Christmas time is a handy time for catching up on books and series I had intended to watch earlier in the year. Luckily for me the BBC/HBO miniseries Years and Years was streaming in full on the Australian broadcaster SBS.
Written by Russell T Davis famed for his groundbreaking series Queer as Folk and as showrunner for the revival of Doctor Who, the six episode mini-series combines many familiar aspects of his earlier work into an unusual format.
Following the extended Lyons family from 2019 to 2029, the show extrapolates (often wildly) the current state of the world into the next decade. Using the lives and fortunes of a Manchester family as the lens to watch social, technological and political change, Davis taps into multiple themes including LGBTQI issues, immigration, transhumanism and political populism.
Beyond the Lyons there is only one other recurring character who isn’t a friend or partner. Emma Thompson sports a northern accent as the frankly spoken Vivienne Rook: initially as a business woman who shoots to fame for swearing on telly but then as an increasingly Trumpian would-be political saviour of Britain, as all around the world gets more alarming and unstable.
Fans of the Davis years of Doctor Who will recognise many of the themes he explored in the David Tennant years. The rise of Harold Saxon as Prime Minister has echoes in how Davis shows political change impacting a family (but this time with more mundane causes that the machinations of The Master). However, the more obvious comparison is with the alternate-destiny dystopia of the Donna Noble centred episode Turn Left, where the obliteration of London leads the UK to slide into a world of labour camps and mass murder (only hinted at).
In Years and Years, Davis depicts that same concept of Britain sliding almost genteelly into a society of death camps over the course of a decade. A nuclear attack on China, precipitates a financial crisis, authoritarianism (and LGBTQI persecution) in Eastern Europe precipitates a new wave of asylum seekers, changes in the weather lead to mass flooding, power cuts (possibly manipulated by hackers) lead to further economic disruption and finally a flu epidemic creates further chaos.
This is very much political science fiction with the politics underlined and in bold but told through the complexities of a large family: two brothers and two sisters, their grandmother, spouses, children and lovers. The impacts of social change are always grounded in the personal experiences of people trying to live their lives.
There are subtle shifts of focus over time also. Initially, Daniel Lyons (Russell Tovey) has the strongest plot line, with his role as a housing officer leading him into a deep relationship with Viktor Goraya — an asylum seeker who has escaped persecution of gay men in Ukraine. The eldest sister, Edith, only appears in video calls in the first episode, as she is a globe trotting political activist until a dramatic event brings her home. Bethany (the daughter of Stephen Lyons and his wife Celeste) we first meet as a withdrawn teenager, who hides behind technology and aspires to download her consciousness into a computer. Bethany’s journey as a character is the one I found most interesting and also the one, that despite it’s trauma had the most optimism.
It is not easy viewing, particular as we stare into the beginning of the 2020’s. The final episode takes an uncharacteristically optimistic turn towards the end (implausibly at times I felt) but even with that, it isn’t a show to watch if you need a distraction from your fears for the future.
Combining slice-of-life family drama and science fiction is not something we often see on television. Years and Years isn’t always successful at mixing the two genres but by resting the show on personal experiences played out by a strong cast, the combination works.