Years and Years showed Black Mirror how to really do dread-filled dystopia

Yes, butterflies are extinct, men have sex with robots, and phones are transplanted into hands; but also, life goes on – spouses cheat, teenagers struggle to accept themselves.

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The list of TV that I can’t bear to watch (and it’s a short one) stands at: the finger-vice scene in the first series of Line of Duty; all of The Apprentice; and the pig-fucking fiasco of Black Mirror’s pilot. I still remember watching, frozen between the desire to hide behind my hands and to hit fast-forward and so doing neither, as the on-screen prime minister whimpered his way through that unspeakable act. It is burned into my retinas, and I have never looked at Rory Kinnear quite the same again.

It is unfortunate, then, that he plays a major part in Russell T Davies’s electrifying new series Years and Years. Kinnear isn’t the only similarity between the shows, of course: both deal, in their own ways, with unchallenged power and overreaching tech. That the release of series five of Black Mirror coincided with Years and Years’ run on BBC One encouraged the comparison.

As an anthology series, Black Mirror is inevitably hit and miss – with viewers praising the brilliance of one episode and dismissing another – but the latest season is mostly miss. Propped up by slick production values and big-name actors, it feels soulless and a little anaemic. Of course, it is hard to keep a series fresh after eight years: creators Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones have been dreaming up dystopias on demand since 2011. But frankly I’m a little bored of cautionary tales about spending too much time on your phone.

By contrast, Years and Years is a coup (and not just because it contains my favourite aside ever written: “He’s the sort of man who’s happy when he finds a big crisp”). Following one family, the Lyons, from 2019 until 2031 – through, among other things, the rise of populism and the inching encroachment of tech – it is half sci-fi dystopia, half kitchen-sink drama, and does both with equal verve. It hums with urgent and unsettling realism, and staggering human cost.

Years and Years undoubtedly owes a debt to Black Mirror: some of its more techy elements – such as the “Blink”, a device that shuts down all wireless communication in its vicinity – are textbook. But in Black Mirror such inventions are the story; in Years and Years they are largely incidental to it and rarely moralised. (It is a nice touch that the finale shows smartphones at their best: disseminating truth and revealing oppression. Maybe that’s a little 2008 of me, but I like it.) Black Mirror would do well to remember that it is stories and characters, not ideas and extremes, that capture the human heart. By placing the Lyons family at its centre, Years and Years humanises what would otherwise be abstract and distant: yes, butterflies are extinct, men have sex with robots, and phones are transplanted into hands; but also, life goes on – spouses cheat, teenagers struggle to accept themselves.

While there are parts of Black Mirror that are prescient (see: pigs and prime ministers), its events happen to people who feel somehow other, in futures that are decades removed from our own. But Years and Years is set in a Britain that is entirely recognisable, blurring the line between dystopia and documentary to the point where you feel you might just open your front door and step right into it. In a brilliant piece of scheduling, the BBC aired the finale straight after its Conservative leadership debate. Try listening to Granny Lyons’s apt admonishment to “beware those men, the jokers and the tricksters and the clowns; they will laugh us into hell” without picturing, with an impending sense of doom, Boris Johnson suspended on a zip-wire.

And this, I think, is key. Years and Years doesn’t just drop the viewer into an alternate reality and leave them to work out how they got there. It shows the horror unfolding, and, therefore, how it might do the same in our world.

The true dread of dystopian drama is us, screaming idly at the TV for the characters to do something, anything, to halt the creeping descent that we perceive so clearly on screen, while ignoring the unsettlingly similar events outside.

Years and Years is ending on a high; there will be no second series (Black Mirror, take note). However, you can catch the spin-off show now by turning on the news. 

Next week: Tracey Thorn

Pippa Bailey is the New Statesmans deputy head of production. 

This article appears in the 28 June 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Restraining order