Threads for the Digital Age: YEARS AND YEARS

There is no doubt in my mind that Years and Years would have been a catastrophic horror show of a television series had it not been written by Russell T. Davies.

This six-part one-shot series shows just how unique Davies is to the landscape of television, particularly British television. It is, completely, an ‘RTD’ show. It is histrionic and human and warm and silly and dark and messy and filled with characters who are both people you know or have met or exist in your family, yet at the same time only exist in the stylistic world of RTD’s fiction. Years and Years feels like a culmination of Davies’ journey as a writer so far. It has the pain and anguish of homosexual love (Cucumber, Queer as Folk) against a backdrop of repression and fear. It has a global and expansive reach, covering a multitude of social and philosophical points (The Second Coming). It rushes head-long into near science-fiction and almost madcap plots against government villains caricatured at times to the point of hilarity (Doctor Who). It throws a hundred ideas into the pot and while not all of them stick, a remarkable amount do.

The reason Years and Years works, ultimately, is that it is full of hope and humanity at the core of what is otherwise a terrifying existential drama – a Threads for the digital age. Threads was a groundbreaking BBC film produced in 1984, in the dying embers of the Cold War (and pointedly before the Chernobyl accident, so brilliantly dramatised recently for HBO & Sky by Craig Mazin), all about the effects of a nuclear apocalypse on British soil. Though I was just a wild eyed, innocent, unaware two year old at the time, Threads very much stayed with audiences who watched it for a long time, even into the present day; a striking argument for why nuclear weapons should never be used on a civilian population. It was a drama about consequences. Years and Years is the same. I thought at first it was a show about the death of democracy and the erosion of a system we have perpetuated for the last century but, in truth, RTD is writing about the death of *humanity* in various forms, literal, psychological and allegorical. He is writing about a Western society that is losing, and has very much partly lost, its way.

His hope lies in the central family who ground the entire story, around whom the world begins falling apart. The Lyons family are RTD’s hope, his hope in us.

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Black Mirror – ‘Bandersnatch’

There is every possibility we may look back upon Bandersnatch, the latest episode of Black Mirror, and be amazed at just what a pioneer it was.

Black Mirror has seeped into popular culture in a remarkable way since Charlie Brooker moved from being one of TV’s most entertaining cult comedians, when it comes to analysing popular media, and into the realm of writing and producing what could be the most innovative and format breaking television show of the modern age. Black Mirror has come a long way since its first Channel Four episode, telling the disturbing story of a David Cameron-parody being blackmailed into having sex with a pig live on television. 

What began as a darkly comic examination of our evolving relationship with new media, akin to Brooker’s earlier scripted series Dead Set (zombies meets Big Brother), has grown into a 21st century Twilight Zone; a dark, indeed black mirror for our own fears, anxieties and cautionary tales about the technology we are allowing to dominate and consume our lives. While Brooker’s show, on being snapped up in a savvy move by Netflix and getting a hefty budget increase in the bargain, has benefited from A-list movie stars and directors wanting to be involved, the modern day Rod Serling has always had one eye on the past as he puts one foot in the future.

Bandersnatch feels like the ultimate realisation of Brooker’s fascination with retro 1980’s and 1990’s culture, particularly gaming culture. Fionn Whitehead’s troubled protagonist Stefan Butler could be Brooker in another, alternate life.

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The X-Files – ‘Rm9sbg93zxjz’

MULDER: We need to be better teachers.

The X-Files has always been interested in technology, right from the word go, and ‘Rm9sbg93zxjz’ (which we will henceforth refer to as its translation, ‘Followers’) feels like the ultimate, final (if this is to be the last season) encapsulation of our pervasive anxiety around surrendering our world to artificial intelligence. More than any other X-File that concerns AI, it serves as a potent cautionary tale.

Much has been made about how the second revival season of Chris Carter’s seminal series owes a debt to Charlie Brooker’s modern science-fiction anthology show Black Mirror. ‘Followers’, honestly, could have been an episode of Brooker’s series, a show which absolutely owes a debt to the stylistics and conceptual ideas put in place over the last quarter-century by The X-Files.

Carter’s show has, in many ways, come full circle in many aspects across Season 11, and ‘Followers’ truly embraces and explores our combination of social media, applications which track our movements and allow us quick and easy access to everything from dining to transport to home appliances, and the accursed addiction to the ‘black mirrors’ of our ‘smart’ technology. It suggests, as many cautionary tales about modern technology do, that this obsession may be far from a good thing.

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Black Mirror Season 4 – A Unified Theory

Black Mirror arguably has found its place as The Twilight Zone of its generation, and the fourth season only serves to remind you of its allegorical power.

There’s a strong argument that the third season, which aired last year, cemented its position in that regard. That was the point Netflix pulled off one of its biggest coups – stealing Charlie Brooker’s anthology series from British terrestrial Channel 4 after two successful three-part series which brought together some of the strongest up and coming British actors to tell twisted tales regarding the ominous infiltration and immersion of technology in our lives.

Almost always set in a future ever so slightly ahead of our own, never too far to be alienating or unrecognisable, Brooker’s stories tapped into those primal existential fears we all feel – that maybe, just maybe, all these black screens, social media platforms, VR gaming innovations and so on, are destroying our culture and society rather than enriching or evolving it. Black Mirror posits a world filled with people unable truly to utilise this advanced, game changing technology often in a positive way, and frequently the majority of episodes end up being cautionary tales of some sort.

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