(Image: HBO/Liam Daniel)

Chernobyl was, in the now familiar manner, the finest TV series ever, and will be until the next “finest TV series ever” takes its place (what did Fleabag get, about six weeks at the top?). With its moment at the hot centre came the culture war flare-up, Andrew Bolt and other warriors passing up a chance to endorse its excoriation of the now-combusted USSR, in favour of an attack on its de facto anti-nuclear message.

This prompted the unlikely spectacle of right-wing warriors poking holes in the story of how a decrepit self-styled socialist system courted disaster on a global scale. What a dilemma that must have been! How they must have itched to name-check Jez Corbyn! Nevertheless, the right’s early-warning system, at least, was working. Chernobyl was a real cultural-political event. But not in the way that the right imagined.

For those not drawn into the cultural meltdown that is streaming television, Chernobyl, the five-part UK series was a harrowing account of the 1986 huge disaster at a Soviet reactor near Kiev. It starts from the point when the Chernobyl (actually the “Lenin”) power station exploded — and I, for one, 20 when it happened, never knew that it actually exploded — following a meltdown.

The series then tracks through the initial mass psychological denial, political stasis, growing realisation that the exposed core could pump out enough radiation to devastate vast areas of eastern Europe and Russia, or melt through to the Dnieper river system.

The story — compressed to a tale of high bureaucrat Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård), chief clean-up scientist Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), and a symbolic composite character Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) — is compelling not merely for its dramatic compression, but for its relatively sophisticated take on the USSR of the 1980s. Had Netflix done it, it would have taken three seasons, and rendered even nuclear catastrophe dull.

This is no utterly austere 1984 redux, and the cast are not speaking in meerkat-style accents: in regional Brit accents, they tussle it out in the late Brezhnevite USSR (perestroika/glasnost is a year away), a place that developed a degree of consumer culture, and then got stuck. This is a USSR of cheap nylon fabrics, badly fitting suits, mustard floor tiles, tacky bathroom decor, overflowing cut-glass ashtrays, gravy-brown food, and often stylish, but severe brutalist architecture, all the residue of the final push to create a workable modern economy in the 1970s.

The series works by a mix of fetish-fascination, a familiar yet distant scene — like drinking at an RSL in 1976 — and yet within it, catastrophe taking place. Reactor number four went into meltdown because a safety test of reserve systems was persevered with, even though the reactor’s turbines were not at sufficient speed to clear build-up radiation, or slow the reaction process. The reactor exploded when its crew attempted a sudden shutdown, and the shutdown button triggered a reaction overload, a residual danger of the process identified a decade earlier, but not communicated to the 16 such plants in the USSR, reliant on that sudden-shutdown system. This, then, is the chief pleasure and fascination of the series: watching as the shabby, line-towing subjects of a grinding, rather than casually murderous political system realise they have created a catastrophic event which may be beyond the power of that system — or humanity — to contain. Amid the paint-peeling kids’ playgrounds and lace-curtained high-rises, a human-engineered project is gradually poisoning the earth and unknitting reality.

And at that moment it occurs to you, why the right is so exercised about the series — though they do not know it — and viewers so hooked. That Chernobyl represents a warning to humanity about techno-society is obvious; but more subtly it stands as an exact mirror of our situation.

We may not be stuck in its ghastly perpetual ’70s, but stuck we are, in a mass culture offering ever lesser compensation for an economy that has long since ceased to deliver an upward trajectory, and is sinking into a perpetual grind in the service of an elite. And at the centre of it, the abstract counterpart to the concrete reactor, a catastrophic process burning away, for which our state, institutions and culture lack not merely the machines to address it with, but language sufficient to frame it as such.

Our unchecked reaction-radiation process is the very system we use to try and address it. The tacky tech of ’80s USSR — snot-green rotary dial phones, mining machinery clanking through black dust — appears as if in a dream of a life we might have lived. But it also serves to defamiliarise our lived present. The right were astute in avoiding the literal Soviet angle. Not even a story as gripping as this could stir such interest in one disaster once, in a vanished anti-utopia. Chernobyl, though years in the making, is a register of the recent mass, unsettling realisation, that no matter what system one proposes — from some dialogic social-liberal, global socialist democracy, through whizzbang cyber anarcho-communism, to some last resort Chinese-style “process totalitarianism” — humanity may simply lack the ability to put in place the overarching processes required to arrest the meltdown occurring at our core.

What follows from that, God knows, but I’m sure we’ll look to long-form streaming TV for the answer.

Peter Fray

Inoculate yourself against the spin

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and protect yourself against news that goes viral.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today to get your first 12 weeks for $12 and get the journalism you need to navigate the spin.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW