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.