This feature contains spoilers for Years And Years.
Russell T Davies may have plenty of experience of imagining strange new futures from his time on Doctor Who, but from its politics to its technology, this series’ vision of the next decade of UK history often seems eerily current.
Davies has reportedly had this idea in his head for more than 25 years, but with things as they are, it’s understandable that the writer-producer was keen to get Years And Years out on BBC One as quickly as possible. Despite being set in the near future, it’s hard to think of another recent drama series that has felt quite so timely as it has gone out.
The six-part series is inspired by the idea that “the world is getting madder”, which is stated and re-stated by the Lyons family from early on. While the show is far from science fiction, it has its share of imaginary technological contraptions created for dramatic purposes.
Many reviews of Years And Years have focused on the somewhat recognisable political situation that the series presents. Emma Thompson’s Vivienne Rook is certainly presented as a composite of several prolific, yet mostly less electable right-wing figures who are currently in the public eye and certain other hot-button topics are magnified as they go unchecked over the course of the series.
By comparison, there’s slightly less appreciation of the technological side of things that Davies projects forwards. Dispensing with any of the sort of technophobia that reviewers (often unfairly) ascribe to Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, the writer has several generations of characters through which to explore our continuing tech reliance, while also developing currently recognisable bits and bobs to their logical extremes.
Looking back over his most recent series and some of his earlier work, RTD has a fair few dramatic patents pending, although it’s usually more for the way in which he uses plot devices than for their originality. In Years And Years, it’s all about how society uses technology rather than how technology advances society.
Talking to each other
As part of Davies’ fleshing out the traditional companion role, Rose Tyler doesn’t get far in her journey through time and space before asking to ring home. Martha Jones and Donna Noble both upgrade their phone plans for “universal roaming” too, granting each of the new Who companions a tether to their loved ones back home.
That sort of link is paramount in Years & Years too, which mostly makes sense of the drama and the characters through frequent scenes staged on the Lyons’ family group chat. Unlike the Doctor’s super-strong space signal, the use of the Alexa-style virtual assistant Signor isn’t a million miles from the way that families interact now.
It’s an absolute gift to Davies who has always included scenes that cross-cut between opposite ends of a phone line in his drama. The Lyons’ various meetings with triumph and disaster are shared by the whole family through Signor, from laughing about Rosie’s disastrous date with robot-lover Tony in episode one to discovering horribly that Viktor has made it home without Daniel in episode four.
In episode two, transhuman Bethany gets a phone embedded in her hand, with a speaker in her thumb and a receiver in her pinkie finger, mimicking the internationally recognised signal for “call me”. The rest of the family don’t follow suit there, but by the time of the finale, Signor is “in the air”, enabling people to communicate with each other by talking to the walls.
Going back to Doctor Who, the last time Davies came up with a phone network that was everywhere was Harold Saxon’s Archangel Network in The Sound Of Drums. This turned out to be a front, through which the Master hypnotised the United Kingdom into electing him as Prime Minister. 12 years on, who needs an Archangel Network?
As Davies shows, entrepreneur turned celebrity mouth-for-hire Vivienne Rook has other ways of reaching her public. In episode two, during her first attempt to become an MP, Rook appears at a husting debate and gives an address about the dangers of constant connectivity and the content that children are able to access on their phones.
Using an experimental EMP-like device she called a “blink”, she shuts off people’s phones in order to make her point. Davies has said in interviews that he agrees with her views about children being exposed to certain content, because it wouldn’t have worked if you didn’t agree with at least one of her ideas, but the use of the blink foreshadows the way in which she later adopts an authoritarian approach to shutting down conversations and disappearing her opposition.
As the ads used to say, it’s good to talk.
One of the biggest talking points about the series’ vision of the future bubbles under the main plot throughout the series, as the teenage Bethany comes out as a “transhuman”, coupling issues of body dysphoria with the philosophical movement that suggests augmenting humans with machines.
In a more sci-fi context, it might put you in mind of the Cybermen, or Davies’ own Doctor Who-alike children’s series Dark Season, whose villains scrambled to control a sentient war computer called the Behemoth. Here, it’s a thought-provoking representation of the generational differences that persist throughout the series.
This starts with a classic subversion as Bethany is seen wearing a really annoying Snapchat-inspired filter mask (an idea RTD has said he wishes he’d invented and patented before putting it into the script) in episode one. By the end of the scene, we’re shown that Bethany’s using the tech to hide her tears from her parents.
When Celeste and Stephen sit her down, they believe she’s conflicted because she’s transgender, but Davies homes in on how unprepared they are to hear that she identifies as transhuman.
Bethany enthusiastically tells them: “They say one day soon, they'll have clinics in Switzerland, where you can go, and you'll sign a form and they'll take your brain and download it into the cloud.
“I want to live forever as information, because that's what transhumans are, Mum.
Not male or female – better. Where I'm going there's no life or death, there's only data.”
The allegory could easily come across as a false equivalence, especially because the dialogue is deliberately written to emphasise how horrifying this more heightened scenario might be for a parent to hear at first, with the emphasis on throwing away her body. When the transhuman arc returns in the finale through Edith's story, she greets the downloading process as a lyrically transcendent "escape" that will turn her not into data, but love.
In a show that’s rarely positive about the future, there’s a marked change in Bethany from the depressed kid in episode one to the young woman who comes out of her shell over the rest of the series. Among a terrific ensemble cast, Lydia West really plays the heck out of both the turmoil and the glee that comes with her cybernetic add-ons.
Granted, there’s potential for that new frontier to be exploited Davies delves into this through the black-market crime ring that ensnares Bethany and her fellow transhuman Lizzie in episode three as well as the privacy issues that come with the teen becoming “indentured” to the Home Office by them funding her upgrades in episode five, but his focus is on the freedom it affords Bethany.
This could easily have come across as heavy-handed, but it’s a better allegory for the journey it’s trying to represent for being distant from it. Where science fiction is full of cautionary tales about this kind of technological development, the more grounded tone of the series allows Davies to tell a more positive story than many of the other characters are afforded.
Trade and tender
The upheaval that goes on throughout Years And Years affects the working lives of the characters in different ways too. Most obviously, these changes impact Rosie and Stephen, who work in the food and banking industries respectively.
In addition to the incidental details that flesh out the story, like bananas going extinct or chocolate becoming so scarce that it’s considered a luxury, Rosie initially loses her job in a school canteen because self-heating ready meals are introduced. Davies has plenty of fun fleshing out the food technology in the background, to the point in the finale where “electric food”, made from bacteria and agitated water molecules, presents the ultimate sustainable solution.
It’s no surprise that the writer who created the technologically and biologically dubious Adipose diet method in Partners In Crime would have so much more fun with inventing new foodstuffs. There aren’t many places where Davies gets to be Willy Wonka, so the background details are enjoyable.
On the other hand, Stephen endures a humiliating fall as a result of the cataclysmic banking crash in episode two and is thrust into taking several jobs as he re-joins the ever-more unstable gig economy. Reacting badly to his drastically different situation, he winds up having an affair, getting dumped by Celeste, and destroying at least one bicycle in a fit of pettiness.
But it’s after the aforementioned Home Office intervention that Stephen is driven to return to big business, grovelling to his awful acquaintance Woody for a job. As Woody tells him, Rook’s government is in chaos and has even put the running of the new “Erstwhile” concentration camps for immigrants has been put out to tender.
In a state where several politicians are still waffling on about a non-existent technological solution to the backstop that will apparently be instituted in a matter of months, the resolution of episode five shows that any perceived evil in technology is entirely banal. Woody’s company wins the tender, putting the power of life and death in the hands of sociopathic tech bros. And Stephen.
With an axe to grind against Viktor, the immigrant his brother died to save, Stephen transfers him into an Erstwhile camp with the click of a mouse. The consequences of this terrible choice are shown afterwards, as Viktor is dragged from his bed and “disappeared”, but the gravity of the simple drag-and-drop is as powerful as it is understated.
Although the T in Russell T. Davies’ name was chosen arbitrarily by him, in order to distinguish himself from the BBC radio presenter of the same name, it’s often been said that it stands for “Television”. It’s fitting then that Davies’ dramas always acknowledge TV as the new family hearth.
This proliferates throughout his episodes of Doctor Who, from everyone going round Jackie’s flat to watch the news unfold after a spacecraft hits Big Ben in Aliens Of London, to the disastrous capsules of previous episodes gone wrong in the dystopian Turn Left.
Years And Years has frequently been confirmed to the latter, so it’s no surprise that a similar, abbreviated sequence accompanies the five-year time jump in episode one, with Muriel watching Trump’s re-election, the Queen’s death, and assorted other scene-setting items in a quick montage.
Before that though, we’re introduced to the family as they watch Vivienne Rook on Question Time, gleefully telling an audience member “I don’t give a fuck” in response to a question about foreign affairs. That this seems to be the start of her career as a celebrity mouth-for-hire is maybe the wryest bit of commentary that the series has to offer.
Similar to filmed asides in certain episodes of Doctor Who, we see Viv get booked on Have I Got News For You to argue with Ian Hislop and appear on Pointless to win £1,000 for “a statue dedicated to all the horses that died in World War I”. That latter bit is the sort of character-defining bit of dialogue that Davies specialises in, but the comic relief is all part of the world-building.
This particular piece of technology doesn’t actually change much over the course of the decade in which Years And Years takes place, but it’s telling that this revolution is already being televised. While certain characters panic about technology elsewhere in the series, Davies understands and dramatizes the power of TV to normalise things.
From an MP being decapitated by a drone on live TV (LOL) to the use of “deep fake” footage against Rook’s political rivals, (something that is frighteningly already here) the broadcast landscape gets scarier while the means of broadcasting remains roughly the same. Frankly, that’s the most familiar aspect of the drama.
Maybe it’s the benefit of having had 25 years to think about it, but it does feel as if Davies had to wait for the landscape to get as scary as it is now to give it a proper kicking-off point. Perhaps it was never about waiting until hand-phones or electric food or (er…) blow-job robots were within reach technologically, as much as waiting until the world really did get madder.