“I wonder what happens next?” pondered Jessica Hynes’s dying character at the bravura climax of Years and Years (BBC One). This was pretty much the premise for Russell T Davies’s speculative family saga, which followed one clan over the course of 15 years into the future. It ended with a grand finale which fully satisfied and will stay with viewers for some time.
As we rejoined the Lyons family, it was 2029. The totalitarian regime of populist Prime Minister Vivienne Rook (Emma Thompson) was tightening its grip, banning journalists who asked difficult questions and revoking the BBC’s charter. Meanwhile, refugees and asylum seekers were being corralled into concentration camps, where viruses and disease were allowed to spread to keep the population down. “It’s very British,” observed Ukrainian dissident Viktor (Maxim Baldry), “killing with influenza.”
Against this grimly apocalyptic backdrop, the Lyonses found themselves pitched against each other politically and forced into drastic action. Rosie (Ruth Madeley) faced up to the privatised police grunts surrounding her estate and, in an air-punch moment, broke down the fence dividing the community.
Meanwhile, when young tech fiend Bethany (Lydia West) revealed the unpalatable truth that her father Stephen (Rory Kinnear) was helping to implement Rook’s genocidal policies, his ex-wife Celeste (T’Nia Miller) and crusading sister Edith (Jessica Hynes) teamed up to expose his employers and rescue their one-time brother-in-law Viktor – although that was just a bonus.
“We didn’t just come here to save you,” activist Edith told him. “We came here to start a war.” Fittingly, it was one fought with information. They blew up the camp’s signal-blocking device (another air-punch), enabling escapees to beam the truth about Rook’s death camps around the world in an instant.
The uprising spread. The tyrant toppled. Rook became the first PM to be arrested in office and was sentenced to 27 years for conspiracy to murder. In one of several smart twists, though, it was rumoured she’d been spirited away by her shadowy Russian puppeteers, while a lookalike served jail time on Rook’s behalf.
Stephen returned from the brink of suicide and turned whistleblower. His sister Edith, succumbing to radiation poisoning, became one of the first “transhumans” to have their consciousness downloaded to the internet. One ordinary family had helped change the world, making amends for initially sitting by and watching it go to hell in a hand-assisted vehicle.
Dialogue early in this episode once again was a little speechy and preachy. But Davies could be forgiven his lapse into polemic because it was merely an hors d’oeuvre to the propulsive, pulsating last half-hour. As music surged and the pace grew feverish, director Lisa Mulcahy's cameras cutting between action-packed set pieces, it was testament to Davies’s exuberant writing that he prevented the plot buckling under its own audacity.
He kept the focus on the Lyons family, humanising his prescient vision. This was kitchen sink sci-fi. Dystopia viewed through a domestic lens. The script was studded with incidental details about our imagined future: electric food, a monkey flu epidemic, Notre Dame reopening while the Leaning Tower of Pisa finally fell over.
We finished in 2034, where it became clear that the whole breakneck ride over the past six episodes had been dying Edith downloading her memories, like Black Mirror with a big heart or Doctor Who for grown-ups. Rosie had a baby and named it after her late brother Daniel (Russell Tovey), whose death two weeks ago lifted this series to another level.
A happy-ish ending, then, albeit with a warning to stay vigilant as another potential despot hoved into view. This one was a wacky fool with a spinning bow tie and doubtless a sinister agenda. As grandmother Muriel (Anne Reid) had predicted: “Getting rid of one monster means the next one is waking up inside its cave. Beware the tricksters. Beware the clowns. They will laugh us into hell.” Still, at least there was no more drunken dad-dancing to Chumbawamba.
Across its ensemble cast, the performances were uniformly superb. Rory Kinnear was heart-wrenching as a good man driven to dark deeds by sheer desperation, but it was the Lyons women who stole the show: Reid as the indomitable matriarch, aghast at what the world had become; Ruth Madeley as the beating heart of the family; T’Nia Miller and the promising Lydia West, emerging as staunch mother-and-daughter heroines; most of all, Jessica Hynes, who turned from firebrand to beatific presence and ultimately ascended to cyber-heaven.
Years and Years has clearly been an acquired taste: adored by those who stuck with it but by no means a ratings mega-hit. Everyone involved, though, should be saluted for bringing something so challenging to terrestrial prime time.
This milestone series joins Chernobyl, The Virtues and Gentleman Jack as one of the best TV dramas of 2019 so far. Consummate craftsman Davies also wrote one of last year’s standouts, the starkly contrasting A Very English Scandal. We’re fortunate to have such a such a versatile talent wowing us with such prolific regularity. A poignant closing caption dedicated this episode to Andrew Smith, Davies's husband who died of a brain tumour last year.
“There’s nothing special about our family,” concluded Edith. “We lived through it, that’s all, like anyone. Like everyone.” There was something very special about how their story was told, though. Thoughtful, thrilling, life-affirming and emotionally devastating, this was TV for both heart and mind.