Stranger Things has started to create some surprising plot holes. With the arrival of the Stranger Things expanded universe (a collection of novels, comic books, and videogames all attempting to tell a unified story), the established backstory from the hit television series is getting pretty systematically contradicted.
While these infractions are relatively minor thus far, they constitute a worrying trend and point to growing problems over the narrative horizon – and they question the very reason that an expanded universe is created in the first place: namely, to flesh out fans’ favorite world so that they can understand it more thoroughly and get to explore all its various nooks and crannies. The more material that Netflix generates in all these different formats – and, specifically, the more it tells prequel stories – the more explanations are needed to address all the new plot holes so that the overarching story can get back on track with the previously-released episodes.
Considering that Stranger Things’ backstory wasn’t even that involved to begin with, one can see how this might be a problem moving forward to the show’s final seasons. All of these concerning issues can be traced mostly to just one area of Stranger Things’s mythology: the government’s shadowy Project MKUltra, and how it came to produce the superpowered test subject Eleven, a 12-year-old girl who was supposed to enter this world named Jane Ives.
Eleven’s Age In Stranger Things Has Changed
The first Stranger Things tie-in novel, Suspicious Minds, starts in July 1969 - the Summer of Love - and ends in November 1970, exactly 13 years before the show’s first season kicks off. Its main thrust concerns how Terry Ives, Eleven’s mother, comes to get swept up in the government’s top-secret Project MKUltra, becomes pregnant with the superpowered Jane, and ultimately loses her newborn daughter to Dr. Martin Brenner, the villain from the first season (and, it would seem, the third season, as well).
All of that would be par for the course if it weren’t for the little matter of Eleven’s age. In Stranger Things season 1, episode 6, “The Monster,” it’s clearly established that Jane was born in 1971, yet in the prequel book her birthdate is changed to June ’70. While being just one year off isn’t that big a deal in the grand scheme of things, it does make the character older than all of her compatriots in the main cast - especially her newfound boyfriend, Mike Wheeler - and it also, once again, points to a lack of consistency on the creators’ part that could quickly metastasize into bigger problems in the very near future. It also defies an easy explanation or justification; why would Eleven’s aunt, Becky Ives, get such a basic fact about her supposedly-dead niece wrong, particularly when it’s come to dominate such a profound part of her life?
There’s also the matter of the Hawkins National Laboratory’s birthdate being changed, as well – in official press releases issued by Netflix, the facility seems to be listed as being operational as part of MKUltra since 1953, whereas in Suspicious Minds, the building just opened in ’69. The possible solution here is that the program was started up in different labs around the small Indiana town before settling into its new digs with Brenner a decade-and-a-half later.
Is Stranger Things About MKUltra Or Project Indigo?
Project MKUltra (a real-world initiative conducted for some 20 years, primarily by the Central Intelligence Agency) is a name that television viewers hear time and again over the course of Stranger Things’ first two seasons. It's the top-secret program that Dr. Martin Brenner has, apparently, devoted his life to, and it is the spirit that animates the imposing Hawkins Lab.
But, most importantly, it is also the initiative that birthed (almost literally) test subject Eleven, and came to be the home of her 10 “siblings” – that is, until the book Suspicious Minds introduced a brand-new moniker that no one had ever heard of before: Project Indigo. It appears that while MKUltra tested random people off the street (including druggies and draft dodgers before Brenner arrives and whips the recruitment drive into shape) with LSD and other prompts to see how susceptible they would be to mind control or personality realignment, Indigo takes a group of children that are clearly gifted with paranormal abilities and attempts to hone those talents to become extraordinary weapons in America’s Cold War arsenal. The only (main) intersection between the two projects that audiences can see is how the recruit from one, Terry Ives, produced the most exemplary subject in the other, Eleven.
While one could clearly label one of these endeavors as the progenitor of the other, and while the absence of the words “Project Indigo” from the television show is by no means damning, the question still remains: why introduce the wrinkle in audiences’ understanding of Stranger Things’ backstory? Is it a piece of coloring just for the novel, or will it become a bigger plot point in Stranger Things season 3 and beyond?
The Subject Numbers Don’t Add Up
It is clearly established in Suspicious Minds that the first 10 Project Indigo “participants” were brought into the program as children, with their induction ages being listed as anywhere between four and eight – something which the first season of Stranger Things corroborates, as Chief Jim Hopper leafs through the assorted newspaper clippings that show incident after incident of children being abducted from their families (Eleven is the first to be taken as an infant, which is part of her appeal to someone like Dr. Brenner). Equally clear is the fact that there are, indeed, 10 subjects as of the year 1969, when Hawkins National Laboratory gets up and running, with Jane Ives, of course, joining their fold the year after.
The just-started comic-book miniseries Six contradicts all of this. Taking place in 1978, it shows a series of flashbacks in which the teenager Francine comes to be persuaded to run away from home and join up with Indigo at the lab, becoming subject Six sometime in either ’76 or ’77. There are, as of present, no simple explanations for how this could be – did Francine replace a previous individual designated as Six? Did Brenner somehow skip over that particular number back in the ‘60s, for whatever reason, and is only now going back to fill it in? Did the government initially own Francine, brand her as Six, let her escape, and is only now able to reincorporate her? The remaining three issues in the comic series may deliver on one of these scenarios – or none at all.
Matters only get more complicated from there. In the prequel book, Kali Prasad – better known as Eight – is a petulant five-year-old who has been clamoring for a playmate (or any type of consistent human contact, really) for quite some time. She squeals with excitement when she’s finally introduced to five-month-old Eleven - and then is blown away by the revelation that there are nine other test subjects in their little club. She demands to know where they are and whether she can see them, a fact which significantly curtails the possible explanations above - and limits the nature of the expanded-universe stories moving forward.
One thing that the subsequent releases will have to address, however, is how the Six miniseries shows the titular Six at Hawkins Lab with at least five of the other 10 subjects, including Eight and the just-revealed Three (the only male participant of Project Indigo yet revealed). When did Brenner gather them all together in one place, and why are they all missing by the time Stranger Things picks up, five short years later?
Why Is Stranger Things Breaking Continuity?
The question surrounding all of Stranger Things' breaks in continuity is, of course, why? Why are there so many lapses in the shared narrative backdrop not only between the various expanded-universe titles, but also between them and Stranger Things itself?
There are two potential answers. The first – and the simpler of the two – is simply that the Stranger Things expanded universe is growing so astonishing quickly (just within the last nine months, for example, we’ve gotten two comic-book miniseries and three novels, with more hovering just around the corner), there’s just no way for any kind of editor or continuity gatekeeper to keep everything in check and on track. This would certainly be the more disappointing of the possible reasons, but it would also be, perhaps, the more understandable one, as well – it’s a pitfall that still occasionally ensnares even the likes of Star Wars canon, even though it was reset only in 2014 and, before that, had some 23 years of narrative experience.
But the other hypothesis is, by far, the more intriguing one: the storytelling errors are definite clues being dropped and exposition being laid for future developments in Stranger Things season 3 (and, just maybe, beyond). Eight was a character who was inserted into the second season seemingly out of nowhere, and with the express purpose, it would seem, of having her return in Stranger Things 3 to help Eleven take down the Mind Flayer (maybe even once and for all); by making her such a big part of the books and comics, audiences get to better appreciate a character who was the star of the show’s least-popular episode to date – and make her future role all the more emotionally satisfying.
Similarly, it’s entirely plausible that the likes of Six and Three are being introduced now in order to help explain their late introduction into the television series, possibly for the very same climactic payoff. If so, maybe the apparently-inconsistent method of their debuts is intentional misdirection, one that is meant to lull the most engaged part of the audience into looking one direction while the payoff sneaks up from another – while an admitted stretch, it would result in quite the dramatic climax. All (or some) will be revealed when Stranger Things season 3 releases on July 4.