TV Guide: Meltdown, Chernobyl and Docudramas of Destruction

With docudrama Meltdown: Three Mile Island arriving on Netflix, we ask why television typically blends news and narrative when discussing nuclear disasters

Feature by Ellie Robertson | 06 Jun 2022
  • Meltdown: Three Mile Island

The Staircase led us down a sinister story of trips and twists, Tiger King kept us captivated throughout lockdown, and now Netflix presents a new dose of drama and documentary. TV fans will remember HBO’s Chernobyl, dripping with dread, so it makes sense that Netflix is now pointing the microscope at a similar story, with the same imperceptible peril of radiation, and as covered-up in as many layers of hidden accountability and misinformation. Meltdown: Three Mile Island exposes the tale of a nuclear power station in Pennsylvania, which in 1979 was only minutes from a massacre.

Chernobyl’s efforts to educate audiences on the details of the eponymous disaster, as well as its spine-tinglingly believable dramatisation of real events, helped it depict one of the darkest days of the Soviet Union with the authority of a documentary. But the fusion of nuclear documentary and drama, essay and apocalypse, is a trend that predates even the HBO miniseries. For 50 years directors have presented the hypotheticals of the atomic age as fact, and used limitless creativity to bring the nuclear worst-case-scenario to television sets around the world. Let’s do our own investigation into this history of pseudo-documentaries, and test just how hot Netflix gets in comparison.

Power Plants on the Precipice of Disaster in Meltdown and Chernobyl

From prolific documentarian Kief Davidson, Meltdown: Three Mile Island is the latest in a long line of historic retrospectives by the big red streaming giant. The four-part series divulges the details on the Three Mile Island incident, a notorious brush with death for a small Pennsylvania town due to an error at the local nuclear power plant, causing a partial meltdown and releasing radiation into the atmosphere.

Somehow, what’s more sinister is the blame game played by the plant’s builders and the science team, and the amount of obstruction done by those in power to resist criticism from a concerned public. Davidson targeted poachers in The Ivory Game and investigated the Zodiac Killer in The Most Dangerous Game of All. Now he seeks to take on privatised energy, during the USA’s most volatile age.

Meltdown quickly showsitself to be more than a professorial series of recollections – the dramatic reenactments are what really glow. Awkward 1970s boffins staring in horror at switchboards and flashing lights, helpless against the cacophony of alarms, set a tenser atmosphere than many other factual docuseries. Some elements will flash the audience back to Chernobyl, like conflict in the control room or the geiger counter pairing a sinister sound with the descent into the reactor. The performers, even extras, are a high calibre; in both series, it’s their helplesslness and terror that makes radiation (an invisible, omnipresent threat) so tangible that viewers will shrivel up on their couches in fear.

But hitting all the same chords as Chernobyl can work to the doc’s detriment. Where the HBO series could expedite the more cumbersome history with composite characters, Meltdown’s overload of talking head testimonies becomes trite. The balance of info and analysis is miscalculated, and viewers might find themselves mixing up the countless elderly engineers and politicians, or simply losing interest as we’re led back to ground that we’ve already covered. Similar to how in Chernobyl the clandestine nature of the USSR is revealed bit-by-bit, as the engineers get sicker and sicker; but with Meltdown, the close-call nature of the event gives the producers the additional challenge of determining a decent pace. After those first few gripping re-enactments, the thoughts and recollections can seem scattered, trying to cover an event that, definitively, didn’t happen.

Seeing Sheffield Shelled in Threads

But Meltdown & Chernobyl aren’t the only would-be weapons of mass destruction on television. In 1984, the BBC released a TV movie titled only for what the stability of British peacetime was holding on by – Threads. Opening on expecting couple Ruth and Jimmy, the simple start mutates into something monolithic when the outbreak of an East/West war reaches the radio. The bombs drop only minutes after the news does.

The following five minutes are the Cold War carnage that, until that point, had only existed in the public’s deepest anxieties. Mass looting, burning buildings, injury and death, it's a macabre sequence that was monumental in 80s programming. Like Chernobyl, it approaches the conflict clinically. Plain-text intertitles describing the scenes feel cold, especially compared to the calamity to which we keep cutting back. There’s nothing to keep petrified audiences company but the glowing script: “EAST-WEST EXCHANGE: 3000 MEGATONS. 210 MEGATONS TOTAL FALL ON UK."

Of the few characters introduced in the bombing's build-up, most are missing in the mayhem. Jimmy is lost in the havoc, and the audience never see him again, becoming as confused or disoriented as protagonist Ruth. Despite the scale, the special effects are subpar, but their effectiveness is subsidised with realistic storytelling techniques, such as casting local Sheffielders to play the massing victims. This is what it feels like to be on the ground when the bombs drop; it is ordinary people who suffer the most, and no rescue ever comes.

Equal parts fascinating and upsetting both then and now, it overcharges the imagination. Threads came to Britons at the height of the Cold War, a few years before the real-life Chernobyl, and a few years after a Pennsylvania power plant almost tore a hole into America’s eastern seaboard. It’s the realised nightmare of a past generation that still chills the spine today. But even before the first bricks were laid down at Three Mile Island, there were artists dreaming of mushroom clouds and the fall of civilisation, and capturing those visions onto film, even if the BBC buried such productions in their archives for decades.

The War Game: Swinging Armageddon in the Sixties

The War Game, a 1965 pseudo-documentary produced for the BBC by Peter Watkins, juxtaposes the mannerly “Keep Calm and Carry On” attitude of Britain’s post-war generation, with the hopelessness that would come with an actual nuclear strike. A black-and-white news report is politely narrated in Received Pronunciation, but what the lens focuses on couldn’t be defended against from your grandparent’s Anderson shelter.

Scenes of such rampant violence seldom reach screens in the modern day, much less two years after the Daleks first terrified households with their egg-whisk weapons. Presented as if an authentic news broadcast, the scenes of burning bodies and mercy killings are interspersed with posh presenters giving absurd lectures on how unlikely mutually assured destruction would be, and how nuclear armament was a way to safeguard the peace established at the end of the Second World War.

It’s uncanny to see The War Game attempt such grave depictions of warfare in the gentlemanly atmosphere of the 60s BBC. Watkins was a visionary critic, who understood what a world of warring superpowers could do to the unwitting civilian, and how naive the general public were in a time where most Brits were content that the horrors of war were long behind them.

The BBC even considered it too sinister, insisting such terrors would drive audiences insane, and banned the broadcast. Select screenings won Watkins an Oscar, but the general public were sheltered from the film’s impact until twenty years later when The War Game was first released, along with a repeat of Threads. 

Keep Calm and Carry On, or Learn to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

But why a pseudo-documentary? What is it about the hypothetical doomsday that drives directors to blend fact and fiction? The inspiration may well come from the Home Office itself. In the late thirties, the UK government was distributing pamphlets titled “The Protection of Your Home Against Air Raids”, providing families with the know-how necessary to endure the forthcoming Blitz.

Once the war ended and the war ended and the skies cleared, the information was updated to include the newly developed weapons that America used in the Pacific Theatre – but the public were confused, unsure of how warheads that levelled cities could be stopped by good old-fashioned British optimism. The early makings of the Protect and Survive campaign were the very thing Peter Watkins was parodying in The War Game. The frightening public information videos that came later were featured in Threads.

Well-meaning but naive materials like Protect and Survive, that would only hand-hold the public into a hopeless oblivion, were the clear inspiration for early pseudo-documentaries, highlighting just how unprepared the real world was for a nuclear attack – and, by extension, how a nuclear attack is impossible to prepare against.

Meltdown has gripping dramatic scenes, but these are just bells and whistles. It lacks substance, because its trying to exercise the viewer’s imagination over what might have been, what the stakes that day were. That’s something that’s been practised in television for half a century, with apocalyptic films that make Meltdown fizzle out in comparison. Netflix’s documentarians should stick to murder cases and manic zookeepers; the big red button is one beast they can’t tame.

Meltdown: Three Mile Island is streaming now on Netflix
Chernobyl is streaming now on NOW TV
Threads and The War Game are available now on DVD