‘Chernobyl’ isn’t a disaster movie, that’s not what was intended. “When a nuclear reactor explodes it is not the explosion that is the horror – it is the aftermath”, says Writer and Executive Producer Craig Mazin. “It was the beauty of the human stories that I found so moving, so terrifying and so heart breaking, but also uplifting”.
HBO & Sky’s five part drama ‘Chernobyl’ premiered on Tuesday, in what transpired to be a chilling and intense start to the series. A dramatisation of the event, ‘Chernobyl’ depicts the nuclear power plant disaster that happened in Northern Ukraine in April 1986.
The atmosphere feels bleak and cold. The programme features a muted colour palette throughout, true to its era. Helping to capture locations as they were then, some of the power plant scenes took place at Ignalina, a closed nuclear power plant in eastern Lithuania. The reactor was roughly the same design as Reactor #4 at Chernobyl, and shared a design flaw which contributed to the Chernobyl meltdown.
Within the first few minutes of the opening episode, the reactor has already exploded, and engineers at the nuclear power plant are trying to establish what could have gone wrong in their routine safety test. One of the control room workers exclaims “there is no core. It exploded, the core exploded”. In one of the first of many examples of playing down the situation, Assistant Chief Engineer Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter) quickly replies “he’s in shock, get him out of here”. It isn’t until the next day when a seriously ill Dyatlov stares into the still billowing smoke of Reactor 4, that the seriousness of the situation becomes clear.
There are many moments where you know the extreme dangers the characters are about to walk into, like one where the engineers stuggle to get a badly labelled radioactive bulkhead open, or another where they stare directly into the heart of the flaming reactor core. While the intense first episode deals with the explosion of the reactor, it’s the downplaying of the situation by the authorities and the cognizance of consequence that will shape the series to come.
During a crisis meeting, officials sit and discuss the severity of the explosion. As one member begins to question the accuracy of radiation readings, an intially quiet man sitting in the corner of the room, Zharkov (Donald Sumpter), stands and tells the table of officials that it’s “misinformation” that they must ensure not to spread. “We seal off the city. No one leaves. Cut the phone lines. Contain the spread of misinformation.” In a continued effort to downplay the explosion, misinformation has already begun to spread however. Earlier at the power plant, Dyatlov asks one of his engineers what the dosimeter says. “3.6 roentgen but that’s as high as the meter…”, “3.6. Not great, not terrible” Dyatlov quickly replies. 3.6 roentgen is the reading repeated to officials, however while they refuse to believe it, they later find out that a dosimeter with a 1000 roentgen capacity burned out the moment it was switched on.
Zharkov is able to quickly turn round a bad situation and persuade the officials that the incident must be contained, and that evacuation is not an option. It’s this continued ignorance which leads to a delay in exacuation, and is pivotal to the series. “One of the most important lessons of Chernobyl is that the truth does not care about us. The Soviet system was soaking in this cult of narrative and then one day the truth erupts”, explains Craig Mazin.
Addressing his “comrades”, a rousing Zharkov concludes the crisis meeting. “We’ll all be rewarded for what we do here tonight. This is our moment to shine.”
‘Chernobyl’ is atmospheric, intense and chilling. It’s a bleak reminder of the events of the disaster 33 years ago, and an important history lesson.
You can watch the series Tuesdays at 9pm on Sky Atlantic, and it’s available to stream now on Sky Go and Now TV.
Watch the trailer: