When HBO said goodbye to Game of Thrones, it found an unlikely replacement in Chernobyl.
One of the worst man-made catastrophes in history now occupies conversations once dominated by dragons.
The miniseries follows the power plant workers, first responders, Soviet Union officials, scientists, soldiers and the locals of Pripyat, Ukraine (formerly the Soviet Union) in the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploding.
As with most historical dramas, the show has been critiqued for taking liberties with the truth in service of the story. And these departures are somewhat ironic for a show whose tagline is “the cost of lies”.
But the function of historical dramas isn’t pinpoint accuracy: the best ones work as allegories.
And as an allegory for our times, Chernobyl could not be more fitting.
Moscow has a long history of ‘fake news’
The lies start early on. While most of the town sleeps through the nuclear explosion, in the control room of the power plant, denial is in full swing.
The assistant chief engineer, Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter), tells his men to pump water to the core, insistent the problem can be fixed.
An engineer tells Dyatlov: “there is no core”.
Dyatlov insists the core is intact. From the earliest moments, the truth is in flux.
The radiation leak has already begun to kill these workers; we’re in the company of the living dead.
Chernobyl dramatizes the story of the 1986 disaster and the sacrifices made to save Europe.
But despite the horror of watching these men slowly die, as if a needle is untethering the fabric of their DNA, it’s the words of a Soviet Union official (Donald Sumpter) that shock the most.
“When the people ask questions that are not in their own best interests,” he tells his men, “they should simply be told to keep their minds on their labour and leave matters of the state to the state.”
The next step is to seal the city and cut the phone lines to prevent the spread of misinformation.
The speech is met with applause.
Over the course of the series it becomes clear the Chernobyl disaster was caused by the cost-cutting measures of the Soviet Union, but the state was structured perfectly to work their way out of the problem and contain the truth.
Miners and soldiers are conscripted to clean-up the mess, despite the risk to their health. Scientists are told to do their job and not ask any questions.
All the while, Soviet officials work to compartmentalise the tragedy to hide the horrors of a nuclear meltdown.
For scientists Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) and Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) to understand what caused the meltdown they must be critical of the Soviet Union.
The most intense moments are the conversations where characters weigh up the risk of telling the truth.
The war on the truth continues
Decades later, Moscow continues to tightly control the flow of information both at home and abroad — its “troll farms” set up to spread misinformation and propaganda are just the latest iterations.
But Australia is not immune to attempts by government to conceal and manipulate the truth.
Meanwhile, whistleblower Richard Boyle faces a maximum prison sentence of 161 years if found guilty for exposing the aggressive debt collection practices of the Australian Tax Office.
Throw in “chilling” defamation laws, as seen in the Geoffrey Rush case, plus the ban on reporting from Australia’s offshore detention centres, and it’s a frightening time for journalists and whistleblowers.
When politics wins over science
Chernobyl focuses on what happens when government policy is put before human lives.
The scientists investigating Chernobyl repeatedly attempted to sound the alarm, warning Soviet Union officials that the problem was bigger than one reactor as poison spread across Eastern Europe (one study predicts by 2065 the disaster could cause 16,000 cases of thyroid cancer and 25,000 cases of other cancers).
Today, scientists are trying to warn us of an existential threat to our health and safety: climate change. Once again, government drags its feet.
If we take anything from Chernobyl, it should be this: put science before politics.
In 2019, we may have grasped the extreme dangers of radiation, but the war on the truth is ongoing — it’s eternal.
As we face another environmental catastrophe, the question will be: what is the cost of lies?