By Matthew Kresal
The 1960s Space Race, and what might have followed a landing on the Moon, has proven a rich seam for alternate history storytellers to mine. Yet they've largely been confined to the printed page, with notable exceptions such as the 1999 BBC Radio 4 dramatization of Stephen Baxter's Voyage. That changed in 2019 when Apple TV+ premiered a streaming series that would explore it on a grand scale in the form of For All Mankind.
Premiering just months after the half-century anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, the series wasted little time establishing its premise. Red Moon, the series' opening episode, presents a quick montage of footage from the Space Race of the late 1950s and 1960s, including the seemingly obligatory speeches of John F. Kennedy before taking us into the drama proper on a night in July 1969. Soon enough, as we meet the various series regulars, it becomes clear that despite what viewers may think, this is not the triumph of Apollo 11. Instead, a Soviet cosmonaut steps foot on the surface of the Moon. The race isn't drawing to a close, it’s just beginning.
Taking viewers across 1969-75 in ten episodes, For All Mankind's opening season operates in three phases. The first two episodes essentially present the point of divergence from our reality at its most dramatic point (though as references in Red Moon show, things changed awhile before the show started) and its immediate effects. Episode three through five show the proverbial butterfly wings flapping as changes begin taking hold, including the search and eventual induction of a group of women astronauts. The second half of the season sees everything established but not without danger as a series of crises threatens lives, careers, and the entire Apollo program. It's a lot of ground to cover, but it's something that suits the story that creators Ronald D. Moore, Matt Wolpert, and Ben Nedivi set out to tell.
Yet, despite presenting a vision of continued voyages to the Moon by Apollo, things aren't all cheery and wonderful. The nature of drama is conflict, after all. From personal demons threatening to get the better of astronauts to the shifting role of women in society to sexism, homophobia, and political backstabbing, there's plenty to be found in the series. While some of its takes on people and events are undoubtedly revisionist, particularly in its treatment of the Mercury 13/FLATs group of 1960s women astronaut trainees (as The Vintage Space's Amy Shira Teitel, who wrote the superb non-fiction book Fighting For Space on them spoke to in a video she did in 2019 when the series premiered), it nevertheless work within the show's context. Ultimately, what For All Mankind does is combine the wonder and ambition of the era with a more realistic, perhaps slightly cynical, hindsight of something like Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff about the forces at work around those visions.
That vision is given a significant boost by just how well brought to life the show is. From recreating the Apollo spacecraft and spacesuits (and their evolution as NASA’s mission and finding changes) to Mission Control in Houston, there's enough attention to detail to make a space nerd happy. The attention to period detail also feels on point, and one wonders how much the series spent to get enough sixties Corvettes for its astronaut cast to drive, to name but one example. The effects work is equally solid with some breathtaking shots on the Moon that wonderfully capture both the sense of scale and the sense of "magnificent desolation," as Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin described it. Jeff Russo, whose music has graced much of the recent TV incarnations of Star Trek, likewise brings a sense of grandeur but also emotion to proceedings, ably backing the production.
That's not without forgetting the cast, of course, who bring the characters of For All Mankind to life. There are the astronauts, of course, from Joel Kinnaman's outwardly easy-going but brooding Ed Baldwin to Sonya Walger as the cynical former Mercury 13 member Molly Cobb, and the husband and wife duo of Gordo and Tracey Stevens, played by Michael Dorman and Sarah Jones. There's those on the ground, from Wrenn Schmidt as determined rising Mission Control member Margo Madison to Shantel VanSanten as Ed's wife Karen, who increasingly tries to come to terms with the changing world around her family, and Olivia Trujillo as a young illegal immigrant whose father's work at the space center in Houston opens a door of possibilities for her future. There's also a host of historical figures at play in the supporting cast, from Chris Bauer as astronaut Deke Slayton to Eric Ladin as Flight Director Gene Kranz and Colm Feore as the man who built the Saturn V, Wernher von Braun. These are just some of the highlights, who each find ways of shining across the season's ten episodes as they bring the world of the series to life as much as the period recreations and effects.
With its mix of alternate history scripts, nostalgia with a revisionist eye, period detail, and effects with a strong cast, For All Mankind's first season makes for compelling viewing. It's no surprise it received a second season order before episodes had come to streaming, taking the series into the 1980s (and into a future blog). With a third season taking For All Mankind into the 1990s this June, it also speaks to the strength of the ideas and production of the series itself and the power of the simple question, "what if?"
A version of this review first appeared on Warped Factor 15 February 2021.