As startling new drama Years and Years follows a British family over the next 15 years, Hugh Montgomery explores TV’s current fascination with what lies directly ahead for our planet.

Is there a more influential artist in the heady days of 2019 than the novelist JG Ballard? In the post-war period, following what was known as the ‘golden age of science fiction’, he shook up the very conception of the genre: where the great writers of the day such as Robert A Heinlein and Isaac Asimov had imagined far-flung times full of spaceships and distant galaxies, Ballard thought such prognostication was clichéd and unilluminating. Instead, when it came to gazing into his literary crystal ball, he was only interested in looking at what would happen to human society in “the next five minutes”, as he famously put it.

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But if Ballard’s thinking was subversive at the time, now we’re beset by the nearest of ‘near future’ narratives. They are intent on imagining not what will become of us in thousands of millennia, or even in a few decades’ time – à la dystopian works like Blade Runner and Soylent Green, previously understood as ‘near future’ – but in as little as the next few years. In doing so, these near-near-future stories create realities that feel immediately recognisable to us, but invariably with a pretty unpleasant twist or three. In literature, these have gone hand in hand with the rise of the ‘mundane science fiction’ movement – which began in the mid-noughties and was built on “not wanting to imagine shiny, hard futures [but give a] sense of sliding from one version of our present into something slightly alienated”, says Roger Luckhurst, a professor in Modern and Contemporary Literature at London’s Birkbeck College and an expert in science fiction.

Even reality TV is getting in on the near-near-near-future act: Israel’s 2025 put contestants in a Westworld-like city full of robots

And, at the moment, such stories are particularly prevalent on the small-screen. Chief among the shows offering them up are Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker’s hit anthology series, which is invested in imagining where technology will have led us before we know it, and The Handmaid’s Tale, the dystopian drama inspired by Margaret Atwood’s classic novel, which portrays an America, roughly five years from now, that is a repressive, women-hating theocracy. If you want an unnerving projection of France as it could be, then you can watch new Netflix drama Osmosis, set in an ever-so slightly whizzier Paris and centring on a sinister new body-implanted dating app, while even reality TV is getting in on the near-near-future act: a step up from Big Brother, Israel’s recently-launched 2025 saw contestants live, an imagined six years in the future, in a Westworld-like city run by robots.

But the latest piece of dramatic forecasting is perhaps the most fascinating of all: the work of leading British dramatist Russell T Davies, the man who engineered Dr Who’s reboot, among many other things, new BBC/HBO drama Years and Years imagines the next 15 years of our planet through the eyes of one extended family, the Lyons, living in the North of England. Davies’ genius here is to come up with a show that feels utterly unique in its subversiveness, pitching itself somewhere between Ballard and long-running British soap Coronation Street. On the one hand, it is an everyday domestic drama that deals, with great warmth and emotional credibility, with timeless, archetypal relationships: between parent and child; partner and partner; sibling and sibling. And on the other, it sets this against a backdrop of spiralling global catastrophe – not to mention, in Britain, the vertiginous rise of a shamelessly populist politician, Vivienne Rook, played by Emma Thompson.

Why are we so fascinated by the ‘next five minutes’?

There are many factors at play behind the shift towards near-near-future science fiction. Technologically, the disorientating, ever-accelerating speed of advancement makes it harder to conceive what a more distant future could look like. “It means that the future is kind of being pulled directly into the present, so it becomes really difficult for us to be able to think beyond a certain period, because it’s just going to be so radically different,” says Luckhurst. “One really key idea is the idea of technological singularity – that point when machines start to invent other machines – and our control of the future completely disappears. By definition, humans can’t imagine what’s that’s going to be like.”

But technology aside, it also comes from the very real sense that human society in the last few years has reached a crisis point. “The world just seems to be madder and hotter and stranger at the moment,” as Davies tells BBC Culture, and that has triggered a grim sense of foreboding about what may lie directly ahead. The election of Donald Trump was the ultimate catalyst for him to start writing Years and Years: “I think when we’re all in our old age we will see this as the greatest event in our history, more than the Twin Towers – a huge turning point in the state of the world,” he says. “Who knows where it’s heading, but right now it’s astonishing what we’re putting up with.” Though he hastens to add, of course, that it’s not just the events themselves, but the way in which they whirr constantly around us thanks to the advent of 24-hour news, allowing a whole new sense of chaos to flourish. “Has [the world] always been like this or it it getting worse? I can’t answer that one but I can be fascinated by it.”

Russell T Davies’ mind boggled at the thought of what might have happened to our climate beyond 2034

To get doomier still, there’s also the pertinent question of whether, given current ecological speculation, the human race will even survive beyond the next century or so – an uncertainty which makes applying one’s imagination to a 22nd or 23rd Century rather academic. Certainly, as Luckhurst suggests, thinking of the far future “can only result in a kind of catastrophe so if you want a human-scale drama, it has to be much more immediate and focused on the immediate future.”

Davies, for his part, has chosen to end Years and Years 15 years on, in the year 2034, a decision resulting from a number of considerations – including the simple fact that ageing the characters any more would have required a recasting of the actors. But one key factor was that his mind boggled at the thought of what might have happened to our climate beyond that point. Climate change is certainly an issue that features as an element of the show, but “if there was ever a second series, I think that it would have to be the spine of the series,” he says. “How we survive that, and whether we have any answers to that. Good lord!”

Progression or regression?

An interesting point of difference between some of these near-future visions is the direction of travel they broadly imagine for society. It might be said that Black Mirror is fundamentally interested in progress, however sinister that may be – it envisages, after all, a future chiefly defined by technological development. But in other fictions, the focus is much more on the ways in which society is going backwards – politically, socially and otherwise.

Such is the case with one of the most powerful near-future stories of this century so far, the 2006 film Children of Men, an adaptation of the PD James novel by Roma director Alfonso Cuarón that resonates more intensely with every passing year. Set in 2027, it presents a chaotic world, dying out thanks to mass infertility, and overrun by terrorism and ecological disaster, that feels like an antithesis to Black Mirror’s advanced virtual realities: a dilapidated version of the present, conspicuously lacking in fancy embellishments. Similarly, The Handmaid’s Tale imagines a regressive totalitarian society which has been largely stripped of the paraphernalia of modern life like computers and smartphones.

A show that could perhaps be viewed as the ultimate near-future narrative is Game of Thrones

So while Black Mirror reflects our collective anxiety about the speed of technological change – a concept often referred to as ‘future shock’ – these other narratives play on a contrary fear that’s perhaps even more pressing and primordial – the looming possibility that we’ve peaked as a race. As a character in Years and Years says, “it’s like we went too far, we imagined too much... and then pop, whatever we had, we punctured it.” In that way, from one angle, a show that could perhaps be viewed as the ultimate near-future narrative is, rather terrifyingly, Game of Thrones. “It’s based on all of these ancient myths, but it’s obviously so successful because it’s dealing with a post-democratic, extremely hierarchical, violent, but also non-digital world,” says Luckhurst, “which is why it’s so it’s brilliant that people got upset about the Starbucks cup [that accidentally featured in a recent episode] ... actually that intrusion is wonderful, because [the show] is about now.”

Is there any hope left?

Years and Years, for its part, falls somewhere between these two poles: providing a nuanced portrait of a world simultaneously advancing and crumbling. “It’s that duality we live in of being told that gene sequencing will lead to the cure of many diseases and illnesses and at the same time, being told there’s a three-year waiting list on the NHS,” as Davies puts it. “Those two worlds co-exist at the same time.” On the one hand, in the first episode, we see a teenage girl declaring herself ‘transhumanist’ – that is, someone who wants to erase their body entirely, and become a digital being – and on another, a UK teeming with dehumanising refugee camps.

What ultimately makes Years and Years stand out, however, is its inherent hopefulness. Invariably, near-future narratives are lacking in merriment: after all, it’s very easy, in these fearful times, to imagine how things can only get worse for the planet and its citizens from now. But giving free rein to such bleakness is arguably unlikely to provide much fulfilment, artistic or otherwise. It’s notable, for example, how the buzz around The Handmaid’s Tale dissipated during last year’s second series, with many critics and viewers declaring it ‘torture porn’ and too unrelentingly grim for its own good. It will be interesting to see whether it chooses to introduce a greater light and shade when it returns for its third run in June. Meanwhile Black Mirror has often been at its worst when at its most glibly cynical – and arguably its best single episode thus far was its most idealistic, the third series’ digital love story San Junipero.

At least we’re more engaged with the world than we were before. I’m looking for the good in things, desperately! – Russell T Davies

By contrast, as anyone who is familiar with Russell T Davies’ oeuvre knows, he is not inclined to miserabilism. So while Years and Years may have been inspired by the twin political earthquakes of Trump and the EU Referendum vote in the UK, Davies sees a positive upshot to the fall-out: “weirdly we’re engaging in politics more than ever – we’re more engaged with the world than we were before. I’m looking for the good in it, desperately!” he says.

Although, interestingly, Davies conspicuously avoids addressing the issue of Brexit, and its possible aftermath, aside from a couple of references to confirm it has happened – which a wag might say was in itself a kind of hopefulness, given the ongoing deadlock. As he explains, he decided not to give it more prominence partly because he imagined it would have been all been settled by transmission – but also so as not to repel British audiences: “I want people to watch rather than switching over because, frankly, we’ve all had enough.” Again, it seems, there is only a certain amount of turmoil any one narrative can take.

But fundamentally, the show’s optimism is embodied not in the plot but in its characters. Davies is one of the great humanist screenwriters, and in the Lyons, he has created a clan who, for all their fissures, are compassionate, sympathetic and great fun – as, to use a cliché, they keep (just about) calm and carry on. In one especially bald moment in the second episode, one of the characters lays out how humanity has already ensured its own irreversible, environmental obliteration – but as Davies points out, the scene is “set in a family meal around the table – the brothers and sisters she loves, and their kids, are there, and then they all get drunk and go dancing… [even] when very dramatic things are happening, it’s always told with hope – otherwise there’s not much point”. It’s certainly a tonic to find a near-future story focusing not just on what will change, but also on what will stay the same.

Years and Years begins tonight on BBC1 in the UK, and will be screened on HBO in the US later in the year.

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