“There was nothing sane about Chernobyl”. These are some of the first words that we hear when watching the opening episode of Sky and HBO’s joint production Chernobyl, the story of the 1986 disaster that shook the world. The more the series goes on, the more this statement is shown to be true – the whole accident and its aftermath is the very definition of insanity.
The first episode of the series sees us transported straight into the disaster. Although we view the explosion from the “safe” distance of a small, dark flat in Pripyat’, the town nearest the nuclear power station, most of the episode is then centered around the scientists, and later firemen, in the power plant itself. What follows the explosion is an extraordinary amount of chaos, confusion and pure disbelief as to what has happened. Several senior scientists and officials do not fully understand the severity of the situation right away. Some even deny the presence of graphite on the ground, a tell-tale sign that the reactor core of the power plant has exploded. It is hard to watch, knowing with hindsight that mistakes that are made handling the disaster within the first couple of hours will later cause so much destruction. Nevertheless, the drama is extremely gripping from the get-go.
A stellar cast portrays the real scientists, party men and ordinary citizens who were there. Paul Ritter plays Dyaltov, the supervisor of the botched safety test that was taking place at Chernobyl that night, who remains adamant (despite the concerns of his fellow scientists) that an explosion has not taken place and the core reactor is still intact. Around him, young engineer Toptunov (Robert Emms) and shift supervisor Akimov (Sam Troughton) are beginning to comprehend what has happened.It is only when top scientist Legasov (Jared Harris) is appointed to deal with the disaster that panic really begins to set in. Up until his involvement, members of the team immediately sent to discuss the accident (including Gorbachev) have not understood the scale of the catastrophic explosion from their base in far-away Moscow. However, once disbelieving senior committee member Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård) is sent to the power plant with Legasov, he is able to corroborate the scientist’s opinion that the nuclear reactor actually has exploded. From here, the committee are finally able to grasp just how devastating the situation is.
But perhaps the most heartbreaking storyline is that of Vasily Ignatenko (Adam Nagaitis), a fireman who is first called to the accident, much to the dismay of his wife Lyudmilla (Jessie Buckley). Dismissing the situation first as an ‘ordinary roof fire’, Vasily is ready to help, not having been told of the gravity of the fire he would be dealing with. This is perhaps what echoes most strongly through the series – citizens remain painfully unaware of just what has happened. Even the evacuation announcement in Pripyat’ (taking place more than twenty-four hours after the accident) states that residents will be able to return in a couple of days, and upon leaving their apartments they should simply take important documents and maybe a couple of items of food.
One of the reasons which perhaps makes this drama so incredibly absorbing is the fact that we know that it is isn’t simply fictional; almost all of the main characters are real people who were first on hand to deal with the disaster. The only notable exception is Ulana Khomyuk, a fictional nuclear physicist played by Emily Watson, who is refreshing to see in a team of otherwise mainly male scientists. However, the first phone call to the fire department we hear and the evacuation announcement in Pripyat’ are the original recordings, just as the news items that we see are, from both American and Soviet media. But it is more the fact that the action makes us connect the ‘Chernobyl Disaster’, a phrase which we’ve almost become desensitised to, with the real people who had to deal with the fallout. For a Western audience, seeing English-speaking actors portray real Soviet citizens makes the story come alive in a way that hasn’t been done before – as the show’s writer Craig Mazin has said, we’re hearing them as they would have heard themselves.
If you haven’t been watching already, I would strongly recommend that you do. This is not just another well-made TV drama – this is a real event which happened only a little over thirty years ago and is still impacting lives today, in terms of both long-term health conditions and the displacement of citizens. It is important from a historical perspective – through the compelling action it educates its audience on a disaster which is rarely examined thoroughly in mainstream education. There are several tear jerking-moments, making scenes extremely difficult to watch at times – make-up artists have done an incredible job depicting injuries, but some viewers might find this upsetting. Despite painful moments, though, the series is something that really should be watched, especially when so much brilliant acting and writing have evidently gone into its production.
Chernobyl is shown weekly on Tuesdays at 9pm, Sky Atlantic.The first three episodes are available on catch-up online