Historical drama Chernobyl is already one of the most highly-rated shows of all time on IMDB, but it’s basically a real-life horror movie.
“The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognise the truth at all.”
For the past few months, pretty much everyone has been been talking and tweeting about the controversial final series of HBO’s Game of Thrones. The result of this near-deafening conversation? That too many of us failed to notice the quiet launch of Sky Original’s Chernobyl, which has since been dubbed one of the “greatest TV shows of all time”.
According to the official synopsis, Chernobyl tells “the true story of one of the worst man-made catastrophes in history and tells of the brave men and women who sacrificed to save Europe from unimaginable disaster.” And the five-part mini series – which premiered on 6 May – has already topped film and TV database IMDB’s list of the greatest 250 TV shows of all time (it currently has a score of 9.7, based on more than 96,000 votes).
“Only two episodes in, and I’m totally hooked,” said one viewer. “Chernobyl offers something much more than others have within this sub-genre. The political and non-fiction elements give it a leg up, and the acting from Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgard is excellent as usual.”
Another added: “Easily the best miniseries I have seen. Beautifully shot and written. The series makes you feel like you are there, at one point I could even feel my face warming watching some of the brave people trek through the reactor building.”
As the sort of twisted individual who laps dystopian dramas up for breakfast (I count both The Handmaid’s Tale and Black Mirror among my favourite shows), I was intrigued to see what all the fuss was about. After all, I know the bare, bald facts of what happened on 25 April 1986: a routine safety test at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine turned catastrophic when the reactor exploded, causing unprecedented levels of radiation contamination in the surrounding region.
So what could a western-made TV show really bring to the story? How could writers hope to do the tragedy justice without overdramatising, elaborating, putting things in that aren’t true to make the ‘story’ more interesting? And how, when dealing with history’s most famous nuclear power plant catastrophe, could they ever hope to captivate and hold the attention of their viewers? After all, ultimately, we know how the story pans out.
And, as it turns out, my misgivings were entirely unjustified: Chernobyl is, without a doubt, masterful television.
The true story of Chernobyl is a deeply complicated one. And this is because – as Craig Mazin’s series painstakingly details – the Soviet Union initially attempted to withhold as much information about the disaster as possible. Officials even knowingly delayed the evacuation of nearby citizens – an evacuation which could have prevented countless deaths – in a bid to prevent the rest of the world finding out.
It makes sense, then, that the first episode begins two years and one minute after the explosion of Chernobyl’s nuclear reactor.
Sat alone in his beige-coloured kitchen, Jared Harris’ traumatised nuclear physicist Valery Legasov records one last tape, informing future listeners that there is far more to the disaster than we can ever imagine. That the Soviet Union covered up more than anyone realised. That the men to blame are still very much at large, and “deserve death” for that they did.
Then, after stashing the parcelled tapes somewhere safe (and far away from the prying eyes of the soldiers stationed outside his house at all hours), Legaslov returns to the kitchen. He smokes a cigarette. He feeds his tabby cat. And he hangs himself.
Immediately after Legaslov’s death, Chernobyl switches over to the disaster itself. The reactor has blown and all of the staff working the power station’s graveyard shift are fully aware of how catastrophic this is.
All of them, that is, save deputy chief-engineer Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter).
Dyatlov believes, with every fibre of his being, that a reactor explosion is impossible. He believes it so much that he refuses to sound the alarm or allow anyone to do anything more than dump water on the “core” (despite there being no core left). He stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the overwhelming evidence before his eyes: his team members are vomiting blood, the air tastes like metal, and graphite is strewn all over the facility.
“I’ve seen worse,” he says bleakly, before demanding that Akimov (Sam Troughton) to call in the day shift so that they can help.
Dyatlov’s worst crime, though, is failing to inform his superiors of the severity of the issue. Instead, he tells them that one of the tanks exploded, not the reactor itself. He tells them that radiation levels “aren’t good but they aren’t terrible”. And he sits by and watches as Viktor Bryukhanov (Con O’Neill) and Nikolai Fomin (Adrian Rawlins) inform a board of directors that the accident is absolutely nothing to worry about, and that the best course of action would be to “seal off the city and cut the phone lines” to “cut off the spread of misinformation”.
While all of this is happening, the fates of hundreds are being sealed. The local hospital does not stock iodine pills. Firefighters are quickly succumbing to radiation sickness as they do their best to tackle the flames. And, as the wind changes, a plume of radioactive dust particles is quickly spread across the city of Pripyat. It quickly settles into the hair of innocent bystanders, many of whom have gathered to watch Chernobyl’s flames from a nearby bridge, clinging to their clothes, to their pushchairs, to their faces. It covers the ground like huge snowdrifts, much to the delight of the local children: they gleefully grab handfuls of the stuff and start playing with it, hurling it at one another and kicking up huge swirls of the stuff.
Still, Dyatlov refuses to bend. Even when the Geiger counters max out, he insists that the equipment is faulty. Even when Sitnikov (Jamie Sives) informs him that pieces of the core have been found littered over the ground outside, he screams that his employee is mistaken. Even when he himself begins vomiting blood, he maintains that the core remains intact.
And it is this pervading theme of secrecy and censorship – not the ominous cloud of dust pulsating through the air, not the birds dropping dead from the sky, not the string of ambulances speeding their way towards an ill-prepared hospital – that makes the show so unbelievably horrifying.
While estimates vary, the World Health Organisation believes that somewhere between 4,000 and 93,000 deaths could be attributed to the explosion at Chernobyl. We know that two people were killed at the facility during the initial explosion. That, in the aftermath of the accident, some 237 people suffered acute radiation sickness, with 37 of those dying within three months.
Studies in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia found more than 11,000 thyroid cancer cases had been diagnosed in children and adolescents living in the most affected regions. Studies in Germany, Greece, Scotland and Wales have suggested links between the accident and increases in infant leukaemia. Over in the UK, some 369 farms and 190,000 sheep were affected by the “unforgiving hazards” of nuclear fallout. And new research by John Urquhart, a statistician based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, has discovered high rates of infant deaths and birth defects in England and Wales in the three years after Chernobyl (he estimates that between 1986 and 1989, at least 200 more children than normal died before their first birthday).
Shortly after finishing the first episode of Chernobyl, I disappeared into a black hole on the internet. I read about the long-term events of nuclear fallout, the horrors of radiation sickness, the truth about the events depicted in the show (some characters are fictionalised, but it remains disturbingly faithful to what happened all those years ago). I learned that the same nuclear weapons which sparked fear during the Cold War are “all still there, and most of them probably still work”. That “we can never be quite sure about the accuracy of the systems for early detection of incoming missiles”. That “nuclear weapons are becoming easier and cheaper to build”. That “North Korea keeps adding to its stockpile of nuclear weapons and improving the quality of its delivery systems”. That “a generation of hypersonic delivery systems being developed by China, Russia and the U.S. will shorten the response time available to political and military leaders to minute”. That this “raises the risk of a false signal turning into a decision to retaliate”. That this “may induce a nation to think that a successful first strike is possible”.
I also learned, during my feverish Googling, that, should a nuclear missile be launched on the UK, we would have 10 minutes or less to do something about it. That all we would really be able to do is get to the most central room of the house or office we’re in at the time, or get underground. That, just as we see in Chernobyl, our government “has the ability to restrict access to base transceiver stations (BTS), meaning mobile signal would only be available for the emergency services and energy companies”. And our phones would most likely become one-way devices, allowing us to “receive instructions, but not contact anyone”.
That, should I not be at home with my loved ones when such a disastrous event occurred, I would almost definitely have no way of saying goodbye.
As I’ve mentioned previously, I’ve always been into dystopian fiction – and even dabble in writing the odd tale myself. I binge-watched The Haunting of Hill House with nary a care in the world, and I love scaring myself silly with an array of horror movies at the cinema.
With all of this in mind, I assumed I would be absolutely fine watching Chernobyl, being as it was a historical drama. Instead, though, I dipped in and out of beige-coloured Soviet nightmares and woke up in the middle of the night, sweating, barely able to breathe, and with tears coursing silently down my face. In the morning, my heart was still pounding inside my chest, my stomach was turning sickening somersaults, and I just couldn’t stop shaking. I clung miserably to my bewildered boyfriend and told him that I didn’t want to make the journey into my London office, because I was convinced of the worst. He hugged me and reassured me that I would be fine. And, eventually, I was fine – at least, fine enough to get myself to the station, find a train and make my way to work. But I remained a trembling wreck for much of the day, prompting a concerned manager to ask me if I was OK.
I wasn’t, but I felt far too embarrassed to explain that I was utterly, utterly overwhelmed by debilitating fears of impending nuclear fallout. Until, that is, I learned that nucleomituphobia (excessive fear of nuclear war and its long-lasting effects) is becoming increasingly common in 2019.
“Fear of death or fear of physical injuries is common in our world, and it doesn’t matter if you’re in the Cold War era or living today,” Shmuel Lissek, who runs the ANGST (Anxiety Neuroscience Grounded in cross-Species Translation) lab for the University of Minnesota, explained to CNN. “What makes nuclear war different is that we have no control over a nuclear threat.”
We’re biologically biased, Lissek explains, to respond to even low-probability threats very seriously; after all, that’s how our ancestors survived to pass along their genes. He calls it the “better safe than sorry” bias, which can lead to high levels of tension and fearfulness. When that’s a short-lived reaction, we’re OK. But when a threat response is maintained over weeks or months, “that’s unhealthy and is associated with heart problems, autoimmune problems and emotional disorders, such as anxiety.”
“When there is a chronic elevation of stress, hormones can even kill brain cells, particularly in the hippocampus.”
So how can we cope with nuclear fears? By educating ourselves on what to do in case of nuclear emergency.
“If people feel like there is something they can do, even if it only marginally increases their chance of survival, it allows them to put their energies into something they feel increases their control,” Lissek says.
And so I did just that.
According to advice on ready.gov, the US government website for disaster planning, I should get indoors as quickly as possible – even if nowhere near the fallout zone – and ensure there is as dense a material between me and the outside world as possible. I should also remove contaminated clothing and place it in a sealed bag as far away from life as possible. I should wash my hair with shampoo, too, it says, but “not use conditioner because it will bind radioactive material to your hair.”
Yeah. Unsurprisingly, this advice didn’t make me feel all that much better about matters, particularly as it failed to deal with my worst fear: being cut off from those who are most important to me and having no way of telling them I love them.
So I decided to, instead, follow the advice of Seattle-based psychologist Laura Brown, who advises clients to reduce their time online and read news (or watch Chernobyl) when they’re less likely to feel vulnerable: mid-afternoon, for example, instead of just before bedtime. Anxiety expert Chloe Brotheridge, likewise, insists that I “do not feed the fears” with excessive Googling – and suggests, when anxious feelings spiral out of control, I should work to streamline my thought process by writing down what I’m thinking, as you think it (hence this article).
“With this in mind, make sure you have a notebook and pen by your bed and before you go to sleep, so that you can jot down your worries and concerns,” she says. “It helps to get things out of our heads and seeing worries in black and white can help us to gain more perspective on them. Think of it as a brain dump, allowing you to calm your mind and sleep more easily.”
Brotheridge adds: “A technique in cognitive behavioural therapy gets us to look at our worries, write them down and then ‘answer back’ to the worry in a kind and rational way (try imagining what a wise friend or someone you look up to would say about the worry).
“An example of a worry might be, ‘It’s the beginning of World War 3 and mankind will be wiped out’. A wise and rational person might answer back something along the lines of: ‘Many experts believe that this is very unlikely. The vast majority of people do not want a nuclear war and despite a lot of bluster from Trump and North Korea, it’s likely just that.’”
Well, quite. But, while there’s no denying that Chernobyl makes for frightening viewing, I would advise everyone reading this to watch it. And I mean it, too: you really need to watch all five episodes of the mini-series. Not only is it brilliantly written, not only does it boast a talented cast of actors, but it also reminds us – in an era of “fake news” and climate change deniers – of the dangers of rejecting scientific knowledge.
“It’s a very cautionary tale for our times, this piece,” Emily Watson, who stars as Soviet nuclear physicist Ulana Khomyuk, tells Collider. “We’re not living in a totalitarian state, but we are living in a place where the truth is not a fixed and the goal posts are shifting, as far as what truth is and who owns it. It’s buy-able. Democracy has become buy-able. This is what happens when you stop listening to the experts. We are facing a global crisis that we are in as much denial about, as the Soviet Union was about their nuclear accident. It’s a nuclear accident on a much smaller time scale. We’ve got a decade or so, in which to reverse it.”
She’s absolutely right, of course. We cannot and should not ignore our history, and we owe it to ourselves and everyone who lost their lives in the catastrophe to sit up and pay attention to this drama. Because Chernobyl – never scary for the sake of it, and only ever as haunting as demanded by the true events it depicts – challenges us to ask questions, to educate ourselves, and to double-check the facts which are presented to us by news outlets and social media. It asks us to hold ourselves accountable in the spread of misinformation.
It reminds us, above all else, to tell the truth. Because, as Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, recently acknowledged: “Any attempt to hide the truth turns into tragedy.”
My only advice? Never watch Chernobyl just before bedtime – and, for the love of god, give yourself as break between each episode.
The full Chernobyl box set is available to stream from Tuesday 4 June with a NOW TV Entertainment Pass for just £7.99. It is also available to watch through Sky on demand.