I got to it late, but I’ve just finished watching Years and Years, a joint production between the BBC (still a great channel for drama and natural history, even if there news & current affairs coverage has nose-dived recently) and HBO. The story follows a not-so-typical family’s attempts to steer its way through the massive political, social and technological upheavals of a future Britain.
The landscape is huge, covering not just The United Kingdom (or what’s left of it), but future events in Europe and the United States. When you’re trying to build a world as big as this for any story, then it’s easy to get lost in the peripheral details, losing sight of your characters and indeed the story you’re trying to tell. Davies skilfully navigates this using a simple technique favoured by the best science-fiction and fantasy writers: focus on your key characters and let the world grow around them; let the changing world change them.
Davies adds another dimension: characters who are totally self-serving, but who are the sort of people you see on the news every day. As well as grounding the story to a time and place you can identify with, it shows that people are sometimes forced into doing the wrong thing because they lack the strength of character to do what’s right.
I remember an episode of Doctor Who that Davies penned a few years back: an alien race besieged the planet, and demanded that all the children of a certain age be given to them, or the world would be destroyed. Now what struck me about this episode wasn’t the alien’s demands, it was the reaction of the UK government.
They agreed to the demands (perhaps not having the strength of character to fight), which I kind of expected. But then they wondered if they could perhaps salvage something from the situation. They drew up a list or undesirable families (mainly from the north) and selected their children for sacrifice, on the very tenuous assumption that these children would, at the very best, fail to contribute to society, and at the very worst, would grow up to be criminals anyway.
While I was watching the episode, I forgot about the aliens. The government’s plan slowly unfolded, and I remember thinking, Yes – that’s exactly what the bastards would do.
And that’s the genius of Russell T. Davies.