Apocalypse Lite

In “Turn Left”, a Russell T. Davies-scripted Doctor Who episode from 2008, a series of calamities befalls a parallel-timeline Earth in which the Doctor is not around to prevent them. Disasters averted in previous episodes proceed unhindered, resulting in the destruction of London (by a crash-landing spaceship Titanic) and the irradiation of the surrounding countryside. Things go from bad to worse. Eventually a right-wing government starts rounding up foreign nationals and carting them away to concentration camps, to the despair of Donna Noble’s grandpa who quavers “it’s happening again!” as his neighbours are driven away in the back of a truck.

Davies’s Years and Years is a sort of long-form (six episodes) expansion of this premise, with the Doctor (and other extra-terrestrial agents) wholly excised, and the almighty kaboom that sets everything in motion being provided by a Trump-launched American nuke. I avoided watching it for a while, in the belief that an even distantly realistic depiction of the plausible near future was likely to be unbearably traumatic. In the event, the blows which rain down upon its central cast are softened by Davies’s broad humour, which introduces touches of the ribald and the absurd (a sex-robot which looks like a clunky 1980s children’s toy, with a vacuum cleaner nozzle attachment), alongside some sensitive character-writing. I think this is the first time I’ve heard a Murray Gold musical score and thought “that’s actually quite good”, rather than wanting to hop in a time machine and strangle him at birth (there’s a cunning use of the “look to the future now” melody from Slade’s Merry Christmas Everybody as a motif, which becomes increasingly eerie and melancholic as the story progresses). Overall, the series makes a strong case for the argument that the best bits of Davies’s Doctor Who were always, in fact, the bits without the Doctor — which may be part of why the 5-episode Torchwood special Children of Earth was so strong.

The series does some interesting things with the BBC drama convention which dictates that universal humanity must always be represented by a middle class family (the Lyonses) living in an enormous house. There’s always something a bit E. M. Forster-ish about this framing - as Forster announces near the start of Howard’s End (1910):

We are not concerned with the very poor. They are unthinkable and only to be approached by the statistician or the poet. This story deals with gentlefolk, or with those who are obliged to pretend that they are gentlefolk.

Assets are ruinously lost, jobs evaporate, everybody’s station and circumstances are irreparably diminished, yet the gentlefolk of Years and Years remain among those for whom tidy sums can be found, or scraped together, whenever the necessity arises: real poverty remains unimaginable for them. Connections outside of the charmed circle are made on the basis of sexual desire, as in the case of the gay Ukrainian refugee Viktor Goraya with whom Daniel Lyons forms a relationship. But the family are largely socially insulated and politically passivated — with the exception of the activist Edith Lyons, played with reckless hauteur by Jessica Hynes, who typifies the middle class “rebel” engaged in adventurous acts of infiltration and sabotage backed by an anonymous network of like-minded insurgents. The only character who significantly associates outside of her class is the disabled single mother Rosie Lyons, who finds herself confined on an estate designated as a “criminal” zone, fenced off and placed under curfew.

I’ve been thinking for a while about the strange timeliness of J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, which explicitly holds an Edwardian-era bourgeois family to account for its complicity in the violence and exploitation meted out to Forster’s unthinkables. There is something neo-Edwardian about British society in the late 2010s: we no longer have a word for “gentlefolk”, but many people might identify with the condition of Forster’s Leonard Bast:

The boy, Leonard Bast, stood at the extreme verge of gentility. He was not in the abyss, but he could see it, and at times people whom he knew had dropped in, and counted no more.

There is a sort of chasm separating those who might conceivably “count”, in terms of the public imaginary (e.g. families in BBC dramas), and those who can no longer be counted except by poets and statisticians. The labour movement, the welfare state, workers’ education, comprehensive schools and so on were all supposed to close or eliminate this chasm; the project of neo-liberalism and austerity has been to force it open again. Years and Years imagines the endpoint of this process as the “Erstwhile” concentration camps established by Vivian Rook’s government, the “abyss” becoming a “tarpit” into which people are thrown only to disappear.

When the Lyons matriarch, Muriel, delivers her final-episode speech about how the whole family are responsible for the state of the world in which they now find themselves, there is a distant echo of Priestley’s argument, in An Inspector Calls, that the play’s bourgeois family are collectively responsible for what has happened to their victim, Eva Smith. This collective reponsibility is not merely an accumulation of individual wrongdoings, but a structural complicity, implicating the entire form of life which the bourgeois family reproduces.

This accusation is weakened, in Davies’s version, by an emphasis on individual consumer choices — purchasing the £1 T-shirt, using the automated tills uncomplainingly — but the point about no longer having to look the woman behind the till in the eye is a sharp one. Rather like Forster, Davies imagines human connection as the foundation of ethical life — “Only Connect!” and the rest must inevitably follow — and disconnection and wilful ignorance (Rook’s “I don’t give a fuck!”) as the fundamental vices eating away at our ability to imagine and create a better society. (It is telling that activist Edith’s final apotheosis is her transformation into a disembodied consciousness, encoded in water molecules, whose pure substance, as she tells us in her last moments, is “love”). This, also, is a somewhat neo-Edwardian way of picturing the problem, to which Priestley’s more militant post-war socialism brought the retort that the bourgeois family is also an economic institution, and that sexually consorting with those in the abyss might equally be considered the continuation of exploitation by other means.