Two-part 'Uranium' premiere

Wednesday, August 5, 2015 - 9:35pm

Premiering in two parts, PBS’s “Uranium — Twisting the Dragon’s Tail,” explores the historical impact of the element known as uranium.

Episode 1, “The Rock that Became a Bomb,” focuses on the discovery and study of uranium ore in silver mines. We learn that Marie Curie discovered radium by studying uranium — uranium is radioactive and decays into radium over time. It is this radioactive decay which allows for uranium to be used by scientists to create the atom bomb. This section is as focused on the scientific as the historical, taking the time to explain things like fission, Isotopes and half-life. Here is a fun fact: Did you know that humans give off radiation? In fact, the natural background radiation, we are informed, is about .2 microSieverts per hour.

Episode 2, “The Rock that Changed the World,” brings us into the Atomic age, explaining the potential positive and negative effects of using uranium as a source of nuclear energy. We learn about the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl and watch as host, Dr. Derek Muller explores Pripyat, a city abandoned due to radiation. The documentary tells the story of the firefighters who responded to the explosion and then died from radiation poisoning. The hospital they went to is still covered in cesium 137 radiation and their boots give off so much radiation that it overloads Dr. Muller’s Geiger counter. What’s worse the radiation of uranium 238 at the plant will last until the sun expands. We are introduced to TITAN 2, a bomb which is is 650 times more powerful than the bomb used at Hiroshima, which was used as a form of deterrence bomb during the cold war. These kind of bombs could destroy all life on earth.

The entire mood of this documentary is incredibly dramatic, almost to the point of creepy. The narration really wants you to believe that uranium is some magical and mythical substance and this is reflected in both the word choice and the art style. We are provided with real new clips and advertisements from the historical events mentioned, such as Hiroshima, Chernobyl and the Cold War. But it is the musical score attached to these clips that really drives home the fear that those people felt. I’ve never felt so nervous while watching a PBS documentary before; when the drum beats were speeding up during the explanation of the chain reaction, I had to pause the video to make some tea just to calm down. Not to mention the Cold War show tunes proclaiming “we all will go together when we go” were just downright unsettling.

The animated special effects and camera movement echoes to this. At one point, Dr. Muller explains that a discovery is made due to rain, and the weather outside the room he is in actually changes to reflect this. This result in the viewer feeling as though we are watching the story unfold in the moment. The depiction of the creation of earth was the most violent depiction I’ve ever seen and the animated dragon during the alchemy scene was a truly magical scene. Watching the dragon change from one element to another really drove home the idea of uranium being a “natural shape shifter” and took the science momentarily into the world of fantasy. If you wanted to hear a chunk of uranium growl ominously, this is the documentary for you.

Dr. Derek Muller, the host, is most well known as the creator and host of the YouTube channel Veritasium. This works to his advantage because he was very comfortable talking in front of a camera both on and off script, and he is always in frame. He knows how to act around animated special effects which were added in post-production without any kind of awkward mannerisms. He is also fearless, willing to take a bath in dissolved radium and walk into areas of intense radiation. The show favors a one on one conversation with camera, rather than voice over. When there is a voice over it is because we are seeing the scene he is describing. For the purpose of this documentary, Dr. Muller is not just a narrator, he is a story teller.

We get the sense of the story unwinding as we follow the journey from discovery, to study, to the demand for nuclear power.  We are shown how uranium went from the junk left over when mining silver to a valuable source of energy. The journey is also a global one. Uranium takes us to the Czech Republic, Australia, Paris, Switzerland, London, Japan, Chernobyl and, of course, Manhattan. Our journey to follow uranium even takes us to space.
Unfortunately, in the attempt to tell this story, the script went more than a tad overboard on the dragon metaphor.  We are treated to phrases like “tickling the dragon,” “awakening the dragon” and “the dragon roars.” At a certain point, the narration was beating a dead horse.

Despite all the drama and terror surrounding uranium, at the end we are left with a slice of hope. Dr. Muller reminds us that minus the explosive bomb, uranium missiles were what rocketed Neil Armstrong to the moon and launched the voyager spacecraft, nuclear power plants promise a potential new age of clean energy and radiation can be used in medicine to both detect and treat cancer.

The show ends on a high note. The journey was worth the risk.