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The Russia-Ukraine War and the Prophetic Fiction ‘Years and Years’

The Russia-Ukraine War (2022) as highlighting the significance of the prophetic BBC-HBO mini-series Years and Years (2019).

Years and Years (2019): The Lyons family of this avant-garde prophetic dystopia, as they typically follow the (typically shocking) news.

In mid-late February, reports of Russian intentions to invade Ukraine began to occupy the news media—upon which one thought immediately came to my mind: Years and Years.

For those who have seen this 2019 mini-series, its relevance to what is now the Russia-Ukraine War should already be apparent, particularly to residents of the UK, since the show is primarily oriented towards developments in Britain. In this article, I first offer a summary of why Years and Years is generally significant, before revealing the specific details that directly relate to the currently developing Russia-Ukraine War and its wider ramifications.

Years and Years (2019): Raising the Bar of Prophetic Fiction

Years and Years is as a dystopian sci-fi drama of unprecedented predictive realism. Indeed, the signature narrative style of the series – including a device I call narrational hyperdrive (to be described shortly) – is in itself a statement of its prophetic intent, whereby the Lyons family we follow is held firmly against the backdrop of the ultra-realistic news reports that the Lyons family follows. The Lyons – a post-millennial British family, within which a broad spectrum of contemporary social ‘identities’ are represented – thus function as a surrogate through which viewers are immersed into a realistic prophetic drama, exhibiting the various kinds of socio-political upheavals people are to expect in the coming fifteen years—beginning right now.
    This almost explicit predictive intent is highlighted at the beginning of the first episode, where the quasi-real news broadcast reports the death of Doris Day, who had actually died earlier that day, i.e. on the very same day as episode one was broadcast—and that would be just for starters. Not long after the family members have been introduced to the viewer, housing officer Daniel dramatically monologues his concern at the state of the world; and, unsurprisingly, the aptness of his concerns and sentiment has an uncomfortable resonance with the general malaise of that time:

“But now. I worry about everything. I don’t know what to worry about first. Never mind the government, it’s the sodding banks, they terrify me. And it’s not even them, it’s the companies, the brands, the corporations, they treat us like algorithms. While they go round poisoning the air. And the temperature. And the rain! Don’t even start me on Isis. And now we’ve got America, I never thought I’d be scared of America in a million years. But all we’ve got is fake news and false facts and I don’t know what’s true any more, what the hell sort of world are we in? Cos if it’s this bad now… (to the baby) What’s it going to be like for you? In 30 years’ time? 10 years? Five years? What’s it going to be like?”

Daniel Lyons, Years and Years episode one

As the dramatic music builds, the show cuts from Daniel to a montage composed of news clips alternating with family events, together documenting the family’s changing life amidst the various societal, political, and world developments over the next five years (that is, from 2019 to 2024). As the viewer soon realizes, this technique of narrational hyperdrive is the distinguishing modus operandi of Years and Years, serving as a device through which the series’ writer (Russell T Davies) reveals his plethora of social, political, technological, cultural, and global forecasts*. To one degree or another, each prediction poses implications to the real world that are troubling to the viewer—and most of them are troubling to a high degree indeed. This unsettling affect is particularly so because the believability of the content (the predictions) and the incisiveness of the form (the realism) together create a sense of likelihood – not merely plausibility, which would be disturbing enough – that the depicted developments may actually transpire in the immediate future.

*I don’t know whether or not Davies has commented on the predictive intent of the series; but more to the point is that, particularly in this case, I consider such comments irrelevant: for Years and Years is the clearest example I have yet seen of informed predictive intent in a fictional TV show, surpassing even Black Mirror in this regard. Furthermore, writers of fiction implicitly have the prerogative to downplay or deny a predictive intention (or allegorical meaning, for that matter) in their works or aspects of it.
    One of the more interesting and recent examples of this – let’s call it prophetic denialism – is the rapper Dr. Creep and his 2013 song ‘Pandemic’, in which he said “2020 combined with coronavirus, bodies stacking.” Prediction? According to him (and Snopes), nope: “NOT a prediction, simple as that.” There you have it: NOTradamus, simple as that.

While Daniel’s ‘What’s it gonna be like…?’* monologue-build-to-montage becomes a characteristic motif of Years and Years, our introduction to it sets the ominous tone of the series, as it really conveys a sense of the world spinning out of control in a kind of crescendo of chaos. The central and most effective aspect of this technique is the montaged news reports, which employ a style of rapid-fire delivery that feels like an onslaught of dystopian developments. Indeed, these montages are backed by a kind of apocalyptic orchestral music that greatly amplifies the doomsday-esque affect generated by the narrative; whilst the composition of the music itself induces a striking sensation of dissonance that becomes an aural signature of the series.

*Years and Years Episode 1 | The Next 5 Years (YouTube clip)

Standing on the Shoulders of Black Mirror

A fitting alternative way to describe Years and Years is to compare it with Black Mirror, for the two series are similarly designed as an explicit form of predictive programmes and are both avant-garde in this respect, progressing the genre of prophetic fiction to a new level of directness. To date, the techno-social themes and concepts explored in Black Mirror have been disturbingly resonant, instilling a sense of inevitability in the social consciousness that its spectra of dystopic depictions will (more or less) become manifest. Years and Years, however, actually surpasses this high bar of predictive dystopian realism by focusing its revelations through the lens of a domestic setting; that is, the life of a quasi-regular family born of the current socio-cultural context (i.e. real life 2019). Thus, while Black Mirror adopts an anthological format and often employs metaphorical devices to convey the essence of its premonitions, Years and Years uses the relatable template of the family drama combined with a newscast-based chronological device, through which the writer depicts the techno-socio-politico developments he foresees on our behalf.*
    To sum up the comparison between the two series: Black Mirror conjures a nightmarish sense of ‘dystopia, soon’, whereas Years and Years engenders a palpable apprehension of ‘Dystopia… NOW’.

*It’s interesting to note that the actor Rory Kinnear, who played the Prime Minister of Britain in the inaugural episode of Black Mirror (The National Anthem) was cast as the father of the Lyons family (Stephen) in Years and Years. Perhaps it’s because Kinnear does such a great job of portraying an emasculated, humiliated man, i.e. as he does so memorably in both.

Packed with Prescience for The Coming Years (and Years)

While the many predictions within Years and Years pertain primarily to England, they nevertheless carry similar implications for the rest of the Western world and, to a lesser extent, the westernized world. Furthermore, developments that transpire over the course of the story include some major international and world events, presented from the perspective of their impact on British society and (via our surrogate Lyons family) individual lives. Hence, the social themes and technological concepts in the show have a general relevance to the civilized world.
    For viewers who value the insight-laden entertainment form of predictive programmes, the six one-hour episodes of Years and Years are highly illuminating in this regard. Alternatively, I have included two links at the bottom of this article that each feature a list of the show’s various predictions. Of interest here, however, is one particular geopolitical event – that is, one of the show’s predictions – and its domestic repercussions within the story (i.e. further predictions): Russia invades Ukraine.

Years and Years’ Predictions Pertaining to the Russia-Ukraine War

1. Russia Invades Ukraine, precipitating 2. An Influx of Ukrainian Refugees into Britain

One of the various news channels reporting the Russian invasion of Ukraine in the first episode of Years and Years.

The first episode of Years and Years begins with a report that the Russian army has moved into Ukraine in order to “maintain stability”, after the Ukrainian army had taken over control of the Ukrainian government. In response, the UK government have brought in thousands of Ukrainians, whom we see being accommodated at a temporary housing site.

The British refugee camp for Ukrainians, with housing officer Daniel Lyons (left) just prior to meeting his new love interest, Viktor, the Ukrainian refugee who goes on to become the star of Years and Years.

Of particular significance – with respect to prescient fiction writing – is that one of the Ukrainian refugees, Viktor Goraya, immediately becomes a central character of the plot and story of the series. Indeed, by the show’s end it is readily apparent that Viktor has been written to be the most likeable and sympathetic character of the entire cast, from the start to the conclusion of the series. Upon meeting housing officer Daniel Lyons, where Viktor discloses that he was tortured for being gay in Russian-controlled Ukraine, the romance formed between the two becomes the pivotal subplot of the series. This begins with Daniel leaving the husband he had recently married, Ralph; who subsequently reports Viktor for illegally working whilst being an asylum seeker, thereby instigating Viktor’s deportation back to Ukraine and Daniel’s epic struggle to get him back to England.
    Whereas most of the Lyons family and friends are shown as likeable but morally flawed, Viktor is portrayed as especially likeable, attractive, innocent and victimized, these qualities conveyed to the viewer by the familial regard the other members display for the young and affable refugee. In fact, towards the end of the series, his victimization is even extended to the family itself, in that they unjustly blame the death of Daniel on Viktor (who not only didn’t argue about it, but actually accepted the blame), only to accept him back into their hearts afterwards. Not incidentally, the tragic death of Daniel had resulted from another instance of Viktor’s victimization: having illegally escaped his homeland to Spain, an extremist party (left wing, ironically*) takes over the government and decrees that all non-citizens will be repatriated, hence spelling Viktor’s potentially fatal deportation back to Ukraine. In an attempt to save Viktor, Daniel determinedly goes to Spain to illegally sail them both back to the UK, which results in Daniel ironically* dying the typical death of a refugee: he drowns on a rubber boat on the way to asylum land (i.e. along with other unfortunate refugees).

*Note that these two ‘ironies’ actually represent subtle socio-political commentaries on the part of Davies, the show’s writer. For example, when Daniel is bemused that the newly-installed far left government in Spain has decreed the expulsion of refugees, Viktor explains “You’ve got far right, you’ve got far left: eventually you meet in the middle”—thus alluding to a common denominator of political radicalism: oppressive policies.

This central sympathetic role of the Ukrainian refugee Viktor is significant with regards to the prescience of Years and Years, in that not only did the writers predict the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, but they seem to have also foreseen the British response: to emphatically express sympathy for Ukraine against Russia, which is predictable; but more significantly, to welcome thousands of Ukrainian refugees into Britain, which has not happened in reality—but not yet. For as soon as I began to write this article, indications that this international arrangement is imminent already began to appear in the news media. Hence, should an influx of Ukrainian refugees soon become a reality of British society, it could well be said that Years and Years – through its sympathetic and central character Victor – primed the national consciousness for the deeply sympathetic reaction of what would in effect be a policy of mass immigration that is bound to have considerable social ramifications.

Viktor Goraya: the especially likeable, attractive, innocent, and victimized Ukrainian refugee who is the sympathetic star of Years and Years.

3. Hyperinflated Fuel Prices

In episode two, the betrayed Ralph discovers his husband’s lover Viktor working at a petrol station. After Ralph pays and returns to his car, he discreetly takes a photo of Viktor to spitefully report him to the authorities, i.e. so as to have him deported for illegally working whilst being an asylum seeker. Viktor is shown to be innocently clueless to this, as he does not know who Ralph is; and the scene is another example of how the Ukrainian refugee character Viktor is designed to portray a good natured victim.
    More significant in this scene, however, is a small detail that could easily be missed for the character drama: the exorbitant-yet-normalized price of the petrol. For when Ralph is at the till to pay, Viktor routinely informs him that it will be £120—and the transaction is completed as if that price is ordinary.
    In the UK, fuel prices have increased considerably since Years and Years was broadcast in 2019. However, the expected international ramifications of the recently initiated Russia-Ukraine conflict – even this early on in its development (i.e. the first few days) – are already being foretold by political commentators. And one of the first domestic consequences reported as being an expected result of the conflict is the cost of fuel soaring, due to the fact the Russia is one of the largest suppliers of oil and gas.
    The price of petrol in the UK has already hit a record high as a direct result of the Russia-Ukraine War. Will it lead to hyperinflated fuel prices, as insinuated by Years and Years? Suffice to say that, day by day, the electric car is looking more and more like it will be a wise investment (notwithstanding the cyberwars, of course)…

4. Rolling blackouts blamed on Russian cyber attacks

Russian sabotage is a quietly running theme in Years and Years, a subtly occurring motif of which is the unpredictable and ongoing blackouts attributed to Russian cyber attacks. Combined with an energy crisis, the ongoing cyber attacks have resulted in the “digital crash” which, as explained in the show, necessitates a return to paper: “The power cuts mean that so much information is being lost, we’re going back to printing things on paper, just like the old days.”
    Could a Russian cyberwar cause a “digital crash” that leads to a state of rolling blackouts? As I continue to write this article (which I’m now desperately trying finish, lest reality overtake it), the hacker collective known as Anonymous – who are ironically world-infamous – has declared cyberwar on Russia.—Better stock up on the paper then…

Closing Thoughts

Even upon my first viewing of Years and Years back in mid-2019 – i.e. that past era of comparatively ‘normal’ years before the global pandemic turned the civilized world on its head – the predictive bent of the show struck me as reflecting a writer of great astuteness at foretelling the essence, if not the details, of what the near future holds for Britain and, by extension, the world.* More recently, I felt it was a good time to rewatch the show, now being two years into the current era of cataclysmic changes that befell the world mere months after the series was first broadcast. For the global pandemic has triggered the kind of social upheavals that strongly resonate with dystopic tone of Years and Years, such that the apocalyptic score of the show would, I imagine, form a disturbing harmony with a Years and Years-like montage of news clips documenting the key events of these last two-and-a-half years.

*Noteworthy here is that the series suggests that there will be a global pandemic, described as “monkey flu” on a news report in episode six. Not quite NOTradamus, but nevertheless…

The news report of the Russian army invading Ukraine, from the first ‘hyperdrive’ montage in episode one of Years and Years, back in mid-2019. The soldiers are even wearing face masks, for some reason that escapes me…

As it happens, my rewatching of Years and Years occurred one week before the news reported Russia’s intent to invade Ukraine. And having seen the mini-series a second time just prior to the Ukraine crisis – that is, including the international ramifications of the war – the sympathetic Ukrainian character Viktor and his uniquely pivotal role in the series strikes me as an even greater instance of the writer’s prescience. For presently, as I write these closing words [hurries to finish], the news narrative is building focus on the plight of Ukrainian refugees who are currently numbering over one million souls.
    To be clear, there is no starring role or protagonist in Years and Years; rather, the show is designed as an ensemble of characters composed of the Lyons family, who represent three generations of British people, with various other characters in their lives revolving around this family dynamic. Of all of these characters – both the Lyons and their associates – Viktor is the closest character to being a star of the show; in that, when all is said and done, it is clear that Viktor is the one whom the audience are led to admire and sympathise with most completely. Thus in Years and Years, we have a British series written to ‘star’ a Ukrainian refugee who had just arrived fleeing a Russo-Ukrainian war—which is quite remarkable, given what has developed not even ‘years and years’ later.
    Finally, the writer’s (essentially) correct prediction that there would be a Russia-Ukrainian war is actually more predictable that it might at first seem. When the speculation of Russia’s intent to invade Ukraine began to gather momentum on the news, this development also recalled to my mind an interesting and significant book I had read (years and years ago) in the field of geopolitical strategy and analysis. Indeed, the detail that recalled the book to me was that the author not only identified Ukraine as a key country in determining Russia’s relations with the western world, but he incisively explicated the matter throughout the text.

Fitting here, I suppose, would be to reveal the book and the relevant details in the next episode article. [cut to Credits Links]

Related Links

Author: Simon Kanzen

I value reading substantial literature, enjoy thought-provoking entertainment, and above all, I think every day. With Stepping Stones, I develop my thoughts in writing and share references to relevant media, intending for other readers and thinkers to find these writings useful.

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