One of the premier series on Apple+ poses the question, “what would happen if the Soviet Union won the space race?”
“For All Mankind” eschews alternative history trappings — which often lean more into fantastic elements and out-there possibilities — for a much more grounded and fairly plausible scenario in which the U.S.S.R. beat the United States to the punch by landing on the moon weeks before the fabled Apollo 11 would make its historic voyage. Genre guru Ronald D. Moore crafts a believable, entertaining and often engaging series that opens many possibilities moving forward.
The series opens with individuals and families across the world glued to televisions and radios as the first men touch down on the lunar surface. Among them is Joel Kinnaman’s Edward Baldwin, a NASA astronaut. Everyone’s mouth is agape as the lunar lander opens and a Soviet cosmonaut steps out, declaring a Marxist future. In a surprise move, the Soviet Union launched their moon mission ahead of the Americans and successfully pulled it off. The entire dynamic of the space race is changed.
Instead of dwelling on the worldwide ramifications of this moment in history, Moore’s show maintains a focus on NASA and its core group of astronauts. Baldwin and his family are the centerpiece of the show, alongside friend and fellow astronaut Gordon Stevens and wife Karen. In many respects, “For All Mankind” owes much of its structure and pacing to AMC’s “Mad Men.” The styles and fashions of the 1960s are window dressing, but also add to the authenticity of a show that wants to establish itself as real, even when it’s branching off into its own thing. It’s slow and deliberate — at least in the early episodes — and uses its setting as a fantastical backdrop against which it juxtaposes its grounded characters.
Baldwin is haunted by a decision made on a previous Apollo mission that prevented him from being the first man on the moon, and thus beating the Russians. Stevens struggles to maintain his marriage and continue his pursuit of landing on the moon. Their family lives and relationships play just as important part of the show as the off-world pursuits of the governing powers. Often, those relationships and the strife they create are even more entertaining than the show’s numerous space ventures.
“For All Mankind” remains committed to the real-world possibilities of its alternate history proposal, and is a better show for it. As the 10 episodes progress, viewers see NASA and the Soviet Union continue their gamesmanship, branching into new possibilities for space development. It never gets too crazy, but creates a feeling of disappointment when seeing what more could have come from the space race, including the construction of a permanent moon base and women going into space much earlier than our own history.
For all of its promise, “For All Mankind” falters in its pacing in the earlier episodes. Much like how the NASA of this alternate history feels aimless and befuddled, so does the show in the beginning. It starts with a strong opening and embraces its premise initially, but then slows to a crawl as it tries to find its aim. Characters are introduced and then dropped. Time skips help show the progress of the space race, but create major development holes for many of the characters and their relationships. But when the show finds its footing again, about the fifth episode, it picks up steam and never lets up until the end.
“For All Mankind” is not a show everyone will enjoy. It’s much more methodically paced and might lack the action and more grand scope that many would come to expect from an alternate history science-fiction series. But for those who watched the space race unfold during their lifetimes, or those who are fascinated by the exploration of space, this is certainly a show to binge over a long weekend.
Josh Rouse lives in Lawton.