Stranger Things and the Amiga 1000
Why is it always like this?
About a year ago, I cancelled my Netflix subscription. One of the few shows listed on the "plus" side when I made my decision was Stranger Things: an entertaining series with an excellent first and good second season. In short, I'm a fan of the show - though my appreciation of it doesn't come near my fanatical passion for the Amiga home computer.
"It's a TRIPOS system, I know this!"
When news reached me about the appearance of an Amiga 1000 in season 4 of Stranger Things, I was of course intrigued. Not intrigued enough to pay for a new Netflix subscription, but at least enough to sate my curiosity using the awesome power of the global information superhighway that is the Internet.
Afterwards, I was sort of disappointed that the resulting disappointment didn't surprise me. After all, few shows have so actively and tenaciously targeted nostalgic geeks like myself: in episode after episode we've been presented with so many sci-fi and retro nerd clichés it's bordering on the pornographic.
Most nerds are used to bizarre misconceptions, factual errors and unrealistic depictions of computers in movies and on television. It can seem like a trite plot device when someone does something seemingly impossible using a computer, especially when that computer is running a particularly over-the-top version of HollywoodOS - but movies are meant to be fantastical and entertaining. If we can accept the premise of alien invaders, alternate dimensions, time travel or indeed or the fact that a Woody Allen character could ever get a date, we can perhaps also accept that screenfuls of dull program code might have to be spiced up a bit for the general public to stay interested.
Not so with Stranger Things. In season two, for example, Bob Newby uses his mad BASIC skills in an attempt to brute force a four digit password. The overall execution of this scene is impressive, closing in on impeccable. Bob seems to be using an IBM 3180, a terminal used to interface with IBM mainframes. The 3180 model was released in 1984, the same year the show takes place. It's highly likely that a big research facility like the one in the show was running on an IBM mainframe, a platform for which Big Blue had dutifully provided a version of BASIC.
It was indeed a green screen world with textual interfaces, keyboard navigation and oftentimes clunky languages. The show glosses over the more esoteric aspects of mainframe programming, and Bob's code displays a few atypical traits and a silly blunder, but it does, in the end, read like BASIC. Perhaps for the first time ever on TV, we were treated to a plausible and historically correct depiction of computer programming without suspense levels dropping one jot.
Things Turn Stranger
What about the Amiga 1000 in season 4, then? Perhaps the best way to go about this is to scrutinize each anachronism in a blow-by-blow fashion. But first, let me don my coke bottle glasses and adjust my braces to ensure that a substantial amount of saliva sprays across my CRT when I exclaim "Well, ackshually!" Buckle up, fellow dorks, it's time to get computer freaky.
The show takes place in 1986, a year after the Amiga 1000 was launched. The hardware all looks correct, from the monitor to the keyboard to the so called "tank mouse" - although it doesn't seem to be connected to the standard mouse port on the side of the A1000. So far, mostly good.
Then we get to the actual on screen action, and things start to fall apart. What first strikes me is that this is sort of, but not really, a green screen display. Commodore did make some Amiga monitors with a green screen mode - although the model depicted didn't, to my knowledge, have this feature. Furthermore, the mouse pointer is red and completely historically accurate, so it can't really be a true green screen. The Amiga Workbench was blue, white, orange and black by default, but the settings could have been changed by the user. However, going for a green screen look would be more than a little odd: The whole point of the Amiga was its amazing graphics hardware, unavailable on contemporary office computers and monochrome terminals. Spending top dollar on this powerful new machine only to make it look like a boring DOS PC would, as the kids say, be a weird flex.
Then we have the actual screen contents. The title bar in the top of the display is completely accurate. The first A1000:s did indeed run version 1.0 of AmigaOS and the amount of free memory (in bytes) is plausible, too. The A1000 shipped with 256 KB of RAM but could be expanded with another 256 KB. The font and screen depth gadgets, used to switch between full screen programs when multi-tasking, are also correct.
Overall, the icons look mostly accurate, as do the actual programs they represent. Clock, Calculator and Trashcan is exactly what you'd expect. Boing is the famous Amiga Boing Ball demo. ClockPtr turns the mouse pointer into a clock when it's positioned in certain corners of the screen and Cmd is used to redirect printer output to a file on disk.
The OS version is given as 1.0 in the screen title, but the Workbench disk icon says 1.3. Not only is this a strange combination given that the A1000 read the Kickstart (base OS routines) from disk - version 1.3 wasn't released until 1988. Workbench 1.3 did, however, feature the depicted Trashcan icon and Prefs drawer.
Furthermore, the window decorations are wrong. The depth, size and close gadgets look about right, but the scroll arrows and window title bars are far too elegant. There was no fancy, angled gradient fade in the window titles.
The icon font is wrong, too: it's clearly IBM's VGA font, not Commodore's Topaz. A sloppy oversight, especially considering that versions of Topaz are readily available in TTF format.
Well, boy, howdy! Now it's really getting goofy. The split-window display enabling the "CSC CLASSIFIED MODULES" title was certainly not standard Workbench fare and we may never know why GraphicDump and PrintFile (standard programs for screen dumps and printing text files), More (a version of the popular text reader) or Notes (judging from the icon, a renaming of the Notepad editor) are classified. Other than that, the programs on this Workbench disk have been moved to highly non-standard directories.
Ah yes, nothing to see here. Carry on! Circulate! Just some run of the mill mid-eighties program code featuring C#, HTML (with iframes!) and oddball references to CoffeeScript.
What the heck? Let's just ignore the bizarre HTML output in the NINA window and focus on the CMD window. Is it some kind of Amiga CLI? In that case, just about everything in it is wrong: the prompt, the font, the directory separators. If it's some kind of terminal to another computer, then, maayyybeeee it's a little less kooky - but not much. The Amiga did, however, feature a solid block cursor, so props for that.
This is more like it. Yes, I realize that version 1.0 of Amiga's Workbench wasn't very sexy - in fact, by today's standards, it was downright ugly. Pictured above is version 1.2, released in 1986. With a few colour adjustments it would have played the part perfectly and much more realistically. And would it really be too much to ask to make all those screenfuls of program code something more plausible? For example, the second standard draft for ANSI C was released in 1986. It wouldn't be too hard to find some code approximating this. Or, why not stick to BASIC? The Amiga 1000 shipped with a spectacularly bizarre-looking BASIC interpreter using a two window interface, perfect for that esoteric television look.
Pay me handsomely
Of course it's fun to see the Amiga make an appearance in a high profile show like Stranger Things, but I do feel they dropped the proverbial ball this time. After a pleasantly accurate depiction of mainframe BASIC, decades of hardcore Amiga zealotry forbids me from simply accepting this as a bit of telly. They clearly had all the makings of accuracy right there; the OS screenshots, icons, mouse pointer, even the block cursor. When it's that close, fumbling with the details is somehow more annoying than just phoning it in completely. If there was a reason for it, it completely escapes me. Would Topaz and standard window titles have been terribly boring? Would C, BASIC or Assembly code look less appealing than HTML? We may never know.
Luckily, I believe in being constructive. Hence, I hereby offer my services to any television and movie producers in need of them. For a very reasonable fee, I'm available as a Computer Accuracy Consultant on any forthcoming projects. And if it's going to feature an Amiga, I'll even write the necessary programs myself.
Update: It's been brought to my attention that Netflix later changed the scrolling code depicted above and corrected the Workbench version. Never underestimate the nagging power of Amiga fanboys!