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A Political History of the Future: Years and Years

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Welcome back to A Political History of the Future, our series about how science fiction constructs its social, political, and economic futures. Our topic this time is Russell T. Davies’s miniseries Years and Years, which follows an ordinary British family through the upheavals of the near future.

Russell T. Davies is probably best-known as the reviver of Doctor Who, which he shepherded as executive producer between 2005 and 2010. It’s a position that rewards excess, in Davies’s case playing into his fondness for family melodrama and indiscriminate bombast, and as a result he has developed a (not entirely unearned) reputation as a schlockmeister. So it always comes as a bit of a surprise to me when I’m reminded of how smart and interesting a writer Davies is, how wide-ranging his interests, and how unique his perspective. Before Doctor Who, he cast Christopher Eccleston as the son of god in the irreverent, yet also soulful, miniseries The Second Coming. In 2016, he adapted Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream into half a Doctor Who episode, half a rallying cry against the forces of fascism. And last year, he delivered the delightful miniseries A Very English Scandal, which dramatized an incident from the 60s, in which a gay politician haplessly tried to murder his former lover, with a pitch-perfect blend of humor and tragedy.

This year, Davies has returned with Years and Years, which seems to plug into so many of his preoccupations, to gratify his need for both tangled family relationships and dramatic SFnal worldbuilding. The six-part miniseries, which aired on the BBC in the spring and on HBO earlier this summer, follows the fortunes of a middle-class Manchester family, the Lyonses, over the course of the next decade. Adult siblings Stephen (Rory Kinnear), Edith (Jessica Hynes), Daniel (Russell Tovey), and Rosie (Ruth Madeley), as well as their spouses, children, and steadfast grandmother Muriel (Anne Reid), observe the upheavals their country undergoes, post-Brexit, post-economic downturn, mid-climate catastrophe, while also coping with more prosaic issues such as health problems, troubled marriages, new relationships, and various comings-out.

The first thing you notice about Years and Years is how relentlessly talky it is, a quality that the Lyonses fully embody. Separated by geography and busy lives, the family most often communicate through a “link” that allows them to speak to each other (often over each other) as they go about their lives, puzzling over issues both personal and global. The common theme of these conversations is the family’s increasing bewilderment at how quickly and unexpectedly (to them) the world is changing. “Remember when politics used to be boring?” they repeatedly ask one another, and as their children are born and grow up, the Lyonses repeatedly muse over the sort of world they are being bequeathed.

The second thing you notice about the show is how many of those changes and upheavals flash by us in an instant, even as the characters take them for granted. Developments such as gene therapies that cure macular degeneration or blood tests that can reveal your life expectancy are mentioned as asides. Ideas that might have fueled their own miniseries (or at least their own Black Mirror episode) get minor subplots here, such as Stephen’s daughter Bethany (Lydia West) getting cybernetic implants that allow her to directly access the internet, or Rosie telling Edith about the in-vitro treatment that has cured a neighbor’s baby of spina bifidia (the same condition that has left Rosie dependent on a wheelchair), and wondering what social consequences the ability to deliver such cures will entail, and who those treatments will be reserved for. Even major political turmoil is often relegated to the background—the news that in the show’s world, Donald Trump has won a second term, and Russia has annexed the Ukraine, is delivered in a few brief headlines.

It’s only when the Lyonses find their lives directly impinged upon that these political upheavals come fully into focus. Daniel leaves his husband for Viktor (Maxim Baldry), a Ukrainian refugee who has fled anti-gay persecution, and is plunged into the demoralizing, deliberately convoluted ordeal of trying to secure asylum for him, first in Britain and later in other, increasingly close-bordered European countries. Stephen and his wife Celeste (T’Nia Miller) lose their life savings when the British banks fail, plummeting from a comfortable upper-middle-class lifestyle to a precariousness that will probably last the rest of their lives (the other Lyons siblings are largely unaffected, because none of them had enough money to be wiped out in the first place). Rosie loses one job to automation, and another when her working class neighborhood is designated a high crime zone and fenced off, restricting her access to the rest of the city. Only Edith, a lifelong crusader for various lost causes, avoids these rude awakenings, but she achieves this by not having anything of her own—no property, no spouse, no children—for fortune to hold hostage.

The result is a show suffused with anxiety. When discussing Years and Years, I’ve found that people tend to reference its big dramatic moments, such as the ending of episode 1, in which an air raid siren alerts the gathered family to the fact that the US has dropped an atomic bomb on a Chinese military base (Davies doesn’t try too hard to ground his predictions in carefully-reasoned reality, but his speculation that Donald Trump would do something like this on his final day in office is scarily plausible). Or that of episode 4, in which Daniel and Viktor board an overloaded inflatable raft in a desperate attempt to cross the handful of miles separating Calais from England. But I think the scene that will hit a lot of viewers where they live is actually the end of episode 2, in which Stephen and Celeste race to their bank to try to retrieve even some of their money, and find themselves in a crowd of people hoping to do the same, all equally doomed. The first two are things that you can imagine happening, but maybe not to you. The second feels like exactly the sort of calamity that the comfortably middle class people the show has been aimed at are most likely to experience in the coming decades.

It’s that tension, between comfort and anxiety, that is at the heart of Years and Years. For all the setbacks they experience, the Lyonses are nevertheless well-placed to endure the turmoil of history. When Stephen and Celeste lose most of their money, they still have Muriel to fall back on. They move into her dilapidated but still quite palatial house, which gives them a level of security that other people in their situation might not have. (Later, when floods and dirty bombs cause millions of Britons to lose their homes, Muriel is able to use her failing eyesight to avoid a government mandate that would have forced her to house a displaced person in one of her spare rooms.) All of the Lyons siblings end up depending on Muriel for financial support, and although the show makes it clear that this is eating the seed corn—the next generation simply won’t have the prospects their parents did, as we see when Bethany takes a menial data processing job, and later essentially becomes indentured to the government when they pay for her brain implants—that’s still an option for them when it isn’t for many others.

The anxiety you feel watching Years and Years, then, is similar to the anxiety of watching the unfolding of actual history, knowing that you are relatively protected from the breakdown of norms, the erosion of democracy, the disappearance of the welfare state, while also realizing that the tides of history are carrying you along with them. It’s the anxiety of trying to go about your normal life, while suspecting that “normal” is increasingly a thing of the past.

For all that its characters may feel helpless to change the course of history, Years and Years is a story about how people—again, mostly comfortable people like the Lyonses—let history happen, and even chivvy it along a course they know is no good because doing so makes them feel powerful or good about themselves. We know Daniel and his husband Ralph (Dino Fetscher) are in trouble when the latter starts entertaining conspiracy theories, including flat-earthism. When Daniel protests that he and Ralph have flown to India, Ralph simply replies “I’m just keeping an open mind”. But it’s clear from the way he says it that what he’s actually doing is choosing not to think. Later in the series, Stephen interviews for a job with someone from his old life as a financial advisor, now a shady government contractor, and realizes that a condition of getting the job is that he agree that the nuclear attack that happened at the end of episode 1—an attack in which Edith, who rushed to the site to retrieve video proof of the event, sustained a lifespan-reducing dose of radiation—never happened. Denying reality becomes a tool of power, and a way for citizens to buy into that power, to preserve their comfort and sense of security in the face of an increasingly hostile world.

Another vector for these self-inflicted delusions comes in the form of Emma Thompson’s Vivienne Rook, a politician who eventually becomes the British Prime Minister. Part Katie Hopkins, part Boris Johnson, Rook is charming and witty but ultimately hollow. She maneuvers her way to the top through a canny ability to play up to her listeners’ worst impulses. Her big break as a politician comes when, asked about the ongoing crisis in Gaza, she frankly replies “I don’t give a fuck” (unsurprisingly, the press are more outraged by her use of profanity than her isolationism). Exposed as pathetically ignorant about the political issues of the day during a debate, she pivots to a riveting display in which she promises to protect children from ubiquitous online pornography, a topic completely irrelevant to the actual discussion which nevertheless inflames her listeners. Her entire campaign is substanceless, consisting only of her dynamic personality and her content-free promises to shake things up.

It’s not a surprise that Rook takes the UK by storm, but a bold choice that Davies makes is that she wins over at least some of the Lyonses. Rosie and Edith find her charming, with the former declaring that “our Viv” will show the politicians what’s what, and the latter crowing that Rook is “ripping up democracy”. The other Lyonses, meanwhile, think Rook is a joke, and even find her entertaining. Only Daniel recognizes the danger she poses, not least because her isolationism and xenophobia threaten even the partial safety he manages to secure for Viktor.

Rook coasts into power on the back of promises of revenge—against the bankers who lost everyone’s money, against the politicians who mismanaged the country, against an amorphous someone who must be responsible for how bad things have gotten—and as relatively privileged as they are, the Lyonses are nevertheless enticed by that promise. None of them ask too many questions about what Rook will do with power, even though they’re surrounded by examples of how power can and is being abused. It’s hardly a surprise when Stephen, accompanying his bosses to a meeting of the great and the good at which the new Britain is being parceled out to contractors, witnesses Rook explaining that her solution to the problem of refugees and homeless people is to corral them in concentration camps with little food and bad sanitation, and to “let nature take its course”. But it’s wrenching to remember that at least some of the characters we’ve been following, and have grown to care about, voted for this.

(One thing I wish the show had depicted a bit more of is the role of racism and fascism in bringing about sort of policies Rook espouses. Years and Years can be a little glib in its political analysis—when Daniel marvels that the newly-installed far left government in Spain is planning to kick out refugees, Viktor muses that “you’ve got far right, you’ve got far left.. eventually you meet in the middle”. But the total absence of any discussion of race feels increasingly glaring even given those limiations. The Lyonses are white, but several of their spouses are people of color, and the idea that people like Celeste, who is black, or Rosie’s boyfriend Jonjo (George Bukhari), who is South Asian, might have a different perspective on Britain’s political turmoil, and might have experienced that turmoil in different ways than the core family, isn’t given any space. And of all the calamities that afflict Britain throughout the series’s span, it’s notable that fascist street violence is almost entirely absent.)

As you approach the miniseries’s end, you start to wonder what sort of a cap Davies will choose to put on it. Will the Lyonses be washed away by rising sea levels, still squabbling in an annoying but ultimately lovable way? Will the series end on a note of quiet desperation? Does the sudden turn from low-key horror to the in-your-face variety, as refugees (including Viktor) are sequestered in camps, signal a grand guignol conclusion, in which Britain finally devolves into anarchy and civil war? It’s not until the mini’s final act that you begin to seriously consider that there might be a happy ending to all this, and then it’s suddenly there. Not perfect, by any means—climate change is still happening, for one thing, and Britain still has no money and too many people to house and feed—but for once the inexorable slide towards greater cruelty is held back. Exposing the camps actually causes something to be done about them, and Vivienne Rook gets her comeuppance.

I’m sure there are people who find this sort of ending treacly, and typical of Davies’s tendency towards schlock. But after giving it a bit of thought, I actually think it’s an incredibly powerful choice. After six episodes, you can’t help but get used to the misery and creeping decay that Years and Years serves up. There’s something bold and tantalizing about the idea that these can be halted. Precisely because so many of the bad things the show depicts are plausible, and probably just around the corner, it’s somehow more terrifying to imagine that there could be good things in store as well, if only we’re smart and brave enough to achieve them.

Because the fact is, things don’t change for show’s Britain until people—until the Lyonses—start changing them. Stephen blows the whistle on his bosses and the concentration camp program; Edith leads a team to one of the camps to document the abuses there; Daniel travels to Europe with a money-belt full of bribes to get Viktor back by any means necessary; and Rosie leads her neighbors in a revolt against the guards who have relegated them to a ghetto. Not all of these efforts succeed, and not all of them end well for our heroes. The show even makes the point that the Lyonses are only a small part of the solution—Stephen is one out of hundreds of whistleblowers, Edith’s mission is one of many. But standing up to try to change history, rather than letting it wash over them, is what finally gives the Lyonses and their country hope for the future.

Years and Years ends as a perfect combination of Davies’s clear-eyed understanding of the danger posed by our present political moment, and his starry-eyed optimism and tendency towards cheesiness. I can’t imagine any other creator striking that balance, and I can’t think of another show that so perfectly captures both the horror and the potential of our present moment.

Next time on APHotF: I’m hoping to get back to a regular schedule, and to finally discuss Tim Maugham’s Infinite Detail.

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