Spoilers for ‘Years And Years’ obviously, along with ‘Doctor Who’, ‘Cold Comfort Farm’, ‘Slaughterhouse Five’, ‘Orlando’, ‘Black Mirror’ and works by the author of ‘Last And First Men’.
Over the last six weeks, we’ve been, well I hesitate to say “treated” because it’s a bit of a scary ordeal to be honest, to Russell T Davies’s excellent latest tale of the adjacent future, ‘Years And Years’. If you haven’t seen it already, go and watch it!
The series manages to pull off one of the most difficult feats in science fiction of extrapolating from the exact present day, pursuing a narrative right from that point into the future, in this case across the whole of the next decade and into the 2030s. If you’re unfamiliar with science fiction this may not sound like such a big deal, but right now I can only think of two other examples of this being done: Virginia Woolf’s ‘Orlando’, which sallies briefly into the future in the last chapter and ‘Last And First Men’ and other works by the same author which start in the recent past. ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ arguably does this although many reader would say that no real events occur after the “present day”, and ‘Cold Comfort Farm’, for example, is a few years after the time of writing from the start, which is quite common. The first episode of ‘Years And Years’ cleverly includes a topical insert of the 5:30 am Radio 4 news briefing from the very day of broadcast. We are not allowed to imagine this happens in some indefinite “near future”. It proceeds directly from “now”, because of the theme of the viewer’s personal culpability from the world we’re making. It’s not really possible to avoid comparisons with early New Who, in this case the slight dislocation with the present which puts “contemporary” adventures exactly a year in the future after the Doctor accidentally returns Rose a year after the moment of departure in ‘Aliens Of London’. Unlike Doctor Who though, Davies has free rein to construct his own vividly domestic and quotidian plot and setting, as is his wont.
There is a slight air of Alan Bennett World in much of Davies’s writing, and this is true to some extent here. That is, there are more members of gender and sexual minorities than one might expect. He accepts the continuity between gender incongruence and transhumanism by including Bethany, an otherkin character with dysphoria for baseline humanity, there’s a monogamous gay relationship, another lesbian relationship and also a gender non-conformist protagonist who has at least socially transitioned by the end of the series, but I’m not going to dwell on those because this isn’t Transwaffle. Having said that, I did feel that the hints at cyberfeminism were well-put, and the comment on racism via transhumanism was also welcome. And in the end, you have to write about what you know.
But there’s way more to it than that and it’s not shoehorned in. The depiction of epilepsy was also strikingly authentic and comes up at least twice, with the accurate neurodiverse phenomenology of the will when Stephen Lyons feels the constant urge to look to the left, which I personally also saw as a reference to the Doctor Who episodes ‘Turn Left’ and ‘Blink’, a word also used to refer to the signal-jamming radio towers in the concentration camps.
But the overriding discomfort one feels on watching is primarily down to the statements that it’s all our fault, and that nobody is safe. A white male housing officer ends up drowning in an effort to save his Ukrainian partner from persecution for being gay in and being deported from Spain by a “far left” government as a foreigner, which is a reference to the “horseshoe theory” that left and right turn into each other at the extremes, which works better if you ignore the libertarian-authoritarian axis. We are made to care about the drowning of refugees in the Channel because one of the people who died, corpse number 15 washed up on Hythe Beach, is “one of us”, a male WASP, and the goings-on in Calais which plonk his partner and him into that predicament are also utterly convincing.
We can assume that Muriel is right about things a lot of the time, though also sometimes having old-fashioned and dodgy attitudes. For instance, when Trump is re-elected, she says “you get the President you deserve”, the implication being that if the general public doesn’t pay attention to politics and finds them generally tiresome and needing to be fixed without delving into the complications, they will end up electing people who are not only jokers, like Waldo in ‘Black Mirror’, but also like Waldo, good at putting an entertaining and distracting façade on atrocities and making them seem less serious than they really are. This is of course also what the Prime Minister Vivienne Rook is – she is to some extent the British Donald Trump. As a retiree with adult children, Muriel is to some extent free from personal involvement in the compromising situations the others become embroiled in, and with her uncluttered perspective, where she doesn’t need to rationalise her behaviour, she’s able to blame everyone personally for the kind of society they inhabit. Our wilful ignorance of sweatshops and reluctance to engage face to face with fellow human beings instead of machines lays us all open to sinister machinations behind the scenes which we might secretly want to happen anyway. It’s like the shy Tory phenomenon or the tendency for apparently liberal but wealthy parents to send their children to independent schools rather than the local comp. To quote John Cleese’s headmaster from the 1985 film ‘Clockwise’:
The Headmaster’s Conference is the organisation to which all the great independent schools of this country belong, places like Eton and Harrow, Winchester and Westminster. The fee-paying schools. The ‘posh’ schools that we all look down our noses at, and that we’d all send our children to if only we’d got the money.
Bethany’s parents also wonder if they’re responsible for her transhumanism by “surrounding her with screens since the day she was born”.
The first thing we see in ‘Years And Years’ is Viv Rook’s ingratiating herself with the general public by validating the shrinkage of their horizons. She claims just to want the bins emptying and is concerned about her local school, but not about what’s happening in Syria, which she can’t even locate on a map, and doesn’t care about the electricity restrictions in the Gaza Strip. When she uses a four-letter word to describe her attitude, it’s quickly adopted as the name of her political party in censored form: the “Four Star Party”. It’s interesting that the very name of the party, whose policies and manifesto are non-existent as far as the electorate are concerned, is itself censored, and it also reflects the attitude of not giving a monkey’s about the wider world.
All politics is of course local. Some of it may consist of “a quarrel in a far away country of which we know nothing”, to quote Neville Chamberlain on the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, but of course that’s local to them and it only doesn’t matter if we consider them subhuman. And staring into screens all day at the World Wide Web paradoxically does a good job of shrinking horizons.
Daniel’s earlier partner Ralph literally reveals the shrinkage of horizons through his claim that Earth is flat, an unsupportable belief later echoed by Stephen’s boss Woody who doesn’t believe the nuclear weapon which limited Stephen’s sister Edith’s life was ever detonated, and possibly even that the island she was on didn’t exist either. This mindset also allows Woody to manage the concentration camps – “erstwhiles” – where Stephen ultimately places Viktor, Daniel’s partner, as misplaced revenge.
Stephen’s, and in fact the rest of the Lyons family’s, treatment of Viktor after Daniel’s death seems to be about them trying to find someone to blame for their loss. All of them seem to have some insight into this, but Stephen chooses to act out further. For the rest of them, it’s a fleeting reaction during the earliest stage of their bereavement, but they still blame the Other. For Stephen, in something I may be missing, he doesn’t get beyond that, perhaps because of his closeness to his brother, and it makes him do terrible things. He is also concerned about Bethany’s indentiture to the government, as her integration into the internet is funded by the government, the NHS now seeming to exist in name only, and is aware of the way options are closed off to them by their poverty – he’s a former millionaire whose money was lost when the banks collapsed. In fact there’s a degree of Schadenfreude in seeing Stephen’s steady fall from grace and increasing misfortune which almost leads him to kill himself, but I also wonder if we are being encouraged to view him in that way in order to stress how easily we can cast people as evil when they’re always more complex. Even so, given his infidelity and complicity with genocide, any sympathy I feel can only extend so far.
There is a gradual creep of threat from the other side of the planet towards Manchester. Early in the first episode, Edith is fighting the imprisonment of children in Indonesia, where undocumented juveniles have their ages estimated by X-raying their wrists and are deemed to be sixteen years old and jailed as illegal immigrants, which although I don’t know, I suspect is true. Then there’s the nuclear blast in China and refugees from the Ukraine. Then, in the fifth episode there are dirty bombs in Bristol and Leeds (interestingly the Leeds bomb can be pinpointed to St George Hotel at 29, Great George Street, although it isn’t mentioned), so Edith’s irradiation is now happening in England. Britain is not in fact insulated from the troubles of the rest of the world at all.
The Four Star Party seems to have no stated aims or policies, but relies on sound bites and rousing speeches to encourage popular support, as is seen with Viv Rook’s victory speech. This parallels both the Brexit Party’s shadowy nature and of course the euphemistic approach taken by the Nazis to the Holocaust. Speaking of which, in a rather preachy moment, Viv reveals that the concentration camps, which are not called that because of the bad publicity although she perhaps correctly judges that the public would be fine with them, were a British invention, during the Boer Wars. On a personal note, the Boer Wars were the first living memory I’m aware of in my own family since one of my grandmothers can remember them, but Rook probably correctly claims that nobody remembers the concentration camps. She also points out that they’re places where people are left to die rather than be actively exterminated, which parallels the current benefit sanctions policy and in fact somewhat reduced my belief in the world shown. I think nowadays that although they were put out to tender, nowadays concentration camps are kind of a “big government” solution to an issue which can be more easily addressed by getting people to internalise their oppression and die quietly when you let them starve. This last is alluded to with the closure of food banks.
There are also ghettos.
Because I’m short of time, I’m going to have to skip a bit. There is a happy ending with the overthrow of the government and the apparent arrest and imprisonment of the Prime Minister, but the end is a bit rushed and suffers from the problem Davies so often has that he finds it difficult to wrap things up as opposed to his great talent in building tension. There are certain questions. One is how people are able to have secret conversations on mobile phones in a totalitarian state, and another is that Bethany’s ownership by the government was not fully explored. All in all though, it was an excellent series and also self-contained and brief in a way not enough television is nowadays. And the “message” of course is that in order for evil to triumph it’s only necessary for good people to do nothing.