Stranger Things Season 4 has been a helluva ride with revelations galore (and gore) about the show’s characters, its multiple settings, and criss-crossing plot lines.
We’ve learned that Eleven is part of a top-secret training program designed to create next-generation microwave ovens, Will Byers’s love of DND actually comes from being distantly related to Gary Gygax (who makes a guest appearance), and Hopper is actually a double agent for the Japanese government!
It’s been wild.
Anyway, while all of those fun revelations were unfolding, another one shows us how Will was able to communicate while trapped in the Upside Down in the show’s first season.
A group of characters, who are also trapped in the Upside Down in Season 4, are able to move their fingers across the surface of a Lite-Brite in order to make words appear through the little plastic pegs.
Now, this is where my brain started to perk up.
The Lite-Brite, initially released in 1967, works by using a light bulb to brighten up coloured pegs, which are arranged into shapes like a cock — also known as a rooster.
Stranger Things’s version of the Lite-Brite works more like an LED panel with each peg affected by the touch of the people in the Upside Down. There are no wires or electronics in the individual pegs in the toy in our world.
The explanation for this, in my mind, is that the pegs, while lit by the bulb initially, kept some of the light within them. That essence of the light is perhaps what’s affected by the Upside Down not the electric coil in the bulb.
Or maybe the writers just needed a way for the two sides to communicate and it also works as a commercial tie-in to make money.
Or the writers have no respect for the toys I grew up playing with, so now I’m going to start a petition to get Stranger Things off the air! They don’t know Lite-Brite the way I do!! I love the 80’s because I was a kid and now today sucks because I’m an adult with responsibility, so why do these actors get to time travel and have fun while I have to work 9-5!!!
Or, ironically, I just need to lighten up a bit and stop taking this kind of stuff so seriously.
Chill, it’s not that deep, as the kids say these days.
I guess the question here is, how important is technological realism and internal consistency in a fantasy television show?
Technology vs. Fantasy
If you grew up relatively well-to-do, there’s a chance you owned a Lite-Brite. You may have taken a look in the back of the unit and seen the incandescent lightbulb that would light up the device’s colourful pegs.
There’s a very direct connection between the use of the light and the colour of the pegs. Lights turn on, pegs become colourful. Lights go off, pegs go dark. It’s easy to understand how it works.
As a kid, you might have thought that the pegs looked kinda similar to those strings of incandescent Christmas lights that were pretty much everywhere at the same time, and which were used in the show’s first season by Joyce Byers and Will.
There’s consistency in the device’s function in our world. There are rules. But do those rules apply in Stranger Things? Well, in the show’s first season, there’s a great bit about how an electro magnetic field can affect a compass.
If you take a magnet and hold it up to a compass, the magnetic field will change the needle’s direction. The magnet is stronger than the magnetic poles of the Earth. There’s even a callback to this in the latest season, which was nice.
Science can explain why something in happening in the show, and this fact about the compass is consistent all the way to the latest season.
That said, the compass/magnet thing is something we can do, like, right now and magnetic fields are a thing we can experience. You can find a compass and move a magnet around it to watch the arrow move, but you can’t interact with the Upside Down, so that’s where we dip into fantasy land.
Science & Fantasy
Science is used to establish that the kids of Stranger Things are nerds who can use their smarts to deduce mysteries. Scott Clarke, their science teacher, is the paragon of science as means of understanding the Upside Down.
But there’s a balancing act in the show because there’s this reasonable explanation for the Upside Down’s affect on compasses and then there’s the Russian death laser, which no one can possibly explain.
There’s never really an explanation why lightbulbs are affected the way they are by people and creatures in the Upside Down, so it ends up being one of those unexplained fantasy things.
So, the Lite-Brite kind of falls into this realm of being a fantasy object not governed by the rules of our world and so it can be bent to fit the narrative of Stranger Things i.e. the pegs can glow because we don’t know, scientifically, how the Upside Down affects them.
If Stranger Things had really tried to establish itself as a technology versus fantasy kind of show, I think there would have been an attempt at explaining how the Lite-Brite escapes this rule.
Since Stranger Things isn’t that kind of show as it straddles both realism and fantasy, I’m willing to give the inconsistency a pass.
It’s not a huge deal and I like my theory that somehow light is able to linger within objects instead of the hard rule that only incandescent bulbs can be lit up by those in the Upside Down.
And all of that said above, discussions I’ve seen online tend to have this polarity between being super hardline about this inconsistency and people dismissing their concerns.
I don’t think that kind of discussion is really helpful, to be honest. I think it’s good to be able to really dissect things and think about them while also being aware that, yes, this is a television show that’s not hardline science fiction.
Steve’s hair, for instance, defies gravity, but no one ever seems to nitpick about that!
I think discussions are really important to have and I also think that everyone has a valid point (at least on light topics like this and not some of the other insane stances that people take these days), but the Internet is a big place and without any kind of moderation we tend to default to one side or another.