Apple's 'For All Mankind' Is the Feel-Good Astronaut TV Drama of the Season
Do you ever think about how, as soon as we bounced a few humans around on the moon a few times, just to prove we could, we pretty much… stopped? I think about that, a lot, and I'm so happy I live in the year 2019, because out of the approximately 5 gajillion newstreamingservices launching between now and the next six months, one of them has made a show about what would have happened in space exploration if we'd kept going.
In the first moments of For All Mankind, one of the Apple TV+ flagshipshows premiering at the streaming service's November 1 launch, the point of divergence from our timeline is 1969: Every nicely coiffed nuclear family in America is gathered around their television sets, ready to catch a glimpse of the very first human being to set foot on the moon. The astronauts hoist a flag and jam it into the hard-packed dusty rock of the satellite's soil, and we're shocked to see not stars and stripes, but a hammer and sickle! Oh no! In secret, Soviet Russia has snuck a crew of cosmonauts into space and claimed the moon for the Marxist republic mere months before Apollo 11 even got a chance to clear the launch pad. In true mid-century American spirit, NASA wouldn't hang low for long, and doggedly paced the Soviets, sending our own crew (including some guys named Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, sound familiar?) to set down our own flag.
But not being first on the moon is the kind of blow you can't really recover from -- and the kind of thing that makes you wonder: What could we try to be first at next? What For All Mankind does that is so remarkable, not to mention insanely fun to watch, is imagine what would have happened if such a grand failure had driven us to achieve much more than we did. What if the Soviets made a military base on the moon?? Well, then we'd better start figuring out how to put some buildings up there, too. What if the Soviets send a woman up first? Well, then we'd better accept a couple of all-American gals into the Space Program. For All Mankind takes the familiar things we know from history and balloons them into something bigger. This is the kind of future-forward thinking the Space Age promised that we never quite got.
Each episode introduces some new aspect of this exciting alternate history to explore: the interpersonal politics of training a bunch of women to be astronauts (a great episode wherein the show finally loosens up a little); how we, in the '70s, would have gone about building a space station on the surface of the moon; reckoning with Wernher Von Braun, the Nazi engineer who surrendered to American troops and by and by became the first director of NASA. The show has its pitfalls: lead Joel Kinnaman is at best a brick-like foil for more interesting actors to play off, and, look, we've seen the "it's tough being an astronaut's wife" thing so much even I could play one at this point. But it's the ideas, and the fun of stepping back into such a well-known period of history and remixing it, that make the show special. It helps that it has creator Ronald D. Moore's magic touch, with which he also brought us the rich, infinitely complex world of Battlestar Galactica.
The title of the show, "For All Mankind," is taken from the plaque that our astronauts, in reality, placed on the moon where Neil Armstrong took his first steps: "Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind." In his exit interviews about the trip, Armstrong, like his fellow astronauts and engineers, stressed the nonpolitical nature of the moon landing, as an accomplishment not for America (though they wore the flag on their suits and planted one in the ground at the landing site), but for the world itself.
Because of the nature of the Space Race -- us, the good Americans, vs. them, the scary Soviets -- the moon is an inherently political space, a testing ground on which two (or more) world superpowers will advertise their strength to the planet below. The central question embedded in much of For All Mankind is: Is it right to colonize space in the name of war? If all we do is expand our political hangups and rivalries and distrust further into the solar system, then what's the point? It's exciting to see a show grapple with these heady ideas while also creating, episode by episode, an alternate history of the world where the promises of the Space Age were not just firmly rooted in pop culture, but, with the right amount of drive, just within our reach.