The doco about the police team sent to recover the bodies from the Erebus crash was a hellish story told hellishly well.

Critics hate crying. We don't like to talk about it, but some of us would rather spend the day shopping for curtains with the mother-in-law than have to review something that's going to go straight for our seldom-used sensitive parts.

But there was no getting away from the sensitive parts on Sunday night with the screening of a major local television production looking at one of those most upsetting of things - a great New Zealand tragedy.

For reasons that have never been slowly and carefully explained, we are considered to have quite an appetite for revisiting events of great awfulness, in drama and in documentary and sometimes in mixes of the two.

With Prime already recreating the mad tragedy of New Zealand's role in World War I with War News (Sundays, 8.30pm) and TV3 reliving the Christchurch earthquake for us on Thursday nights with Hope and Wire, it might have seemed like we have plenty of that sort of thing to deal with right now, but, as I said, apparently we can't get enough of it.


Well that must be what TV One thought, launching its new Sunday Theatre series with a docu-drama looking at our worst recorded disaster, the infamous crash of an Air New Zealand tourist flight into Mt Erebus in Antarctica in 1979, killing all 257 aboard in an instant.

Erebus: Operation Overdue was a feature-length piece using a mix of real and re-enactment to take a devastating new angle on the Erebus story, telling it mainly from the point of view of the police team sent to Antarctica, 35 years ago, to pick up the pieces. The human pieces, that is.

Concentrating on the stories of four of these street cops, the policemen themselves talked in the grizzled here and now, while actors - and some archive - rather effectively picked up their younger selves.

They were, as they said, street cops sent into the unknown. A frozen horror story, and one that none of them can shake from their memories today.

"I thought," said one of them, "this is beyond our capabilities."

Their first sight of the crash, flying in, was "a smudge on the side of the mountain".

The close-up reality, under constant attack from gulls, was "mangled", "grotesque" and "overwhelming". But they got on with it. "The eyes of New Zealand were on us," one of them said.

Operation Overdue starred the four cops going deep into their memories for the story, abetted by restaged, acted segments that were, in their minimalism, extremely effective.


These were seamlessly integrated with archive and, towards the end of the story, with dramatised references to the larger and better-known story of bungling and cover-ups - the document shredder very busy at Air New Zealand HQ.

It was a hellish story told hellishly well, and grim without being ghoulish - close-ups of bodies, a woman's face frozen in ice, a foot, a hand with its engagement ring, recovered.

"I still can't look at women's hands without thinking about it," one of those brave cops said.

The critic reached for a tissue, wondering if someone might do something cheerful with our history sometime soon.