With the new seasons of Black Mirror and The Handmaid’s Tale, we aren’t exactly stuck for gloomy dystopian futures in television at the moment. But for my money, one of the most chilling visions of the future to hit our screens recently has come from BBC One’s Years and Years, a series which has got much less attention, but which is nevertheless uncomfortably close to home for viewers watching in 2019.
The series is the creation of Russell T. Davies, the writer behind series like Queer as Folk and A Very English Scandal, as well as the revival of Doctor Who, back in 2005. Over the course of six episodes, Years and Years follows one ordinary Mancunian family, the Lyons, as they make their way through the next decade and a half, during which Western society as we know it collapses around them. By the end, it seems like virtually every single development that’s occurred has just resulted in the absolute worst case scenario. All the usual hallmarks of dystopian fiction crop up, from nuclear warfare to fascism and concentration camps.
It’s a series that’s been an incredibly long time in the making. The idea for it was one Davies has had since the 1990s, but which has only now actually been produced. In his book The Writer’s Tale, published way back in 2010, he writes about the concept of a series which would be “essentially, a family drama, in which the world goes to hell, ending with our nice, safe, comfy western society descending into anarchy or a military state. Those nightmare regimes that we see in Africa, or Bosnia, or in history – but right here, on our doorsteps, with ordinary people like you and me, and our mums and dads, and our brothers and sisters, not just watching it, but part of it.”
It says a lot that, at the time Davies wrote this, this idea had mainly amounted to a subplot in the Doctor Who spinoff Torchwood, rather than existing as its own thing. Back then it might well only have worked as part of a cheesy science fiction series which featured pterodactyls flying around the middle of Cardiff and aliens literally shagging people to death. But now, a decade later, it suddenly seems a lot more plausible.
As many characters note over the course of the series, politics before often seemed “boring.” Both the main political parties stuck largely to the centre and, with the end of the cold war, many political analysts talked about an “end of history.” Since then we’ve had the recession, austerity, deepening conflicts in the Middle East, the refugee crisis, Brexit, and Donald Trump in the White House. People appear to have become genuinely concerned for the future of democracy and liberty in the current age of fake news, as seen with the spike in sales of George Orwell’s 1984 under Trump. Indeed, according to Davies, it was on the very night of Trump winning the Presidency that Years and Years finally got greenlit. If you had to come up with a series that felt like it represented how politics was perceived a decade ago, it would probably be something like The Thick of It. But it’s this which I’d argue perfectly sums up where it feels like we are now.
While it may be primarily set in the future, Years and Years is very much rooted in the mood and the climate of 2019. With its imagined future being so close, and with all its references to current politicians and celebrities, the series is one that’s likely to age very quickly as we enter the real 2020s, but it does nevertheless succeed in giving the sense that the events depicted are not only possible, but in fact incredibly likely.
Most dystopian fiction tends to take place at a point when everything has already completely gone to shit. 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, V for Vendetta – they all already have their nightmare worlds fully established, with our protagonists struggling to try and bring about change. Years and Years however takes a relatively unique approach, instead showing us the transition from our world into the nightmare – with our characters voting for it, and actively participating in it.
Whenever a story features a dictatorship or regime that’s just there, without going into how that happened, it can automatically seem a bit removed from the real world, even if it is inspired by real world problems. But Years and Years instead starts with the world as it is now, and then simply shows our current concerns getting bigger and bigger.
The first episode opens with the real headlines from the day it aired back in May, from Theresa May’s Brexit negotiations to the passing of Doris Day. After this a series of energetic, fast-paced montages takes us at a dizzying speed into the future, but there’s little that actually seems “invented.” Everything revolves either around politicians and celebrities we recognise, or current political concerns, and much of it is stuff we could quite easily actually be seeing in the news tomorrow, or in a few months’ time. The Queen is dead. Trump’s got a second term. Putin has been made President for life. There’s conflict in the Ukraine, ever increasing waves of refugees, and the country is under threat from cyberattacks and dirty bombs. There’s another financial crisis looming, politicians are pushing for restrictions on the internet in the name of moralistic crusades against pornography, and so-called Deepfake technology is being used to distort information and tarnish public figures.
All this makes the series feel less like science fiction, and more like it genuinely would only take a little for the events depicted to become reality. That is, if they aren’t already. The most memorable aspects of Years and Years are those which, really, are barely fiction. For example, there’s the straight talking, no-nonsense politician Vivienne Rook, played by Emma Thompson, whose rise to power dominates much of the narrative. With characters moaning about how “she isn’t even an MP, she isn’t anyone,” it’s not exactly subtle about who she’s supposed to be a stand in for. Except unlike Nigel Farage she seems genuinely down to earth, quoting comedians like Victoria Wood rather than banging on about the will of the people, and as such it’s not long before she’s in Downing Street. Rather than just lazily slating Brexit or Farage, the series highlights exactly why these “populist” politicians have done so well. When, in the opening episode, her response to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is simply “I do not give a fuck,” the sentiment itself may be disgusting, but it is instantly more appealing and refreshing to hear than the usual rhetoric from politicians who you know think the same, but simply don’t say it.
The series also does an amazing job in highlighting the realities of the refugee crisis by shifting it from the Mediterranean to the English Channel. The episode where refugee Victor is forced to try and enter Britain illegally, as he tries to escape persecution for his sexuality, really captures the fear and vulnerability these people face. It’s a viewing experience that only gets more and more intense as we follow him and his partner smuggling him into the bottoms of buses, giving over everything to criminals who immediately rip them off, and then climbing into a hideously tiny, overpacked dingy that’s somehow meant to make it across the Channel. The loss that follows serves to give a gut punch to the audience, to act as a call to arms for the Lyons family, and to act as a reminder of just how deadly these crossings are.
A series like this can often run the risk of being a bit too on the nose, and this is an issue, especially with much of the stuff around Viv Rook. Often it can feel like it really is just ticking off all the biggest concerns that have cropped up in the news over the past few years, lecturing at us and tutting about how stupid we’ve all been to get ourselves in the current mess. It’s the sort of show that probably wouldn’t have any appeal to those who aren’t already pretty liberal minded, or even just don’t like an overabundance of politics in their TV. But at the same time, a show like this would not be possible to do without being consciously political, and for the most part it avoids being too simplistic in its targets.
Viv Rook might often seem like nothing more than a caricature of Farage or Katie Hopkins, but she’s rarely reduced to anything so simple as Left or Right, or Brexit or Remain. Instead, she’s a true populist, saying stuff that most people would sympathise with before stopping to think about it. As one character points out, her “some people are to stupid to vote” argument is exactly the sort of attitude that we’ve all heard from plenty of Remainers since Brexit. Just like Farage’s anti-migrant rhetoric, it’s an attitude which smacks of a sense of superiority and is one which has been used to justify all kinds of things throughout history, from Eugenics to One Party States.
The series avoids getting too up itself by incorporating the humour and the focus on the everyday which has always been a constant of Davies writing. Despite the subject matter, it’s bloody funny. It will continuously have these massive, dramatic, world-shaping events immediately being undercut by stuff like an MP getting decapitated by the new drone he’s showing off, or Rook donating not to a charity but to a campaign for a memorial to all the horses killed in WW1. It’s really clever stuff, not only being funny in the moment but also making some very clear points about the kind of future and the kind of politics this is. When, for example, the Lyons’ estranged father is killed after being hit by a bike of all things, the series works quite a bit of dark humour out of this, but it also serves to show just how much trouble we’d actually be in if antibiotics do indeed stop working.
The series also stays down to Earth by remaining fixated on the Lyons family. A different kind of series would probably have been tempted to instead follow the politicians and the people shaping the events, or if not them, those right in the middle of the war zones. But the core concept with this series was always to reflect on how these things affect the most ordinary of people, and on how we all tend to just keep on muddling along when faced with the unimaginable.
We see, through the news, the biggest developments that come along to shape the world, and we get a sense of their importance, but the emphasis throughout is always on the effect this has on the Lyons: on their livelihoods, their relationships, and their futures. This has always been Davies’s biggest strength. It’s what was so good about when he ran Doctor Who, grounding it in everyday reality and character drama so as to help it reach mainstream audiences in a way it often hadn’t before. And it serves the same purpose here, making the series seem that bit more tangible than is often the case with other dystopian fiction. Winston Smith, in 1984, is not so much a three-dimensional character as he is a representation of the reader and the opponent of Big Brother. But here, for the most part, the characters feel much more like real people. This, admittedly, isn’t always the case: Victor barely gets any characterisation beyond his refugee status. As for the children of the Lyons family, most of them just fade into the background, with the exception of “Transhuman” Bethany. But for the most part, they all do seem like ordinary people just trying to get by, seeing what’s going on around them but mostly concerned with their own jobs and relationships.
This, really, is the ultimate message of Years and Years. It’s these people, ordinary families like yours or mine, who are affected by the things we see every day on the news, who are caught up in every war or persecution or displacement. But it’s also these ordinary people who are able to help overthrow the system, and it’s this positive, empowering note the series chooses to end on as the Lyons family take centre stage in the fight against Rook.
For me, this was the one bit of the series that felt rather out of place, as everything appears to suddenly get wrapped up very easily. All it takes is to get footage of the concentration camps beamed across the nation and suddenly the regime is (pretty much) over, and the Lyons have gone from being that completely ordinary family to revolutionaries. Of course, that’s half the point, that the people who fight tyranny across the world are themselves normal people, just trying to fight for each other and for what matters to them. But it does come off as a little saccharine.
If the end feels jarring though then it’s because, until this point, the series does make it seem like everything is indeed just bound to get worse and worse. It’s pretty much a given that many of the predictions the series makes, such as Deepfake tech and an ever worsening climate, are almost certainly going to become much bigger problems over the next few years. The montages each episode begins with, showing us everything that’s going on, really helps give a sense of just how big all this is, making you feel like it’s inexorable. The rushed chaotic way they’re presented in is genuinely how it’s felt sometimes over the past few years as things have changed wildly at an incredible rate. One minute David Cameron’s offering stability and strong Government with him, or chaos with Ed Miliband – the next, we’re facing the prospect of a No-Deal Brexit with Boris Johnson as Prime Minister. It has felt mad, it’s felt overwhelming, and it’s this feeling that the series captures really well.
This is a series then which acts as the perfect reflection of where we are now in 2019. Much of what happens in it may yet happen – or at least that’s what it manages to convince you of anyway. For that reason alone, it strikes a chord that a lot of other similar series don’t.
Whilst uneven in places and feeling like it's wrapped up a bit too neatly, Years and Years makes for a vision of the future that feels like a very natural progression from where we are now. While this may mean it doesn't age particularly well, it's a vision that's utterly convincing when watching in 2019, especially with such a tight cast, music and production as well.