Gary Raymond looks at the hotly anticipated new television satire from Russell T. Davies, Years and Years, which predicts the immediate future for the planet through the experiences of one family.
Halfway through the opening episode of this much-anticipated new comedy-drama from the pen of Russell T. Davies (creator of Queer as Folk and regenerator of Dr Who), Russell Tovey’s Daniel Lyons makes the sharp observation that people are just stupider than they used to be. It’s a bold statement half directed at Rory Kinnear who plays his brother Stephen and a half at the audience. There is never a moment in Years and Years when Davies wants you to think this a show about them and us. We are all stupider. Davies knows it, and we know it. It’s quite cathartic, really.
And Years and Years has many moments of catharsis when a speech on-screen feels designed to operate a release valve both for Davies and for the audience. There are issues being worked out here, even when Davies is having fun with his What If… postulating of the near future and how society will develop now we are on this seemingly unavoidable downward spiral of political and ecological disaster. There is a Kubrickian relish to the storytelling, although this is much simpler stuff when it comes to any attempts at philosophising. We are all stupider, after all.
Years and Years has an alluringly original premise, following the Lyons family from a winter day in 2019 forward through time. In the first episode, we see Donald Trump get re-elected, Snapchat filters come out of the phone and onto the actual face, and the nuclear war begins between the US and China. Is it satire if it hasn’t happened yet, or has Davies invented a new type of pastiche, one where he gets to lampoon the quite believable future degradation of human values and morals? The truth is the Democratic Party in the United States has an uphill battle to oust Trump in 2020, and Years and Years was in the can long before John Bolton made US war with Iran more likely. I’m not so sure about the Snapchat filters, though.
Davies’s script is at its best when he has his characters at close quarters to one another when the family bickers or celebrates. The moment when Stephen and his wife Celeste (T’Nia Miller) offer comfort and love to their eldest daughter Bethany (Lydia West) when they believe she wants to transition to a boy, both of them with their best achingly good liberal feet forward, only to snap it all back when they discover she actually wants to give up her physical being entirely and upload her consciousness to the cloud, is as moving and funny as it is acutely observed. But way too often the pace of Years and Years demands clunky exposition and irregular speeches – no time for thoughtful nuanced development here, just have a character spew out some context. Davies is himself a much better writer, line for line, than Years and Years shows, but, well, people are getting stupider and nothing has made them more stupid than television.
There is also tangible remnants of the tackiness and campness of Davies’ Dr Who, which he resurrected in 2005 when he planted Christopher Ecclestone in the lead role. The news segments, the sense of peril, are all beamed straight in from that televisual world; it is all lacking a bit of grit. (Surprising perhaps, given director Simon Cellan Jones’ CV of such hard-hitting intelligent work as Cracker and Our Friends in the North).
For the first episode, Emma Thompson casts a shadow from the laptop screens and televisions as we see in the background the rise of a populist blowhard, a cross between Nigel Farage and Julia Hartley-Brewer (my God, could you imagine!). Again it’s not quite clear as yet whether we are supposed to loathe her or admire her, but one thing is for certain, Years and Years has no intention of sitting on the fence when it comes to its politics. It really will be a shocking turn of events if subsequent episodes lean toward “balance” in the way the BBC likes to define the word. It is going to hang those who deserve to be hanged, figuratively if not literally. The truth is, this is Russell T. Davies firmly back in the tradition of classic science fiction, the tantalising and rich history of What If… literature of writers like Arthur C. Clark and Olaf Stapledon. Stapledon, for instance, in his 1930 novel Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future, the author predicts not only war in the sky over Europe but that the next great war, the one that would bring to an end the era of the First Men (us), would be between America and China.
Years and Years is fast-paced, and the performances are committed and good, but just how funny will the apocalypse that Davies predicts continue to be the closer it imitates the rollout of the laws of probability?
Years and Years by Russell T. Davies is available on the BBC iPlayer.
Gary Raymond is an editor and regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.