Chernobyl, Episode 1: The Modern Disaster Epic

Anyone who was alive and paying attention in the 1970s remembers the rise of the disaster epic. Whether it was Airport or The Towering Inferno or The Poseidon Adventure, these spectacular ensemble melodramas roared through the American popular imagination. Almost all of them depended on smaller interpersonal conflicts to inform the larger, looming conflict which always pitted a cohort of not necessarily agreeable nor competent people against some man-made or natural catastrophe. There were usually subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) overtones about the hubris of man and his amazing technology. And while not precisely horror in theme, the disaster epic tapped into the semi-conscious part of the human psyche which is attracted to horror. It’s the same part of our inner emotional mechanism which is drawn to a car accident on the side of the freeway. We know we shouldn’t want to watch and look, but most of us do. Despite ourselves.

Some of these disaster epics were contrived and cheesy. Others remain as silver-screen standards for compelling storytelling.

It’d been probably two decades or more since I’d last seen a disaster epic I considered exemplary of the form. Then I watched HBO’s Chernobyl and was jaw-droppingly struck by how they managed to crystalize the core features of a good disaster epic in just a few riveting episodes. To include one of the best, if you can get it: Chernobyl is based on a real event which all of us who lived through the 1980s remember very well.

For the first episode, we get a hell of a set-up. I’ll try not to plot-spoil, but I will point to some of the storytelling tools which went to work.

In this case, we begin the story long after its ended. A time shift. We receive a sobering, well-performed monologue which hints at much, and answers questions we the audience have not yet asked, then immediately locks us into the “How?” and the “Why?” of this story with a powerful death.

Now, I won’t explain what the actual Chernobyl was all about because if you were alive at that time in history you know the details of the Cold War, understand how the last days of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics worked, and may also have some familiarity with the writing of men like Solzhenitsyn — who exposed the political, social, and moral dysfunction of the Soviet Union better than anybody.

You will also remember the terrible fright surrounding both Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, which put absolute fear into the hearts of countless people around the world regarding the potential dangers of nuclear fission power plants.

What makes this opening episode so striking (to me, watching as a storyteller) is that it doesn’t attempt to pull punches regarding the fact that every single person in the episode is embedded like an insect in tree sap — in the Russian Soviet state as it still existed in the mid-1980s. Almost everything everyone does or says, including their small interpersonal interactions, is informed by this embeddedness. So, while the shock and terror of the accident itself is masterfully portrayed, even more masterful is the omnipresent dysfunction which the Soviet system has imposed on the lives of all of these human beings. Whether it’s the junior fireman rushing to the scene, or the Party men in their hardened basement sussing out the political ramifications of what’s happened — or what they merely tell themselves has happened.

As storytellers, whether we’re creating societies in the past, or in the future, or fantastic cultures for worlds both magical and unreal, it pays to put some thought into the embeddedness of the people there. Because for most of actual human history, everybody lived a lot like the poor folks in Chernobyl. It could be costly or even dangerous to acknowledge reality if reality happened to run afoul of what the local or regional or national powers dictated. Much easier to just go along with what those powers say or want, even if it means reality is going to cut so sharply against the collective illusion that reality’s going to hurt people, or maybe get them killed. The state will give you medals, after all, if you valiantly uphold the state’s fables in the face of disagreeable facts.

And there is the matter of everyone scurrying to cover his own ass. All power structures in all societies have this. Chernobyl’s first episode rings with it. Almost from the moment the disaster strikes, the men in charge are more concerned with how it might be pinned on them — either partially or wholly — than they are with actually combatting the disaster. Which seems like madness to any of us who weren’t there and aren’t embedded in that culture and that world. But here again you as the storyteller have a chance to create stupendous personal drama for your characters because if you can intelligently make known their embeddedness this will give the reader(s) a powerful window into what motivates these people, drives them, inspires them, makes them afraid, and compels them to act. Or not act, as the case may be.

All of the acting in Chernobyl’s first episode is first-rate. I get the sense that this cast knew they were going to be making something special. Not a documentary really, but also not just another re-telling of important history, either. Chernobyl is both of those things, and yet also something different. Because none of these characters, faced with calamity, can quite bring himself to grasp what it is that’s going on. The puzzle pieces are large, glaring, yet not assembled on the table. And while none of these characters realize it, the minutes and hours being wasted are soon going to prove lethal for many. A bit like a bunker filled with confused wartime officers bickering over the state of the battlefield as it’s pinned neatly to their map — except they don’t realize half the map’s been blown away and many of those pins don’t exist anymore.

Which makes me think that we as storytellers ought to also work hard to ensure that our characters can’t or shouldn’t know nor assume anything more than they would know or assume, given their embedded state, and their different positions in whatever society it is you’ve created. Can the emperor or the king really know what’s happening if his nobles and field officers are too afraid to tell him? Would the pikemen understand the ramifications of a plague outbreak in a village 100 miles behind their position? If your astronaut is trapped aboard a spacecraft which is telling ground controllers he’s only got a few hours to live, do they tell him? And how much might that astronaut be able to figure out on his own? And so on, and so forth. Much drama in storytelling can be strung through the weave of correct information being distilled slowly. Also, what false information — assumed as true — can derail your characters despite themselves? This has happened in real history countless times. Will a lie believed with fervency ultimately undo the actions of good people? Can an enemy, using the truth, demoralize your protagonists who’ve been clobbered by a sudden shifting of the situational ground beneath their feet?

“Luke. I am your father!”

If you’re like me, you lived through that line, too.

Ultimately, I think this first episode of Chernobyl is at its best when it’s at its bleakest. These poor people are confused, scared — on more than one level — and don’t know what to do. Nothing in their experience has prepared them for this situation, and all the reassurances of the Party men cannot undo what has already happened. And as dim realization rises into the throats of more and more people, the scale of the tragedy begins to cinch around them. Dreadfully, and inexorably.

It’s gripping. Absolutely.

If you have not seen this series yet, I highly recommend it. Both for the history it shows us, and for the way the story itself unfolds. And the first episode is just the start. The amazing, ghastly tale unfolds in successive episodes.

18 comments

  1. I’ve wanted to see the series since it came out. DadRed was involved in helping with the long-term fallout (pun intended) of Chernobyl. Thanks for the recommendation!

    You might be a child of the eighties if . . . You told jokes about the double-feature of _The Towering Inferno_ and _Earthquake_ being advertised as Shake-n-bake.

  2. On the night of the disaster, I was in a high-rise NYC mid-town office building, babysitting a database build for a downtown computer system. Seemed like I was all alone, soaring over the Manhattan streets in the dark. Spooky.

    I had news radio on for company. Gradually there began to appear reports out of Sweden about mysterious radioactivity on their eastern border. I listened, fascinated, all night long to the increasingly detailed news.

    You may not know, but all new daily topical black humor in the business community in NYC (at least then) originated early in the morning when the traders first reached their desks and sparked off each other, and that morning was no exception. By 5:00 AM I was already hearing “What’s tasty and glows in the dark? Chernobyl Chicken.”

          1. Sounds like something I once heard about a joke told in the Soviet Navy: “How can you tell if someone you just met is a submariner? He glows in the dark.”

    1. I cycled through the British countryside in the cooling rain that included Chernobyl fallout. I’ve never had a problem apart from the second head that is… but you know they always say two heads are better than one 🙂

  3. I was the watch commander at the AF headquarters in Japan when this went down. Lots of drama, especially on the Japanese side of things.

    Anyway. Here’s a link to an article Jerry Pournel had about what happened from the Russian POV by people that were directly involved.

    Lots of good info.

    I haven’t seen the show so I don’t know how much everything tracks.

    http://mikevanpelt.com/chernobyl.html

    1. You might also want to read Frederik Pohl’s 1988 novel ‘Chernobyl’. He traveled to Russia and interviewed many survivors to assemble the most accurate account of the events that he could.

      Chernobyl was entirely a political disaster. Giving a clueless Politburo bureaucrat the authority to order nuclear power plant operators to make the stupidest possible mistakes, one after another, was complete idiocy.

      They could have returned the reactor to normal operation at any time in the first hour and a half. They could have shut it down safely at any time up to the last few minutes. The bureaucrat was too stupid to do either one.

  4. “There is but one greater sin than to be right when those in power are wrong — proving it!”

    Then try running a whole society that way. It failed in Russia, and it’s failing here.

  5. I loved that series! Both for its own intrinsic worth, and because it contains several excellent storytelling techniques.

    Right from the beginning the story grabs you with a perfect use of the “flash forward,” which works best when it presents an intriguing question: how did this cool / tragic / incredible thing come to pass?

    Throughout the series you will wonder what brought Legosov to commit the action he does in the first 10 minutes. Everything you see him do, and the camera’s final focus on the clock in that scene draws you in and makes you ask, “why?” This is brilliant not just because of how it’s done, but also because as you say, most of the target audience lived through the event, much like the audience for “Titanic” knows the ship is going to sink.

    I watched this series shortly before the Covid shutdown, and thought of it often because of how it treats the question of expertise. Legosov as the nuclear scientist who notes that the answers Chernobyl’s staff are giving the government *cannot* be relied on because their instruments only go up to a certain range. Dyatlov as the expert who makes a point of *not* knowing what he should know, so he has plausible deniability to tell the story that suits him best to an audience of laypeople.

    Then there’s the scene where the non-scientist government official, Scherbina, is able to recognize that two flunkies are trying to snow him because they tell him a lie involving something he *is* an expert about: burning concrete. Later, Scherbina believes a well-meaning doctor who assures him they’re not in danger from the fallout. Legosov has to point out the doctor doesn’t know nuclear science, he knows medicine: He, Scherbina, and everyone remaining near Chernobyl will die within 5 years, Legosov warns.

    So many lessons to draw for real life, let alone fiction.

    Here’s a video from YouTube on Chernobyl’s use of perspective in building the story. The lessons apply just as easily to prose fiction as it does to screenwriting, especially if you write multi-POV stories. It does have spoilers, though, so be warned.

    “Chernobyl: A Masterclass in Perspective.”

    1. The reactions of Fomin and Bryukhanov when confronted by Shcherbina (with Legasov) in tow, was a terrific scene. Here we have the two Party climbers desperately trying to CYA and continue the make-believe that the scale of the disaster is not as monstrous as it in fact is. To include shoving a little paper with names into Shcherbina’s hand. “Hang these men, not us!”

      Love it when the Colonel-General walks back from the decon bath, pulls off his hood and pro mask, and says, “It’s not three Roentgen, it’s fifteen thousand.

      In that moment, the guilty leaders cannot hide any longer. Everything Legasov has been saying, is proved undeniably true. Something even Shcherbina hasn’t wanted, but now must be forced to accept.

      I think there’s applicability to so much going on in the United States right now. Especially when it comes to enforced false narratives which utterly fly in the face of what is factual, and provable. The so-called authorities and their army of “experts” desperately trying to shift narratives, shore up assertions, command obedience, and in the end, sacrifice their credibility on the altars of ideology.

  6. > “Luke. I am your father!”
    If you’re like me, you lived through that line, too.

    Am I the only one who thought, “Right, pull the other one”? And then, “Oh, give me a break, are you serious?”, followed by “yeah, whatever.”?

    From watching discussions of it, it’s clear it was intended as a Great Dramatic Reveal, and that a least some people claimed to take it that way… but it came across as “Oh, look! A squirrel!”

  7. > “Luke. I am your father!”
    If you’re like me, you lived through that line, too.

    Yep. My first four responses were descending variants of “No way!”
    I sure got *that* wrong.

  8. Chernobyl should serve as the ultimate proof that allowing Socialists to have access to anything more dangerous than wax crayons is a disaster in the making.

    Instead, it will be blamed on nuclear power and human greed.

    1. I can only conclude the reason HBO made this in the first place, is they wanted to hammer home the anti-nuclear message, but instead the film smuggles through a colossal broadside against bureaucratism and apparatchikism. Perhaps some of the producers understood what they were doing? Maybe this is the only way you can get an anti-marxist message through in Hollywood: you must conceal it in a different message.

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