out of a decent yarn.
Sure, there are lots of new and interesting plot manoeuvres. Heroic police officer Jim Hopper (David Harbour) is alive and not so well in Russia; Eleven causes a ruckus when she violently lashes out at a bully; a drug-dealing Dungeons & Dragons fan in Hawkins is blamed for a teenager’s grisly murder.
Nice ideas, but they’re stretched and strained in ways that suggest the Duffer brothers care more about keeping the party going for as long as possible, regardless of whether we, the participants, are having fun.
Worse still, there are signs that Stranger Things might eventually become an unintentional parody of itself. Look at Brett Gelman’s Murray and Winona Ryder’s Joyce, both of whom no longer resemble human beings but instead, clumsy and cartoonish supporting players from an entirely different show. Like I said, that first season was a gem, and I’ll probably stay with this one. I just wish there was less of it.
Elsewhere this week, dinosaurs came back to life, and David Attenborough was there to tell us all about it. Well, that’s what it looked like in Prehistoric Planet (Apple TV+), a five-part docuseries that, via the wonders of computer-generated imagery, allows us to get up close and personal with our terrible lizard pals from way back when.
Yep, it’s Planet Earth meets Jurassic Park, only a lot more realistic and a lot less annoying with us pesky humans out of the picture.
Honestly, I didn’t think I needed a swimming T-Rex in my life, but now that I’ve seen it — and now that Attenborough has talked me through the everyday trials and tribulations of your average meat-eating dino clan — I don’t think I’ll ever be the same again.
Part of the beauty of this ingeniously crafted display — produced by Jon Favreau, with groundbreaking visual effects provided by the award-winning Moving Picture Company — is that it depicts these remarkable creatures in their natural habitats.
It’s surprisingly moving (warning: baby dinos die here) and genuinely funny (the mosasaur was a big fan of underwater spa treatments — you heard me).
There are no Hollywood twists — just a hungry velociraptor looking for a midday snack in debilitating heat. Oh, and we get see the raptor as it should be — small, feathered and cranky, like an angry turkey with teeth and claws. Unbelievable scenes.
If only I knew where to place Ardal O’Hanlon: Tomb Raider (RTÉ One), an amiable yet tricky documentary special that has nothing to do with Lara Croft, but instead sees one of the most recognisable faces in Irish comedy set off on a country-wide expedition to find Ireland’s first people.
I admire the mission statement. “Ardal in search of the Celts” sounds like a great idea, and O’Hanlon’s jovial, everyman demeanour means that, even when things get serious, we’re never too far from a decidedly deadpan quip.
Trouble is, Tomb Raider is a tad too jumbled and unfocused, and its awkward analysis of Adolf Mahr — a Nazi archaeologist from Austria who became director of the National Museum of Ireland in the 1930s — hardly helps matters. Oh well. At least it’s educational.
For instance, according to geneticist Dr Lara Cassidy, the modern-day Irish population’s origins go can be traced to — wait for it — Bronze Age Russia. That’s mad, Ted.