Perhaps the easiest way to sum up the arc Years and Years depicted from its first episode to its sixth is “The News meets Interstellar”. A big, bloated, broad and heavily-preachy ‘What If?’ drama from the flair-familiar hand of former Doctor Who showrunner Russell T Davies, Y&Y proposes a near-future in which the worst case scenarios for Trump’s presidency and Britain exiting the EU come to pass, initiating a dystopia-fascist Britain with concentration camps for refugees, a US/Chinese nuclear war and an obnoxious ITV personality as prime minister. On the eve of Boris Johnson’s coronation as British PM, it’s a little too real to be fun.
But Davies has his fun anyway, introducing elements of literal sci-fi (computers installed in people’s brains) via a complicated Episode 1 gag where Rory Kinnear and T’Nia Miller have to accept their daughter coming out as trans… TransHUMAN that is! Davies is a veteran of queer television and he bakes these elements heavily into the series; Russell Tovey’s character leaves his husband for a handsome Ukrainian refugee and spends years trying to bring the man back to Britain following his deportation. Their romance sparks a chain of events that lead to Kinnear working for the concentration camp company. All under the watchful, making-a-very-brief-cameo-every-week eye of the terrifying Emma Thompson. Between scenes of family melodrama, every episode slams in one or two high-speed hysterical montages of pseudo news footage accompanied by unsettling amped-up choral vocals. It’s a formula that becomes painful very quickly, but it’s undoubtedly effective in maintaining an entertaining and impactful canvas of impending sociopolitical horrors.
Stripping away the political prognostication, the setting and aesthetic of Years and Years is a little Eastenders, a little Ken Loach and entirely aided by Davies’s more imaginative inflections. As Kinnear’s character drives to work in ‘the present day’, he hears a news report about the death of Doris Day (headline news on the episode’s airdate 6 weeks ago). It’s cheap, it’s a bit obvious, but it sets the tone for a show that flirts with fact as much as it does with intensely silly fantasy. In the later episodes, we see the inauguration of President Pence (cop-out), the removal of same-sex marriage and abortion rights and — of course — Britain’s escalating love affair with Vivienne Rook MP and her ultra-populist Four Star Party.
Thompson’s depiction of the cartoonishly-awful Rook is a sort of Katie Hopkins spin on her character in the currently on-release Late Night. Ruth Madeley’s character Rosie starts off cynical, becomes starstruck, starts offhandedly announcing “I’d probably vote for her” and watches as fascism takes control. More than a study of right-wing action, Years and Years is a warning flare as to the effects of ordinary people simply doing nothing, The middle class family at the centre of the show (apart from Jessica Hynes’s eco-activist) just watch passing events on their TVs until it’s too late. The camera slips into the polling station on General Election day as the last people you would expect secretly give Rook their vote. And mere weeks later Tovey is drowning in a dingy with a dozen other refugees. It’s a wake-up call for self-involved white BBC viewers: this could happen to you. It probably won’t. It shouldn’t have to in order for you to care. But it could.
In the final episode, which aired last night, Davies leans too hard into his sensational Saturday night roots and the drama descends into Roland Emmerich disaster thriller mixed with the twin 2014 movies Transcendence and Lucy: one of the kids uses her computer brain to help bring down the concentration camp’s signal blocker and that aforementioned choral vocal goes absolutely bananas on the score. But there is, in an extended monologue by Anne Reid as the family’s seemingly-immortal great-grandmother, some fabulous points about apathy and political stupidity. “Don’t fall for the tricksters, the clowns” she says, as the episode ends and BBC News At Ten announces Boris Johnson has once again won a round of Tory leadership voting. Fuck.