The best one can do in trying to make sense of the enigma that is the last decade is to think of things in terms of ever-splintering and diverging narratives, whose borders are shored up by their participants with steel walls, impenetrable by even the most open-minded and inquiring of truth-seekers. The least aware of us, then, forced to confront narratives that are so different from their own that it feels like they belong to a different universe. For some, it’s like the world is collapsing around them.
Such types will find much to empathize with in the BBC’s new series, Years and Years, a Black Mirror-esque dystopian drama set in the United Kingdom from the year 2019 to 2034. It’s penned by longtime Doctor Who writer Russel T. Davies, who, “seems to capture the zeitgeist effortlessly,” according to Guardian TV critic, Lucy Mangan. Yes, but whose zeitgeist?
The story follows what Davies thinks is the typical modern British family: Mixed race couple Rory and Celeste, with two daughters, one who wants to upload her consciousness to the cloud (which is one aspect of the show that actually does have a pointed satirical bite to it). Rory, who works in finance (Boo! Hiss!), has two sisters, one a paraplegic, the other an activist; and one brother who works with refugees, and has an affair with one called Viktor. The matriarch is the wholesome Anne Reid, Rory’s mother who is largely oblivious to all this nonsense.
On the micro level, it’s well-written and witty. It’s not boring, and the characters are likable. The cast is great. Russel Tovey is naturalistic and empathetic as Daniel. Emma Thompson is the right-wing party leader. Jessica Hynes as Edith has some funny lines. Davies is a TV -writing veteran, and he’s enjoying how his CV has allowed him to use Years and Years to speak more pointedly about his country.
The proverbial enemies the protagonists are confronted with include: Donald Trump, transhumanism, populist leaders, conspiracy theories, and refugee camps. That’s quite a combination, yet without a cogent ideological superstructure. “Things are just going wrong, okay? The world’s gone mad, and we’re powerless to stop it,” our heroes proclaim, to the blasting, howling chants of children in the soundtrack, as if a death knell for civilization as we know it.
One of the problems is, since Davies already has troubling making sense of the world, it’s sometimes difficult for a non-Guardian-reading audience member to make sense of the characters. Take the aforementioned Vivienne Rook, who represents a vaguely populist grassroots candidate for the Four Star Party (which I’m sure has nothing to do with the right-wing Five Star Movement in Italy). She takes an improbable rise, over the series, to the very top of British politics, yet it’s difficult to understand why.
She begins as a Nigel Farage-like rabble-rouser making occasional appearances on Question Time, then runs for Parliament. Despite facing the humiliation of being fact-checked by a rival candidate on the debate stage, she delivers a concluding speech/performance that gives her a standing ovation. This is apparently what gives her the advantage to win the seat. Yet there’s nothing in the speech you can grab on to to be able to say, “This is what she believes.” That could have been the point, but it’s more likely a reflection of the fact that the “Remainer Type” still has absolutely no idea what people disagree with them actually think.
The handling of Donald Trump is disappointingly two-dimensional. With the disclaimer that I don’t like Trump, obviously, it’s nonetheless really lame to interpret Trump as a crazy nuke-throwing dictator. Say what you want about him, but you have to have a more sophisticated analysis of what he’s about to make the dramatic act of the bomb stick.
In the near future, supposedly, the government sticks a draconian boot into refugees, who are rounded up en masse to be deported arbitrarily and with great force. Later on, literal concentration camps litter the country. Okay, but why? We get no sense of how we would get to that point. It’s not just “obvious.”
It’s actually part of the method of writing dystopian fiction that you pinpoint a concern about society today and extrapolate it, a reducto ad absurdum, if you like, to test the boundaries of ideas and see where they lead. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with being a British Liberal(™) and using fiction to lament for where society has got to. If I were to write a dystopian fiction about modern Britain, I would touch on the creeping nanny state and political correctness, and draw more broadly on the fractious nature of political discourse — it’s not my show. But if people outside of the Guardian orbit are to enjoy it, it has to be done with some finesse.
It’s almost as if Davies thought of everything in the world he found troubling and threw them all in there without a coherent understanding of why those things came to be in the first place. It suffers in comparison to Orwell. It might be unfair, but Nineteen-Eighty-Four is essential consulting material if you’re looking to delve into this genre. Rule number one: “The people” are just as complicit in the dystopia as the elites. We’re rarely treated, in Years and Years, to a view into the life of the people that support the totalitarianism. Much of the run time consists of liberal people complaining over FaceTime about how crap the world has gotten.
It smacks of the sanctimonious and condescending idea that “the enemy,” from the British Liberal(™) point of view, are a small gang of elites that succeed only in “tricking” the people into supporting their policies. The notion that there are people out there that genuinely have different values to George Monbiot is incomprehensible. Years and Years reeks of this, which makes it difficult to take seriously.
To everybody within the boundaries of the proverbial liberal elite, this series is bound to seem prescient, powerful, brave, et cetera. To everyone else, it’s all a bit silly.
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