Warning: This feature contains spoilers for BBC One's Years and Years
I don’t mean to cause any alarm, but the future is looking rather bleak. Or at least, if we don’t shift gears soon, we'll remain on track for a fate not far from the one BBC One’s latest drama, Years and Years, has been showing us over the last few weeks. Is it a warning? An indirect one, perhaps. I'd say it’s more of a tense and plausible projection of what the next 15 years could hold, packaged in a soapy family drama. And what better way to consume impending doom than with a sweet, familiar coating of BBQs at grandma’s house, sibling squabbling and a couple of burgeoning romances, eh?
You won’t be blamed for hesitating to proceed after the first couple of episodes. The pace of Years and Years is unsettlingly fast and irregular as we speed through months and years at a time without more than the symbolic reference of New Year's Eve fireworks in the shadow of the Houses of Parliament and unsettling flashes of news bulletins to tell us in which increasingly chaotic year we’ve landed. Between 2019 and the fictionalised 2034 of the series’ final episode, America drops a nuclear missile, the UK goes through a couple of general elections – each as unpredictable as the one before it – and climate change reaches unrecognisable urgency.
Some things stay the same, of course. Most of the continuity is shepherded by the resilient Lyons family, who have been watching the world speed up and crumble with as much shock and distress as those of us watching this play out in the real world. You’ll be pleased to hear that Celeste’s magnificent eye roll persists the longer she is forced to live with Muriel (grandmother of husband Stephen and his brother and two sisters). Youngest Lyons sibling, Rosie remains spirited, although her recklessness draws her towards independent politician Vivienne Rook, a figure comically aligned with our own power-hungry, right-wing frontmen whose spiel about fighting for the "normal Brit" has a tendency to overshadow their lack of trustworthy policies. And then there’s Danny, whose love for his partner, Ukrainian refugee Viktor, only swells as their journey is blocked at every turn.
Constantly connected by the Lyons family link (the future equivalent of your family WhatsApp group but via live audio chat instead of mistyped text and voice notes), this tight-knit household is the only thing standing in the way of our coming away from this series as anxious wrecks – which is perhaps the clever point at the heart of this borderline sci-fi tragedy.
"When I was a kid, 2028 sounded like the future," Rosie tells fiancé John on New Year's Eve. "Like we’d all have jet packs and monorails and be taking our food in little pills like astronauts. Here it is, and I’m telling you, we’re not astronauts. All I know is my broadband’s still too slow, you can’t get bananas anymore, they’ve all died out. The kids demand 27 types of telly, all more expensive than the last, and gas and electric are going through the roof. I try to think, 2028, what the hell is it going to throw at us next?"
Well, it feels like we’re on the cusp of dystopia right now, and if there's anything to take away from the incidences that Years and Years rattles through, it's that these hits to the world as we know it are probably going to come thick and fast.
In this make-believe world, at least, by the time we hit 2034 we'll be eating very differently. You know all those jokes that we've made over the years about the rising cost of a Cadbury Freddo bar? In this version of the UK, chocolate becomes a luxury just as inconsequentially as Rosie mentions bananas being wiped out. Politics grows increasingly farcical as MP Vivienne Rook first urges people to vote (but only those who pass an intelligence test) before it becomes a legally punishable offence not to vote just a few years later.
Artificial intelligence takes a disconcertingly personal turn as, by the final episode, Stephen and Celeste's oldest daughter has a microchip inserted into her brain to integrate her consciousness with the internet, all actioned and funded by the government – yes, this does put her at their mercy, so to speak, and the question of where her private identity stops and the world wide web starts is stressfully blurred. The country is plagued by blackouts which a news anchor reports "could be Russia, could be ISIS, could be teenagers in a bedroom". By 2027 the UK has seen 80 consecutive days of rain in a distressing nod to how out of control the climate has become, and Rook has imposed the bedroom law: legislation which means anyone with two spare rooms in their house must be available to take in any homeless UK citizen.
There are some exciting technological advancements, though. Blindness will be a curable condition, but if you want to avoid the three-year waiting list it’ll cost you £10,000 to be put on the NHS fast track service. You might need an ID card to get in and out of red zones (one of Viv Rook’s methods of physically cutting off working class communities) but in other areas you’ll just need to exhale over a breathalyser that’ll be able to detect if you are who you say you are.
It’s almost laughable. Years and Years pushes the boundaries of what feels entirely plausible for our generation to experience (flooding, cyber attacks, no more Dairy Milks) into a realm that many of us don’t even want to imagine (nuclear war, Spanish revolution, another financial crash), but it's impossible to come out the other end of the series without wondering how much of the fiction will become reality. The technological aspects have a Black Mirror-esque air of prophecy, which is definitely helped by the fact that Rory Kinnear (who plays Stephen) starred as the prime minister in Charlie Brooker’s first, infamous episode "The National Anthem" in 2011. Though we can’t reliably predict what will have happened in our world by 2034, we can certainly consider Years and Years a blinding indicator of where we’re going. There’s hope that we’ve got time to steer in a different direction, and if our IRL outlook starts to look as bleak as the Lyons' did, there’s a lot to be said for how lovingly steadfast their family is and how they manage to survive.
The entire season of Years and Years is available on BBC iPlayer now