With Years And Years, Russell T Davies has created one of the most affecting dramas of this, or any, age. Here’s why it is so vital right now and why killing off Russell Tovey’s much-loved Daniel Lyons was the right thing to do
1. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes
As the episode opens, the Lyons siblings gather for a takeaway and discussion turns to the golden days when the news used to be “boring”, how now it is something that has to be watched hiding behind your fingers. How the days of plagues and people electing pigs seem to be returning and how they – us – have had it pretty good, relatively speaking. “We were lucky for a bit, born in the Eighties,” says Stephen. “We had, like, for the first 30 years of our lives, we had a nice time. We had a really nice time. Turns out, we were born in a pause.”
As nations gather to honour the D-Day landings and those who gave their lives fighting fascism in Europe in the Forties, we are given a prescient reminder that none of what is happening now is really new, just new to us. The future shown in Years And Years may be fictional, but it throws into sharp relief the fragility of our times and how precious and rare times of peace really are. We don’t know how lucky we have been – we should not forget the lessons of the past.
2. Populism relies on mistrust
Viv Rook finally takes the grand prize and makes it all the way to Downing Street – largely, we must assume, on her charisma, plain speaking and no-nonsense promises to change politics. As far as we know, she has little in the way of firm policies, but you know, who needs that when you’ve got feelings to prey on and your own media channel? Her skill, like those of all populist parties, is to hone in on people’s basest fears and both comfort and amplify them at the same time. To do this she must undermine our trust in anyone else aside from herself.
So when she says that the ‘deep fake’ videos showing the major party leaders wanting to “arrest and execute” foreigners and “throw the rich bastards to the wolves” are undermining democracy and “obviously” fake, she comes across as magnanimous. Then, with her next breath, she uses the same propaganda to her own end, not caring whether it’s a lie or not: “All the same, they really did say those things.” Who, we have to ask ourselves, is behind these videos? Why are there none of Viv? Democracy is being undermined alright, right in front of our eyes.
3. Leaving the EU might affect our medicine
Now, while this episode’s light relief came in the form of Stephen’s looking-to-the-left side-effect, the fact that our exit from the EU has led to his lucrative 11th side-hustle of drugs testing is no laughing matter. After Donald Trump started bidding for the NHS this week (he has now rolled back on his comments, presumably because Jared Kushner explained the importance of the NHS to him over a bedtime story. “Did I do bad Jared?” “No no, Don Don, you just should have used the inside voice on that one”), we have to ensure that, whatever happens with Brexit, we have enough ties with Europe to keep our supplies open and regulated.
4. Technology won’t change us, but it will change the way we do things
So we’re all still human in the future, this much we can’t avoid. No amount of augmented reality, AI or fancy gizmos will change the fact that we will laugh, we will cry and sometimes we will do dumb shit, even though we know we shouldn’t. Take a bow Stephen Lyons. Now, affairs never end well, this much we know. Celeste is rightly angry at Stephen, she has had to put up with no money, no prospects, no home and living with her mithering gran-in-law since he lost a million quid of their money. Then to go and have an affair on top of that? It’s a dick move, mate.
But in exacting revenge, she gets on Signor and calls everyone at the same time, kids and mistress included. Don’t get us wrong, we’re shoulder to shoulder with Celeste (as is her long-term sparring partner, grandma Muriel), but the ease of instant communication in this case means that what would possibly have been a confrontation between adults initially and then sensitively dealt with for the children becomes perhaps more brutal than it should have done.
Fundamentally we can’t change our own human nature, so as the unstoppable onslaught of technology changes the world around us in ways we may never have dreamt of, we must stay mindful to the way it affects our actions.
5. The migrant ‘crisis’ must be addressed
The majority of the episode concentrated on ratcheting up the tension of Daniel and Viktor’s attempted escape from Europe. We spent the entire time muttering, “Please get them out, please get them out,” our anxiety growing as they became increasingly powerless in the face of the inhumanity of human trafficking. The agonisingly tragic death of Daniel was one of the most affecting pieces of television we have ever seen, but it was a logical conclusion.
This was drama at its bravest and angriest – Russell T Davies brought the human cost of the migrant crisis into uncomfortably sharp focus, but even with a beach strewn with bodies, without taking one of the main characters and, more importantly, one of the Lyons family, it wouldn’t have had anywhere near the same impact. We have seen the footage on the news of children’s corpses lying prone in the sand somewhere, we have become immune to it – so Davies did what he needed to do to shock us out of our apathy. The fact is that the ‘invasion’, as many would have it, is just people from families just like the Lyons’s. It’s not an armada of thieves and terrorists intent on stealing our jobs and freedom, it’s normal men, women and children trying to find somewhere where, put simply, they can live without the fear of death hanging over them, every single day.
Home has been a charged word since Brexit (Bros documentary aside). Questions about who has a right to call our tiny island home have been slung around irresponsibly and this has led to a polarisation in the discussion. There is no easy, binary answer that will make a good political statement and thankfully no dead bodies have washed up on our shores as yet. But Davies understands that the reality is much more nuanced, the voices of the remaining Lyons family clamouring at the door in the final scene represent everything the UK is feeling right now: the concern, the sadness, the anger, the anguish, the anxiety and the compassion we are all capable of.
Viktor sits inside, alone, in shock and listening to the tumult outside. Everyone hoped that both he and Daniel would return to a place they could both call home. We can only wish now that at least one of them will find it.
The next episode of Years And Years is next Tuesday, 9pm BBC One