The AppleTV series “For All Mankind” returns for a 4th year, time-jumping from season 3’s alternate-1990s into an alternate-2003. In this road-not-taken future, where the Russians beat Americans to the moon in 1969, manned spaceflight has rapidly turned commonplace, with the Moon and Mars offering 21st century gold rushes to those with the guts and ambition to accept the challenges.
This series is one of my current personal favorites, with co-creator/producer Ronald D. Moore (“Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” “Battlestar Galactica”) and company fabricating a fictional, though not implausible world where America’s losing the Moon Race in the 1960s only increased humanity’s ambition for spaceflight worldwide.
If only we lived in that universe, right?
Season 4, Episode 1: “Glasnost”
The episode was directed by Lukas Ettlin and written by Matt Wolpert and Ben Nedivi, who co-created the series along with executive producer Moore.
Using its clever newscast summary-device to bring returning audiences up to speed, we learn that the “M-7” nations (the United States, Russia, the ESA nations, North Korea and Japan) have now firmly established the permanent, thriving Martian colony of “Happy Valley.” The first baby born on Mars, Alex Poletov (Ezrah Lin), is now a child living back on Earth with his mother, Kelly Baldwin (Cynthy Wu) and Russian grandmother (Irina Dubova). Both Kelly and her son eagerly await the long-delayed arrival of grandpa Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman), who’s still out in the void, flying spaceships for the Helios corporation.
After two successful terms, Republican veteran astronaut Ellen Wilson (Jodi Balfour) entered history books as the first gay US president and has completed her second term, with Democrat Al Gore succeeding her in the 2000 election (in this history, Hillary and Bill Clinton divorced while he was still governor of Arkansas). President Gore has fully welcomed the still-Soviet Union Premier Mikhail Gorbachev’s initiative of ‘glasnost’ (i.e. ‘openness’) to the West. Meanwhile, Tom Hanks’ “Cast Away” is still popular at the box office, as is another movie called “The Race to Mars,” which starred Clint Eastwood as veteran astronaut Ed Baldwin (this universe’s biopic answer to 2000’s “Space Cowboys”).
Note: In this universe, the Soviet ‘perestroika’ (reformation) movement, or ‘glasnost’ (as it was more commonly known) came two decades later, with an older Mikhail Gorbachev ushering in this new era of détente in the early 2000s instead of the mid-1980s. I was in high school during the real glasnost, and I remember a distinct optimism that came with it. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, power vacuums and the desire for stability welcomed several post-Soviet leaders, eventually paving the way for former KGB operative Vladimir Putin. The autocratic Putin has now anchored himself to power (as autocrats do), holding positions as either president or prime minister for over the past 24 years.
NASA’s newly rebuilt Johnson Space Center is now under the guidance of former Chrysler CEO, Eli Hobson (Daniel Stern, “Blue Thunder” “City Slickers”), who is currently overseeing a Helios Aerospace mission called Kronos, which seeks to capture an asteroid which it will transport to Mars orbit, where it will serve as an mining outpost in hopes of making Happy Valley self-sustaining. Ed is still in the commander’s seat of his spacecraft—doing what he loves best—using work to cope for his grief over the death of his ex-wife Karen, whom he still loved.
Note: I like Daniel Stern’s new NASA director Eli Hobson character; an affable guy who comes to the agency after a career with the Chrysler corporation. The name ‘Kronos’ for the failed asteroid capture mission is significant, since Kronos was the Titan in Greek mythology who swallowed his own children out of envy, just as the mission audaciously attempted to ‘swallow’ an asteroid by pulling it out of its solar orbit in a giant net. The Kronos reference reminded me of the 2007 movie “Sunshine,” which featured a Hail Mary solar-reactivation mission named “Icarus”; seemingly unaware that the tale of Icarus (son of Daedalus) losing his wax-and-feather wings to the sun’s heat is a tale of hubris and tragedy.
Unfortunately, the asteroid capture mission goes bust; the carefully-placed pitons anchored to the asteroid give way. Mission commander Ed gives orders that lead to the deaths of two crew members—including Ed’s friend, Russian space hero Grigory Kuznetsov (Lev Gorn). The tragedy is a wakeup call to Eli Hobson, who seeks to replace the increasingly maverick Ed with first American on Mars, Danielle Poole (Krys Marshall). Poole has been happily retired from NASA for some time, but ultimately agrees to return out of loyalty to her friend Grigory and to help Ed, whose command judgment is becoming a serious liability.
Note: Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman gives an amazing, fully-Americanized performance as US astronaut hero Ed Baldwin, who’s arguably the series’ gravitational center as this universe’s answer to Neil Armstrong. While he’s lionized as a legend, his friends, colleagues, and even his adopted daughter Kelly are legitimately worried about his erratic behavior and his seeming avoidance of his family. Kinnaman gives the role those American qualities of bravado and arrogance that are difficult for some non-American actors to portray authentically.
Last season’s 9/11-style bombing of the Johnson Space Center killed several key characters, and has left mission controller Aleida Rosales (Coral Peña) with an undiagnosed case of post-traumatic stress disorder. This condition has caused her to ignore work-related calls, and to work from home as much as possible. She even walked away from her console during the Kronos mission disaster.
Note: While the show’s alternate universe seems to have avoided our own universe’s 9/11 tragedy, terrorism is, sadly, very much alive in “For All Mankind” as well. Last season’s bombing of the Johnson Space Center echoed both the 9/11 attack on New York City’s World Trade Center as well as the Pentagon in Washington DC. The imagery also evoked Oklahoma’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building bombing in 1995. It seems deadly fanaticism will always be part of the human equation.
Aleida’s former boss, disgraced NASA head Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt)—whose act of espionage Aleida exposed—has been exiled to Moscow (something we saw at the end of last season). After offering her decades of space expertise to Roscosmos following the joint US-Soviet Kronos disaster, a rebuffed Margo later meets a cryptic, English-speaking older woman on a bench, feeding the bullfinches, who claims to have Margo’s “best interests” at heart…
Note: Wrenn Schmidt gives an amazing performance as the disgraced US expat Margo Madison, as the former history-making NASA director now lives out her aimless days in exile in Moscow. Speaking conversational Russian with a brash and unapologetically American accent, Margo’s attitude is one of both disgrace and defiance, as she bitterly accepts the fallout from her botched attempt to help her Soviet counterpart. Following news of the Kronos disaster, Margo offers her expertise to the current Roscosmos bureaucracy in a humiliating gesture; enduring agonizingly slow train rides just to be rejected out of hand. An element of intrigue is introduced with the mysterious finch-feeding woman on the bench, though that scene felt just a mite cliché; like something out of a 1980s spy novel. All the same, color me intrigued…
In 2003, outer space has become the latest gold rush. Job opportunities to the moon lead to an avalanche of applicants, one of whom is a Louisiana-based former oil rigger named Miles Dale (Toby Kebbell), who needs a better job in order to save his marriage and better provide for his two daughters. Lying about a college education on his application, Miles learns he’s not able to get a job on the moon for at least two more years due to the long wait. However, a sympathetic Helios interviewer offers the personable young man a job offer on Mars instead—but only if he’s willing to leave in a few weeks, following a minimum of astronaut training.
Note: Miles Dale is an interesting everyman to drop in the middle of this series, which is populated by so many space enthusiasts and professionals; even the astronaut’s spouses are dynamic people. Miles (almost like Miles O’Brien in producer Moore’s “Deep Space Nine”) is the blue collar-guy in space. It also helps that Miles isn’t written as a yokel or the typically angry disenfranchised guy; he’s just a man facing obsolescence, with legitimate worries about supporting his almost-ex wife and family. This character gives the series a fresh pair of eyes through which to be awed anew at the prospect of going into space for the first time.
The final moments of the episode sees both outer space-newbie Miles and longtime veteran/ex-retiree Danielle leaving on the same transport for Mars, while melancholy commander Ed is in the ironically-named Happy Valley, awaiting Danielle’s arrival, and puffing on what looks like a marijuana cigarette as Martian night falls…bringing with it an almost impossibly starry sky in the thin atmosphere.
Note: I get that sense that despite her seeming contentment with retirement, Krys Marshall’s Danielle Poole—one of the most stable and well-adjusted characters in this series— is truly ‘returning home’ when we see her aboard the transport en route for Mars…
Summing It Up
Over the past three seasons, the more optimistic future of “For All Mankind” sees space development tangentially smoothing out other currently thorny issues, including dependency on fossil fuels as well as outmoded inequalities based on gender, race and sexuality (goodbye & good riddance). In many ways, this audacious universe—both familiar and very different—feels like it might someday give rise to hopeful, galaxy-spanning future we see in “Star Trek.” In some ways, Ronald D. Moore, a former Trek writer and producer, has made what might just be the best (unofficial) Star Trek prequel to date.
While the 2003 of this alternate present still has issues of nationalism, greed, arrogance, pride, and other familiar sins of our species, others have been greatly minimized. While it’s hard to imagine the current Republican Party openly embracing a gay president for two terms, it has already come to pass in this universe. This better universe also saw a Black woman being the first American on Mars—the first human on Mars was her secretive, crash-landed colleague from North Korea (C.S. Lee). Green energy has become a popularly-accepted norm in everyday life there as well, despite rendering the fossil fuel industry largely obsolete; a situation that forces engaging new character Miles Dale to seek work in space. Sadly, that’s the price of progress; no one mourns the lost horse & buggy for commuting to work, either…
Watching this series is an immersion into a familiar, yet better universe, where humanity struggles to tame the wild frontier of outer space (as we saw with the disastrous Kronos mission and last year’s Polaris space station debacle), while continuing to reap some of the more positive aspects that come from that struggle. After this promising start to the series’ fourth season, I can’t wait to see what’s next for the characters populating this universe, even if I watch them with pangs of envy…
Where to Watch
All episodes to date of “For All Mankind” are available to stream exclusively on AppleTV. Season 1 has just been made available on Blu-Ray in the United States as well (from Amazon and other sellers; prices vary).