The futuristic family drama Years and Years is currently hurtling towards its pulsating climax on BBC One. Tracing the election of a populist entrepreneur to power, followed by isolationist policies, closed borders and a crackdown on civil liberties, Years & Years could hardly feel much more “now”.
In fact, writer Russell T Davies’ initial idea can be traced back 30 years. What’s more, he partly road-tested it in largely forgotten mini-series Torchwood: Children Of Earth almost exactly a decade ago.
Stripped across the BBC schedules for a week in summer 2009, this sci-fi five-parter found immortal bisexual time-and-space buccaneer Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) and his telegenic young team battling to stop a mass alien abduction of the world’s children.
After two patchy series of “normal” Torchwood - the anagrammatically-titled, adult-oriented Doctor Wh spin-off about a kickass unit dedicated to defending the Earth against alien threats - “Whopremo” Davies let his fertile imagination run riot with this single nightmarish story, which he believed to be Torchwood’s final bow.
At the time, before screening primetime dramas over consecutive nights became commonplace in a bid to replicate binge-viewing, it felt like a genuine TV event. Rewatching Torchwood: Children Of Earth today (it’s available on Amazon Prime Video or for free on Daily Motion, if you can tolerate the endless ad breaks), it stands up really rather well.
The surprisingly dark series followed the arrival on Earth of an extraterrestrial species dubbed “the 456” after the radio frequency on which they communicated with humanity. To demonstrate their fearsome power, the creatures made all the planet’s children suddenly stand stock still, then chant the same chilling message: “We… are… coming.” It was unsettling horror fare, reminiscent of John Wyndham’s classic The Midwich Cuckoos.
Soon the 456 offered mankind a stark, Sophie's Choice-style ultimatum: hand over 10 per cent of the world’s child population or the entire human race would be exterminated. When international governments reluctantly agreed to comply with the 456's demands, military and political top brass had to decide how to pick which children to sacrifice. Would it be random or somehow selective? Cue some deeply uncomfortable ethical conversations.
There were grim scenes of soldiers dragging tearful kids out of schools and homes, with their protesting teachers and screaming parents held back at gunpoint. This was followed by a descent into rioting, totalitarian chaos and martial law, while Harkness and co desperately raced to save the day.
Their mission involved impressive explosions, whizzy gadgetry, a ruthless black-ops team and more killer twists that I won’t spoil, in case you fancy revisiting it too.
It was bold, smart and ambitious in scale. British terrestrial TV hasn’t made much that matches its audacity since - at least until Years & Years came along. Dreaming up an ending, however, initially eluded Davies. It was here that Years & Years’ dystopian premise comes in.
In fascinating behind-the-scenes book The Writer’s Tale, Davies wrote: “I took a deep breath and… well, I gave away one of the best ideas I’ve ever had. The point being, it wasn’t a Torchwood idea. It was a notion I’ve had in my head for about 20 years and a series I’ve always been dying to write, and something I’d talked about at length with [Doctor Who producers], hoping that we could make it together one day. They loved it. They always said, ‘Let’s do it,’ ahead of any other idea I’ve ever had.
“It was, essentially, a family drama, in which the world goes to hell, ending with our nice, safe, comfy western society descending into anarchy or a military state. Those nightmare regimes that we see in Africa, or Bosnia, or in history - but right here, on our doorsteps, with ordinary people like you and me, and our mums and dads, and our brothers and sisters, not just watching it, but part of it.
"Brilliant idea. And now I find myself using it up on Torchwood. I love Torchwood, but this was a good six hours of drama, maybe 12 hours, maybe three years of drama, that I’ve been planning for decades, condensed onto the ending of a sci-fi spin-off thriller.”
To Years and Years viewers, this all sounds uncannily familiar. Thank goodness, then, that Davies but managed to resist self-sabotaging his long-term passion project for the sake of a Torchwood ending.
Elements of the idea did eventually make it into Torchwood: Children Of Earth, most vividly its vision of an uncomfortably near-future Britain descending into riots, chaos and a dystopian police state.
In Years & Years' "kitchen sink sci-fi" style, we witness tumultuous events in Torchwood through their effect on several families, rather than one: Captain Jack’s secret daughter and grandson; the extended clan of his lover-cum-sidekick Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd); and perhaps most movingly, on the household of Home Office bigwig John Frobisher, played by Peter Capaldi (who would, of course, return to the “Whoniverse” four years later as The Twelfth Doctor).
Capaldi has rarely been better than in his devastating final scene and surely marked himself out as a potential Time Lord in the process.
The are other striking similarities. Innocent people go mysteriously missing in both series. Both have governments that victimise asylum-seekers, and are guilty of social engineering in the face of population growth and dwindling resources. “Civilisation is about to fall into hell,” says Torchwood’s Frobisher, in what’s also an apt summary of events in Years and Years.
There’s a doomed gay romance at the heart of both stories. A crushed stampede of people at the doors of MI5’s Thames House HQ in Torchwood eerily echoes Years and Years’ bank shutdown scene. Torchwood heroine Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) even wields a “blink” device similar to that used by Years and Years’ Vivienne Rook (Emma Thompson).
Sure, traces of Years and Years’ DNA can also be found in other Russell T Davies creations, notably 2003’s apocalyptic The Second Coming and several of his Doctor Who scripts (especially 2008 alt-history episode Turn Left), but Torchwood: Children Of Earth is the current series’ closest companion piece.
It was something of a miracle that Torchwood: Children Of Earth turned out as well as it did. Torchwood sounds a tad like “tortured” which was apt, because making it was a painful process. Due to BBC budgets cuts, it was compressed from a planned 13-episode run to a five-part miniseries, which Barrowman said felt like a “punishment” from the Corporation.
Davies had to substantially rewrite scripts due to the unavailability of actors Freema “Martha” Agyeman and Noel “Mickey” Clarke, whose presence in the spin-off had been teed up by the previous year’s Doctor Who finale, the Dalek adventure Journey’s End. He replaced the pair with newcomer Cush Jumbo, who has since found fame in The Good Wife and The Good Fight.
Yet due to some typically dazzling Davies writing, powerful performances and confident direction, the five-parter was nevertheless a triumph. When it exceeded expectations for its unpromising midsummer slot by pulling in high ratings of almost 7 million, Davies said a surprised BBC Controller rang to congratulate him.
The death of one major character caused a fan outcry and a petition to bring them back. Off the back of its surprise success, a fourth series was commissioned: iffy Transatlantic production Torchwood: Miracle Day.
A decade later, hindsight confirms that Davies ultimately decided against completely cannibalising his long-gestating Years and Years idea for Torchwood. It’s lucky for us viewers that he did. There was no way he could have done justice to all his fizzing ideas about global geo-politics, climate change, social upheaval and our potentially frightening near-future by squeezing it all into an action-packed sci-fi finale.
Instead, Torchwood: Children of Earth stands as both a partial blueprint for Years and Years and a fiendishly compelling miniseries in its own right. In this era of environmental awareness, it's also evidence that even our foremost TV screenwriters like to recycle.