Russell T Davies’ new drama series Years and Years is based on an idea the writer has had for decades. He’d always imagined it to be its own project, but when trying to find an ending to Torchwood’s third season, the miniseries Children of Earth, there was a brief moment when his long-gestating idea almost became a grim reality for Captain Jack and friends.
Years and Years—currently airing on the BBC and set to air on HBO later this month—follows a 15-year period of tumultuous social upheaval and change in a fictionalized, uncomfortably-near-future Britain, told through the story of a single family in Manchester as they get caught up in the country’s descent into a nightmarish dystopian police state. From the election of an inexperienced populist to power, to a descent into chaos cracking down on civil liberties, it’s all alarmingly of the current moment—but it almost wasn’t, and instead took on an a more sci-fi bent when Davies almost used it as the climax of 2009's Torchwood: Children of Earth.
The third season of Torchwood revolves around the arrival of a species called the 456 on Earth, who offer a grim choice: either 10 percent of the world’s children will be handed over to them, or the entire human race will be exterminated. When the world’s governments make the decision to acquiesce to the 456's demands, there’s grim scenes of soldiers dragging children away from their homes to be part of the exchange, and a momentary descent into totalitarian chaos as team Torchwood races against time to defy the 456. So it’s easy to see, with the gift of hindsight, how Davies was considering using the idea he’d had for Years and Years as part of its culmination.
But Davies stopped himself, mainly because he thought the idea was not Torchwood-y enough, and he didn’t want to self-sabotage a killer idea he’d been thinking about for decades just because he was struggling to think of a climax for his weird Doctor Who spinoff. The writer revealed that moment of crisis in the (excellent) 2010 book The Writer’s Tale, picked up on by fans—and noted by the Radio Times—now that the Years and Years series has become a reality:
We had bits of plot, but no story, no essence, no real reason for [Children of Earth] to exist. So, I took a deep breath and… well, I gave away one of the best ideas I’ve ever had. The point being, it wasn’t a Torchwood idea. It was a notion I’ve had in my head for about 20 years, and a series I’ve always been dying to write, and something I’d talked about at length with Nichola Shindler, and Phil Collinson, and Julie [Gardner, former Doctor Who producer], hoping that we could make it together one day. They loved it. They always said, ‘Let’s do it,’ ahead of any other idea I’ve ever had.
It was, essentially, a family drama, in which the world goes to hell, ending with our nice, safe, comfy western society descending into anarchy or a military state. Those nightmare regimes that we see in Africa, or Bosnia, or in history—but right here, on our doorsteps, with ordinary people like you and me, and our mums and dads, and our brothers and sisters, not just watching it, but part of it. Brilliant idea. And now I find myself using it up on Torchwood. I love Torchwood, but this was a good six hours of drama, maybe 12 hours, maybe three years of drama, that I’ve been planning for decades, condensed onto the ending of a sci-fi spin-off thriller.
A decade later, we know of course that Davies refused to cannibalize his idea for Torchwood—even if elements of it clearly influenced how Children of Earth ultimately played out. But now that Years and Years is its own reality (if not quite the three years of drama Davies had idly envisioned it could be), it’s interesting to see what could have been when it comes to what was almost the final end of Torchwood. Perhaps what should have been its final end, given how Miracle Day played out.
Years and Years is set to air on HBO starting June 24.
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