I wasn’t planning to do episode-by-episode recap/reviews of entire TV shows anymore (as I used to do with each new episode of Star Trek), because they reduce the overall time I have for other equally compelling topics. My new modus operandi for this column is to only highlight an interesting episode every now and then. However, “For All Mankind,” created by Ronald D Moore, Ben Nedivi and Matt Wolpert, is one of those shows that might make me bend my own rules a bit, since the second episode of the show’s fourth season delves into a subject of keen interest to me—the colonization of Mars. I’ve been in love with Mars since the age of nine, when I saw the first color images of the Martian surface, taken by the Viking landers at landing sites in Chryse and Utopia Planitias, respectively.
The episode “Have a Nice Sol” (‘sol’ being the Martian day of 24 hours and 39.5 minutes) shows us that while the humanity of the series’ alternate-2003 may not be as held back by racism, sexism, homophobia and other ongoing maladies of our species today, it still suffers from a division between the haves versus the have-nots; white collar versus blue collar.
“Have a Nice Sol” Story/Characters
Directed by Lukas Ettlin, “Have a Nice Sol” was written by David Waddle, Bradley Thompson (veterans of co-creator Ron Moore’s “Battlestar Galactica”) and staff writer Eric W. Phillips. “Have a Nice Sol” chronicles these new Martians (with apologies to Ray Bradbury), from its legendary leaders to the daily heroes who fix the base’s machines and unclog the sinks. We also follow the ongoing earthbound issues of traumatized flight controller Aleida Rosales, frustrated exobiologist/former astronaut Kelly Baldwin, and former NASA administrator Margo Madison, whose humiliating exile in Moscow takes a dramatic turn…
Space pioneer/veteran and series’ moral compass Danielle Poole (Krys Marshall) came out of a pleasant-enough retirement in last week’s episode (“Glasnost”) to take command of the Happy Valley settlement on Mars, forcing her friend and former rival Ed Baldwin into a subordinate position as her executive officer. When Danielle first arrives, she meets her former North Korean rival (C.S. Lee), the ‘first man on Mars,’ who is forced to ignore her due to pressure from his government. Danielle quickly and intuitively picks up on the low morale of the base and immediately attempts to raise it by ordering the repair of a faulty communications satellite in high Mars orbit. The repair would require a risky spacewalk, but she orders it anyway (over NASA’s objection). The faulty satellite is causing personnel on the base to miss video calls from their loved ones on Earth, since only astronauts and administrators’ calls are getting priority within the current available bandwidth. The repair mission is a huge success, and even Ed congratulates his new boss for making the right call, as base personnel can now enjoy sporting events and other TV programming from Earth as well. Despite her initial reluctance to return to Mars, Danielle recognizes she is exactly where she needs to be. Danielle’s a born astronaut and leader.
Note: Last season Danielle and Ed were bitter rivals in the race to Mars (she was heading the NASA mission while Ed captained the Helios private mission), and while they warmly greet each other as old friends upon her arrival, it’s inevitable that their radically different styles of leadership will soon clash.
Former space legend Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman) is going through a lot of issues, including unresolved grief for his late ex-wife Karen, as well as guilt for the loss of his friend Grigory Kuznetsov, who recently died in the spectacular failure of the Kronos asteroid capture mission, which also killed another crew member. Ed is a deeply miserable man these days, and every encounter with him seems to cause dread in others, like when he venomously snaps at Happy Valley new recruit Miles Dale, who mistakenly comes to Ed with his paycheck issues. While Ed’s manifold issues took a bit of a backseat to those under his authority in this week’s episode, you can safely bet that he probably won’t continue to accept a subordinate role in the chain of command, no matter how qualified his replacement.
Note: Right down to his gray hair and drinking, Ed is becoming very much like Col. Saul Tigh (Michael Hogan) in Ron Moore’s “Battlestar Galactica,” another embittered executive officer who fell into drinking and had an equally nasty temperament due to his rocky marriage and other issues. The only issue I have with Ed is (literally) cosmetic; the age makeup used to make 43-year old actor Joel Kinnaman look like a man in his late 60s/early 70s is becoming looking increasingly unconvincing. Ed’s shaggy gray wig almost looks like a “Dirty Grandpa” costume from a Spirit Halloween store at times. This criticism is NO reflection on lead actor Joel Kinnaman’s outstanding performance (more on that in my review of last week’s “Glasnost”).
New character Miles Dale (Toby Kebbell) is the working class newbie who impulsively accepted the job offer on Mars to better provide for his two daughters and save his hurting marriage. This week we see Miles go from awed space pioneer to bitterly-cheated employee in under an hour. During his ship’s descent to rust-hued Mars, Miles eagerly takes a photo from his window seat, but that eagerness quickly fades when he realizes he’s billeted with other grunts in the lower decks of the base; while astronauts, administrators and other specialists enjoy their own private apartments. Miles’ situation is made worse when he realizes that NASA’s deductions for personal expenses leave him worse off than he was on Earth—and that his binding contract will put him in a deep financial hole if he quits. He also learns that wi-fi on the base is severely compromised due to a faulty satellite. Coming to Ed with his problems, Miles is snapped back into his place by the bitter veteran. Eventually, the satellite is repaired, and Miles is finally able to view a backlog of supporting messages from his family (though he can’t compose an honest reply just yet). Miles also finds a sympathetic ear with fellow grunt, Samantha Massey, who was on the ill-fated Kronos mission.
Note: Toby Kebbell’s Miles is easily the most interesting new character added to this series this year, and he makes a fine audience avatar. I look forward to seeing how this Louisiana-born, blue collar character evolves during his long (possibly permanent) stay on Mars.
During last week’s disastrous Kronos asteroid-capture mission, we briefly met working-class astronaut Samantha Massey (Tyner Rushing), who lost a friend during that mission; a man who died only for the promise of a pay bonus. Samantha is awakened in her bunk after her barracks-mate Miles awkwardly attempts to compose a reply to his family’s messages without success. Samantha awakens Miles to the harsh realities of life on Mars, including the fact that his bunk was once occupied by her dead friend. Realizing Miles needs something to keep him going, Samantha introduces the newbie to the best kept secret on the base—a private ad hoc bar called “Ilya’s,” run by a same-named Russian worker on the base, who is able to brew some powerfully-refined booze to help his comrades drown their sorrows.
Note: Samantha is given a bit more to do this week than we saw with her introduction in “Glasnost.” I just hope that her playing confidante to family man Miles doesn’t lead to a romantic pairing for the two; that would be a terribly narrow and binary choice for their characters.
A new character to the series greets Miles upon his arrival on Mars; a Russian-born maintenance worker named Ilya (Dimiter D. Marinov). Ilya immediately offers Miles all kinds of black market goodies he might need or want in the months ahead, but newbie Miles kindly refuses all offers from the seemingly shady older man. Later, after commiserating with Samantha, Miles is re-introduced to Ilya in a more positive way; as the proprietor of an ad-hoc bar that serves premium-grade booze to boost the morale of needy base workers. After weeks of frustrations and disappointments, this much-needed release is exactly what Miles needs.
Note: The idea of a improvised bar for the workers reminded me of “Joe’s Bar” in Ronald D. Moore’s “Battlestar Galactica” (2003-2009); Joe’s was created on the decommissioned starboard hangar deck of the titular spaceship, and was introduced in the episode “Taking a Break from All Your Worries” (a line from the title theme song in the TV series “Cheers”). For the curious, “Battlestar Galactica” (2003-2009 version) is one of the best sci-fi series I’ve ever seen, and is easily my favorite series of this millennium to date.
Kelly Baldwin (Cynthy Wu), the adopted daughter of Ed and Karen Baldwin, is back on Earth after giving birth to a baby boy on Mars in the 1990s. Working as a full-time exobiologist at the Johnson Space Center, Kelly has created a physical simulator for a proposed mission to look for life in promising sites on Mars, as she believes liquid water to exist beneath the surface. This week, Kelly is given a harsh lesson in budget cuts and economics when her exobiological science is put on indefinite hold following the failure of the Kronos mission. A disappointed Kelly is later seen drowning her sorrows at “The Outpost,” the old astronauts’ watering hole once owned by her late mother, Karen (who was killed in the Johnson Space Center terrorist bombing last season). She is then met by Aleida Rosales, who just formally resigned from Mission Control, to the dismay of her accommodating boss, Eli Hobson (Daniel Stern). Over drinks, Kelly proposes that the two of them seek private funding to continue her exobiological work on Mars without NASA.
Note: It’s hard to believe that some of the actors in this series are so ridiculously young. Actress Cynthy Wu is only 25, while actress Coral Peña—who plays Aleida—is only 22. Yet these two young women convincingly play older professional characters who are well into their 30s. Since the series has already spanned a 34-year timeframe (from 1969 to 2003), these young actors have to be credible as older, life-seasoned characters, and they are.
Kelly’s arc brings us to Aleida Rosales (Coral Peña), since the two meet up at The Outpost, where Kelly proposes that they seek out private sector funding to continue their space work. Aleida is still struggling with a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder, which has caused her to miss months of work in Mission Control, and has led to severe sleep deprivation. During one of her sleepless spells, Aleida accidentally awakens her husband, Victor Diaz (Jorge Diaz) by taking the television apart to see why it’s not working. Aleida’s final wakeup call comes when Victor tells this erratic behavior of hers is trickling down to their kids. Thinking she’s finally got a grip on herself, Aleida goes to meet with affable, supportive NASA administrator Eli Hobson to get her old job back—until she suffers yet another debilitating flashback during the meeting, and formally quits. This decision cancels her family’s health insurance, and sends the depressed mission controller off to get hammered at The Outpost, where she meets and commiserates with Kelly, eventually leading to their joint agreement to enter the private sector.
Note: I have no idea where this joint venture of theirs may lead, but I’m interested. And I appreciate the series dealing with Aleida’s post-traumatic stress disorder (and its effects on her family), since many who survive such experiences often experience similarly debilitating symptoms, which Coral Peña effectively portrays without being overwrought. I’ve long believed that if mental illnesses or trauma were as obvious and visible as a broken arm or leg, we’d be collectively more sympathetic to its sufferers. Like the workers at Happy Valley on Mars, these two women also seek a spirits-fueled solace at The Last Outpost.
The most dramatic scene of the episode is saved for last. Former NASA administrator Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt) is still exiled in Moscow after sharing classified US rocket schematics with her Russian counterpart in the 1990s. On this particular morning, Margo awakens to turn on the TV and sees nothing but ballets—no news or other programming (the last ballet she sees is set to Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake”). She goes across the street to the local bakery to get her breakfast, as she does every day, and sees no one else there. Even the baker with whom she usually chats every morning sternly warns her to go home. Once outside, Margo sees a crowd gathered around, as police brutally arrest the kindly proprietor of a local newsstand. Rushing in with others to defend him, Margo and company are arrested, as the glasses fall from her face and crack. The crowd begins to ask “Where is Gorbachev?” as the Soviet leader is presumed missing. Margo seems to have found herself in a middle of a Russian coup.
Note: As a Russian friend of mine once told me years ago, whenever there is a regime change in Russia, the local news used to broadcast music, and nothing else—often for hours at a time, without interruption. Since the Gorbachev of this alternate universe remained in power for longer than he did in our own, it’s possible he was eventually toppled, implying an historic inevitability. As for who replaces him in this alternate 2003? It could be the dangerously autocratic (and all-too real) Vladimir Putin, who came to power in 1999, and has never left it. As for how this affects Margo? She might be imprisoned for her role in the ‘demonstration,’ which might lead to an eventual prisoner swap between Russia and the United States. Once again, Wrenn Schmidt plays the scene beautifully—still speaking Russian with her character’s almost-defiant Texan accent.
Also of Note: The end credits of the episode play over Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake,” which was also famously used as the main title theme for Universal’s “Dracula” (1931), “The Mummy” (1932) and “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1932); becoming as associated with horror as it was for the story of the elegant swan princess Odette, yearning to be human (Odette is arguably a metaphor for Margo, yearning for her lost freedom).
Summing It Up
While “Have a Nice Sol” may lack the epic action or emotional fireworks of other episodes, I enjoyed it because it allows us to experience a ‘normal’ day in the life of these characters—a day where fixing an aging satellite makes all the difference in boosting morale by reconnecting with long-missed loved ones back on Earth. The little victories can be just as savored as the big ones.
More than any other episode to date, “Have a Nice Sol” reminded me of Ron Moore’s brilliant “Battlestar Galactica” (2003-2009), right down to the drab green fatigues worn by the workers on Mars, as well as the ad hoc pub, ‘Ilya’s,’ which reminded me of the similarly improvised ‘Joe’s Bar’ in BSG (“Taking a Break from All Your Worries”). “Have a Nice Sol” also illustrates the importance of effective leadership as well as the everyday heroes who keep things running. Each faction needs the other. Ideally, management and labor should be a symbiotic relationship, not a tiered one—something new administrator Danielle clearly recognizes. This message is very timely too, coming in the wake of several recent historic labor strikes (for actors, writers and auto workers).
Going further back, “Have a Nice Sol” also reminded me of one of the greatest TV shows to ever grace the medium; “M*A*S*H” (1972-1983). “M*A*S*H” too, often featured entire episodes that were devoted solely to the daily frustrations of characters living in a resource-poor environment under extreme duress. Whether from a brutal war or colonizing a harsh, unyielding planet, the struggles for both are real. And much like the doctors and staff of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, the characters of Happy Valley base in “For All Mankind” are often seen working through their troubles and traumas. Hawkeye and the others at the 4077th often gladly settle for self-medication too (either at the camp’s officer’s club or with their own distillery), just like the Happy Valley workers at Ilya’s, or Aleida and Kelly at The Outpost.
“For All Mankind” reminds us that the humanity we see reaching out to other worlds in this more ambitious version of 2003 is still subject to the same basic needs, faults and frailties that have defined our species throughout its collective history.
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).