Editors’ Note: Julie Rea’s work has appeared in several places, including The Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine, Nude Bruce Review, BLYNKT, and Halfway Down the Stairs. She lives in the Philadelphia area, where she teaches and writes about life in a wheelchair and other fascinating subjects. You can follow her on Twitter @phillylitgrl. Her story “Lela and Bat” was published in issue 10 of Broadswords and Blasters.
In HBO’s Years and Years, the show about the very near future by Russell T. Davies (formerly of Doctor Who and Torchwood), the problem is an acceleration of the forces that are currently tearing apart the real world. The show examines how this destruction impacts a British family, the Lyons: a grandmother, her several adult grandchildren, and their children. The opposition to the inhumanity the series depicts manifests in various characters: Bethany’s transhumanism, Edith’s humanitarianism activism, and the steadying hand of two matriarchs, the grandmother Muriel and her daughter-in-law Celeste. The members of the family are inspired to act in later episodes by the heroism of Danny Lyons, who will do anything he can to save his lover, Viktor. Viktor, a Ukrainian refugee and survivor of torture because of his homosexuality, is in constant peril as the increasing conflict in the world endangers the stateless most of all.
In the first episode of Years and Years, Trump is elected to a second term, and in the final days of his presidency (after Pence is elected his successor), he decides to preemptively strike China with a nuclear missile. Right and left-wing populism destabilizes Europe. This is the background to the election of Viv Rook as British Prime Minister, played with great vigor by Emma Thompson. Viv Rook’s demagoguery avoids some of the more unsavory elements of the Trump administration: she makes a name for herself not by calling Mexicans rapists and murderers but by saying on live TV that she doesn’t give a fuck about the welfare of the Palestinians. It’s not that she hates Palestinians necessarily, but rather her cares are limited to those issues that appear in her backyard. She wants her elderly mother to be safe, her bins taken care of, and doesn’t want to be scared of the world anymore. Take care of Britain first, before everybody else, is her thing. Her demagoguery plays off the discomfort people feel about the unraveling of everything from the Middle East to the climate. She doesn’t provide answers to the fate of the Palestinians or any other geopolitical issue; she does address British people’s discomfort with this suffering by urging them to look away.
To abet her mission of keeping the British people in the dark, Viv Rook introduces the Blink, a technology that cancels out people’s ability to communicate digitally–all phones and other digital devices are disabled within a certain range of the Blink. The Blink addresses a theme in the series regarding the importance of control of technology: in a society dependent on digital communication, The Blink allows the government to render the governed helpless with the flip of a switch. The question of whether control of technology can be wrested away from the government determines that outcome of the series.
The main driver of the narrative is the relationship between Daniel and Viktor. Their relationship is beautifully rendered, and the problem of deportation and citizenship status is so relevant to the real world, their relationship tends to overshadow other elements in the narrative.
There’s a lot to love about Years and Years. Viktor is beautifully written and acted by Maxim Baldry: he is a sweet, funny survivor of some of the worst the world has on offer. Russell Tovey as Daniel Lyons turns in a wonderful performance as a man who believes that being clever, brave, and persistent will allow him to protect the man he loves. Lydia West provides an amazing performance as Bethany, the great-granddaughter who embraces transhumanism and is the closest thing to The Doctor or Captain Jack in the series. West sells the idea of a teenager who is obsessed with uploading her consciousness to the cloud. As she grows older, she moves from illegal, dangerous surgical interventions to government-sponsored surgery, after which she is able to wirelessly communicate with digital devices around the world.
The pacing of the show makes it compulsively watchable: not every episode (thank God) ends with the nuclear annihilation of thousands of people. But the rise of Viv Rook will make the stomach clench of any watcher who has been especially alarmed by the state of the world from 2016 onward. The question of Viktor’s fate helps drive the narrative from the first episode to the last.
One issue with Years and Years is that the crisis depicted is so great, it takes a giant leap of faith to believe that somehow things can be all right without the intervention of a Time Lord to bring us all to our senses. Bethany’s transhumanism and her resulting enhanced abilities isn’t quite enough magic. Aside from the epilogue, in which transhumanism manifests in its most imaginative ways, transhuman abilities relate to the sharing of information. As cool as it might be to take a picture with a blink of an eye and send it to somebody with a pointing of a finger, it’s hard to see how this technology would lead to the triumph of right over might. We have video footage of the migrant detention centers in the U.S.; we know about the bad conditions, know that flu has led to death in the camps even as the government has refused to provide flu shots to the people there. In Russell T. Davies’s Torchwood series Children of Earth, as the world tears itself apart after aliens make a horrible demand, a character imagines The Doctor, that epitome of humanitarianism, turning away from the planet in shame.
A civilization to be ashamed of is what Davies explores in Years and Years, and unfortunately, there is very little separation between the world of the series and our own. One could argue that the heroic efforts of people like the Lyons make, as Hemingway writes in For Whom the Bell Tolls, this world “a fine place and worth fighting for.” Even though I binge-watched Years and Years and enjoyed it immensely, I would say I agree with Morgan Freeman in Seven, referencing that Hemingway line: “I agree with the second part.”
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