‘Stranger Things’: Do These ‘80s Toys Hold the Secret to TMF Health?
Stranger Things’ expert-level conjuring of ‘80s nostalgia is undoubtedly a big component of the series’ success. Many viewers who might otherwise turn away from sci-fi and fantasy are hooked on relatable characters grappling with the knots of adolescence in a way that reminds them of their own youth—but in a time and place that is just a bit rosier.
A big part of creating that nostalgia is the set design. A Wired article interviewing Stranger Things’ prop master Lynda Reiss notes her commitment to scouring eBay, flea markets, and garage sales across Georgia to find rare ‘80s relics, like rotary phones and cassette players, that were once ubiquitous in 1983.
But, perhaps none of these ‘80s relics get as much screen time as the quintessential ‘80s toys. Beyond producing nostalgia, keen viewers will also notice that these toys punctuate the most important moments of the series. So, let’s take a closer look at some of the ‘80s toys of Stranger Things and how we, as TMF professionals, can learn from them to achieve TMF health.
In Season 4 of Stranger Things, a Rubik’s Cube can be seen at the video store where Steve and Robin work. In earlier seasons, Mike is seen struggling with a Rubik’s Cube on his basement couch. The Rubik’s Cube appears on his bedroom nightstand in later scene, this time solved.
According to the manufacture, the Rubik’s Cube was first available in stores in 1980 and “instantaneously became an international sensation.” By 1982, more than 100 million Rubik’s Cubes had been sold. A standard Rubik’s Cube has 43 quintillion possible configurations. It’s hard to imagine how such a seemingly simple object can have such complexity. In this way, the Rubik’s Cube is the perfect metaphor of the characters of Stranger Things, who in their transition from childhood to adulthood must find themselves and make healthy relationships with those around them. We see this in Mike, as he battles to find his place at school and continually rethinks his relationship with El. Steve and Robin, too, are united by their inability to find romantic partners that they truly connect with, albeit for different reasons.
As TMF Professionals, we face complexity in the TMF daily. A typical TMF, for example, might have 20,000 documents, while a large or pivotal study could approach 100,000 documents. Faced with such overwhelming numbers, it’s easy to forget that behind every single document are real people with goals, dreams, and aspirations. The Rubik’s Cube of Stranger Things reminds us that building healthy relationships with ourselves and others is a complex and often frustrating pursuit. Success isn’t always arriving at a solution; sometimes it means being mindful of the inner complexity of others and empathetic to their challenges.
Ever notice that Dr. Brenner and his science minions drive around Hawkins in vans marked “Hawkins Power & Light”? It’s no coincidence, given the importance of light and electricity to the plot and mood of Stranger Things.
Originally marketed in 1967, this light box panel with colored plastic pegs was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2020. In Season 4, Nancy’s sister’s Lite-Brite is yanked away in exchange for some Skittles in order to pass along plot-driving information to characters trapped in the Upside-Down. The parallels between the Lite-Brite scene and Joyce’s Christmas light scene of Season 1 are hard to miss. The drama in Hawkins is largely driven by the difficulties of communicating between disconnected worlds, whether those worlds are the real world and the Upside-Down, America and the USSR, or childhood and adulthood. Characters are consistently struggling with sending important messages to those whom they love trapped just out of reach.
For those of us who work with the TMF, communication is a critical, yet overlooked, part of our role. TMF professionals are truly interdisciplinary, acting as a bridge between sponsor, site, and the many functional lines of a CRO. While there may be industry-wide emphasis on the technology and processes used to achieve TMF success, Stranger Things’ Season 4 Lite-Brite reminds us that how information is conveyed to its intended audience is often just as important as the content.
Magic 8 Ball
Season 4 of Stranger Things begins with a jarring flashback to El’s time in Dr. Brenner’s lab. In this scene, a young test subject known only as Ten uses a Magic 8 Ball to answer an inquiry from Dr. Brenner. What follows is both tragic, and ironic, as Ten’s extrasensory perception, fails to prevent catastrophe in the form of an unexpected threat.
The concept, originally credited to an inventor whose mother was a self-purported clairvoyant, was a flop in the 1940s. It wasn’t until a redesign and rebranding as a promotional paperweight for a billiards company that the familiar Magic 8 Ball born. Finally, in 1971, Ideal Toys bought the concept and rebranded it as a toy. Over one million Magic 8 Balls are still sold each year.
The Magic 8 Ball is the perfect metaphorical representation of chance and unescapable uncertainty. For the kids of Hawkins, this means dealing with the occasional appearance of fantasy monsters. For those of us who work with the TMF, this means getting comfortable with the unexpected. In an industry as heavily regulated as the life sciences, building flexibility into our processes and encouraging adaptive thinking can be challenging. That’s why, as TMF professionals, it’s our job to continually rethink TMF practices so that they work with the other non-TMF challenges, goals, and responsibilities of TMF stakeholders.
Nostalgia With Purpose
Growing up, and the loss of innocence it entails, are a central theme of Stranger Things, so it’s not surprising these ‘80s toys signify the characters’ of Stranger Things face-to-face struggle with the monsters threatening their childhood. Their battle resonates deeply with a wide audience because they are universal, as is our shared experience of nostalgia and longing for a better, simpler past.
But does this nostalgia do any good? It turns out, quite a lot.
As noted by researchers in a New York Times article on the subject: “Nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety. It makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. Couples feel closer and look happier when they’re sharing nostalgic memories. On cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to literally feel warmer.”
More simply put, Stranger Things and the nostalgia it provokes, reminds us that not all aspects of childhood are meant to be left behind. Stranger Things stands apart from other streaming series in that it presents childhood as something of value. The beloved characters of the series repeatedly save the world by being true to themselves, connecting to their peers, and caring for those around them—not by rushing to grow up. These childhood traits are the foundation of the healthy relationships that give rise to happiness and abundance in both the personal and professional aspects of our lives. They might even hold the secret to TMF health.