Years and Years earns its place at the top tier of Russell T Davies dramas with a compelling, scarring story of desperation and fear
With its fourth episode, Years and Years focuses more than ever on the ground level consequences of a changing world. It’s also the instalment of Russell T Davies’ latest drama that feels most contemporary. There are a couple of references to things like new passport technology, admittedly. Including the not-at-all-disturbing prospect of DNA tests where you breathe on a scanner as you cross a border. But the issues the former Doctor Who showrunner deals with could have happened yesterday, today, or tomorrow.
Some of the details may be projections into the future, such Spain falling to an authoritarian regime, Ukraine moving to outright ban homosexuality. But the backbone of this episode is the struggle to smuggle Viktor (Maxim Baldry) into the UK to claim asylum. And it’s a scenario that plays out every day around the world in the here and now. The fear and desperation are palpable throughout. It paints a convincing picture of how and why people go to such dangerous lengths.
Moreover, Davies accomplished it with style. It begins as an oh-so-simple plan to simply stuff Viktor in the baggage section of a bus. But soon it becomes a much shadier and complicated affair of buying dodgy passports from even dodgier people. And it only gets worse for Daniel (Russell Tovey – Voyage of the Damned) and Viktor from there as it turns out, shockingly, that people traffickers are not terribly trustworthy people.
The Lyons’ off-hand attitude of slight concern to both Viktor’s plight and national politics is one of the episodes most potent and subtle condemnations
Running in parallel to this are the other Lyons’ responses to Daniel’s plans. For them, it’s not so much a rollercoaster as a pleasant boat ride that suddenly descends into Hell. Edith (Jessica Hynes – Human Nature) and Rosie (Ruth Madeley), true to form, roll their eyes and mock Daniel’s love for Viktor whenever he turns his back. Others, like Stephen (Rory Kinnear), simply nod along with their approval but don’t concern themselves too much with it. Even their occasional check-in by phones are purely distracted ‘huh huh, yeah yeah’ stuff. By episode’s end, they’re panicked and banging on Daniel’s door, yelling and demanding answers. It’s as beautiful a sketch as you’ll ever find of the dynamic between the hardship people in need of asylum go though, and the casual ‘hmm mmm, that’s… yeah, that’s a bit sad, isn’t it?’ the attitude of the general public until a tragedy impossible to ignore strikes.
By contrast, the collapse of the minority government and the resulting general election is placed firmly in the backseat. And, again, it’s a perfect drawn indictment of a public suffering from politics fatigue. The Lyons, once so vocal and outraged about their different political opinions, barely notice or care that there’s an election going on. When Viv Rooks (Emma Thompson) is swept to power, it’s announced by a television in the background. And our characters are barely paying attention to it.
Davies once more hits a cynical bullseye on human nature
Rooks’ campaign does also give us our other brief glimpse of futurism this episode. And, like all the best such forecasts, it ties it all into fundamental human nature in a depressingly plausible way. Someone has been circulating deep-fake videos of all the party leaders but Rook saying horrible things. And everybody knows that they’re fake. Because just as the technology to entirely convincingly fake a real person in digital form has advanced, so has the technology to spot it and flag it.
And yet… It’s precisely that feeling of ‘and yet…‘ that twists around the public imagination like a snake. They know that it’s fake, but they can’t let go of the image. Even Rook admits that they’re false on her own propaganda TV channel (which she’s apparently kept going even as an MP) but suggests that they’re just illustrations of what everybody ‘knows’ these politicians are saying in private. It’s insidious. It’s cynical. And it works.
With the first four episodes so far taking us from 2019 to 2027, is there a significant time jump coming next week?
It’s all the more compelling because deep fakes are real and among us already. It’s just that nobody has weaponised it politically yet. In fact, in certain circles, a lot of the discussion is understandably about the future possibilities of deep faking William Hartnell in Macro Polo or Patrick Troughton in The Highlanders. But, as it advances, the real threat might be to the reputations of private individuals, as disgruntled ex-lovers, employees and random people on the internet use it for revenge.
It will be interesting to see where Years and Years go from here for its final two episodes. The initial early descriptions of the series described it as being set over fifteen years. So we should be wind up in 2034, by the end of episode six. As it is, after the blistering pace of the first episode sprinting across the years between 2019 and 2025, things slowed down considerably. Episode two was set in 2025 and 2026. Episode three in 2026 and 2027. And this episode takes place entirely in 2027. So can we presume another ramping up the pace next week? Or a time jump, so we skip over to see what five years of life under Viv Rook, PM, has done to the nation?
Interesting times ahead.
Years and Years continues on BBC One with Episode Five at 9pm on Tuesday the 11th of June. It premieres in the US on HBO on the 24th of June.