BBC1’s (or more to the point, Russell T Davies’) fab series Years and Years has just finished what HAS to be its only series.
RTD has said it’s a one-off, and given that it projects into the future, by one year each episode (it mostly spans 2024-2030), it would be tricky to see a series 2 without it going full sci-fi. This prophet-warning show has its futuristic elements sneak up on us while we aren’t looking – like the Weeping Angels in Doctor Who (reference included to annoy Whovians).
Years and Years has no lasers nor spaceships. It builds up to internet brain implants and consciousness stored on water, earning their place over several episodes. Episode 1’s science fiction was nicely restrained: an artificial island, an Alexa-esque smart speaker called Señor, and a funny scene involving a sex robot and Noel from Hear’Say.
Years and Years doesn’t feel like a sci-fi, although it does dwell on science and fiction. It never forgets that at its heart, it’s a family drama. Superior acting talent helps (Anne Reid, Rory Kinnear, Russell Tovey, Jessica Hynes… though for me scenes were stolen by relative newcomers Ruth Madeley as feisty Rosie and Lydia West as can-play-15-or-25 Bethany). But this blog’s about writing, so what can we learn from Russell Typewriter Davies (to give his full name)?
I think the headline has to be Family Is Everything. And that doesn’t mean a nuclear family (pun noted, given the literal fall-out in episode 1). As RTD is fond of doing, notions of traditional family are swiftly discarded as plus-ones and minus-ones are added/subtracted to the family dinner table. From ex-wives to gay lovers to lesbian partners to stepchildren… all are welcome at Gran’s. And as Gran kisses on the forehead an unlikely ally (no spoilers here as to whom), the message is clear: your place at the table is not based on your relationship, but your attitude. Kindness is rewarded. Selfishness is not. Good eggs are invited back. Be a good egg.
But traditional family roles are still there. Anne Reid is our forever Gran – whose tea and timing is impeccable. The middle generation switch flip-flop between being responsible parents and petulant children, before ultimately assuming responsibility and taking charge of their own futures (and ours). The youngest generation master the tech, have a few tantrums, and ultimately grow up. Characters keep changing roles in terms of ‘who’s playing Dad’, ‘who’s playing Mum’ etc – but the writer’s love of family, and of this family, always shines through. Davies has chosen to look into a crystal ball and focus on one family – the Lyons clan – rather than give us unrelated individual survivors of the post-Brexit, still-Trump era.
This family focus helps ground us. Whenever the plot goes a bit weirdy-AI-upload-to-the-cloud-dystopian, we’re brought back to reality – well no, back to familiarity – with a cosy line about one of them being most “happy when he finds a big crisp”. Keep bringing us back to the family table, and you can get away with a lot more plot-wise.
The crisp line reminds me: this isn’t a comedy show, but its use of occasional comedy kept us going through the dark times (and there was a lot of dark in this grim satire). The final moments included a passing reference to the Leaning Tower of Pisa finally falling over. It didn’t relate at all to anything else in the story. But “fun” bits like this (I know, it’s not fun for the people of Pisa) help us on our merry way. Comedy connects with our brain differently – and after such heavy story work, a little humour goes a long way.
Two blog posts ago, I waffled on about how Game of Thrones was doomed when it dropped the unpredictable shades-of-grey fun and games for a predictably binary Good-vs-Evil finale. It’s a problem in almost all films and TV series, and Years and Years is no exception. So sure enough, the final episode felt a little more predictable (good HAD to win) than its mid-series shockers (the beach – oh my…). Series finales are rarely the place for those stand-out memorable moments.
So when you’re writing your six-part TV series (and may that please happen), when you face that final episode conundrum, where everything needs to be tied up a little too predictably… if you’ve got a tight-knit family of likeables like the Years and Years‘ Lyons lot, then lovable characters will help bolster any thread-tying plot points. Great characters help carry us over those gaps in the road – whether it’s a predictable story beat or a just-go-with-it chunk of wibbly-wobbly sci-fi.
So I’ll miss the Lyons family, knowing we probably won’t see them again. They told a great story – or more correctly, the granddaddy did: so thank you, Russell Typewriter Davies.