I’d been meaning to write about AppleTV’s “For All Mankind” for awhile now, but frankly, it’s a daunting challenge, because (and I try not to say this too much) this is my favorite TV show on at the moment. How to put my love for it into words without gushing or fanboying is my challenge.
Now finishing its sophomore season, “For All Mankind” (FAM) is a fascinating alternate history show spanning the 1969 through the mid 1980s. Series creator/writer Ronald Moore (“Battlestar Galactica”) has stated that the series will eventually catch up to our present and go a bit into our future before ending its run.
The first episode, “Red Moon,” opens in 1969, the year made famous for, among other things, the first tentative steps on the moon by astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin at the Sea of Tranquility. Except that, in this reworking of history, the Soviet Union lands one of their Zond spacecraft on the moon first. The United States is suitably stunned and envious, which pushes the Space Race in far more ambitious (and arguably more dangerous) directions than its more timid real-life counterpart. The Apollo moon program still happens of course, but in this alternate reality, the Russians seemed to want the prize a bit more than the United States.
Note: Just how the Soviets accomplished this feat, given their infamous booster rocket issues (the infamous N-1 disaster of 1969 and the death of chief designer Sergei Korolov in 1966) doesn’t really matter. The Soviets landing humans on the moon first isn’t the focus of the series so much as America’s colorful response.
The story opens from the surprising perspective of a poor young Mexican woman named Aleida Rosales (Olivia Trujillo, later played by Coral Pena as an adult) who is struggling with her family to reach the United States. Her goal is to become an engineer in the Space Race. Hers is the story of the many immigrants who helped to make the US space program what it eventually became. Like many other pieces of this alternate universe’s story, there is relevance to our current reality today; in this case, the story of Dreamers. Ron Moore continually weaves in relevance to the real 21st century issues so that “For All Mankind” doesn’t lapse into a nostalgic haze for macho, “Right Stuff”-style heroics. As a result of Moore’s balancing act, this series remains both faithfully retro, yet surprisingly contemporary.
After the sting of the Russian moon landing, Apollo 11 (with the original crew of Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins) is raring to go, but not before everyone involved gets suitably drunk and pissed off first. Apollo 15 commander Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman) and his colleague/best friend Gordo Stevens (Michael Dorman) are non-specific amalgamations of some real-life astronauts, as Ed possesses the steely-eyed singlemindessness of the late Neil Armstrong (and temper of Alan Shepard), while buddy Gordo seems loosely based on astronaut Leroy “Gordo” Cooper.
Such comparisons are an oversimplification, of course, as the astronauts of FAM are fully realized characters in their own right, and not just walking patchwork quilts of real-life astronaut traits and ticks. These characters truly emerge into their own by the end of the first season and especially so in the second, as history deviates ever further from our version of it.
Note: Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins recently passed away after a long bout with cancer. Dr. Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin is now the last living member of the Apollo 11 mission. Collins nobly piloted the Command Module Columbia in lunar orbit, awaiting the return of Aldrin and Collins from the surface aboard Eagle. For a brief while, Collins was (at a quarter million miles from the Earth) the most isolated human being in history.
One of the most interesting examples of familiar events unfolding in an unfamiliar way would be the aforementioned Apollo-Soyuz mission. In our reality, Apollo-Soyuz Test Project was an orbital linkup between an Apollo command module and a Soviet Soyuz capsule in 1975 that was supposed to signify a detente between the two longtime space rivals. The astronauts linked, joined hands, ate each other’s food tubes, and parted ways. The End.
In FAM’s version of events, the bitter tensions over the lunar base race have considerably sharpened the edges of that mission. The commander of the mission isn’t Deke Slayton anymore—the new commander is a black woman astronaut named Danielle Poole (Krys Marshall). Against orders, and to President Reagan’s surprising delight, Poole defies orders and docks with the Soyuz anyway. Apollo-Soyuz still happens, even if it’s about a decade late, allowing a brief handshake in orbit before things get even worse on the moon…
Note: One of the most endearing traits of Danielle Poole is her penchant for quoting Star Trek. This is an obvious influence of creator Ron Moore, who is a huge fan of Star Trek himself. Moore began his writing career on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” eventually co-writing two Star Trek features films (“Star Trek: Generations” and “Star Trek: First Contact”) and becoming a producer/writer on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”. It makes perfect sense that one of his characters in “For All Mankind” would be a card-carrying (and quoting) Star Trek fan.
With the United States’ failure to be first on the moon, the US space program explodes in more reaching ways; including a small lunar base, which eventually becomes “Jamestown” lunar colony. Jamestown is the result of a “race for the base” which takes the place of the real-life space station race (which dead-ended for the US after Skylab, but continued for the Soviets with Soyuz and Mir). The real-life space station race eventually settled into a collaborative venture for several nations with the International Space Station (1998-present).
In the show’s reality, the US government seems to have a bottomless well of money and resources for space innovation—some of which comes from patents placed on new technologies developed for the new strata of space missions. Many ‘new’ innovations spring up in the late 1970s and early 1980s as a result of this alternate space race, including clean electric vehicles and video phone calls arriving a couple decades early (both of which are commonplace today). Some personal technology remains curiously unchanged, such as bulky computers, clunky CRT analog TVs, and landline telephones.
The US’ ambitious lunar program brings with it new tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. These tensions escalate into a deadly shooting war on the moon when Soviet cosmonauts are fired upon by US astronauts over mining claims. Jamestown base itself is later attacked after the base offers sanctuary to a defecting Russian cosmonaut. Season 2 ends with the bitter aftermath (and a pair of shockingly high profile character casualties) after the invasion and near-destruction of Jamestown base.
The second season ends with a flash-forward teaser set in 1995, with Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” playing as we see a pair of boots on the surface of Mars…
Note: Ever since I was a kid, it seems that a manned mission to Mars was always “20 years away”, only to evaporate at the end of that 20 year expiration date. I’m 54 now, and I’ve seen this so often that I’m afraid I’ve become a mite cynical regarding the prospects of a manned human mission to Mars. That said, I’m deeply proud of the accomplishments with robots both orbiting Mars and on the planet’s surface. As author Andy (“The Martian”) Weir recently half-kidded, “Mars is the only planet currently inhabited entirely by robots.”
At the Corner of Fact and Fiction.
The fictional characters of FAM interact seamlessly with some of their real-life counterparts, including presidents Nixon and Reagan, who are recreated through cleverly edited/manipulated file footage and voice actors. Other real-life personnel from NASA include astronaut Deke Slayton (Chris Bauer), Mike Collins (Ryan Kennedy), rocket scientist Werner von Braun (Colm Feore), flight director Gene Kranz (Eric Laden), Dr. Sally Ride (Ellen Froe) as well as many others who interact both directly and indirectly with the series’ leads.
What keeps the show exciting for me, as an avid space buff, is that its history unfolds differently than it did in our collective memory, so even real-life characters are allowed more freedom to say and do things that didn’t happen in the original history. For example, astronaut Mike Collins is forced to mutiny in order to remain in orbit to search for his missing and presumed dead Apollo 11 crew mates (Neil’s famous 1969 landing was a bit sloppier in this version of history). The once-grounded Deke Slayton is now allowed to fly to the moon, though he never reaches it (he never flies in Apollo-Soyuz, either). The Equal Rights Amendment is fully ratified and passed (oh how I wish!). Thomas O. Paine is now killed in the real-life destruction of Korean Airliner 007 in 1983. In season two, Sally Ride is now forced to pull a gun on her commander, Ed, during the contentious first flight of the fully-fictitious “Pathfinder” spacecraft—a large, nuclear powered space shuttle-on-steroids designed to carry space crews far beyond lunar orbit.
Note: “Pathfinder” in our history was the name of the Mars landing craft that ferried the rover Sojourner to the Ares Valles region of Mars on July 4th, 1997. It was the first functioning rover to reach Mars, and the precursor to Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity, Perseverance and the new Chinese rover Zhurong.
The alternate past presented hypothetically in FAM is certainly very different than our current present, even if many post-1969 pop culture references remain largely intact. Many movies, music and classic TV shows of the show’s era seem almost entirely unaffected by the huge shifts in this new Space Race. To those that wonder if this is unrealistic, I’d say probably not. After all, did the launch of the space shuttle in 1981 have any bearing on the TV series “CHiPs” or Rick James’ “Super Freak”? Not really, no.
FAM also illustrates other minor ripple effects in its timeline using TV news as exposition. After the Soviets beat America to the moon, Senator Ted Kennedy announces he’s skipping that infamous party in Chappaquiddick, which arguably derailed his chances for the White House. Ronald Reagan is elected president four years earlier, in 1976, instead of 1980. Also in 1980, musical genius John Lennon is not killed in New York, resulting in his becoming a world-renowned peace advocate (“All we are saying is give peace a chance…”). The series regularly dishes out these little bits of exposition to keep its audience aware of the increasing divergence of FAM’s reality.
Note: The news soundbites of FAM remind me of the 1987 sci-fi/action-satire “Robocop” which also used clever faux news and TV ads to illustrate the differences in its own brutal near-future.
Right Stuff: The Next Generation.
Aleida Rosales’s dream of being a NASA engineer is eventually realized with some tough love guidance from flight director Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt), whose own story is one of a woman struggling to rise in the ranks of a field completely dominated by very completive men. Margo eventually becomes a flight controller, and NASA number two as well, eventually becoming a critical player in negotiations for Apollo-Soyuz, which happens much later in this history, but also under the weight of a pending war in space.
The aforementioned Danielle Poole rises through the ranks of the NASA astronaut corps, eventually becoming one of the first (along with Ed and Gordo) to occupy the then-fledgling Jamestown lunar base. Years later, she is offered command of Apollo-Soyuz; a mission continually threatened with abortion (even after the launch of both ships) due to escalating tensions between astronauts and cosmonauts on the moon.
Gordo’s wife Tracey (Sarah Jones) is an accomplished pilot in her own right, and thanks to an earlier open NASA recruitment policy in this reality, she becomes an astronaut as well. Tracey is deeply and rightfully resentful of Gordo’s incessant cheating, so while their marriage produces two great sons, they eventually divorce.
In the second season, Tracey becomes a full-on celebrity, and the public just adores her. She becomes an Amelia Earhart of the stars, and eventually marries a billionaire, too. Between interviews with Carson and magazine photo shoots, she gets a bit lost, however. Gordo, simmering in his own jealousy, begins a downward spiral into alcoholism. In season two, Tracey and Gordo both return to the moon at the expanded Jamestown Base, where they rekindle their passion for each other just before a fatal mission…
Note: Gordo and Tracey seemed to be based on real-life “Right Stuff” Mercury/Gemini astronaut Leroy “Gordo” Cooper and his wife Trudy, who was also an accomplished pilot in real life, like her fictional counterpart Tracey. The real-life Gordo and Trudy divorced as well, though Trudy never applied to become an astronaut, let alone land on the moon. Gordo Cooper died of natural causes in 2004 at age 77. The real-life Cooper was also a staunch believer in UFOs, having claimed to have seen a few during his missions on Mercury and Gemini. Given the current government disclosure of UFOs, maybe Cooper was onto something…
One of the most stereotypically “right stuff” astronauts of the series is the colorful pilot Molly Cobb (Sonya Walger). By contrast, she’s married to a patient, understanding, laid back hippie named Wayne (Lenny Jacobson), who’d sooner toke up than fight. Season two sees Molly facing a monstrous challenge on the moon during a severe solar event, which bombards the moon with a deadly concentration of cosmic rays. Molly, in the tradition of the typically ‘macho’ pilot, defies orders to shelter in place within a lunar cave—choosing instead to rescue a Dutch astronaut whom she could’ve left for dead. Returning to Jamestown base, Molly’s colleague was saved, but at the cost of her now failing eyesight and other medical maladies.
Note: The fictional Molly Cobb was supposed to be one of the original Mercury 13; a real-life group of women who were once considered as astronauts in order to compete with Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova. Molly takes her last name from real-life Mercury 13 astronaut candidate Geraldine Cobb (1931-2019). The Mercury 13 idea was abandoned by NASA and an American woman, Dr. Sally Ride (1951-2012) wouldn’t fly in space until 1983. Dr. Ride was also the first gay woman to fly into space, but sadly, that potentially inspiring fact would remain secret until her death.
Molly Cobb is an amalgamation of the colorful real-life pilot/saloon keeper Pancho Barnes (memorably played by Kim Stanley in 1983’s “The Right Stuff”), with a helping of General Chuck Yeager and even a dash of Amelia Earhart thrown in. She’s a tough, frank, outspoken, old-fashioned stick ‘n rudder gal—preferring to fly on intuition and the seat of her pants over instruments and technology. Kudos to Sonya Walger, who never lapses into a stereotypically two-dimensional butch portrayal, either. Walger gives Molly Cobb lots of shading. While Molly’s opposites-attract marriage to Wayne is inherently ripe for comedy, the two characters never lapse into caricature.
In addition to Tracey and Molly, we meet another woman astronaut, Ellen Wilson (Jodi Balfour) also has her own ambitious dreams of spaceflight, eventually making her own perilous voyage to the moon with real-life astronaut Deke Slayton, and later commanding Jamestown Base and even heading NASA itself after the tragic loss of real-life NASA director Thomas O. Paine (Dan Donohue), who, in this reality, is killed during the tragic loss of Korean Airliner 007, which was shot down by a Soviet missile for allegedly straying into Soviet air space in 1983.
In keeping with this retro-series’ commentary on social relevance, Ellen is also a closeted lesbian who lives in fear of being outed—even to the point of marrying a gay man as cover. Deciding to out herself to Deke Slayton during their lunar mission together, Slayton offers a word of advice; stay closeted for your career’s sake. Ellen’s space ambitions are sated, while her personal life suffers… the story of so many (too many) who are forced to live closeted lives.
Note: The real-life Donald K. “Deke” Slayton, one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts, never flew to the moon due to a minor heart defect, becoming Chief Astronaut (the one who assigns personnel to missions) and eventually flying in space on the real-life Apollo Soyuz mission of 1975. Deke Slayton died of a brain tumor in 1993.
Karen Baldwin (Shantel Van Santen) is, at first glance, the “perfect astronaut wife”, but also has her own rich arc on the show as well, being the manager of the astronaut’s local watering hole. She also faces a powerful midlife crisis of her own as her marriage to the ambitious, ill-tempered Ed sours. Her estrangement from Ed eventually throws her into the arms of a much younger man in a cringeworthy affair that is deeply uncomfortable for the once prim-and-proper astronaut wife.
Even Ed and Karen’s adopted Vietnamese daughter Kelly (Cynthy Wu) pursues her dream of applying to the Naval Academy, initially against the wishes of her dad and her mother Karen. Kelly follows in her adoptive father’s footsteps, though she still has a burning curiosity about the status of her Vietnamese birth mother, whom she eventually locates working at a pho restaurant for a tearful reunion.
FAM’s motto: leave no significant character underdeveloped.
Looking Forward to a Better Past.
The fictional past of “For All Mankind” is presented as an arguably better one than we remember. Clearly the show’s US manned space program is far more ambitious than our timid traipsing in Earth orbit today. However, a lot of that space roving has been accomplished far cheaper (and with no risk to human life) via robotic probes. These robotic probes have landed as far as Saturn’s moon of Titan, and are currently driving (and flying) over the rusty surface of Mars. There are also a handful of robotic emissaries leaving the boundaries of our solar system and heading into interstellar space. Yes, robot probes are a far less romantic vision than astronauts living on a lunar base (something I’ve wanted since seeing “Space: 1999” as a kid), but it’s arguably a lot safer, too. Not to mention there are no fatal shootouts between rival robotic probes on other planets, either…
Note: Even as I type this, America (NASA), Europe (ESA) and India (IRSO) have all been very welcoming of the Chinese rover Zhurong, which recently joined their own flotilla of spacecraft at Mars. Earthly rivalries are much easier to forget when you look down upon an Earth without clear borders or boundaries.
But as FAM stresses with every episode, the benefits of an expanded space program aren’t just putting boots and planting flags on other planets. The greatest benefits of the show’s more ambitious spaceflight program are measured in technological advancement and, more importantly, much-needed social changes.
Using fuel cell technology developed for Jamestown Lunar Base, the series has electric cars being popularized back in the 1980s, as is video-conferencing, and other now-current technologies. Electric cars and alternative fuel cell power plants might’ve led to a potentially greener present if we embraced them decades ago. Video-teleconferencing, refined back in the 1980s, might’ve better prepared us for our present-day COVID pandemic as well—not to mention cut down on pollution from our daily commutes.
We also see a lot more women pioneers in FAM’s US space program, working alongside real-life role models, such as Sally Ride and Judy Resnik. In FAM’s universe, we see women commanders on lunar bases in the early 1980s, whereas the space shuttle program didn’t have a female commander until Eileen Collins in July of 1999 (her mission deployed the orbital Chandra X-ray telescope).
People of color are also better represented in FAM’s universe as well, with Apollo-Soyuz being commanded by a black woman. While LGBTQ persons are still unfairly marginalized in the series’ alternate 1980s, space veteran Ellen Wilson is in a strong leadership position with NASA (even if she is closeted). The alternate past of “For All Mankind” is from perfect (as is our present), but progress comes a lot faster when people are judged on their abilities and intelligence, and not their genitalia or skin color. All of these technological and social changes of the series happen before 1990. I look very forward to seeing where we might’ve gone in FAM’s alternate 1995.
It’s no surprise that series creator Ron Moore was inspired by “Star Trek.” “For All Mankind” would fit very comfortably as a prequel to the original series “Star Trek” as well. “For All Mankind” makes its audience both nostalgic for the past and hopeful for a better future at the same time.
The best of both worlds.
“For All Mankind” can be seen exclusively on AppleTV. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are just over 584,975 as of this writing. Meanwhile, several vaccines have been developed and inoculations are finally widespread (whew!), which is slowing the US mortality rate (though numbers in Brazil and India are spiking dramatically). Given a certain level of vaccine hesitancy (around 8 percent in the US), it may take a while longer for for eventual herd immunity. Even with vaccines, the overall situation is not yet fully safe. Even vaccinated, it is possible to catch the coronavirus, though your chances of getting ill from it are slim-to-none. So, if you haven’t already done so, please get vaccinated as soon as possible (I myself have been fully vaccinated now for over a month now), and let us vaccinate our way out of the COVID pandemic.
Let’s make this deadly pandemic a part of our past and get on with our future.