Some of the science fiction flourishes in the new HBO miniseries Years and Years are deft-but-familiar technological signifiers of a near future—a smart speaker named Señor has telephonic and IoT skills far beyond those of Alexa, a teenager wears a holographic Snapchat filter mask to breakfast, self-heating school lunches have vat-grown meat entrées. But the drama, which follows the multigenerational Lyons family of Manchester, England, from the present to a completely plausible (and increasingly grim) tomorrow, is more clever and more chilling than any of the gadgets.
Television apocalypses tend to come with a bang—zombies, dragons, Revelations. With Years and Years, writer Russell T Davies is instead working down amid the whimpers. Except for one nuclear bomb, courtesy of President Trump in the last days of his second term, most of the show grapples with the day-to-day indignities of civilizational collapse. War in Eastern Europe sends Ukrainian refugees streaming into England, and a Lyons brother falls in love with one. A sister comes home from a life of globe-trotting political activism after having been exposed to the fallout from that nuke. That teenage daughter with the IRL filter-mask gets into a spot of trouble with an illicit Russian cybermodification surgery. When the eldest brother and his wife go downtown one morning to find out why their online bank account has been 404-not-found all night, they realize that the crowd they’ve been walking past is actually the line at the door of the bank branch. The economy is collapsing, the run on the bank started without them, and this is what the end will look like. That, maybe, is the best logline I could lob from my armchair at Years and Years: “This is what it’ll look like.”
If that sounds prosaic, I haven’t done it justice. Davies has unlocked a science fiction superpower here. At its core, the genre is a tool for building thought-experiment machines. Literary sci-fi has typically been better at building worlds-that-may-be and the texture and meaning of life there. For sure, television pulls it off too, sometimes. Twilight Zone, Black Mirror, and Star Trek at its best all used speculation to ask questions not about the future but about the present. As my colleague Clive Thompson wrote years ago: “Science fiction is the last great literature of ideas.” That’s the game Years and Years is playing. But it doesn’t have the one-off, toe-dipping dilettantism of an anthology show or the faintly chilly perspective of the already perfect United Federation of Planets. Here’s a better logline, then: This is what it’ll feel like.
The “this” is, well, all of it. Climate change, economic collapse, an influx of refugees, prosaic and widespread integration of invasive technologies, encroaching fascism—Davies isn’t predicting the future here so much as running our unstable, rollicking present through a band-pass filter and then speeding up the output. Just like real life, the future happens fast, and sometimes in throwaway bits about antibiotic-resistant superbugs and robots with sex-toy attachments. It’s extrapolative, but not much weirder than anything you might read in the links at the bottom of this article. (You should click; we have bills to pay. See? Weird.)
Davies has been making television in the United Kingdom for a long time, and his résumé caroms among family melodrama, multiply-gendered sex stories, and science fiction. Years and Years feels clever in that sense too, as if Davies had solved the problems of melodrama getting boring by pouring a little genre into the mix, and dealt with the unrealism and potentially dangerous escapism of sci-fi by nailing it to the rigors of earthbound emotional truth. Throw Queer as Folk into the Doctor’s Tardis for a decade or two and it comes out—ahem—as Years and Years.
Sometimes, rarely, the characters claim to notice how crazy the world has gotten. That seems a little dishonest; we frogs never notice the boiling water. It’s not obvious to me that our world is changing much faster than, say, the North America of the 1500s after European diseases starting spreading, or the Europe of the 1930s as its nations barreled toward war. Future shock is just present shock, a chronic condition of life if you have opposable thumbs and a wrinkly cortex. Maybe modernity—industrialization and instantaneous communication especially—makes the symptoms more acute.
Where Davies is right is that the subtleties of that collapse make for good TV. If you want to watch a show about gyre-widening, well, that was the last season of Game of Thrones. But it’s Years and Years, about a family at the edges of the gyre, feeling the gusts from the whirlwind, that’ll make you cry.