On the foot of last week’s tragedy, with episode five, Years and Years enters its endgame.
Daniel’s death towards the end of the last episode of Years and Years has proven to be far more than just another example of how terrible the world has gotten. Instead, it’s a pivot point around which the whole world of Russell T Davies’ new drama has moved. Few of the characters in the former Doctor Who showrunner’s series are on the same trajectory they were beforehand. Edith and Rosie no longer snigger and roll their eyes at Daniel’s devotion to Viktor, obviously.
But, more than that, they’ve made freeing Viktor from detention – making Daniel’s sacrifice worthwhile – their new mission in life. A zeal and ruthless determination seizes Edith in particular. But for her, it’s about more than just Viktor, or her guilt over not accompanying Daniel to Spain herself. No, she’s determined to bring the lie of Viv Rook’s regime down and to expose the truth behind the Disappeared. Because people, foreign refugees and British homeless alike, have been vanishing into Rook’s system never to be seen again.
In an almost Doctor Who touch, Bethany evolves into a transhuman directly connected to the internet. But she’s still more human than her father Stephen
Back in his Doctor Who days, Russell T Davies once rejected elements of the original storyline that became Rise of the Cybermen. Initially, the storyline would have seen people augmenting parts of their bodies and brains willingly. Cybus technology plugged into them in place of phones or computers. In 2005, it seemed impossible to Davies that ever choose to do that and so that part of the concept was softened into the removable earpods instead. But, in 2019, clearly, the writer now feels it’s all too plausible.
Because Bethany has transformed in more ways than one. Taking a giant leap down the road of transhumanism, the Home Office has augmented her brain with computer hardware and a direct connection to the internet. While her augmented hands now allow her to interact wirelessly with any computer that comes within range. But this week she changes much more significantly as a person. Gone is the somewhat vapid, superficial teen we knew before. Instead, following her uncle’s drowning, she’s recruited by Edith as her techno-sidekick in her war on Rook. She’s both more conscientious and harder-edged than before. And if the dark, thunderous look on her face in the episode’s closing moments suggest she’s ready to bring the vengeance and furious anger of whatever cyber gods exist down on her enemies.
The Erstwhiles and the government privatisation of concentration camps may be the most Years and Years concept ever
Her new status as a transhuman leaves her father Stephen deeply disturbed. But he’s much more concerned by the idea that she’s now indentured to the State. After all, if Rook’s government paid for her to gain these tremendous new abilities and sooner or later they’ll be calling to collect on their investment. In one of the smartest moves in Davies’ script, this mirrors Stephen instantly turning around and selling his very soul to the self-same government. Determined to get his old life back, he grovels and debases himself to get a new job with former colleagues. One that supposedly about bidding for a new contract to do “bricks and mortar maintenance” for several defunct government facilities.
Except it turns out that they’re concentration camps. The places where ‘the Disappeared’ (or ‘the Erstwhiles’ as they’ve become known) have been going. And Stephen’s job is going to be about making them more efficient at killing people while Rook maintains plausible deniability. (And isn’t the privatisation of concentration camps the most Years and Years concept ever?) What’s most remarkable is that while Stephen blinks and stutters in disbelief at what he’s hearing, he gets over his discomfort with disturbing speed.
The episode’s ingenious structure hides the true awfulness of the situation until the closing moments
As Davies’ master vision for the series comes into focus, so does Stephen’s innate character. His much-vaulted liberalism in the first episode is now exposed as merely flexible morality. It took him mere minutes to acclimatise to the idea of a transgender child. Now, it takes him only a little longer to get comfortable deciding who will be sent to the Erstwhile camps and who will live. While the petty, small-minded, red cloud of misdirected vengeance that previously caused him to run over the bike of a courier who simply happened to work for the same company that had hit his father is revealed as only a precursor to what he’s really capable of.
The script and direction team superbly to give the audience multiple opportunities to feel some sympathy for him. Has he simply almost done something terrible and then pulled back from the brink? Has he done something terrible but in a momentary state of anger and frustration which he now regrets and would take back if he could? With the showmanship of a magician, it’s only at the closing moments that the full awfulness of Stephen is revealed. It’s almost as much of a blow as last week’s death.
Meeting Viv Rook for the first time in the flesh, we learn she’s a very human monster. But a monster nonetheless.
It’s through Stephen’s new role that we properly meet Viv Rook for the very first time. And she’s not quite what we might have expected. More vulnerable and harried than her public persona would make you think possible. And, strangely, fascinatingly, she even hints that she’s not even the one really in control. So who on Earth could be pulling her strings? But she’s still a monster. In a neat collision of near futurism and ripped-from-the-headlines relevancy, she defends the Erstwhile facilities and echoes recent comments by Jacob Rees-Mogg when she asks if concentration camps are always that bad a thing anyway? If anything, the reveal of the real Viv simply makes her capacity for deception and ruthlessness all the more chilling.
And that’s not even half of what happens this week. It’s a mark of 2027 that Years and Years predicts that dirty bombs turning two British cities into uninhabitable radioactive zones is a minor detail. Other elements here will also be familiar to Doctor Who viewers from the likes of Turn Left and Torchwood: Children of Earth. And, as in those unforgettable stories, Davies once again tackles gargantuan themes but with an incredibly human heart.