BBC's Years and Years: Is this the scariest of all dystopian tales?

Television drama has been gazing into the future for decades and imagining some pretty grim scenarios: alien invasions, robot overlords, nuclear disasters, militaristic dictatorships, plagues and pandemics and pesky zombies.

Traditionally, American television has had the superior financial and technical muscle to bring such scary futures to life on a grand scale.

No British broadcaster in the Seventies or Eighties, for example, would have had the means to mount something as relatively elaborate as the original Battlestar Galactica, with its shiny, malevolent robot race the Cylons, or V, which featured reptilian, hamster-swallowing extraterrestrials, who disguised themselves as humans in order to enslave real humans.

Back then, the studio-bound, pre-CGI Doctor Who was still being pursued down corridors by slumming Royal Shakespeare Company actors in rubbery costumes.

Maybe it’s because of those old budgetary constraints — because of writers, producers, directors and actors having to work that bit harder to make us believe what we were seeing — that British TV’s representations of a dystopian future were always more about ideas than special effects.

Consequently, they were often far more chillingly plausible than their flashy American counterparts.

The original and still most powerful dystopian drama was the BBC’s celebrated 1954 adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, which was transmitted live (twice).

Peter Cushing — who was the biggest star on British TV at the time and would later find even greater fame as a Hammer Films horror icon — played Winston Smith.

The writer of the 90-minute play was Nigel Kneale, who also terrified viewers in the Fifties with his classic Quatermass serials. In 1968, Kneale wrote another BBC dystopian classic, the provocatively titled The Year of the Sex Olympics.

Kneale imagined a future where the elite, who control TV, numb the masses with an endless stream of lowest-common-denominator programmes and pornography.

The controllers have an idea for a new programme, following the trials and tribulations of a group of people left to fend for themselves (and, of course, copulate) on a remote island. In effect, Kneale, always an extraordinarily prescient writer, had foretold the rise of reality TV.

Just as prescient were the Seventies BBC series Survivor and Doomwatch. The first imagined a future where only one in every 5,000 people has survived a plague pandemic.

Though set in the then-present (1972), Doomwatch focused on a group of scientists combating the kind of environmental and technological problems that are now overwhelming our planet and threatening its survival.

In a sense, Years and Years, which ended on BBC1 last night, is the peak of dystopian drama; the sum of all the nightmarish visions of the future that television has been unsettling viewers with for decades.

Unfortunately, the BBC didn’t release advance previews of the finale to TV reviewers in time for deadline. But over the previous five episodes, writer Russell T Davies has presented us with a brilliantly crafted, utterly believable, utterly terrifying depiction of what the next 10 to 15 years could hold, seen through the eyes of a single family, the Lyonses.

The far-right has risen to power around the world. Climate change is causing months of non-stop rain. The ice caps have melted completely — forever. Monkey flu is sweeping Europe. Technology is pervasive, but also invasive and dehumanising (literally, as one character wishes to be a “transhuman”).

In Britain, a demagogue (Emma Thompson’s monstrous Viv Rook) is prime minister. Impoverished communities have been cordoned off into ghettoes patrolled by armed thugs. The BBC has been shut down. Immigrants are being rounded up and banished to what are concentration camps in all but name.

The audience for Years and Years has been uncommonly small, just 1.3 million at the last count. Maybe it’s too close to reality for comfort.

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