It was a disaster that many people attempted to cover up, and that many still don’t know much about, but now, thanks to a new series, Chernobyl is taking its sombre place in the spotlight
Chernobyl, available to buy on the Virgin Media Store
Chernobyl is the highest rated show on IMDb, with a 9.7/10 average score from about 73,000 people at the time of writing. That means it surpasses Game Of Thrones (9.4.), Breaking Bad (9.5) and Planet Earth (9.4). The five-part historical drama tackles the subject of one of the world’s worst man-made disasters. On April 26, 1986, at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near Pripyat, Ukraine, when it was part of the Soviet Union, the core of one of the nuclear reactors exploded. This allowed toxic levels of radiation to permeate the air and poison the local vegetation, water supply and, worst of all, the residents.
A further fire released more radioactive fallout into the environment, contaminating parts of the western Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, the UK and the eastern United States. Russia, Ukraine and Belarus were hit the hardest, with about 60% landing in Belarus.
Chernobyl’s high rating is no mean feat in itself, but it’s even more impressive when you learn that its creator, Craig Mazin, is also the man who wrote comedies Identity Thief, The Hangover Part II and Part III, Scary Movie 3 and Scary Movie 4. Oh, and he’s never done any previous television work.
Mazin told Collider that making the leap from comedies to the hard-hitting Chernobyl was a no-brainer for him: “For me, I’ve been doing comedy for a long time, and I love it and have no regrets, but Chernobyl expresses a side of me that is far more true to who I am, on a day to day basis. It reflects my general sense of curiosity and interest in the world, in science, and in human nature. Also, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown more connected to the heartbreak of life. So, to me, this is the most natural thing in the world.”
He became “obsessed” with the incident and set out to answer one, seemingly simply, question within the series: Why? Why did Chernobyl explode? And why don’t we know the answer? Before unravelling the mystery for yourself, find out why (as if you needed further reason) you need to make Chernobyl your next binge watch.
It remains true to the story…
Communist party officials at the time attempted to cover up the tragedy of Chernobyl, withholding information for as long as humanly possible. That’s why it’s so important that Chernobyl sets the story straight. And it does so in an intelligent, thoughtful way, especially with its fanatical attention to detail.
For example, episode one is called “1:23:45”, which was the exact time in the early hours of the morning when reactor four’s core exploded at Chernobyl. But the fire alarm wasn’t activated until 1:26:03, meaning vital time to deal with the disaster was lost.
The scenes of people in the control room following the explosion all depict what really happened and what was really said. Dialogue was borrowed from the book Voices of Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich to make everything as authentic as possible. The workers were expected to handle the situation, because it was believed that one of the tanks, not the reactor, had exploded, believing the latter to be impossible.
…even when the truth is uncomfortable
It’s a common misconception that Pripyat was immediately evacuated after the fire broke out at Chernobyl, but the series exposes the ugly truth that bureaucrats delayed the evacuation by 36 hours. Citizens weren’t even told they were being relocated permanently – they thought it was just for a few days. The 43,000 people who called Pripyat home had two hours to gather up their possessions before being loaded into 1,100 buses from Kiev in a process that took three and a half hours.
The second episode is called “Please Remain Calm,” a phrase borrowed from the message given to the people of Pripyat: “Please keep calm and orderly in the process of this short-term evacuation.” This version of “Keep calm and carry on” just really doesn’t seem to cut it considering the severity of the situation.
There are valuable additions
In the series, Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson, Apple Tree Yard), a Soviet nuclear physicist, plays a big part in the aftermath of the explosion and organises Chernobyl’s clean-up. Khomyuk was not a real person, but she was based on real historical fact. Mazin told Variety, “One area where the Soviets were actually more progressive than we were was in the area of science and medicine. The Soviet Union had quite a large percentage of female doctors.”
As well as Watson, Stellan Skarsgård (Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again), Jared Harris (The Crown), Jessie Buckley (Wild Rose) and Paul Ritter (Quantum Of Solace) make up a wildly talented cast who will receive your whole-hearted empathy all the way through.
People are at the heart
The show introduces us to Chernobyl's chief scientific investigator, Valery Legasov, who was a real person. He recorded his own account of the incident on tapes that would prove to be vital in understanding the event. “While the story of the explosion is fascinating,” Mazin said, “what really grabbed me and held me were the incredible stories of the human beings who lived through it, and who suffered and sacrificed to save the people that they loved, to save their countrymen and to save a continent”. The true story of a firefighter, Vasily Ignatenko, and his pregnant wife, Lyudmilla, also makes it in to highlight just how much was at stake.
The soundtrack is hauntingly beautiful
Just listen to composer Hildur Guðnadóttir’s “Bridge of Death” above and you’ll see what we mean. The Icelandic cellist has played in many bands and composed the score for Sicario: Day Of The Soldado, as well as the upcoming Joker film. The throbbing ache of the instruments and the eerie, hollow sense of isolation and despair they elicit are key to creating Chernobyl’s otherworldly atmosphere of a world on fire.
It hammers home Chernobyl’s lasting impact
Google Trends shows that as Game Of Thrones has reached its conclusion, the less people in the UK are searching for it and the more people are searching for the term “Chernobyl.” Education around the event is being fuelled by the show. Chernobyl was classified as level 7, the maximum, on the International Nuclear Event Scale – the only other to reach this level was the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011.
To this day, experts don’t agree on how many deaths have resulted from the accident. We know that two people died immediately during the blast and 29 died in hospital in the days that followed, but others have speculated that the wider-reaching radiation effects have led to 10,000 fatalities, or that numbers have reached the six-figure range.
“The only deaths that have been firmly established, either individually or statistically, are the 28 victims of acute radiation syndrome and 15 cases of fatal child thyroid cancer,” said the University of Oxford’s Wade Allison. A 2006 study by Elisabeth Cardis, from the International Agency for Research on Cancer in Lyon, France, predicted that by 2065 Chernobyl will have caused about 16,000 cases of thyroid cancer and 25,000 cases of other cancers.
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