*****SPACE STATION-SIZED SPOILERS!!*****
Right upfront; “For All Mankind,” co-created and produced by Ronald D. Moore (“Deep Space Nine” the “Battlestar Galactica” reboot) is my favorite science fiction series going on right now. Yes, it has strong competition (“Severance,” “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds”)–this is a great time to be a sci-fi TV fan–but for overall consistency, the first two seasons of this series have been thoroughly engrossing. Set in an alternate universe that diverged from ours when its own Soviet Union beat the United States to the moon, prompting an even more ambitious manned space race that never petered out, as did our own, after Apollo. This universe sees moon colonies, planned manned voyages to Mars and even a large (privately-run) space hotel, a la 1968’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”; all taking place before the end of its late 20th century. “For All Mankind” is the future I was promised as a little kid… that future that never was.
This version of the late 20th century has yielded its own setbacks; it’s racked up far more spaceflight fatalities than ours. Its moon also hosted a bloody Russian-American conflict, and is now separated into Western and Eastern halves; the moon is a new Berlin Wall in space. On the plus side, global warming is being offset by clean fusion power plants, which use mined helium-3 imported from the lunar surface. Many 21st century technologies, such as videoconferencing, smartphones, and tablets appear a decade earlier, albeit in slightly clunkier forms. As the series draws ever closer to our own present, the divergences are becoming more pronounced, though some historical events, technologies, and even a few pop culture touchstones are surprisingly intact (the movie “ALIENS” still happens, for example).
The third season opener, “Polaris,” is available now for streaming, and it nothing short of a white-knuckled disaster movie in space. Written by Moore, Matt Wolpert, Ben Nedivi, and directed by Sarah Almeida, “Polaris” is simply too good to wait for my planned season-end recap, as I was planning to do with this chaptered series, which proves serialized sci-fi can work (even if it’s been hit-or-miss with Star Trek, of late). I had to write about “Polaris” right now.
The third season opens with its ‘news recap’ segment (narrated by “Star Trek: Enterprise” veteran Linda Park) who brings us up to speed with the developments in this alternate reality since we left off somewhere in the 1980s in season 2. Following the bloody shootout at Jonestown colony, the moon is now divided between the West and the Soviet Union. The Beatles are gearing up for a reunion concert (as John Lennon survives in this universe). NASA and the Russians are also gearing up for the Mars launch window in 1996 (the one exploited by NASA’s real-life robotic Pathfinder mission), and the Soviet Union has yet to fall (as it did in 1991). Climate change numbers worldwide are falling, thanks to increased use of fusion power, as mined from helium-3 on the moon’s surface. Also in the news, space tourism has began in earnest with the “Polaris” space hotel–a rotating Stanford torus-like space station undertaken by former restauranteur Karen Baldwin (Shantel VanStanten), along with her new husband Sam (Jeff Hephner). The Polaris station will welcome some distinguished personal visitors before its grand opening…
We then see NASA flight director Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt) who wakes up in an apartment adjacent to her office (convenient) and begins her day with a SlimFast shake as she hurriedly gets dressed. Soon, Margo’s met by her two assistants who unleash a barrage of scheduling reminders, and even a would-be bribe from a politician-lobbyist before she heads down to Mission Control, where she learns that a North Korean space launch has broken up upon launch. Debris from the rocket is scattered in orbit, and the proper alerts to other spacefaring countries are immediately issued. Margo is also under pressure to select an astronaut to head the forthcoming (manned) Pathfinder mission to Mars. Her two candidates are veteran astronaut Ed Baldwin and Apollo-Soyuz veteran Danielle Poole (Krys Marshall). The final decision on who leads the mission is up to Chief Astronaut in charge of crew selection, Molly Cobb (Sonya Walger), who’s not the easiest person to get along with…
Greeted by the smell of cigarettes (in a ‘smoke-free’ building) and Molly’s growling dog, Margo then meets with the irascible astronaut Cobb in her office. The intransigent Cobb wants veteran astronaut Ed Baldwin to lead the Pathfinder mission based on his ability to think on his feet. Margo insists on the cooler, more cerebral Danielle Poole. With time running out, the two powerful NASA women are at loggerheads, and neither budge.
Note: Molly Cobb is a composite character of real-life astronauts Alan B. Shepard (who used to be in charge of crew selection at NASA, allowing himself to be selected on Apollo 14) and almost-Mercury astronaut Wally Funk, one of the original “Mercury 13” program; 13 women who were supposed to fly with the first batch of male astronauts, but whose flights were summarily cancelled. Funk eventually flew into space at age 82 aboard one of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin rockets for a suborbital flight. Cobb has Shepard’s temperament, but with elements of Funk’s backstory. In this series, Cobb is a veteran astronaut who risked fatal radiation exposure to save a colleague on the moon during a freak solar storm. Actress Sonya Walger is subtly and effectively aged with makeup to appear decades older than her actual age of 38.
In the Mission Control Center, Booster-Retro flight controller Aleida Rosales (Coral Pena) is overseeing a static test firing of the NERVA rocket at the lunar Jonestown Colony. The rocket is to be used in the forthcoming Mars Pathfinder mission, scheduled to launch in two years. The nuclear-powered rocket overloads, and is prematurely shut down. Aleida is calmly and gently advised by her mentor and boss Margo to “work the problem.” It’s apparent that Aleida knows much more about the NERVA booster than those on the moon overseeing the firing of it, which gives Margo an idea.
Note: The NERVA rocket seen firing on the moon in “Polaris” was a very real rocket. In fact, a working prototype of NERVA was tested at “Jackass Flats” testing grounds in the Nevada desert in the late 1960s before the planned manned mission to Mars in the 1980s (for which it was built) was ultimately abandoned, thanks largely to former president Nixon and his commitment to the Space Shuttle program. “Work the problem,” was also a phrase commonly used by NASA flight controllers, and was popularized by actor Ed Harris in his portrayal of real-life flight director Gene Kranz in the movie “Apollo 13” (1995).
Later, after work, Margo heads to a record shop to pick up a rare LP (Margo is a jazz piano enthusiast, as established in earlier seasons). She also makes time for a clandestine phone call from a booth to her Soviet counterpart Sergei Nikulov (Piotr Adamczyk), with whom she’s been routinely sharing vital development information since Apollo-Soyuz. Margo is unaware that her ‘innocent’ call to Sergei is being closely monitored by Sergei’s bosses in the Kremlin.
Later, Margo accepts an invitation to dinner from her protege Aleida’s family, including her husband, her young son and her father, who prepared a feast of Mexican delights. Over dinner, Margo sees some brilliant new engineering concepts Aleida has come up with for the NERVA rocket, and decides, on the spot, that Aleida is going up to the Jonestown Colony on the moon to refit the NERVA rocket herself. Aleida’s family is thrilled that she is joining the ranks of the astronauts…
Note: As much as I like Margo as a character, there are some genuine flaws with regards to her objectivity. She shows exceptional favoritism to Aleida Rosales, which might be seen as bias to some. Not to mention her conversations with Soviet colleague Sergei–which she naively assumes to be two friends just helping each other out–will no doubt carry severe consequences as the third season progresses.
The heart of the story shifts into orbit, aboard the downright luxurious ‘space hotel’ Polaris; a private space firm started by the aforementioned Karen Baldwin (ex-wife of Ed Baldwin), and her new husband Sam. The Polaris space station is a rotating Stanford-torus type, which creates artificial gravity through centrifugal force–objects and persons walking along the interior of the station’s outer ‘wheel’ experience an approximation of Earth gravity. The station is welcoming guests before its grand opening who are there to attend the wedding of young astronaut Danny Stevens (Casey W. Johnson) and his fiancée Amber (Madeline Bertani). Danny is the son of the late astronauts “Gordo” and Tracy Stevens, who died on the moon during the Russian-American conflict of season 2. In the wake of their heroic deaths, the divorced Stevens’ lives are being rewritten as a romance epic, with stars Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid playing them in a Hollywood movie!
Note: Nice in-joke with the announcement that actor Dennis Quaid (real-life ex-husband of actress Meg Ryan) is playing “Gordo” Stevens. Quaid played real-life Mercury astronaut Leroy “Gordo” Cooper in 1983’s “The Right Stuff”. The fictional Gordo and Tracy Stevens were loosely based on Gordo and Tracy Cooper, who were later divorced as well. The real-life Tracy Cooper, like her fictional counterpart Tracy Stevens, was also a licensed pilot, though sadly, she never went on to become an astronaut like her husband.
Attending the wedding are longtime friends of the Stevens’ family, including current rivals to head the Mars mission, astronauts Ed Baldwin and Danielle Poole. The two of them arrive at the station with their respective spouses, including Ed’s new wife Yvonne (Ashley Jones), whose relationship with Ed seems to be every bit as turbulent as his former relationship with Karen. Taking a luxurious elevator ride from the station’s docking hub to the outer ring, the veteran astronauts exchange quips about this new private space station’s opulence, which reminds Ed of TV’s “The Love Boat” (1977-1986).
Note: The curved interior set for the Polaris station’s outer ring is a close approximation of the space station interior seen in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”, with only minor differences, such as blue chairs in place of the bright red ones seen in Kubrick’s masterpiece. In the ambitious spacefaring past of “For All Mankind,” this space station was inaugurated in the mid-1990s, as opposed to the still-under-construction station seen in “2001.” Sadly, the 23 year old real-life International Space Station does not have artificial gravity, nor any of the other luxurious appointments seen in Polaris, although several space tourists have paid through the nose for the privilege of visiting the vessel.
Exiting the elevator onto the station’s outer ring, the families are met by Polaris entrepreneurs Karen and Sam, who warmly–and a bit awkwardly–welcome ex-husband Ed, the Poole family and, of course, young Danny Stevens and his fiancée Amber. Still remembering her “Mrs. Robinson” moment with a teenaged Danny back in season 2, Karen and Danny do their unspoken best to put it behind them, for all their sakes. Ed picks up on his ex-wife’s nervousness, but says nothing, as he’s got his own hands full with his current wife Yvonne.
Note: To those not familiar with season 2, there was a one-night stand between young Danny and middle-aged Karen, in her bar, near the end of that season. However, the secret of that one-night stand has apparently been well kept between the two of them. Even Danny’s bride-to-be seems blissfully unaware. Once again, convincing wigs and subtle age makeups are used to make Karen and Ed look their ages within the series; actor Joel Kinnaman is just over 40 while Shantel VanStanten is only in her mid-30s.
With the graceful curve of the Earth rotating in the windows behind the wedding guests, Danny and Amber are married. Things get a little uncomfortable when the wedding DJ plays country singer Billy Swan’s cover of Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel”–the very song played when Danny and Karen had their tryst at the end of season 2. Ouch. This is mercifully followed by toasts, as well as a videophone toast from Ed and Karen’s adopted daughter Kelly (Cynthy Wu), who was unable to attend the nuptials, as she is doing research at McMurdo Station in Antarctica.
Note: Videoconferencing in this alternate future feels even more advanced than the sometimes choppy Skype, Zoom and FaceTime calls of our current 21st century; no doubt another side benefit of this fictional reality’s more ambitious space program and satellite technologies.
The awkwardness felt earlier soon kicks into overdrive as Danny’s sullen kid brother Jimmy (David Chandler), offers his own bitter, drunken toast. Jimmy resents both his brother’s newfound happiness, as well as his late parents’ reimagining as romantic heroes–dying together on the lunar surface in an epic, made-for-Hollywood love story. Realizing he’s just taken a massive crap on this joyous event, Jimmy sheepishly excuses himself. He is later joined by the stepson of Danielle Poole, as the two of them smoke a smuggled joint, carefully blowing exhaled smoke into the air ducting system; a trick Jimmy learned from his smoker mother.
Note: Last season, we saw the late Tracy Cooper (Sarah Jones), a chronic smoker, take in the occasional cigarette while stationed on the moon at Jonestown Base (now Colony) on the moon by carefully flushing her smoke directly in the outgoing exhaust vents of the life-support system.
Meanwhile, a bit of metal debris from that destroyed North Korean space launch flings at high speed towards the Polaris station and strikes one of its main maneuvering thrusters–forcing the thruster valve open, and unable to close. Smaller vernier thrusters automatically kick in as the station’s guidance systems attempt to compensate for the extra spin, but with little effect. As the station’s rate of rotation begins to increase, the sensation of gravity is increased as well. Karen and Sam are discreetly notified of the damaged thruster by space station commander LaPorte (Derek Webster), who quietly dispatches two astronauts in spacesuits to repair the damage. Karen and Sam decide not to interrupt the wedding reception for such a ‘minor’ problem. However, as G-forces continue to climb, we see the bride and groom figures on the wedding cake slowly begin to sink...
Note: The sinking bride and groom on the cake is an ominous image, like something from a space-age version of “Titanic.” I could feel my pulse rise a bit as the station’s G-forces slowly began to climb.
Soon, the rising G-forces within the station can’t be ignored by the guests. Wedding dancers begin to fall to the floor. A tossed bouquet and a shoe barely arc before slamming to the deck. Alone in their respective cabins, Ed notices the inertially drooping neck of a table lamp, while groom Danny suddenly realizes the whirling of Earth’s limb outside his honeymoon suite window has increased. The veteran astronauts immediately sense the station is rotating faster, causing all guests to feel their relative weights slowly doubling. The attempt to repair the stuck thruster ends in disaster as one of the station’s massive support cables snaps, knocking two astronauts sent to repair the damage off the hull like a pair of swatted flies. Karen, realizing the situation is out of control, announces all wedding guests to begin evacuation to the two Polaris shuttles docked at the central hub.
Note: As I watched this episode unfold with ever-whitening knuckles, I begin to realize that “Polaris” is exactly the kind of disaster movie that TV/movie producer Irwin Allen (“The Poseidon Adventure,” “The Towering Inferno”) never got the chance to make in the 1970s, due to the limits of budget and filmmaking science at the time. The premise of the episode is so good that I could’ve easily imagined it being made into a feature film, instead of a season opener to a TV series. Kudos to writers (and series co-creators) Ronald D. Moore, Ben Nedivi and Matt Wolpert, as well as the first-rate epic direction by Sarah Almeida, who gives this AppleTV production all the flourishes of a major action film–and within a single hour, to boot!
The aging Ed, whose ankle breaks under the increasing gravity, needs both his wife and Danny to help him make it to the elevators for evacuation. Unfortunately, the elevator cables snap under the heavier gravity as they reach the outer ring level, which a horrified Karen sees firsthand when her husband Sam is killed inside of a crashed elevator. Bravely pulling herself together, Karen immediately gets on the PA system to warn other guests not to use the elevators. Evacuating guests will have to climb the emergency escape ladders toward the central hub–a task made all the more difficult by the hellish gravity, making every guest feel nearly three times their own weight (for context, a space shuttle or SpaceX Dragon liftoff pulls about three Gs).
As gravity steadily creeps towards the station’s design limit of four Gs, guests are now held in place against the floor by their own bulk. Groom Danny takes it upon himself to climb the access ladders towards the central hub, where he’ll don an emergency spacesuit and shut off the flow of fuel to the stuck thruster. Realizing it’s their only chance, Ed agrees, and wishes the young man “godspeed,” the traditional good luck wish of astronauts.
As the gravity climbs to four Gs, Danny reaches the hub, dons an emergency spacesuit–which only adds to his weight–and crawls outside to shut off fuel to the damaged thruster. Narrowly avoiding another buckled support cable, he pries off the access panel and closes the valve manually. The station, its remaining crew and guests, including his bride, are saved, as the station slows it reckless spin and the centrifugally-produced artificial gravity approaches normal…
Note: I can only imagine the fallout this disaster will rain upon the now-widowed Karen’s “Polaris” space tourism company. It’s implied that much of the capital for this private space venture came from the sale of her restaurant (which franchised), as well as her uber-wealthy new husband, Sam. Unfortunately, Karen is now in a far worse position. This episode reminds us that no matter how we attempt to tame it, space is still a deeply unyielding environment.
Summing It Up.
In the span of an hour, For All Mankind’s “Polaris” makes for a first-rate space disaster movie that could’ve easily gone to feature length. The earlier material with Margo’s day at the office and the Rosales’ family dinner relaxes us into a feeling of domestic drama complacency before the full-throttle action aboard the Polaris space station begins in earnest.
Throughout the breakneck pacing of the second half, the spotlight is always evenly divided between the spectacle and the characters, with neither overwhelming the other. We care for the people in jeopardy, hence, the action is all the more engrossing–the secret sauce for any good action flick. The second episode of this third season will be available for streaming this Friday (June 17th), but the season opener “Polaris” has set a very high bar for action and adventure, even for his top-notch science fiction series.
To Boldly Go…
Talented graphic artist/designer Michael Okuda, who’s had a long career with the Star Trek franchise, is currently working on “For All Mankind” as well, and he succinctly summarized the series when he recently tweeted a quote from series’ creator Ron Moore:
In many ways, “For All Mankind” is a true prequel to the optimistic spacefaring future we see in Star Trek. Unlike Star Trek, the alternate reality of “For All Mankind” doesn’t use imaginary technology like warp drive, or fictional elements like “dilithium,” but rather extrapolations of real or even abandoned technology–such as the NERVA rockets seen test-firing at Jonestown lunar colony.
The series takes a ‘what-if’ future and populates it with richly-drawn characters who occasionally interact with real-life people from our own universe as well; adding an even greater dimension of realism. No, the space age of this series never happened, but the production team give it just enough authenticity to feel as if it could’ve, and arguably should’ve happened.
“For All Mankind” is that rarest of birds; a near-present day sci-fi series that manages to imbue viewers with the same heady optimism and excitement for space travel usually reserved for a faraway-future space fantasy. “For All Mankind” gives us a guided tour of a past we could’ve had–and a future we might still enjoy–if we start dreaming big right now.
Where To Watch.
“For All Mankind” is available for streaming exclusively on AppleTV. For fellow sci-fi fans, I would also highly recommend the very different, but equally worthy sci-fi workplace series “Severance”, which is also available for streaming on AppleTV–and no, I am not being paid/sponsored by Apple in any way, shape or form. “For All Mankind” is reason enough for any sci-fi fan to give AppleTV a try.