Far too often, worryingly enough, Years and Years (BBC1) is less like a glimpse into some grotesque and terrifying near-future, as I presume its makers intended, but more like a routine evening news and weather report.
At the end of this series, we’ve staggered as far as 2031, but it feels like now. Biblical floods in Lincolnshire; Europe in flames; machines eating our jobs; hoax videos engineered by artificial intelligence software putting false words into the mouths of public figures (eerily witnessed just recently with the “deep fake” videos of Mark Zuckerberg and Donald Trump). Politics is taken over by crude populists, clowns and charlatans. Gated communities exclude the poor. Refugees are jammed into dangerous camps.
Yet that is the cleverness in Russell T Davies’s vision of the next decade – he extrapolates and pushes the plausible just far enough, and meshes it with the more sci-fi stuff. Teenagers, at long last, are able to fully meld with their smartphones – their eyes literally transformed into cameras, their thumbs into earpieces and their pinkies as microphones, with wafers in the brain as the SIM card. They’ll never lose their phone again! But the government will know what they’re thinking.
More sinister, we can also believe that a thinly-camouflaged genocidal monster such as Vivienne Rook (Emma Thompson) could exploit a broken electoral system and the nation’s discontent to sweep to power in the British general election of 2029. She does, and secretly sets about getting rid of the “underclass” – refugees, migrants, the homeless (including many thousands left homeless because of climate change, floods and coastal erosion).
Now the rumours of “the disappeared” crystallise into the reality of Rook’s “erstwhile facilities” – filthy, purposely diseased concentration camps, places where, in Rook’s chilling Darwinian phrase, “nature is allowed to take its course”. They are termed “erstwhile” because they refer to dehumanised, former, people.
In one such camp is Viktor Goraya (Maxim Baldry). He is the gay Ukrainian refugee who became the partner of Daniel Lyons (Russell Tovey), one of the extended Lyons family members, who weave together different strands of the story – their fortunes broadly declining in line with those of Britain itself.
In an earlier episode, Daniel drowns getting himself and Viktor across the English Channel. Daniel’s death divides the Lyons family. Stephen (Rory Kinnear), his brother, is a former banker who has lost his fortune, family and home.
Bewildered, he holds Viktor personally responsible for Daniel’s death. He wants revenge. Stephen manages to grub a job with an outsourcing firm running Rook’s murderous “facilities”, and surreptitiously arranges to get Viktor sent to a death camp.
However, the rest of the Lyons family are campaigning to secure Viktor’s release, led by Edith (Jessica Hynes), a radical eco-warrior only one bomb away from being an eco-terrorist.
Access unlimited streaming of movies and TV shows with Amazon Prime Video Sign up now for a 30-day free trialSign up
In a full action thriller finale, Edith and her gang storm the camp, rescue Viktor and succeed in transmitting live images of the horrors they discover inside to every television and tablet in the land – the power of the internet used for good for a change.
Rook is arrested and sentenced to 27 years. Except that this is the 2020s, and we are left with a conspiracy theory: that Rook has evaded capture using a doppelganger. In a dream-like allegorical sequence of Rook running from justice, we glimpse the face of someone who doesn’t quite look like Rook. Will she be back in a second series?
Edith certainly believes Rook has got away with it. But if Edith comes back to pursue the renegade Rook, it will be as a “transhuman”. The radiation poisoning she suffers at the beginning of the series, during a brief nuclear war between America and China, catches up with her, and she dies, corporeally speaking, shortly after liberating Viktor and indeed Britain from the high-heeled, neo-fascistic regime of Viv Rook.
We see Edith, in her final moments, in a hospital gown, having her memories downloaded onto molecules of water – but, in the words of the medical attendants, “whether consciousness survives, whether you still exist as Edith inside there, we just don’t know”.
This is genuinely tearful stuff. It also narrowly escapes being absurd. Seeing poor old Edith with what looks to be something off a Dyson stuck to the back of her head, attaching her to another great big bubbling tank of water on her way to disembodied immortality strikes me as about as silly as the Brain of Morbius in Doctor Who. Only the colossal dramatic gifts of Hynes keep her scenes of digital reincarnation remotely credible.
There are other flaws, though, that are not quite overcome, and which prevent Years and Years from attaining greatness. Worst of them is a long, crude and unnecessary anti-globalisation rant from the matriarchal Lyons granny Muriel (Ann Reid) which is so rambling and economically illiterate she sounds like Jeremy Corbyn has taken possession of her soul. Plus, by rights, she must be about 147 by now. The Lyons family is also far too large to remember who’s who. Proper northerners also tell me the cast’s Mancunian accents are more Surrey than Salford.
If there is a second series, taking us through the 2030s, it’s not a great idea to have Edith back, barking orders from a fish tank, battling Emma Thompson’s maniacal dictator/avatar. As we get further from reality and 2019, it’s all going a bit Whovian: They might need a Tardis, K9 and a sonic screwdriver to make it work.
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies