BBC One and HBO‘s Years and Years is Russell T. Davies’ unique reimagining of the British family drama with a Science Fiction edge – yet still firmly grounded in the issues of today. It takes the UK through the years from 2019 all the way to 2034 through the eyes of a single family, the Lyons of Manchester, England.
The Lyons are a fairly ordinary middle-class family. Muriel is the grandmother and family matriarch. Stephen is the oldest sibling, a financial advisor, husband and father of two daughters. Daniel is a housing official in an increasingly unhappy marriage with his husband Ralph. Edith is their sister, a political activist. Rose is the youngest sister, a cafeteria worker with spina bifida and single mother of two boys.
Sci-Fi Soap Opera as Cautionary Tale
We first meet the family as they weather the chaos of 2019: Brexit, the refugee crisis, global unrest, climate change and the rise of far-right populism. Vivienne Rook, played with an unflinching venality by Emma Thompson, becomes the frontrunner for Prime Minister on a xenophobic, neofascist platform. Her rise to power will affect the lives of everyone in the country, including the Lyons.
Stephen and Celeste’s daughter Bethany declares she’s a transhuman and embraces biotech implants that connects her to the internet. The economy goes into recession and Stephen loses his job. Daniel becomes increasingly estranged from Ralph and falls in love with a Ukrainian refugee named Viktor. Rosie loses her cafeteria job due to automation and starts to support Vivienne Rook. Edith survives a US nuclear strike on a disputed Chinese island but finds her health and life expectancy shortened.
As Vivienne Rook claws her way to become Prime Minister, fascism creeps into the country, and the Lyons have to decide which side of history they want to be on. Their actions, big and small, play a part in the progress of history and the overthrow of the monstrous Rook.
Davies has always believed in the power of popular television to change minds and unite people. Years and Years is not subtle, because popular television doesn’t have to be subtle. It’s about getting the point across. Davies’ point is to show the worst in people and how the worst of times will bring out their best. Nobody sets up to be a hero or play superhero. Everyone just does what they can. Davies teaches the same lessons here as on his run on Doctor Who, only without the flashy toys and comic book heroism of genre.
The British Family Saga… with a Twist
This show is a different take on a genre that British television likes to do, the prestige family saga that examines the times. The genre can be traced back to literary origins, going back to The Forsyth Saga and Upstairs Downstairs. This show is the opposite of Downton Abbey. Instead of looking at the past, Davies is looking at the present and projecting to the near-future. Six episodes means Davies built the show to show the fast passage of time in the age of technological and digital progress.
In many ways, Years and Years is a Cyberpunk soap opera. It features all the tropes of Cyberpunk Science Fiction: a dystopian near-future, the pervasiveness of a globally-linked digital society, transhumanism, but they’ve become embedded so deep in mainstream culture that nobody even thinks of it as Cyberpunk anymore. The passage of 15 years in just six episodes is Davies’ most audacious move.
A Tale That’s Totally Russell T. Davies
Davies’ previous shows Queer as Folk (the original – better – British version) and Doctor Who prepared us for this show. He understands the need to entertain and be fun while keeping the bitter medicine of harsh reality. At heart, Davies is an entertainer with things to say. He wears his politics on his sleeve and doesn’t care if you disagree with him. This is his story to tell and he’ll tell it as he sees fit. It’s a big-hearted and hopeful but clear-eyed – he warns that the next monster is always waiting around the corner.
Davies has said he had the final scene of the show in his head for over 25 years, and finally gets to realise it here. As frightening and uncertain as the world continues to be, there is still hope, expressed as a moment on the edge of transcendence and ascension.
He gives the family drama the ultimate Science Fiction ending.
Years and Years can be streamed in the UK via the BBC iPlayer. It begins its US broadcast run in the US on HBO on Monday.