The Evolution of the Hive Mind in D&D’s Mind Flayer & Aboleth

In my last post I pointed out that the Shadow Monster of Stranger Things is much closer to an aboleth than a mind flayer. Since then I found an interview with the Duffer Brothers, who claim they designed the Shadow Monster without thinking of any creature from D&D, whether aboleth or mind flayer. This is how they tell it:

Matt: We came up with the creature and it was always called the Shadow Monster. Then we were like, “We need to come up with a proper name for this thing.” When we were going through the Dungeons & Dragons manual, I found this creature I’d forgotten about called the Mind Flayer. It was so close to the idea of our Shadow Monster. It was eerily the same. We were like, “Well, we’ve got our name.” It’s a weird-ass name, but the Mind Flayer it is.

Ross: It has nothing to do with the shape, or the way it looks, or the particles. But the fact that it moves from dimension to dimension, infecting the minds of others in order to control them and spread itself. I can’t remember everything else, but it’s everything that we were talking about with our Shadow Monster. I don’t think anyone will believe us. They’re going to think we just, day one, looked through the Dungeons & Dragons manual. I don’t know why we didn’t. But we did not.

Actually, yes, I thought the Duffer Brothers were looking through the D&D manuals, but taking clear inspiration from the aboleth, not the mind flayer. The Shadow Monster is so close to the aboleth you have to be trying to not see it. I assumed the Duffers called their creature a mind flayer because it sounds bad ass, even to an audience unfamiliar with Dungeons & Dragons. “Aboleth” sounds unimpressive by comparison, like something you’d find listed in an obscure academic journal. I have a hard time believing the D&D-savvy Duffer Brothers designed a creature that fits the aboleth almost to a tee but were unaware of it.

For the fun of it, I researched the evolution of both the aboleth and mind flayer in D&D. I’ve bolded all the relevant parts that bear any resemblance to the Shadow Creature of Stranger Things. I’m not sure what Ross means about the mind flayer’s ability to “spread itself” in the 1st edition Monster Manual. The hive mind aspect of the mind flayer was not introduced into the game until the late ’90s (see below), and certainly not in the manual Dustin reads from.

The Mind Flayer

1975. The Strategic Review #1 introduces the mind flayer: a humanoid with an octopus-like head that feeds on brains. The creature’s physical attack is by striking a victim with its four purplish black tentacles. If a tentacle hits it will reach the victim’s brain in 1-4 rounds and draw it forth, immediately killing the creature. The mind flayer then devours the brain. It can also unleash a mind blast in a 60-foot cone range, which causes death, coma, sleep, stun, confusion, or rage, depending on the victim’s intelligence.

1977. The Monster Manual canonizes the mind flayer, expanding and changing details provided above in The Strategic Review. Notably, the mind blast is now a simplified psionic blast which stuns, regardless of the victim’s intelligence. The mind flayer has the psionic abilities of domination, levitation, ESP, body equilibrium, and astral projection/probability travel. The domination ability allows it to control a victim (if a saving throw fails) as long as the mind flayer keeps concentrating on the victim. It’s also now specified that mind flayers detest sunlight and prefer habitats of subterranean places.

The Aboleth

1981. Dwellers of the Forbidden City introduces the aboleth: a gigantic tentacled monster that has strong psionic powers, and uses its mind control ability to make slaves. It’s an ancient life form, extremely intelligent, and views all other races as inferior upstarts who stole what is rightfully theirs. It attacks with its four tentacles which cause l-6 points of damage each, in addition to changing the victim’s skin into a clear slimy membrane in 2-5 rounds if a saving throw fails. Once the change is complete, the membrane must be kept damp with cool water or the victim will take 1-12 points of damage each turn due to intense pain caused by the drying membrane. (This is somewhat reminiscent of the way Will Byers needed to be kept cold.) It’s an amphibious creature, and in water it will secrete a cloud of mucus all around its body. Any creature drawn into the mucus must save vs. poison or it will inhale the stuff and become unable to breathe air, suffocating in 2-12 rounds if trying to breathe air. However, that same creature will gain the ability to breathe water, as a potion of water breathing, for 1-3 hours. The aboleth uses this mucus to give its slaves the power to breathe water. (The mucus reminds of the gooey substance from the Upside Down. Does that goo allow one to breathe the toxic environment of the Upside Down?)

1983. The Monster Manual II canonizes the aboleth, detailing them exactly as described above in Dwellers of the Forbidden City.

The Mind Flayer

1983. “The Ecology of the Mind Flayer”, in Dragon Magazine #78, offers the first suggestion that mind flayers are from another world. It emphasizes their brain-eating and domination powers in much stronger terms:

“To eat the brain of another race is the ultimate symbol of dominion over that race. They consume that which is important to them. Their tentacles have bony ridges that cut flesh and bone with ease, exposing the inside of the skull. Many collect the skulls of their victims and adorn their bodies with the trophies. They have a psionic power that especially helps them achieve their evil ends — a power of domination that they use with pleasure on their victims and those who would attack them. This domination power allows the mind flayer to control every movement of a single victim, to an unlimited extreme. Once, on a raid to an illithid lair, I saw a githyanki captain run himself through with his own sword while under the control of one of them.” (p 67)

So now the mind flayer can dominate to “an unlimited extreme”, even if the results are fatal to the victim. As presented in The Monster Manual, the domination power was the standard psionic ability and not as powerful. However, the mind flayer must still concentrate on the victim at all times, unlike the aboleth.

The Aboleth

1988. “The Ecology of the Aboleth”, in Dragon Magazine #131, presents variants that are more powerful than the common aboleth: greater aboleth (who maintain slaves gathered by the common aboleth), noble aboleth (who conduct scientific research and experimentation), ruler aboleth (who command aboleth cities or areas, and have a mental link with all their subjects), and a grand aboleth (a godlike creature that dwarfs even the rulers, but existing only in rumors). The hive mind is introduced as an aboleth feature, in the rulers, who are described as follows:

“These huge, bloated monstrosities are the largest and most intelligent of all aboleth (aside from the grand aboleth). Its telepathic link with its subjects allows it to be constantly aware of everything going on in its realm. Rulers are, in most other respects, similar to common and greater aboleth. They possess enslavement abilities equal to those of greater aboleth and can generate veil spells at will. Rulers can generate slime in a 5-foot radius, and the mere sight of one causes fear in all beings of less than 5th level or five hit dice.” (p 38)

It’s now specified that aboleth reproduce by egg, which are covered in a thick slime. The eggs hatch mini-aboleth who take about ten years to mature into adult form. (The demogorgon of Stranger Things reproduces by tentacle implantation (as it did to Will’s throat), not egg, so the eggs seen in season 1 were probably eggs for shadow monsters (“aboleth”) rather than demogorgons.)

The Mind Flayer

1998. The Illithiad reveals the world the mind flayers come from, a realm called the Outside. They reproduce by egg, which hatch tadpoles until they grow and are implanted into the brain of another humanoid, after which it immediately subsumes the creature’s personality, replacing it with its own awakening intellect. The hive mind is introduced as a mind flayer feature, which is called the “Elder Brain”. An elder brain is the final stage of the mind flayer life cycle, composed of the brains of long-dead mind flayers. It lives in a brine-filled pool in the center of a mind flayer city, where it guides its community by filling mind flayers with dreams of perverse domination. It has the psionic abilities of other mind flayers, but physically it is weak (unlike the powerful ruler aboleth and Shadow Monster from Stranger Things), which is why mind flayers protect their elder by securing it in well-protected caves. The elder can communicate telepathically not only with its subjects, but with any creature within 350 foot distance.  The ultimate goal of a mind flayer is to sacrifice its brain as it nears the end of its lifespan, by merging with the elder brain, strengthening the elder’s powers and intellect. Most mind flayer are unaware, however, that their personalities and consciousness are lost when joining with the elder brain, leaving only their knowledge and ideas to survive. (A closely guarded secret kept by the elder brains.)

Conclusion

As I said before, it’s clear that the aboleth are the closer representation of the Shadow Monster, though obviously “mind flayer” sounds sexier and was the better marketing choice. The hive mind is an anachronism for both, though it was developed first for the aboleth (in the ’80s) and only much later for the mind flayer (in the ’90s).

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The Shadow Monster of Stranger Things 2: Mind Flayer or Aboleth?

The Shadow Monster

The Big Bad of Stranger Things 2 is a huge tentacled shadow monster which is eventually given a name by Dustin in episode 8: The Mind Flayer. Dustin says that’s the best analogy from the D&D world to make sense of what is going on in Hawkins. Everything from the Upside Down — the demo-dogs, the creeping vines, the underground tunnels burrowing into Hawkins, and the gate itself — seems to be under the control of a hive mind, and mind flayers are ruled by a hive mind (called an “elder brain”). They use their psionic abilities to dominate victims, which is what’s happening to Will. But there is a far better D&D comparison to the shadow monster: the aboleth.

Aboleth

The aboleth are huge floating tentacled monsters (see left) that are also ruled by a hive mind. Like mind flayers they have strong psionic abilities and use their mind control to make slaves. They excrete a mucus-substance which they need to breathe — the gooey substance from the Upside Down calls this to mind. The aboleth are an ancient life form and extremely intelligent, and they view all other races as inferior upstarts who stole what is rightfully theirs. In addition to being part of a hive mind, they are born with a racial memory, each one inheriting the memories of its ancestors. (An aboleth also assimilates the memories of consumed victims.) Aboleths enjoy spending time lost in the grand memories of their ancestors, and (time permitting) enjoy reliving entire portions of their ancestors’ lives. They are hermaphrodites and reproduce by egg. In season 1 of Stranger Things the Demogorgon reproduced by tentacle implantation (down Will’s throat), not egg, so the eggs we saw in season 1 were probably eggs for shadow monsters (aboleth) rather than more demogorgons.

Mind Flayer

An aboleth fits the description of the shadow monster almost to a tee, and it’s hard to see why Dustin associated it with a mind flayer instead. Mind Flayers have similar traits, as I mentioned, but their differences stand out. Significant is their positive view of magic. Mind flayers can be powerful mages. The aboleth despise all forms of magic and rejected it long ago in favor of science, which aligns with the sci-fic premise of Stranger Things. The mind flayers are humanoid in appearance (see right). Aside from their octopus-like heads, they bear little resemblance to the shadow monster of Stranger Things. The aboleth are gigantic (anywhere from 20-40 feet long) like the TV creature; mind flayers are the size of people. There’s no contest.

Dustin reads the information on the mind flayer in the D&D Monster Manual (1977), but there is actually no mention of a hive mind in this manual. The hive mind (elder brain) feature of the mind flayers would not be introduced into the game until 1998. So that’s a 14-year anachronism in the TV show. The aboleth first appeared in an adventure module called Dwellers of the Forbidden City (1981) and then were officially categorized in the Monster Manual II (1983), both of which predate the 1984 setting of Stranger Things 2. So they’re not an anachronism; Dustin would know about the aboleth, unless these kids never got around to buying the second Monster Manual, which I rather doubt. If they’re obsessed as I was with the game, which they clearly are, they would have obtained that manual in ’83 when it was hot off the press.

Late in the ’80s, Dragon Magazine #131 did a special feature on the aboleth, describing them as follows:

“In general, all aboleth are cruel, emotionless, and logical. All are extremely intelligent — some even more so than the most ancient of elven mages. They are believed to live for thousands of years, but exact information is difficult to gain. Over their many years of existence, the aboleth have developed a society which far exceeds that of humans in efficiency. In this society, each aboleth has a specific duty which it performs with the utmost skill. There are four major roles in the aboleth society. In increasing order of importance, these roles are: slave gathering, slave maintenance, scientific research and experimentation, and ruling. An aboleth feeds mainly on microscopic organisms which abound in its natural habitat, but it can also consume larger prey if necessary. Aboleth can survive in both air and water, but prefer water for obvious reasons. It is worthy to note that rumors exist of a grand aboleth, a creature so immense that it dwarfs even the rulers. If so, then perhaps it is better that surface and subterranean dwellers alike leave the aboleth to do as they please.”

Perhaps the shadow monster that possessed Will — and remains at large at the end of season 2 — is a grand aboleth. Not a creature I would mess with under any circumstances, unless I was ultra-high level and had an army at my back. Eleven crossed it badly by shutting the gate. I suspect she will reap devastating consequences in season 3.

The Episodes of Stranger Things 2 Ranked

To honor Noah Schnapp who stole this season, I used shots of him in all of the images, except for the finale, which is an Eleven episode all the way, and the abysmal episode 7, which is also an Eleven episode. (See here for the season 1 rankings.)

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Episodes 9: The Gate. 5 stars. The finale starts on Mike’s strongest moments, finishes on his earned reward, each involving the re-entry of Eleven into his miserably shattered life. It’s everything I hoped for in his story arc, and the right place to reconnect El with the main cast. Any earlier than the finale would have cheapened her sacrifice in season 1. Mike and El’s reunion is so emotional because he’s been an empty shell for a year; to see him come alive again is sublime. In a particularly heart-rending scene, he goes ape-shit on Hopper, screaming at the sheriff and physically attacking him for keeping El hidden all this time. The reunion is short lived, of course, as Eleven must leave right away with Hopper to close the gate. But first Will needs an exorcism, since closing the gate will kill everything the Mind Flayer controls, including Will himself. Throughout this season I kept expecting Will’s possession to turn lame and laughable, but it remains dreadful to the end. Having just been strapped to a chair and worked over in episode 8, he is now tied to a bed, and Joyce proceeds to burn the Mind Flayer out of him by shoving three electric heaters so close to him on full blast it’s a wonder his skin doesn’t fry. As both Will and his possessor roar in agony, Jonathan begs Joyce to stop, and Nancy seems equally appalled by this humiliating cruelty, until she outdoes Joyce by grabbing a hot poker and jabbing it into Will’s gut (a scene that still astounds me on repeat viewings); this turns out to the last straw for the creature, who at last departs Will, freeing El to close the gate. Meanwhile, Steve and the kids do their part by going down into the Mind Flayer’s tunnels and burning the hub, which draws most of the demo-dogs away from the lab to attack them, giving El and Hopper some breathing room. El’s closing of the gate is a wondrous moment, but believe it or not, the Snow Ball epilogue is the series’ best scene, as we see all the boys ending up paired with the “right girl” in the right ways, dancing to the creepy stalker song of the ’80s, “Every Breath You Take”. It’s so moving, so right, and far more than I dared pray for this season.

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Episode 4: Will the Wise. 5 stars. After the first three episodes comes a shift in tone. Will, having taken Bob’s well-meaning but stupid advice, is no longer just infected by the Upside Down. He’s possessed by the Mind Flayer. Possession is a scary concept to put on screen, but it’s also the riskiest because it’s hard to do right. Thankfully the Duffer Brothers know what they’re doing, and Noah Schnapp nails it in every frame, with subtleties Linda Blair could have never pulled off in The Exorcist (which demanded the more overt approach to possession). He deserves an Emmy for his scenes in this episode; they’re that good. There are no jump scares here, just the slow creep of dread as Will alternates between being shaken and terrified, to making resolute demands (that his mother run him a freezing bath, because his possessor “likes it cold”), to stalking about the house confused. Eleven also gets in her best scene of the season, as she and Hopper have a shouting match when she returns from stalking Mike in episode 3. They’re both trapped: Hopper keeps her confined under strict rules for fear of losing another “daughter”, while Eleven accuses him of being no better than “papa” — she feels just as caged in the cabin as she was in the lab — resulting in her telekinetic tantrum of hurling things at him and shattering windows. Finally, the episode ends on the first death of the season: Dustin’s cat, devoured by his pet pollywog that’s molted into its next stage — a baby fucking demogorgon. Will the Wise is easily my second favorite episode, even if there’s not much action, and I could make a case for it being number one. Will’s and Eleven’s scenes contain some of the best moments of child acting ever seen on television.

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Episode 6: The Spy. 5 stars. There’s a heavy Exorcist vibe running through this season, but it becomes most blatant in the medical scenes of The Spy. The opening scene (above pic) is clearly inspired by Regan McNeill’s hideous PEG procedure (which drained fluid from her head so that her brain would show up more clearly on an X-ray image), and Will Byers is having it even worse, convulsing under the doctors who ask him where it hurts, to which he can only scream “Everywhere!” Winoda Ryder, for her part, plays the hysterical mother as convincingly as Ellen Burstyn did, and Joyce even shouts down a table of doctors for their incompetence as Chris McNeil did when professionals tried explaining Regan’s possession as mental illness. “What are you even treating him for? What is wrong with my boy?” practically channels the famous Exorcist line, “Eighty-eight doctors, and all you can tell me with all your bullshit is that you’re sorry!” Later it seems that Will is working against his possessor. He tells Mike he knows how to stop the creature: that there is a location in the tunnels which his possessor “doesn’t want him to see”, and so a team is sent to investigate. The location is the same hub where Hopper was attacked in episode 5, and it turns out to be a trap — Will was just lying, almost completely possessed now, and an ugly slaughter ensues. The episode is a ripper in other parts too, notably Steve and Dustin’s, who are now joined by Lucas and Max in a rather foolish attempt to bait Dustin’s demogorgon into the open and kill it. When a whole pack of demogorgons shows up, Steve and the kids become the bait and trapped inside a bus as the beasts assault them, another intense scene in an episode that stays in full throttle. The bonding between Steve and Dustin is handled extremely well, and involves some of the season’s best character moments.

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Episode 2: Trick or Treat, Freak. 5 stars. The Halloween episode has tremendous rewatch value. I get a Ghostbusters fever every time the theme song plays over the montage of the kids in costume, and Mike hilariously bitching at Lucas for dressing up as the leader Venkman instead of (the African-American) Winston, to the latter’s indignant cries of racism. At night the frights are out in full force: Max scares the shit out of them with her Michael Myers costume, but it is Will who gets the biggest scare of all, as he gets knocked over by a trio of bullies and then finds himself in the Upside Down being chased by the tentacled Mind Flayer blotting out the sky. I had a bad moment when Will crouched behind the building and the creature funneled its way down the stairs to grab him… until it turned out to be Mike in the Rightside Up. Mike takes him home (with a rude parting blow to Lucas, Dustin, and Max that he’s bored with them anyway), and back at the Byers’ house, the two boys have a touching moment (above pic). It’s my favorite Mike-Will moment as they take some comfort in each others damage. Mike thinks he’s losing his mind — knowing Eleven is dead but that he can sometimes hear her — and offers Will the companionship of “going crazy together”. I also love the initial flashbacks which pick up right after Eleven banished the Demogorgon in season 1. She barely escapes from the Upside Down and returns to Mike’s house (the only place she’d ever felt safe in her life), but finds the police all over the place, and Mike being grilled on her whereabouts. As she spies through the living room window, it’s hard to say if she thinks that Mike has sold her out or not, but her look of pain is utterly heartbreaking as she realizes she can’t return to him yet.

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Episode 8: The Mind Flayer. 5 stars. The first half combines Aliens and Jurassic Park, neither of which I’m a big fan of, but which are used effectively for the season’s crowning action sequence. It results in the death of Bob, and the sight of him being torn apart by a pack of demo-dogs is almost enough to turn Joyce into a gibbering lunatic. The only weakness is that Bob’s death is telegraphed a little too obviously (at three particular points I said to myself, “He’s not going to make it”), but other than that, the lab siege is superbly executed. We — like Dr. Owens, Hopper, Joyce, and Mike — watch the cameras in horror as the demo-dogs feed on corpses in every other corridor. The second half of The Mind Flayer is even better. All the main characters come together at the Byers house, and Mike gets the idea that if they kill the Mind Flayer, which functions like a brain, they can perhaps kill the army it controls, and stop its tunnels from burrowing into the town of Hawkins. He suggests that Will may know how to kill the Flayer (given the intimate connection to his possessor), and thus begins an emotional ordeal by which Will is strapped to a chair and worked over in turns by Joyce, Jonathan, and Mike. They share intimate memories with Will, and in particular Mike’s recollection of becoming friends with Will on the first day of school is a tearjerker. Will continues to speak like the damned, but these stories do break through and allow him to tap a message using Morse code, which is to “close the gate”. That will apparently kill the Mind Flayer, or at least everything it controls, and it is at this moment — rather conveniently, but without feeling like a cheat — that Eleven makes her glorious re-entry, to an overwhelmed Mike.

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Episode 3: The Pollywog. 4 ½ stars. Of all the episodes in season 2, The Pollywog channels the spirit of season 1 most visibly. The boys are in fine form working tightly together, and even Mike comes out of his shell to take a proactive role, as he chastises Dustin for harboring a creature from the Upside Down. Sensing hostility, the thing makes a dash for the corridor, and the boys engage in a mad chase through the school halls, and into bathroom stalls, until Dustin secretly finds it and smuggles it under his cap. The Stand-by-Me bickering is what we loved so much about these kids, and it’s on full display here, as Dustin is willing to defend his new pet against the others no matter the cost. Then there is Mike’s jealousy over Max; he tells her point blank that she’s not welcome in their party. It would be an amusing hypocrisy given Lucas’ jealousy over Eleven last year, except that it’s genuinely sad. That sadness is compounded when Eleven, furious with Hopper, decides to break his rules and pay Mike a visit at the school. She sees him in the gymnasium with Max and draws the wrong conclusion, and it’s truly heartbreaking. Up until now she has been using static from the television in Hopper’s cabin to “visit” Mike telepathically — the same way she used sensory deprivation tanks in season 1 to locate people without them seeing her — but a year’s worth of stalking Mike on the shadow plane has grown old. Now in the gym, it looks like Mike has moved on and forgotten about her. The final scene announces serious business ahead, as Will (very foolishly) faces down the Mind Flayer and gets possessed for his efforts.

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Episode 1: Mad Max. 4 stars. Let’s be clear that the arcade is not the table top, and our first sight of the kids playing Dragon’s Lair doesn’t have the same magic as their D&D game of season 1. That out of the way, the arcade is still an inspired setting, and is put to good use in showing us how Will remains infected by the Upside Down. Suddenly the arcade shifts into the shadow realm, and the world outside becomes an apocalyptic hell. It’s clear that everything will revolve around Will Byers as before, but this time by inverting the premise: instead of him vanishing into the Upside Down, the Upside Down is coming to him. He won’t become possessed until episode 4, but he’s in a bad way suffering PTSD on top of these hellish visions. Worse still is that Joyce and Jonathan condescend by treating him with kid gloves, which pisses him off, and it doesn’t help that nasty kids at school leave him taunting “zombie boy” notes in his locker. Joyce, for her part, has become the Helicopter Mom from Hell, which to be fair is more than understandable; I wouldn’t want to go chasing after my kid in the Upside Down ever again either. What the premiere establishes above all is the cost of last year’s events. The innocence of Hawkins has been lost. Mike is still pining for Eleven and calls her in vain on his walkie talkie; Nancy hasn’t gotten over Barb; and Hopper is guilt-ridden for being complicit in the oath of silence the government demanded of them at gunpoint. This all adds up to a fine way of reintroducing us to the old characters who will never be the same. New characters, like the titular Mad Max, seem rather extraneous by comparison.

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Episode 5: Dig Dug. 3 ½ stars. The middle episode is pretty good but brought down by the obnoxious character of Murray. I have to say he almost ruined Nancy and Jonathan’s story for me. He’s a conspiracy theorist who plasters his apartment walls with misinformation and crackpot ideas about a mystery girl (Eleven) in Hawkins who is a Russian plant. When Nancy and Jonathan enlighten him with the truth, he hatches a plan to sell their story to the media, but only if they leave out the wild parts no one will believe, which is pretty much everything pertaining to the psychic realm and the Upside Down. By watering down the truth (suggesting that Hawkins Lab is guilty of poisoning people) they stand a better chance of convincing the public. Which is all fine and well; it’s his zany and obnoxious behavior that grates, and he somehow feels misplaced in a Stranger Things drama. Meanwhile Hopper has discovered the Mind Flayer’s underground tunnels, which are spreading into the town, and he becomes trapped and incapacitated. This allows the character of Bob to show his use, as he realizes that Will’s drawings of “vines” are actually tunnels under Hawkins connecting to lakes and quarries, which enables them to go rescue Hopper. Eleven gets the best part of this episode, as she flees Hopper’s cabin in search of Terry Ives. When she finds her mother, she obtains more misery, as if that were possible; Terry has been living a waking nightmare ever since being electroshocked into a blank state.

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Episode 7: The Lost Sister. 2 stars. As someone who loves bold episodes that go outside the box — like Breaking Bad’s Fly and Doctor Who’s Love and Monsters — it pains me to say that The Lost Sister is an embarrassing misfire. As an excuse to give Eleven something to do before reuniting with the other characters, we’re treated to an excursion to Chicago where she finds her long lost “lab sister” Kali, who also has telekinetic abilities, but instead of moving objects she makes people see things that aren’t there (or not see things that are). She leads a street gang who hunt down and kill scientists who worked for Doctor Brenner, and the episode focuses on Eleven coming to terms with her power and ultimately rejecting the use of that power for murder. It’s a fine enough idea, but Kali and her crew are thoroughly uninteresting characters, and most of them painfully annoying. On top of that the episode is horribly placed, coming in between the episode 6 cliffhanger which demands an immediate follow up. I understand what the show writers were trying to do here, by holding off El’s reunion with the others until the final episode. That was the right move, since El’s sacrifice in season one doesn’t mean anything if the others don’t suffer through her absence, especially Mike. But this detour to Chicago was a poor way of going about that. I hoped that The Lost Sister would get better on more viewings but it hasn’t. It feels like a pilot for a lame spinoff series. I give it 2 stars instead of 1 because Millie Bobby Brown is always good, even in a bad script.

Stranger Things 2: Better than before

Fans will debate for a long time which season of Stranger Things is better, and while it’s a close call, for me season 2 is the winner. It upped the ante with a Bigger Bad, pushed the kids into darker places, and had more emotional power. And that’s saying a lot.

Season 1 was better with the micro plotting, and left not a single scene feeling wasted. Even the quietest character moments advanced the story. Season 2 has a killer macro plot, and its big moments are even more impressive than the previous season’s. It’s true that some of the narrative arcs move sluggishly in the first three episodes, but from a binge-watch perspective this didn’t bother me as much as it would have otherwise. I love these characters so much that I didn’t mind the time spent in low gears.

Those who were enchanted by the first season might have some trouble with this one. Last year blended Stephens Spielberg and King evenly. Season 2 weighs far more heavily on the King side, as a dark horror piece, which obviously is a big score for me. The innocence of Hawkins has been lost. The intrusion of the Upside Down has taken a toll on everyone. Mike is depressed over the loss of Eleven and little more than a shell; Nancy hasn’t gotten over Barb; and Hopper is guilt-ridden for being complicit in the oath of silence the government demanded of them at gunpoint. Season 1 made us long for the simpler times of youth. There’s some of that still here, but the kids are more vulnerable now as worse horrors begin to escalate.

Noah Schnapp must be singled out for special praise. He practically carries the season in a reversal of his limited role last year when he was held captive in the Upside Down. Now he’s suffering PTSD until he becomes possessed by the Mind Flayer (by episode 4), giving poor Joyce the same amount of respiratory failure he caused her when he went missing and everyone thought he was dead. If Schnapp doesn’t get an Emmy for his performance, my piles will burst. He plays the possessed child with ferocious conviction, running the gamut of emotions. He throws convulsive fits one moment, trembles in terror the next, and then stares down people with the calm of a hellish monster. The hospital scenes in particular evoke The Exorcist as he screams in agony under medical treatment, while Joyce can only watch horrified, and she later shouts down a table of doctors for their incompetence as Chris McNeil did when professionals tried explaining Regan’s possession as mental illness.

In accordance with this, season 2 scores massively for its Big Bad: the Mind Flayer that possesses Will is sentient and driven by an evil purpose. In season 1 the Demogorgon was scary but ultimately a mindless beast acting on instinct — a shark preying on blood. That doesn’t hold a candle to the Mind Flayer which is thoroughly evil, but in a Lovecratian way so that no one can grasp its cosmic intentions. In the D&D game, mind flayers are humanoid monsters with a tentacled octopus-like head reminiscent of Lovecraft’s Cthulu (see here). They roam networks of underground tunnels and sadistically feed on the brains of sentient creatures, and use their telepathic abilities to possess others and make slaves of them. Their communities are controlled by an “elder brain”, the last stage of the mind flayer life cycle which is essentially a massive brain with tentacles. Such an “elder” mind flayer (see top image in the red clouds) seems to be what possesses Will in season 2.

The only true weakness in season 2 is Episode 7 (“The Lost Sister”), which is being rightly slammed by many reviewers. It’s the only bad episode in the series’ two season stretch, and a misfire in the Duffer Brothers’ attempt to think outside the box. As an excuse to give Eleven something to do before reuniting with the other characters, we’re treated to an excursion to Chicago where she finds her long lost “lab sister”, Kali, who also has telekinetic abilities. Kali leads a street gang who hunt down and kill scientists who worked for Doctor Brenner, and the episode focuses on Eleven coming to terms with her powers and rejecting the use of those powers for murder. It’s a fine enough idea, but Kali and her crew are thoroughly uninteresting characters, and most of them painfully annoying too. On top of that the episode is horribly placed, coming in between the episode 6 cliffhanger which demands an immediate follow up. I understand what the show writers were trying to do here, by holding off El’s reunion with the others until the final episode. That was a good move. In order for El’s season-one sacrifice to mean anything, the others have to suffer through her absence, especially Mike. But this detour to Chicago is a poor way of going about that.

When Mike and El finally do reunite, their moment is even more emotional than last year’s farewell. What makes it so is that Mike has been so irritable and depressed for the whole season — in some episodes barely there, it seems, as he wallows in self-pity. He prefers the morbid company of Will over that of Lucas and Dustin (at one point he tells Will, “If we’re both going crazy, let’s go crazy together”), and has no use for the new girl Max, whom he resents for trying, as he sees it, to fill Eleven’s shoes. He’s not the spirited kid we loved, and while it’s painful to see this, it was the right move for Mike’s character. It makes the payback of El’s return in the final episode well earned, which is quite a tear-jerker. And it’s not just Mike’s reaction to the shocking sight of Eleven. I was even more affected when he went ape-shit on Hopper for keeping El hidden all this time.

The Snow Ball Dance epilogue is my favorite scene of the series, so I guess I’m a sap after all. All the boys end up paired with the “right girl” in the best ways. Lucas gets Max after a clumsy proposal, Will gets a bashful admirer, and poor Dustin is rejected by every girl he asks until the elder Nancy comes to his rescue. Finally, Eleven arrives, and she and Mike dance to the Police’s “Every Breath You Take”. Some critics have decried the use of this creepy stalker song for Mike and El’s long-overdue reunion, and it’s hard to believe they can be so clueless. The song is a perfect fit for Mike and El, not only because their relationship has always been rather weird, but because El has been stalking Mike for a whole year while he pined for her in agony. On top of that, there is the running stalker theme between Lucas and Max. On top of that, the final shot “underneath” the school in the Upside Down shows the Mind Flayer looming over the school, which aligns with the song’s theme: “I’ll be watching you, every breath you take, every move you make,” and especially the final ominous lyrics we hear as the music fades, “Oh can’t you see, you belong to me…” From here on, I will always think of “Every Breath You Take” as Mike and El’s (and the Mind Flayer’s) love song.

Ten Great Science Fiction Films

With the release of Blade Runner 2049, it’s time for a sci-fic pick list. Here are my ten favorites. There are no Star Wars or James Cameron films here, just to get that out of the way.

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1. Sunshine. Danny Boyle, 2007. When I saw Sunshine I bought another ticket and saw it again right away, which is something I’ve never done with any other film. The visuals and punishing sound blew me right back in my seat. And the scoring is genius, with earworms as compulsive as the themes of True Romance. It’s set in the year 2057 when the sun is dying, and a space crew embarks on a mission to drop a nuclear bomb into the sun’s core, which will hopefully reignite it. Right from the start the mission is one calamity after another, and the crew members have to sacrifice themselves, even to the point of contemplating murdering the one of them “least fit” in order to save oxygen. One crew member is roasted by the sun’s rays when he goes EVA to repair ship damages. They respond to a distress call from another ship, which leads to more disaster, and to being stalked by a disfigured religious fanatic who believes God wants humanity to die. There are homages to Alien and outer space claustrophobia, but for my money, Sunshine is even better than Alien, and I adore that masterpiece to begin with (which is my #2 pick, below). Captain Kaneda’s death scene captures the visuals, scoring and dramatic intensity of the film, and a good illustration why it’s my favorite sci-fic film.

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2. Alien. Ridley Scott, 1979. Even after decades and so many viewings I’m still terrorized by Alien. It’s a horror film with science-fiction dressing, and a ’70s product in every way, nothing like the quickfire plotting of the inferior sequels (making some allowances for the underrated Alien 3). Cameron’s sequel was an ’80s film in every way, an action blockbuster that made the mistake of altering the most terrifying aspect of the alien: its ability to cocoon a victim and cause it to morph into an egg/facehugger. In Aliens the eggs come from a queen, but Scott had envisioned a horrifying process by which any alien “laid eggs” by transforming captives. Cameron’s film also involved military personnel going after the alien threat, and while it’s not pleasant that they all die, that’s their job. In Alien we feel the raw terror of six civilians stranded alone in space, hunted and devoured one by one. It’s a film crafted with the care and discipline that’s rare these days, and it delivers genuine terror. Kane’s chestbursting remains the most pulverizing scene in the history of sci-fic cinema.

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3. Blade Runner 2049. Denis Villeneuve, 2017. I was worried this would be another Mad Max: Fury Road, but not only does Blade Runner 2049 live up to its predecessor, it supersedes it. It’s a stunning visual aesthetic. It has the ambitious concepts of the original, and it takes them at the slow pace they deserve, so patiently that it feels like a ’70s film. I’m not surprised it bombed at the box office. Few people these days have the wherewithal — and by that I mean the intellectual wherewithal from above, and the physical fortitude from below — to sit still on their sweet asses for 2-3 hours and enjoy good artistry. The only criticism you can make are the plot holes which leave glaring coincidences unexplained. For example, from the start K is investigating the farmer replicant whose home supplies the clues for Rachael, while K already has memories implanted in him that relate to those very clues. But even here the plot holes seem more part of the overarching Blade Runner mystique. The best character is the hologram Joi, and she serves an oblique existential function: if software can fall in love and fear death, then the objection to replicants having these soul-like traits becomes even more strained. Her merging with the woman for K’s sexual pleasure is an incredible piece of choreography — as is virtually every other scene in this masterpiece.

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4. 2001: A Space Odyssey. Stanley Kubrick, 1968. Objectively I would call this the best sci-fic film of all time. I doubt there will ever be another as culturally significant. It’s a visual piece; in its two hours and 19 minutes, there are less than 40 minutes of dialogue. Kubrick said he wanted to reach a wide spectrum of people and make them think about humanity’s destiny, its role in the cosmos and its relationship to higher forms of life. I continue to marvel at the interplay between the start and finish. The Monolith appears among the primitive apes radiating its terrifying noise; they surround it, worship it, and learn to kill with intelligent purpose. At the end Bowman is transfigured into the Starchild, suggesting another evolutionary step. In between we are subjected to a visionary epic plumbing the vastness of space through some of the most ecstatic imagery ever put on celluloid. There are shots of pure genius — like the falling bone from the primitive chimpanzee age “becoming” the space shuttle in the 21st century — the sort of inspirations that come once a decade in film making. I can think of one film only — Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life — that has come close to doing what Kubrick did here, in showing humanity humbled by celestial mysteries.

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5. Gattaca. Andrew Niccol, 1997. This film flew under the radar when it was released and it deserves more recognition. It’s not set in space at all, for space is the wishful fantasy of its lead character. He is barred from pursuing that dream on account of bad genes. In the world of 2022 (scary to think that’s only five years away now), it’s not white heterosexual men who are the superior elite, but rather the bioformed. Men and women of all ethnicities are born in test tubes to be engineered for ideal health, high IQs and a long life-spans. People who are born naturally are called “In-Valids” and consigned to a life of menial labor. Vince is one such In-Valid who refuses to accept his lot on life, and manages to work out a deal with a crippled elite. He uses Eugene’s genetic samples to get past Gattaca’s daily security checks, and undergoes training for a mission in space. Gattaca explores privilege by genetic purity in the context of Vince’s personal family baggage, and it’s a very moving drama.

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6. Snowpiercer. Bong Joon-ho, 2013. The film is many things: post-apocalyptic sci-fic, a social class war, a claustrophobic horror piece, and bat-shit insanity that would make David Lynch envious. (To get an idea as to how insane, just watch this scene.) It’s set in 2031, long after an attempt to counteract global warming backfired and brought down an ice age. The only survivors boarded a train called the Rattling Ark, and after 17 years it keeps people alive in an extremely perverse state of affairs. The train is powered by a perpetual motion engine that travels a circumnavigational track (around the globe). The wealthy elite live in the front cars and the “low-lives” live in the back cars, in hideous conditions, under watch by guards, and given only protein bars to eat. Each carriage forward presents a deadly challenge for the protagonist who aims to get to the front and put things to right. Snowpiercer is a sci-fi thriller with plenty of rapid-fire action, but also intelligent artistry and off-the-scales craziness.

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7. Event Horizon. Paul Anderson, 1997. This was panned by critics who had the wrong expectations for a sci-fic film. Today it has a major cult following. It’s basically The Shining in outer space, set on a ship that’s equipped with a gravity drive that sends you to hell. As the crew explores the ship, an evil presence begins to exploit their darkest personal secrets and torture them with hallucinations. The scientist who created the Event Horizon soon realizes that it’s penetrated beyond the boundaries of the universe and in to hell itself. The crew members stumble on incredibly frightening footage of the ship’s previous crew, which shows them killing and cannibalizing each other in some kind of demonic fury. I would call this the most terrifying sci-fic film I’ve seen (even more than Alien), and a bold depiction of inter-dimensional evil. I watch it almost every year.

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8. Blade Runner. Ridley Scott, 1982. It’s hard for me to rank Blade Runner, because the question is which version. The theatrical cut was cobbled together by studio executives who wanted a happy ending to please moviegoers; it also contained voiceovers from Deckard to explain his backstory, which in my view condescends to the audience. In the director’s cut, Deckard’s voiceovers disappear (a plus), as does the happy ending (a plus), and restores the intended ambiguous ending about Deckard and Rachael’s fates (a big plus). But now there are scenes which call into question whether Deckard is human; he may actually be a replicant. I continue to have mixed feelings about this. Deckard’s humanity was never in question in Philip Dick’s novel, and the only reason Scott ran with the idea is because of a fluke — one of his film crew suggested the idea off-the-cuff. The Final Cut is the one that most closely matches Scott’s original vision, and also happens to align with the tone and style of the sequel Blade Runner 2049; it includes some more violent scenes that were left out. That’s the best version, but weighing all them together, I put Blade Runner at #8. It’s a great film in any case.

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9. Europa Report. Sebastián Cordero, 2013. This came out the same year Gravity did. It was a good year for outer-space dramas, but Europa Report went unheard of, while Gravity got all the praise. It should have been the other way around. It takes a quasi-documentary approach, but don’t fear the “found footage” format. The film is neither stingy nor confusing in its visuals, and it exudes the wonder and terror as a piece like this should. A mission to Europa inevitably falls in Kubrick’s shadow, but Cordero’s approach is his own, more gritty and less visionary than 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even though all six astronauts end up dying, it’s uplifting by what they witness, recorded for posterity. Their mission was to look for organisms, and the luminous octopus-creature revealed in the last frame (see above image) will forever change the context of how scientists view life in the galaxy. This film really made me want to walk on the ice moon. It’s that powerful in transporting you.

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10. The Matrix. The Wachowski brothers, 1999. Few people know that The Matrix didn’t start with Keanu Reeves. It started with Tom Baker in Doctor Who. That story is The Deadly Assassin, which first aired in 1976, and the Matrix is even called that in the story, functioning exactly like the model we know — an electronic neural network that turns thought patterns into virtual reality. The Doctor subjects himself to the Matrix and enters a horrifying virtual reality to learn the identity of a political assassin. The Wachowski brothers took the idea and made a blockbuster franchise from it, but if you ignore the trashy sequels, the first Matrix still holds up well. The idea that we’re nothing more than batteries powering machines who rule over us (see above image), and that our lives are just dreams, is something I’ve found eerily plausible.

Cone of Cold vs. Fireball

D&D players often wonder why cone of cold is a fifth level spell, while fireball is third level, when they do equivalent damage over multiple targets. The main advantage of cone of cold is that it’s completely safe to use. A fireball will explode and fill an area, and in a closed room that can just as easily kill you and your friends. If the room is smaller than the area of the fireball, you’ll get fried by the blowback. This is also true of the third level lighting bolt spell — there’s rebound potential if you judge the distance wrong. There are no rebound concerns at all with a cone of cold. It’s a ray of frost that can be shot at someone only 10 feet away, and with a wall behind the target, with no chance of damage being inflicted on the spellcaster.

Also with a cone of cold, you don’t have to worry too much about collateral damage. It’s far less likely than a fireball to destroy things. The saving throw vs. fireball for most items is extremely hard to make (17 for ivory, 18 for jewelry, 25 for scrolls, etc.), which means most items and valuables will be destroyed. Those same saving throws vs. frost tend to be ridiculously low (1 for jewelry, 2 for scrolls, 2 for ivory, etc.). Magic potions are really the only things you have to worry about (which need a 12 to save vs. the 15 for fireball).

Even outdoors there are advantages to using cold. Fireballs and lightning bolts can easily start forest fires, and burn down houses. Sometimes that might be desired, of course, but in most cases probably not.

Basically, cone of cold is a safe spell to use, and I suspect that’s why Gary Gygax made it higher level than fireball, even though the spells are equivalent in terms of the damage they inflict on their targets.

 

“No Separation of Church and State” in Medieval Europe: What it means and what it doesn’t

We’re often told there was no separation of church and state in medieval Christianity, and to an extent that’s true. Christian thought influenced political decision making. The church legitimated monarchs; secular kings granted lordships to bishops; popes claimed the right to depose monarchs, and there was an ongoing contest between the religious authority of the pope and the secular authority of the Holy Roman Emperor.

But — and this is a big but — there was a very clear divide between church law and civil law, which reflected a distinction between an individual’s spiritual well being on the one hand, and the person’s freedoms and responsibilities before the law on the other. In some Christian lands that distinction became so sharp you’d hardly guess this was the time before or during the crusades. In England, for example, common law derived from local judges, and no priest or church figures were involved in it. Or in Castile (the Christian part of Spain), where local tradition-based law was written down in the fueros (town’s rights), confirmed by the crown in royal charters, and administered by popularly elected local mayors — with again, no priestly or church involvement in the law’s creation or application.

Everywhere in Catholic Europe, civil law was administered by the laity. Priests stuck to their own law: canon law. That wasn’t true in the Islamic world, where sharia law was both religious and civil without distinction. Religion was the law (and still is today in many Islamic countries), which meant that Islam was the law. Sharia pervaded every aspect of life, from a the private to the public, and Muslim clerics ruled over the daily life of the Muslim population. The public spaces (in this so-called “golden age” of Islam) were regularly patrolled by religious functionaries who had the powers of a judge over the people’s personal, social, and commercial behavior. One looks in vain to find an equivalent judge in medieval Catholic Europe — that is, a dispenser of the law who was also an expert in the New Testament and could officiate, lead prayers, and deliver homilies. Such priest-judges did not exist. And because common law evolved independent of royal or priestly power, it could have a politically liberating effect (long before the Magna Carta), not least in the ideas of people’s freedoms and responsibilities before the law. Freedom, in this sense, was wholly antithetical to sharia law in the Muslim world.

Something to bear in mind, the next time you hear that “church and state were inseparable” in medieval Europe. As far as the statement goes, it’s true, but few people understand what that means and what it doesn’t.