Post-antibiotic world is Dr Who producer’s new science fiction vision

By Michael Woodhead

9 Jul 2019

A world in the very near future in which antibiotic resistance condemns people to death from a scratch is the latest dystopian vision of Dr Who writer/producer Russell T. Davies.

The BBC/HBO series Years and Years is ostensibly about the rise of a populist politician in the UK – played by Emma Thompson –  but the underlying theme is about a how a family in the 2020s is affected by developments in science and technology for good and for bad

As well as the impact of worsening climate change, the family sees the implications of antibiotic resistance, as an estranged father dies after a minor accident involving a bicycle lead to sepsis from a scratch that is untreatable by any antibiotics.

And yet as some drugs fail, the rise of stem cell therapies enables a grandmother to have her age-related macular degeneration successfully treated. The only catch is that these expensive new therapies are no longer subsidised by government, so only those who can find $20,000 for the “NHS Plus” treatment can access the sight preserving treatment.

Another of Davies’ medical predictions is that CRISPR gene editing technology comes into wider use, with babies cured of hereditary conditions in the womb. But this leads one of the family members – who has spina bifida – to question where the tinkering will end whether this means ‘imperfect’ people like needs to be ‘fixed’.

Breath tests and fingerprint scans have become commonplace as a form of biometric identification, and synthetic healthy meat and modified, hangover-free alcohol have become  acceptable consumer items.

Another recurring theme in Years and Years is the enthusiasm for sub-dermal implants of smartphone-like digital technology – the so-called ‘trans’ trend. But in some cases this is done illicitly in a form of offshore medical tourism by unscrupulous ‘cowboy’ medical teams operating on ships.

Davies is best known for revitalising the fortunes of the classic science fiction Dr Who series from 2005 onwards. But for Years and Years he said he wanted to produce a ‘sober’ portrayal of the incremental changes we may see in science, technology and society over next few years.

“I wanted to get the balance right between a world that says there are cures for cancer coming your way — there is stem research that will alter your genetic code, there are solutions to all these problems — and yet, in your country, people can’t afford health care, and in my country, the waiting lists are three years long.

He didn’t consult any medical experts for his predictions, but just relied on his imagination and a bit of background reading.

“I didn’t want to get carried away with the advances. I trusted myself to put a filter on the whole thing. To pull it back. You know, we all have opened up a newspaper that says, “A brand-new cure for cancer will be available in 10 years. But these things take a long, long time to filter through into civilisation.”

Davies says he believes there will be ‘vast changes’ in medicine, science, technology and the environment over the next 10-15 years, and he hopes the series will start discussions about how we prepare for this, as well as the impact of catastrophic climate breakdown.

“I think we’re immensely clever, and once we reassess these issues, we might devote ourselves to finding our way out of it. “

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