'Years and Years': The Epitome of Russell T Davies
Updated: Feb 21
*Spoilers ahead for the entirety of Years and Years, it's all on iPlayer currently if you're interested*
Before I start I'd like to get this out the way - Russell T Davies can do no wrong. The man's obvious passion for character and his skill to imbue his writing with an overwhelming array of emotions is more often than not such a joy to watch that he's become one of the most exceptional screenwriters currently working. It's also tremendously lucky that he's so happy to talk about his process too.
RED - the Manchester-based production company responsible for the show recently released a podcast with Davies (you can listen to it here) in which they discussed his beginnings, his beliefs, work ethic and experience writing the story of the Lyons family as they progress through the next fifteen years of British life. What struck me the most with the show itself however, apart from being brilliant (you can read my review here) is that it managed to become an amalgamation of many themes and ideas Davies had littered throughout his entire filmography. In the podcast he recalls hearing the idea that " You will have every idea you ever have by the age of sixteen. Then you will spend the rest of your life trying to figure that out". That line appears to have stuck with him, and myself too, and it makes the familiarity of Russell's work (and anyone else's for that matter) seem all the more impressive.
First of all, Years and Years' social commentary largely takes the form of the worryingly-realistic approach of business woman-turned politician Vivian Rook (played by Emma Thompson). Her behaviour is erratic and tenacious, insatiable to the common people and I doubt I'm the first to make comparisons to The Master's run for Prime Minister as Harold Saxon in season three of Doctor Who. Not only that, but as Years and Years progresses into the future, Davies unveils some tech ideas surely withheld from his Who showrunning days that are enough to give Charlie Brooker a run for his money. The first in the show comes in the form of a natural progression of a Snapchat Filter as worn by Bethany Lyons, 17.
Unfortunately I'm not able to post sections of Davies' screenplay (which are available online) due to BBC copyright - but I can paraphrase:
'A thin, transparent panel sits BEFORE HER FACE like a halloween mask, held up by the ears. It's remarkably thin and only visible when it catches the light. It IMPOSES A FILTER over Bethany's face. Like a Snapchat filter, only placed over her real face. She has it set on DOG, with BIG EYES, BLACK NOSE and FURRY EARS. These elements move with her as a microphone makes her voice high and funny.'
What seems like a natural progression on paper, then becomes nightmarish but still inevitable on screen...
And that's just the beginning. The Lyons' world has their own version of Alexa named 'Signor', implants are soon able to connect peoples' brains to the internet and Bethany soon becomes a half human, half machine hybrid fully embracing the digital age in a quest to become pure data. The worldbuilding here, just technologically, is enough to create dozens of set pieces in a science-fiction show, but Davies wisely chooses to follow the ongoing themes of family and love above all else. Just like he's done, many times before. After all, his tenure on Doctor Who back in 2005 portrayed The Doctor and his adventures from the eyes of Rose Tyler (she's 19, her bedroom's a mess, and she's got another bloody day at work, and she's so much better than this). His era of the sci-fi drama was held together by its cast of characters to the point where, at the end of season four, the notion of one big reunion felt as large as the threat the Earth just happened to be under at the time.
The themes of desperation and the 'respectability meltdown' in the cases of Stephen Lyons' affair with a woman at his work and inevitable downfall harken back to Davies' Cucumber series. Rory Kinnear who plays Stephen does a terrific job at playing the character with potentially the most layers, he's the eldest sibling with the strongest ties to their cheating father, and the only only who continues to feel close to him despite him being exiled from the family for his actions - foreshadowing and almost contextualising Stephen's decisions later on. Much like Henry's midlife crisis to live a flamboyant, stereotypical gay lifestyle in Cucumber, Stephen is pushed between money troubles and an overwhelming sense of guilt into making a stupid decision as a way of feeling something new. Harkening back to the quote above regarding your library of creative ideas, RTD's had the final confrontation between Celeste and Stephen in his head for roughly twenty-five years. Sometimes it's all about waiting for an idea to fit in.
In somewhat of a double-edged sword, RTD states in the podcast that he currently finds most solace in the miniseries formula (my ideas are six hours long) and in that, he's able to overlap shock traumas and the theme of irreparable damage and loss into his work. The death of Daniel (Russell Tovey) in episode four is not only a stark look at the refugee crisis but reminded me a lot of Lance (Cyril Nri) in Cucumber. Both are incredibly moving and necessary steps in their respective stories, and whilst Queer as Folk shares this trait too, its setting and purposes are different. It's also another example of RTD's ability to portray multiculturalism. Of course all's been said about the openly-gay writer's Queer as Folk ushering in the portrayal of gay people at the turn of the century to the masses, but Russell's characters have always been as diverse as they come. Again, in the podcast he reflects on the character of Viktor Goraya (Maxim Baldry) - a Ukrainian refugee whom Daniel falls in love with. To tell the story of the refugee crisis and abstain from killing off the character commonly associated with the news stories, instead opting to kill a believed-safe, white, middle-class character actor is a triumphant act of dramatic weight that every viewer surely felt. Viktor isn't an archetype or wholly encompassing of the refugee crisis, he's a human being and is presented as such, and it speaks volumes that this change is clearly felt. Back when Queer as Folk first debuted in 1999, the trio of protagonists were reflections of a gay lifestyle as a whole, yet as society has changed so has Davies' writing, and in 2015 both Cucumber and Banana were instead packed with three-dimensional characters with their own problems and personalities...many of whom just so happened to also be gay.
"I didn't want people to say 'You created a refugee to die in your drama. That's what refugees do in these things'".
I think in many ways, RTD is plagued to be a continuously modern screenwriter. If there were a single episode I'd use to sum up his most frequent ideologies....and bare with me on this...I'd say it's the Doctor Who episode The Long Game. The unique blend of pop-culture and darksided postmodernism that's sprinkled in across his banter-fuelled dialogue, the fascination of technology and its negative connotations on society, mankind's continuous survival at any cost (even its soul) - all of these things are found in some way or another across the man's work. It's all those ideas he had by the time he was sixteen, and he's simply been recontextualising it for our enjoyment ever since.
There is one that's missing from the cold-hearted episode of Who though. It's cliche sounding but, love plays such an important part of so many of Russell's stories, even when it's not a primary focus. Years and Years never forgets the connection of the Lyons, and Edith (Jessica Stevenson) becomes the walking embodiment of her family's solidarity by the end of its completed run. With such a strong grasp on such a universal emotion, it's difficult to imagine him taking a wrong turn anytime soon.
Just a side note, I don't mean to compare much of Russell T Davies' work to his time on Doctor Who, important as it may be to myself personally. I just feel as though due to its wide subject matter there's a lot of connections that can clearly be seen with his other work. Now come on, go and watch some good television. Get on with it.
Years and Years is currently airing on HBO in the US.
It is available now on BBC iPlayer.
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