Threads for the Digital Age: YEARS AND YEARS

There is no doubt in my mind that Years and Years would have been a catastrophic horror show of a television series had it not been written by Russell T. Davies.

This six-part one-shot series shows just how unique Davies is to the landscape of television, particularly British television. It is, completely, an ‘RTD’ show. It is histrionic and human and warm and silly and dark and messy and filled with characters who are both people you know or have met or exist in your family, yet at the same time only exist in the stylistic world of RTD’s fiction. Years and Years feels like a culmination of Davies’ journey as a writer so far. It has the pain and anguish of homosexual love (Cucumber, Queer as Folk) against a backdrop of repression and fear. It has a global and expansive reach, covering a multitude of social and philosophical points (The Second Coming). It rushes head-long into near science-fiction and almost madcap plots against government villains caricatured at times to the point of hilarity (Doctor Who). It throws a hundred ideas into the pot and while not all of them stick, a remarkable amount do.

The reason Years and Years works, ultimately, is that it is full of hope and humanity at the core of what is otherwise a terrifying existential drama – a Threads for the digital age. Threads was a groundbreaking BBC film produced in 1984, in the dying embers of the Cold War (and pointedly before the Chernobyl accident, so brilliantly dramatised recently for HBO & Sky by Craig Mazin), all about the effects of a nuclear apocalypse on British soil. Though I was just a wild eyed, innocent, unaware two year old at the time, Threads very much stayed with audiences who watched it for a long time, even into the present day; a striking argument for why nuclear weapons should never be used on a civilian population. It was a drama about consequences. Years and Years is the same. I thought at first it was a show about the death of democracy and the erosion of a system we have perpetuated for the last century but, in truth, RTD is writing about the death of *humanity* in various forms, literal, psychological and allegorical. He is writing about a Western society that is losing, and has very much partly lost, its way.

His hope lies in the central family who ground the entire story, around whom the world begins falling apart. The Lyons family are RTD’s hope, his hope in us.

Years and Years immediately marks itself out as polemic. We can’t shy away from that reality.

This is soapbox television – Russell T. Davies standing on a platform and disseminating a liberal-minded address on the state of the nation through drama. The BBC’s news coverage might be leaning more and more to the right these days but the fact they’ve aired such a left-minded piece of work on prime time television proves they’re not completely lost as an entity to partisanship just yet. The very first scene touches on the heavy criticism aimed at flagship political debate show Question Time for repeatedly utilising Nigel Farage—leader of the Brexit Party and a decidedly right-wing political mouthpiece—in how it introduces Farage-analogue Vivienne Rook – openly voicing to the nation her opinion when asked about the problems in the Gaza Strip as: “I don’t give a f*ck”.

Though the gravitational pull of Years and Years revolves around how the Lyons family evolve and change through a fifteen year period of intense political and social turmoil, Viv Rook is RTD’s most standout creation. He has used the name before, interestingly; in Doctor Who’s penultimate episode of Season 3, The Sound of Drums, Nichola McAuliffe plays a similarly attired, similarly garish tabloid hack called Vivienne Rook who is mercilessly cut to pieces by the Master’s sinister Toclafane alien drones – this is in Downing Street, incidentally, where the Master ends up in his disguise as John Saxon, Prime Minister of the UK. The first incarnation of Viv Rook is destroyed by corrupt, insidious political power while the second epitomises it, even while there are strong hints (even right down to her surname) that she is little more than a pawn of shadowy, unseen paymasters. Either way, Viv Rook’s transformation from straight talking, earthy, Northern free speech advocate to political party leader to a Prime Minister who puts asylum seekers into concentration camps is not nearly as far fetched as it sounds, particularly thanks to Emma Thompson’s beguilingly nuanced performance. Rook cuts through the narrative a la the Joker in The Dark Knight; a destructive, charismatic force on the edge of the narrative who deconstructs the fabric of British society, largely through the medium of technology.

It is less the question of what RTD wants to say with Years and Years as opposed to what he *doesn’t* say. Under less of a skilled writer the whole piece would have collapsed under the weight of themes and ideas and possibilities he throws into the pot here. Years and Years should become suffocated by it all but instead episode by episode, week by week, it just piles on the dread and anxiety and the decisive feeling we are racing toward an apocalypse of our own making.

Though the texture is far more in line with traditional British drama, in this sense it places Years and Years in line with not just a show like Threads, but also Chris Carter’s short-lived, cult series Millennium which aired from 1996-1999 and while ostensibly about a criminal profiler hunting serial killers (at first), absolutely captured a pre-millennial anxiety at the end of the 1990’s about the social and moral decay of society and how we may be the arbiters of our own doom unless we take steps to combat the darker excesses of our nature. If Millennium were to be revived today (and there is constant hope within its fandom that it could be), it could well resemble Years and Years in many respects. It would probably lean deeper into symbolism and allegory than Years and Years, admittedly – though RTD does mostly stop short of tethering his polemic as directly to real life figures and organisations as say, how, The Good Fight regularly frames challenges to the legal constitution of the US as open rebukes to the Trump administration.

Years and Years has far more of Davies’ penchant for the theatrical he deployed heavily in Doctor Who, where he spliced universe-shattering stakes with council estate drama. That was his first run at depicting dystopian environments – whether the Master’s post-apocalyptic Britain in Last of the Time Lords or the alien-influenced alternate future of Turn Left (which feels in retrospect like a dry run for Years and Years). That universe has a Doctor to save us all, thankfully, but Years and Years has no such magic alien Christ-figure. Perhaps the closest is Daniel Lyons (RTD regular Russell Tovey), a disaffected council worker who goes on a continent spanning quest to free his asylum seeking Ukrainian lover Viktor Goraya (Maxim Baldry), and dies for it (RTD breaking more dramatic rules there by killing off the closest thing to a protagonist in the fourth of six episodes), but even Daniel cheats on his husband early on and secretly, partly undertakes this quest thanks to a restless boredom in his own life. He becomes a quiet hero but he wasn’t perfect. Perhaps we should all listen to matriarch Muriel (the ever brilliant Anne Reid), the century-old heart and soul of the Lyons family, who in the final episode delivers a speech which underlines everything Davies has been trying to say across the series.

Ultimately, Years and Years resembles Black Mirror more than Doctor Who, even if it lacks the acerbic wit and subtlety of Charlie Brooker’s Twilight Zone for the digital age. RTD believes we are the heroes and villains of our own story, a story now been exacerbated by technology. While politics and social change dominates, particularly the brutal repression of asylum seekers and immigrants and a rising tide of xenophobia and homophobia (Britain ends up more like Russia under Rook’s Premiership, which is perhaps a coded explanation of where her paymasters came from…), a strong vein of dual anxiety and hope in a technological revolution pulses through Years and Years.

Muriel’s macular degeneration aka blindness is fully cured, likely the key that extends her life beyond a century. The Lyons’ teenage daughter Bethany (Lydia West) wants to become ‘transhuman’ at the beginning of the series, upload her consciousness to a digital form, and her parents do the natural thing and treat her wish like a mental illness or a form of self-harm, but in the end she is cyber-upgraded (into a handy plot device more than anything) and validated. She wasn’t hoping to fling herself headlong into a void of data, sacrifice her life to technology, but instead Davies leaves us with an open question – what if she’s right? What if the ‘better place’ waiting for us isn’t some shiny afterlife where we are judged based on our moral code in life but rather a digital immorality, an eternity living as binary and experiencing the fate of humanity inside the nexus of a broader digital consciousness? RTD hints strongly that he believes trans humanism might well be what saves us from ourselves.

It also partially validates the weakest character in the Lyons’ clan, Edith (Jessica Hynes, another RTD regular). She spends most of the series dying after being exposed to heavy radiation near Hong Cha, a Chinese island bombed by a nuclear weapon at the end of Donald Trump’s second term in 2024 (in one of the few express points Years and Years *does* actively reference the current US President), but RTD treats her much like a ‘Mary Sue’ in fiction – Edith can do anything. Social justice campaigner? Check. Supportive sister and friend? Check. Capable of becoming a super spy infiltrating a government building with the help of her cyber-tech niece? Sure, why not?

By having Edith, at the end of her life, give her physical form up to the unknown possibility of digital consciousness (and RTD is at pains to point out nobody knows if this would work), it gives her story arc deeper meaning. She isn’t just a device to firstly point out the continued, post-Cold War anxiety about the modern use of nuclear warfare (Years and Years touching briefly on Threads territory without lingering for a long time), or a vehicle to display working class British resistance against an increasingly fascist, repressive regime, but she is designed to underscore RTD’s hope that our humanity may not be completely lost. By surrendering ourselves to technology, we may become something new, maybe even something better – even if Edith enters the void with a burning desire to track down Viv Rook (supposedly, as conspiracy theorists believe, spirited away from her fate, Hitler-style) in the digital afterlife, which does allow for some delightfully nightmarish and avant-garde moments of Emma Thompson running down a never-ending corridor, stalked by Edith’s digital avenger.

As it stands, as mere flesh and blood humans, by the end of the fifteen years covered by Years and Years, we’ve done a pretty terrible job in continuing the promise contained in the post-WW2 boom years. The ‘death’ of humanity, both from a moral and social sense and when it comes to technological innovation, directly leads to the physical and political consequences that swirl around the Lyons family. RTD reminds us that concentration camps, pre-Nazism, were used by the British Empire in Africa. Banks collapse. Hallowed organisations such as the BBC are revoked. Climate change worsens (at one point Britain has 80 days of continuous rain). The chance of new, mutated plagues hover on the horizon. RTD’s shows is a consistent, relentless warning about what we are ignoring and pretending doesn’t exist, allowing demagogues to shape the narrative and stoke division.

“What is the cost of lies?” asks Jared Harris’ Dr. Legasov in Chernobyl, a series filled deeply with anxiety about today despite depicting a historical moment from yesterday, and lies, false truths and stories shape Years and Years. Viv Rook is brought down by the story of her death camps, a story people have to see with their own eyes to believe – and RTD even calls that into question with the idea of ‘deep fake’ avatars of politicians who underground cyber hackers broadcast saying terrible things, with many believing them as said by flesh and blood people. These are terrifying ideas all mixed up in the heady rush that is Years and Years, but it all comes down to this: *we* can change our fate. This doesn’t have to be *our* future, even if it so easily could be, which is what makes RTD’s series so terrifying. Towards the end, Edith backs up Muriel’s comment that the next ‘monster’ could loom in the darkness beyond Rook as we see a buffoonish young male politician on a panel show with a rotating bow tie laughing with glee. Beware the clown in sheep’s clothing, essentially. With Boris Johnson likely to be Britain’s next Prime Minister, this observation couldn’t be more timely or apt.

Time will bear Years and Years out in many ways. Will we look back on it as prescient or hysterical? Who knows? What we won’t likely do is forget about it and, in that fact alone, Russell T. Davies can be happy for a job well done.

Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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