Chernobyl Episode 1 Review – 1:23:45

We’ve all seen the documentaries. We all know what it’s about. Kind of. Of course, non of us were there but we’ve all heard the stories. Come to think of it, I can’t think of a drama centred around the undeniable tragedy that happened at Chernobyl.

There was a TV docudrama thing called ‘Surviving Disaster: Chernobyl’ that was on a few years ago and starred Adrian Edmondson but apart from that, I can’t think of anything.

Gamers will know the name of Chernobyl if they’ve played the ‘STALKER’ games in which the story centres around the disaster.

Of course, Chernobyl was the name of the nuclear power facility that suffered a catastrophic explosion in reactor number 4 during a test. The subsequent fallout spread across to the neighbouring city of Pripyat. Today, Pripyat is a ghost town as it lies within the 30KM exclusion zone around Chernobyl. Recently, construction was completed on an enormous dome that covers what remains of reactor number 4. The dome will contain the radiation whilst inside, the core is being dismantled.

When I saw the trailer for this show, I was super excited. I though it looked amazing and really interesting. For a start, it stars Jared Harris who is a brilliant actor.

The character that he plays is that of Valery Legasov who was a real man who (and this is me glancing at his Wikipedia page) was an ‘inorganic chemist’. ‘Inorganic’ presumably means ‘not organic’ therefore ‘man-made’ and one power source that is ‘man-made’ is nuclear energy. Reading further, I see that he was also First Deputy Director of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy at the time of the disaster. Mr Legasov was shortly drafted in after the disaster to conduct an investigation.

Sadly, Valery Legasov took his own life one day after the second anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster and that’s where this show begins.

Mr Legasov (Jared Harris) finishes off recording his own account of the Chernobyl disaster, hides the tapes outside in a vent, gives his cat enough food for a few days and then hangs himself.

The story then flashes back to the night of the disaster and a woman is in her apartment and just as she’s walking past the window, in the distance there is a bright flash and a torrent of fire erupts into the air and then the shockwave hits her apartment. It’s a very neat way to show the explosion because it shows it from the point of view from someone who has no idea what’s just happened. It’s better from an audience perspective than showing the scientists in the control room and there’s a load of science talk and then there’s an explosion.

This disaster was 33 years ago and it’s embedded in history as it is the worst nuclear accident ever. The nearest mankind has come to such an event was the meltdown at the Fukishima nuclear plant in Japan that was damaged by the tsunami which was triggered by a massive earthquake.

Anyone watching this show is watching because they’re interested in what happened at Chernobyl and so they’ll know the basic facts. The basic facts of course being that the explosion occurred whilst they were doing a test of the emergency core cooling feature in the event of a power-failure which required a proper, normal shutdown process of the reactor. Not an emergency shutdown. In addition, the emergency safety and power-regulating systems were turned off. That combined with some flaws in the design of the reactor caused an un-expected power surge which in turn triggered a steam explosion that blew the reactor apart. Everyone knows that. Or rather, everyone who’s read the Wikipedia page or seen a documentary knows that.

We all know about the SCRAM button or the AZ button and the control rods that weren’t inserted properly. We know all that.

The point is, showing the explosion from the point of view from distant onlooker is a good way to kick off the story and a good way to introduce a character. This character? Lyudmilla Ignatenko (Jessie Buckley). We don’t know who she is just yet, but her husband is called Vasily (Adam Nagaitis) and he’s a firefighter who’s called to the plant. So instantly, we know that he’s in trouble. She was also being sick right before the explosion so there’s a good chance that she’s pregnant.

What’s slightly perplexing about watching all this is how everyone seems to be living in blissful ignorance. After the explosion, the people of Pripyat are gathered around to watch from a distance whilst radioactive dust is falling on them and children are playing in it. They obviously don’t know that this stuff is dangerous and potentially fatal. I have learned that in the 80’s the dangers of nuclear energy were kept top secret and that’s fine but here’s my major problem.

This happened in 1986, correct? This happened in the final years of the Cold War which didn’t properly come to a close until 1991. In the mid-80’s the world came close to nuclear war for the first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis in the 60’s. Weren’t these people informed about the dangers of nuclear weapons? About fallout? I know in the UK in the 80’s there was a QED documentary about what would happen if London was struck with a nuclear weapon as well as how to make a DIY fallout shelter out of mattresses. There was also a film called ‘Threads’ released in 1984 about a nuke hitting Sheffield which I’ve seen once and never will again. America made a similar film called ‘The Day after Tomorrow’ which was along the same lines as ‘Threads’, but it was made before in ’83.

The point is that if the UK and the US were making films about nuclear material and the damage that it can do, wouldn’t the Soviet Union have produced something similar? Maybe not a fictional motion picture but a documentary, something educational. Factual. Something to tell them about the dangers of nuclear energy or more importantly, radiation.

The blissful ignorance spreads to the supervisor, Anatoli Dyatlov (Paul Ritter) even after feeling the explosion, knowing that it was big. Whilst his employees are freaking out, inspecting the damage for themselves, getting irradiated and telling their boss of the significant length of the damage, he’s denying it.

Reading into it, this attitude may have had something to do with the attitude of the Soviet Union at the time. They were under the illusion that their plant was totally flawless and there was no danger of anything catastrophic happening to any of the reactors because that’s what they were told. They weren’t informed of any of the risks and also that no nuclear accidents had ever happened before. In fact, there had been nuclear accidents, just not on that scale before.

Whilst mayhem is running wild and all the firemen are getting burned from picking up radioactive pieces of graphite because they don’t know what they are and puking themselves inside out, the even higher ups are huddled in a bunker to determine just how fucked they really are. Dyatlov heads to the owner of Chernobyl, Victor Bryukhanov (Con O’Neill) and tells him that everything is fine even though the roof has been blown off reactor four and a lot of it is on fire.

Here’s where the ‘roentgens’ comes into play. A roentgen is a unit of measurement for radiation in the air and is measured using a dosimeter. The only dosimeters they had to hand went up to 3.6 roentgens an hour and so that was the number that was used even though the meter was maxed out and they couldn’t rule out the possibility that the number was higher than that. It was higher than that. They’re told by a plant employee that it’s actually 15,000 roentgens an hour which is way beyond lethal. Of course, they don’t believe him and start accusing the dosimeters of being faulty. That’s when they condemn the guy likely to death by making him stand over the reactor to see what he can see. He doesn’t want to do it, but they tell him that he’ll be fine. He knows otherwise. Why go? What’s the worst that could happen? He loses his job? Well if he goes up there and looks into a nuclear reactor that’s on fire then he will most likely die. He does it anyway. When he goes up and looks inside, he turns around and his face is red. On that red face is a look that says, ‘I knew this would happen’.

The show does a lot of showing without telling which is good. Usually, they’d have a doctor giving a voiceover explaining the effects of radiation poisoning but in this instance, the effects are shown on the characters. First, the staff mention the taste of metal in their mouths and then their faces go red as their getting burned and one guy who leans against the doors to the reactor to hold it open has blood pouring out of his shoulder and hip. This is only in the first episode and unfortunately, there is much more gruesome stuff to come.

Reviewing shows and films about real life tragedies is uncomfortable for me because I keep having to remind myself whilst I’m writing that this was a real event where real people died.

Valery Legasov is called at the end to be involved in the investigation and his position is made clear. He is there to answer questions about the RBMK reactor and not to offer his opinion.

The first episode ends with the two workers primarily involved in the test, Alexandr Akimov (Sam Troughton) and Leonid Toptunov (Robert Emms) immersing themselves in radioactive water in order to open water valves to keep cool water flowing through the reactor.

The last shot of the episode is the rather sombre image of children going to school and a bird falling out of the sky, landing on the pavement and dying.  A foreshadow of what’s to come. It was a really good way to end the show.

I think it’s good that this program was made in this day and age with the technology that we have now and what we can do in terms of visual effects because we’re able to give a near enough accurate visual representation of the kind of scene that they faced in Chernobyl after the explosion. We can see the kind of horror that they faced. There are shots of the core as it’s spewing smoke and you can see the devastation of the explosion.

In summary, I’m really looking forward to the next four weeks. The guy who wrote this has clearly done his homework and it will be interesting to see how the events that followed are shown.

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