Years and Years: An Inquiry into the Human Prospect

Russell T Davies picks up on important themes in his latest BBC drama, writes Escee.

The cast of Years and Years. Image taken from the show’s official website

It’s rather trite to just come out and say it, but hope is important. A mindset entirely without hope of something good to come, no matter how woolly or distant or impossible it might be, becomes wretched, selfish and vicious. For most of its run Years and Years is an excellent vision of what that mindset does to people.

Years and Years follows the lifepaths of the Lyons family, a not particularly special middle class family centred around Manchester, as great societal changes swamp whatever concept of life they had had and throws them into deeper, darker waters than they had ever thought about.

The common reaction by the central characters (which are the Lyons siblings; the grandmother and children of the siblings are used more as side characters to introduce minor plot points or add background colour to the setting) is despondency – there are multiple soliloquies in the earlier episodes which have the characters begging for all this politics to stop happening.

In their defence on asking for that, right from the start nothing good is happening to them or the world – a nuclear strike on a Chinese artificial island in the South China Sea irradiates Edith Lyons, a vaguely defined activist who was in the area to protest the rising tensions between China and the USA, a bank collapse costs Stephen and Celeste the proceeds from selling their home in London forcing a relocation back up to Manchester for their part of the family, and Danny’s boyfriend Viktor arrives as a Ukrainian refugee fearing persecution at home following a far right conquest of the country but is swiftly deported back there by the Home Office.

For the first four episodes Years and Years is a character drama where the drama is driven by these massive events – they’re typically introduced by news reports as they take place without build-up or explanation so they become lightning from the sky, divine curses striking the land, rather than attempting to build a coherent perspective of things. This too is fair enough, the focus is on the Lyons, not the geopolitics, and so the Lyons are not so engaged with politics to expect or prepare for these things to happen. They increasingly live in a constant state of reaction as the march of history ruins their lives and the tragedy comes forth as the pressure the individuals come under becomes too much.

Effigies in the streets. Image taken from the show

Unfortunately, pretty much unanimously the Lyons react either passively to these events or in ways which make things worse for themselves and around the third episode I did become increasingly unsympathetic. Edith, struggling to confront her inevitable shortened lifespan, publically supports Vivian Rook, a deeply xenophobic anti-establishment politician rising at the head of her own party, on the basis of ‘tear it all down’. Her sister Rosie follows suit (that said there is a general election scene where we see how everyone votes with interesting reflections on their inner and outer voices). On a more personal, but still destructive level, Danny and Stephen both end up cheating on their married partners more or less as a result of existential stress, Danny at the climax of the first episode under the fear of impending nuclear annihilation, Stephen after having to take multiple poorly paid jobs to try and provide for his family. While the structural narrative of Years and Years wouldn’t allow them to act differently it did become frustrating to watch these characters do such things so matter-of-factly – there was little to no tension behind these decisions because the characters were not conflicted. Occasionally they would feel guilt for what they were doing but, without an outlet to express hope into, they pretty much continued acting in the same way. The peak of this was after the Lyons learnt of the death of their estranged father following an accident with a bike delivery courier. They attend his funeral and, after leaving in a car, proceed to follow and destroy a completely random bike courier’s bicycle. It was a pointless act lashing out at the world and harming the innocent in the process, a summary expression of how the Lyons felt and what they felt they could do.

Had this continued, Years and Years would have been a good tragedy, Romeo and Juliet after the death of Mercutio, a reflection of what can happen when the future only seems dark, all the structures and safeguards of society have broken down and in the end everyone faces the world and their mortality alone.

However, that isn’t Russell T Davies’ style.

Well known as one of the writers of the early rebooted Doctor Who, he’s much more at home with heroic individuals saving the day in the dying seconds after the tide of history and unstoppable alien forces smashes everything else apart. And that is repeated in Years and Years. The Lyons siblings eventually start to snap out of their funk and acknowledge that the world they grew up with, the ‘End of History’ proposed by some following the collapse of the USSR, being only a bubble, and the world they live in now is actually the normal state of things. However this energised state, the acknowledgement of reality and their reactions to it is still very much within the tragic realm.

So who is the hero coming in to save the day? Bethany Bisme-Lyons, the child of Stephen Lyons. From the first episode Bethany is the only character to demand radical change to improve her life through the idea of transhumanism. She pursues this change throughout, despite it not existing at the start of the show, despite being met with no support apart from other transhumanists and despite a short sequence of the serious consequences of failing to integrate human and machine. Nevertheless she continues on her quest for self-realisation and in the end is accepted into a government program where she gains an unreal level of integration with electronics and the internet by being heavily integrated with implanted technology. It is this which allows her to assist Edith in her investigations into concentration camps but also remotely witnesses her father transferring Viktor into one.

The finale kicks off with a monologue from the grandmother explicitly berating her family (and by extension the audience) for just letting things getting this bad through apathy and myopic self-interest, which then inspires most of the Lyons into rebellion. Edith, Bethany, Bethany’s mother Celeste and a small supporting crew organise to expose the concentration camps to the public using the techno-magic powers of Bethany and a group of transhumanists to propagate the images of the camps everywhere. On the same evening, Rosie breaks through a security fence which had been placed around her community as it was designated a ghetto of undesirables by the government while the neighbours cheer and act in support, against the guards. These (and other independent acts of resistance) lead to the collapse of Vivian Rook’s government and her arrest.

Unfortunately it’s this call to arms and the rushed groundwork to support it which reveals the weaknesses of the plot. After several episodes of the Lyons being pushed and pulled this way and that by things much bigger than them they are then suddenly handed exactly the tools and connections needed to resolve the threat in the massively simplified manner presented at the end.  The UK voted in an openly bigoted government which then set up concentration camps but, alerting the public and police to this happening is enough to cause the collapse of that same government and criminal charges? Sadly it just doesn’t follow except for the needs of the plot for a tight conclusion.  Without a structured opposition or clear alternative aiming to do something, the plot can only be resolved by these individual acts of resistance causing enough upset that ‘normality’ reasserts itself (an explicit reference to horseshoe theory, where the far left and far right eventually reach the same point, highlights the ideological limitations of the writing). By implication, this basically undoes the lessons that the Lyons had learned about what needs to happen to live in the modern world, to acknowledge change and pro-actively steer it. The ending kind of shows this where everyone is gathered together to witness the potential transference of Edith’s consciousness into a water-based electronic system while Bethany looks on happily. Edith recounts that she eventually forgave Stephen, but there’s no mention of how Stephen and Viktor resolved things, despite one sending the other potentially to their death. Yet they’re calmly in the same room together at the end and surely that’s a bit more important to explain? Far too often things which would be absolutely major changes to how we live (massive increased prevalence of antibiotic resistant infections, increased audio surveillance from the actual structure of domestic homes, etc) or extremely interesting social points (what would the impact be of actually integrating your body with government property?) are casually mentioned but have no impact other than as a way of saying, ‘Oh yes we’re in the future now aren’t we?’.

The portrayal of political power. Image taken from the show

The scale of Years and Years was too huge and the politics too shallow. In an unguarded moment Vivian Rook says she couldn’t just quit being Prime Minister because ‘they’ would have her killed – this is left unremarked upon and undeveloped despite being a hugely conspiratorial angle to everything that’s happened in the show. The series failed to really grapple with the issues it raised, which was excusable in a character drama but a glaring flaw in its politicised finale.

While the ending deserves a lot of criticism for its structure and resolution the ultimate point of the tragedy of hopelessness is strong, and the linking of dreaming and working towards achieving the impossible as a strength for someone to have, is a good moral to take away. Watching the first part I really did feel connected to the grimness that many people probably do feel about things today and while I don’t agree with the solutions proposed in Years and Years to fix that, it was a major BBC production telling everyone to actually get out and do something to help the oppressed. From that perspective I would encourage more people to watch and to think about the issues contained within Years and Years, and I hope you will as well.

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