The fantabulous sci-fi contraptions of Russell T Davies

“The world is getting madder.” We examine the role of technology in Years And Years, Doctor Who, and Russell T Davies' other TV work

Warning: contains spoilers for Years And Years

Russell T Davies may have plenty of experience imagining strange new futures from his time on Doctor Who, but from its politics to its technology, Years And Years felt eerily current in its vision of the next decade or so of UK history.

Davies has reportedly had the idea for the ending of this family-centric drama in his head for more than 25 years, but with things as they are, it’s understandable that the writer-producer was keen to get it out on BBC One as quickly as possible once production began. Despite being set in the near future, it’s hard to think of another recent drama series that has felt quite so timely as it has gone out.

Many reviews of Years And Years have focused on the somewhat recognisable political situation that the show represents. The six-part series is inspired by the idea that “the world is getting madder”, which is stated and re-stated by the Lyons family from early on. While the show is far from science fiction, it has its share of imaginary technological contraptions created for dramatic purposes.

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By comparison, there’s slightly less appreciation of the technological side of things Davies imagines. Dispensing with any of the sort of technophobia that reviewers (often unfairly) ascribe to Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, the writer has several generations of characters through which to explore our continuing tech reliance, while also developing currently recognisable bits and bobs to their logical extremes.

Looking back over his most recent series and some of his earlier work, RTD has a fair few dramatic patents pending, although it’s usually more for the way in which he uses plot devices than for their originality. From Dark Season to Years And Years, via a whole lot of Doctor Who, let’s have a gander at some of those contraptions…

 

Behemoth

From: Dark Season

In retrospect, Davies’ CBBC drama serial has been compared to both classic and new Doctor Who episodes alike. While his Who scripts rarely go all in on stories of technology gone wrong, (which are more Steven Moffat’s forte) Dark Season features a group of schoolchildren trying to stop a plot to gain control of a long-dormant war machine.

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Built on artificial intelligence, the Behemoth computer is said to have been designed and then abandoned by the Ministry of Defence. Its immense power attracts villains like Mr Eldritch and a neo-Nazi known as Miss Pendragon, who discover that the machine is buried underneath the main kids’ school sports field.

How close are we to getting it? Davies has openly said that the series was designed as comic-strip action with no further subtext. Still, surely the appeal of the story for young audiences is that you wouldn’t know if it was buried under your school already…

 

Universal roaming superphone

From: Doctor Who

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Rose Tyler doesn’t get far on her travels through time and space before asking to ring home. In The End Of The World, the Doctor zaps her phone with the sonic screwdriver and enables her to call Jackie in 2005 from a space station in the year five billion. Martha Jones and Donna Noble both upgrade their phone plans to “universal roaming” too, granting each of Davies’ new Who companions a tether to their homes in contemporary London.

It’s a key feature of RTD’s extensive revamp of the series, fleshing out the traditional companion role by giving the characters more inner life. The culmination of this more connected approach comes when the superphones fail to reach the Doctor in The Stolen Earth and all of his allies chat via the subwave network instead. He loves a good group chat in his scripts, does Davies.

How close are we to getting it? The subwave network is essentially a super-charged Facetime or Skype and we’re there already. Although signal strength can now be bolstered by a Wi-Fi connection, we’re no nearer to calling yesterday.

 

Signor

From: Years And Years

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That sort of link is paramount in Years And Years too, which mostly makes sense of the drama and the characters through frequent scenes staged on the Lyons’ family group chat. Unlike the Doctor’s super-strong space signal, the use of the Alexa-style virtual assistant Signor isn’t a million miles from the way that families interact now.

It’s an absolute gift to Davies who has always included scenes that cross-cut between opposite ends of a phone line in his drama. The Lyons’ various meetings with triumph and disaster are shared by the whole family through Signor, from laughing about Rosie’s disastrous date with robot-lover Tony in episode one to discovering horribly that Viktor has made it home without Daniel in episode four.

How close are we to getting it? Recent studies have estimated that 11% of UK households now have virtual assistants. We’re some way off the level described in the finale though, where the technology is described as airborne, leaving Muriel “talking to the walls like Shirley Valentine.” The helpful voice search result that accompanies that reference is accurate though.

 

Archangel Network

From: Doctor Who

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Harold Saxon is the designer of the Archangel Network, a fourth-generation mobile network launched in 2008. But he’s also the Master and the high-tech global network, which was controlled by 15 satellites in orbit around the planet, was merely a way of creating a low-level psychic field to get him elected as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

As a digital version of the mind control techniques traditionally used by the Master, it’s quite an insidious creation. It’s possibly less effective as the means by which the entire population of Earth wish the Tenth Doctor back to full strength after a year of being aged nearly to death, but hey, it’s pretty wild that they had 4G in 2008 there.

How close are we to getting it? The UK’s first 4G network wasn’t launched until 2012 and as far as we know, nobody ever hijacked it to hypnotise the population or rejuvenate a Dobby-fied David Tennant. On a side note, Viktor mentions in Years And Years episode six that the standard is 6G by 2029, which sounds about right at the pace we’re going.

 

The Blink

From: Years And Years

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14 years on, it’s depressing to think that Davies doesn’t even have to come up with a sci-fi solution to sell the idea of an outsider sweeping into Downing Street, but still, entrepreneur turned celebrity mouth-for-hire Vivienne Rook does have her tools. She’s first seen using a device called a “Blink” in episode two, during her first campaign to become an MP, to underline her point about the dangers of connectivity.

Davies has said in interviews that he agrees with the points that Rook makes about children being exposed to certain content but doesn’t lose sight of the way she exercises the handheld device’s signal-blocking capacity to make that point. This foreshadows the use of “Mega-Blinks” at the Erstwhile concentration camps in the finale, setting Rook’s authoritarian methods in stark contrast with the close connectivity of the central Lyons family.

How close are we to getting it? As Rook says, it’s currently illegal to own, operate, or manufacture mobile phone jammers in countries around the world. As much as you may fantasise about having one to hand at the cinema, or during a pub quiz, this is probably for the best.

 

Robotic TV presenters

From: Doctor Who

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Courtesy of asides featuring modern news presenters and Rook’s cameos on shows like Have I Got News For You and Pointless, parts of Years And Years‘ TV landscape remain the same. If they’re still the same in 198,000 years’ time though, we might be in trouble.

Davies’ first Doctor Who series finale began with Bad Wolf, a satire in which the Daleks are essentially dredging up old Earth TV formats as a means of abducting and harvesting human beings. While creations like the Anne-Droid and Trine-E and Zu-Zana aren’t the most fearsome baddies the Doctor and friends have ever run across, it’s an interestingly morbid take that positions contemporary television formats as the most lasting legacy of humanity.

How close are we to getting it? Experiments with digital and robotic presenters are ongoing, with Chinese news agency Xinhua unveiling the world’s first AI presenter last November and Russia’s state TV channel funding the development of “humanoid” robot presenters.

 

Filter mask

From: Years And Years

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One of the most immediately weird and striking images that Years And Years has offered up is of Bethany wearing her hologrammatic filter mask. In typical RTD fashion, we’re shown the Snapchat-inspired deer and baby filters that the teen uses to talk to her annoyed parents, before revealing that she’s crying behind it.

Iconic though it may be, we don’t get to see the mask outside of one or two scenes. As well as remarking that he wishes he could invent and patent the thing himself, Davies has also explained that the masks disappear after episode one because the VFX budget couldn’t support them all the way through the series.

How close are we to getting it? Davies is probably right to wish he’d patented them, but even if holograms are no closer to being consumer technology, at least we’ll always have Pakistani politician Shaukat Yousafzai’s cat face.

 

The Adipose pendant

From: Doctor Who

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In some quarters, more than a decade after Partners In Crime aired, debate rages on about whether Miss Foster’s insidious scheme was a good diet plan or not. With tweaks to stop people being completely converted into cuddly (and highly merchandisable) alien babies, who’s to complain?

One of the maddest sci-fi inventions Davies ever gave to Doctor Who, Adipose Industries’ technology is controlled by the free pendant that’s given to all customers. When activated remotely, the pendant acts as an inducer that kicks off the birthing process, converting fatty tissue (and occasionally organs, muscles, and bones too) into marshmallow-shaped infants. The fat just walks away…

How close are we to getting it? Chance would be a fine thing, wouldn’t it? If you’re looking to lose weight, you might wish to explore other, more plausible options.

 

Electric food

From: Years And Years

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Rosie Lyons works in a school canteen at the start of the series, but in episode two, she loses her job because self-heating ready meals are introducing. We chart the further development of sustainable food replacements at family barbecues and through Rosie setting up a food van that does all kinds of new burgers later in the series.

In episode six, the Lyons family tuck into electric food, which Ruby merrily explains is the product of agitated water molecules and bacteria. It’s still flavoured by honest-to-goodness chestnuts, so it’s not 100% artificial, but the emphasis on food that was “never alive” is what lingers.

How close are we to getting it? Research into alternative and sustainable foodstuffs is ongoing, with various plant-based meat substitutes available to buy. Frankly, it’s nice that Davies had some fun with suggesting his own – in a series this bleak, it affords him the opportunity to be a bit more Willy Wonka.

 

Transhumanism

From: Years And Years (and arguably, Doctor Who)

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One of the biggest talking points about the series’ vision of the future bubbles under the main plot throughout the series, as the teenage Bethany comes out as a “transhuman”, coupling issues of body dysphoria with the philosophical movement that suggests future symbiosis between humans and machines.

In a sci-fi context, it might put you in mind of Doctor Who‘s Cybermen, which were originally created by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis as a response to the emergence of so-called spare-part surgery in the 1960s. But for all of its weird and wonderful extensions of current technology, Years And Years isn’t really science fiction for most of its running time.

Instead, the allegory foregrounds the generational differences between Bethany, a sad kid who becomes considerably more animated once she’s able to explore her identity through cybernetics, and her parents, who are initially mortified by the idea that she wants to “throw her body away”.

What follows is a hugely sympathetic approach to modern identity issues. Davies explores the potential exploitation on that new frontier, both through the black-market surgery ring that entraps Bethany and her fellow transhuman friend Lizzie in episode three and through her indentured servitude to the Home Office after they fund her upgrades, but also lets her character revel in it.

Ultimately, the fulfilment of the transhuman sub-plot is the closest Years And Years gets to science fiction proper. In the gorgeous final sequence of the series, in which Edith, not Bethany, is the first to have her consciousness recorded to the cloud. Unlike with the Cybermen, whose modern models upgrade or delete humanity indiscriminately, Edith’s decision to record herself on those same water molecules that give us electric food is represented as the peak of her humanity.

How close are we to getting it? There are plenty of cautionary tales about the singularity, with humans becoming machines and vice versa, but Years And Years‘ final big swing isn’t about how plausible it is at all, but about what we think we can achieve.

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As Edith appears to inhabit the old Signor box and Muriel asks “Is that you?”, the final line is left hanging for the audience. It doesn’t ask where we are now so much as what we’re willing to be. It’s as fitting an end as we can imagine to one of the year’s most original and compelling dramas.