When we first meet Manchester family the Lyons in Years and Years, it’s 2019. But not for long. This six-part series rapidly heads off into a future that is both scarcely recognisable and disturbingly predictable. Technology rushes headlong, politics takes some unsettling turns, and social media somehow becomes even more annoying.
And yet families still argue and get together at Christmas. People still need to pay the bills, even as AI is taking jobs and the idea of having a physical body starts to look like an optional extra. The whole thing is down-to-earth and utterly plausible, even as nuclear weapons, civil unrest and death camps become part of daily life in the UK.
Why is Britain so good when it comes to making grim science fiction? Star Wars might be an entertainment juggernaut, but the defining pop culture science fiction of this decade has been Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, an anthology series exploring where technology might take us – and in a shock twist, it’s rarely anywhere we really want to go.
Look back a little further and there’s the post-nuclear nightmare Threads, which was so relentlessly bleak it made digging your own grave and lying in it seem optimistic, while The Day of the Triffids saw humanity first blinded by a meteor shower then eaten by killer plants. Even The World of the Worlds, arguably the UK’s first modern science fiction story, is a nightmare where UK life is torn asunder by aliens looking to colonise Earth.
While Years and Years might owe something to Black Mirror’s speculation about the future of technology, it’s much more interested in how people will cope with a society that’s increasingly fragmented. What makes it so compelling is its matter-of-fact nature, the way that the focus is on regular people trying to live normal lives in a world shifting around them – and that’s something the UK has been exploring with their science fiction for a long time now.
It’s not hard to figure out why the UK’s vision of the future is often about decline; while the 20th century might have been a golden one for the United States, for the UK it’s all been about watching power slowly ebb away as the sun finally set on the British Empire. Progress became piecemeal; the future started to look like something that was happening elsewhere.
With the nation’s glory days behind it, British television’s bleak view of the future is hardly surprising. In Quatermass, one of the BBC’s first steps into science fiction in the 1950s, Scientist Bernard Quatermass was in charge of the UK’s efforts to send a man into space. His series wasn’t about stirring tales of exploration though; space travellers came back monsters, while alien horrors from the past threatened to doom humanity.
When he returned in 1979’s Quatermass, it was to a near-future UK on the brink of collapse, torn between brutal street gangs, ineffectual government and a generation of anti-science hippies (to be fair, an alien space probe feeding off humanity’s youth didn’t help matters).
The rest of the UK’s 70’s programming wasn’t much more optimistic. The cheerily-titled Doomwatch had a team of scientists battling threats to humanity that included killer rats, evil computers and environmental disasters. In Survivors, most of the world’s population had been killed off by a virus, leaving the handful left to try and rebuild.
Even space drama Blake’s 7 was a grim twist on Star Trek, with a band of rebels battling an evil Federation (in a notoriously downbeat ending, the final episode saw all the main characters gunned down). By the 80s even Doctor Who was struggling (it was axed by the end of the decade), while The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy began with the destruction of Earth. The optimistic 90s saw Red Dwarf, a cheerful space comedy about the last human being left in the universe.
Grim tomorrows are in UK television’s DNA, and Years and Years proudly takes up the torch. There’s even a silver lining to Brexit if you squint hard enough; a new golden age of bleak futures could be just around the corner.
Years and Years airs on SBS on Wednesdays at 9:30pm. Watch episodes one and two at SBS On Demand now.