Mar 13, 2020

“Years and Years” showrunner on when tech’s great and grim

The near-future sci-fi series jumps ahead one year in each episode.

The BBC-HBO show “Years and Years” combines the politics, economy and tech of 2019 and imagines how it all might evolve over the next 15 years. Emma Thompson is in the show as a celebrity British politician with autocratic leanings, but the show mainly follows a family as they deal with the world changing around them.

I spoke with Russell T. Davies, who created and wrote “Years and Years.” He’s also worked on “Doctor Who,” “Torchwood” and “Queer as Folk.” He said the tech in the show is, like life, complicated. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Russell T. Davies (Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images)

Russell T. Davies: Yes, that feels very part of the show — good and bad. I think some of the saddest moments is [when] you have a world war being announced on television, and the little 5-, 6-year-old kids just sit staring into their phones playing their games. Yes, there’s bad stuff, but that’s very easy to talk about. And yet, there’s very, very good stuff. I tell you, actually, when I made the choice to center this around a family, that came from one of the good sides of current tech, which is very simply the WhatsApp group. I’m one of three kids. My two sisters [have] two kids each — we’re a nice family, we all like each other, we get along. But up until a couple of years ago, as my nieces have grown up — they’re in their 20s — two, three years ago, I would have texted them twice a year “Happy birthday!” and “Merry Christmas!” I went out the other night and I came back to the WhatsApp group to 53 messages because someone had cooked a lasagna with butternut squash. We have these glorious conversations. Our family is genuinely closer. So yes, there’s good stuff. If you choose either good or the bad, you’re not a very good writer. You’ve got to get both in there, because in the end, it’s not the technology. It’s the people. 

Molly Wood: It’s great, because some of the tech feels really immediate, like a headband that projects a holographic Snapchat filter for your face that everyone can see in the world. It’s futuristic, but it’s also completely realistic.

Davies: Yes. If that was invented tomorrow, we’d all go and buy one. I find those filters fascinating. Everyone my age sends each other photos of themselves looking like a dog. That whole rash of Instagram filters, like “What dog are you?” or “What cake are you?” I’m certainly a Battenberg. I love those filters, and I’m fascinated by the way we love those filters. The moment someone invents a filter you can see in the real world, not just on your phone, I would be phoning you from my palace on the moon. 

Wood: Do you have conflicting feelings about tech, or is it like so many things where it just reflects the real world?

Davies: I think it’s both. I think you have to be entertaining, and that’s why there’s some good gags in there, some great characters in there and some fantastic actors in there. I think a drama that doesn’t set out to entertain is an odd thing. But entertaining doesn’t mean being glib or daft. I think I’m getting older. I think my stuff is full of warnings now, to be honest. It’s funny, I’m now writing, I’m now in the middle of an edit of my next drama, which is HBO Max over there [in the U.S.], which is about the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. I’ve just watched an edit of an episode warning about viruses, and we step out of our front doors and there’s a virus on the loose. You can’t learn those lessons from history enough. What a world.

Wood: It’s funny, when I started watching it, I was telling people, “I’m taking a little bit of comfort in a darker timeline as the show went on.” There is something comforting about the passage of time. You fast forward in these episodes and increasingly terrible things happen. But also, people are still living their normal lives. Talk to me about the sense of perspective. 

Davies: Yes, that’s right. It was quite a hard show to sell initially, with its concept of moving forward in time and every episode moves forward a year. I sat there saying — after I’d been questioned about 57 times — “Do you know what else moves forward a year in every episode? ‘Downton Abbey,’ and so did ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ many years ago.” It’s actually not a form of drama I’ve invented, it’s simply that this drama is going to the future by a year every episode that had people scared. But in terms of drama, in terms of how the characters are getting on — who loves who, who’s going out with who, who’s cross with who, who loves who — to take yearly jumps in there, it’s a very simple dramatic device. I knew that would work, I had the confidence of those forebearers to say, “This will work.” It was to get that creep into the story, which in societies when dictators arise, or where huge changes are made, where society might swing from left to right or right to left, it doesn’t happen overnight. That’s why I wanted, what ends up as like a 15-year span on the show, is to show these things slowly creeping up on you. As you’re more concerned with having a tea, or falling in love, or having a divorce, that’s actually the stuff, the meat and drink of your life while the bigger shadows are falling on you unseen. So I needed that stretch to show a small picture of people living within a bigger picture. 

Wood: Episode six introduces this idea of a virus. With the coronavirus happening right now, is that something you would have done differently, or is that one of the many? 

Davies: It’s interesting, because actually it comes up in episode six as a means of isolating people within the story. To be honest, now, I’m seeing a virus like this in action, it would have dominated episode six too much. It’s amazing how it dominates every conversation now, and episode six as a drama — not not as a document of the real world but as a drama — has stories to wrap up. We need to know whether lovers will be reunited, whether marriages will stay together. So it’s very interesting now that I had done a lot of research into viruses and what would happen, so I knew the differences between endemics and pandemics, but I chose to background it and this is a separate drama in itself, really. My goodness, this is some strange days again. It just keeps getting madder. What did we used to talk about in 2006? What did we talk about? Can you remember? Interest rates, cows and cattle? What did we talk about, guinea pigs? I don’t know.

Wood: I can’t remember what we talked about two weeks ago even. Do you feel anxious? When you reach inside creatively and you pull out — I had several friends say [this] to me about this series, and I agree, that it feels like you looked into our brains, imagined our worst possible scenarios and pulled them out and put them on screen. Does that make you anxious?

Davies: Talking about my family, that lovely family I was just describing. One of my nieces has just had twins, one year ago — lovely, lovely baby twins, and that makes me anxious. I look at them thinking, “I do believe in global warming. I do believe we’re in trouble. I do believe that as a result, the political situations, I think that the heating up of our political situation is tied into global warming.” On a vast scale that’s very — for the first time in my life I feel for little kids, thinking, “I’m not sure you’ll have a better world. I’m not sure at all you will.” I have got anxiety, and as a writer, that is bound to come out in my work. I do have to say that “Years and Years” does have a happy ending, happy-ish ending, sort of bittersweet, but it is a happy ending, because I also believe in that. I think real life could be disastrous enough. When you’re writing fiction, you should reach for a happy ending, because it’s hard work. Happy endings are tough to find, and miserable endings are easy. So I try to look for hope in it, and I do have hope in people — we are great survivors and great thinkers. I think most people are nice. I think people are fundamentally nice. That word we’re not allowed to use — nice — because it seems like a bland word, but I think it’s a beautiful word. People are nice. I have to hope that our niceness prevails.

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

If you hadn’t heard of “Years and Years,” you are really not alone, although it did show up on a bunch of end-of-2019 lists as some of the year’s best TV. Wired’s Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy had a piece from last month about discovering the show and how great the characters and the tech are.

Also watching

Tech stocks have been the beating heart of the stock market for quite a stretch, but the famous five — Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Alphabet — lost a combined $400 billion on Thursday, as Wall Street had its worst day since 1987. On the plus side, the founder of Foxconn, the Chinese manufacturer that makes much of Apple’s components, said it was coming back online faster than expected after being closed due to the coronavirus outbreak. 

As more and more people start to work from home, we are keeping an eye on what’s happening with internet connections and IT support. We’ll have more on that next week. Bloomberg reports that Italy’s national internet network has seen a two-thirds increase in traffic, and that with the country’s schools closed, a lot of that traffic is coming from people playing the multiplayer games Fortnite and Call of Duty. 

And like lots of other folks, we were all working remotely for part of this week, and everybody did fantastic. We’re going to be hearing a lot more about how to work from home in the coming weeks. Here are some quick do’s and don’ts for Zoom meetings: DO mute your microphone and wear a shirt. DO NOT change your background to funny things while the boss is talking because you got bored. DO NOT try to get a private tour of people’s bedrooms or conduct your meeting while lying on the couch. It’s still work, people. It’s still work.

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The team

Molly Wood Host
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer