For All Mankind - luxury sci-fi from Apple
I have spent the first six episodes of For All Mankind being very pleasantly surprised. For All Mankind is the new Apple TV+ series about an alternate history where the Russians beat the U.S. to the moon. Apple TV+ is one of the pack of newly created TV streamers looking to slice off a piece of the Netflix pie for themselves, and they mean business.
Apple is about bringing elegance, beauty, and clever design to their products, at a considerable premium price. Apple products are meticulously planned, with polished presentation and a gleaming veneer that masks a great deal of effort, and their range of shows are no exception. They are hiring A-list names and spending big money on their shows.
Unfortunately the buzz around the new service soon started to dissipate as reviewers almost unanimously decided that all that was on offer was a ragtag bunch of half-baked shows. People were saying that there ere no big ideas, and the gaps were papered over with high production values. But, like I said, I find myself disagreeing. I am watching both the Morning Show and For All Mankind, and it feels to me like I am watching something interesting and new. (I did 't want to feel this way. I hate Apple with a deep and abiding passion, but here we are). They are both glossy, to be sure, almost ridiculously so, but there is something interesting under the Glamour.
A Message from the Author
I write sci-fi novels that belong to a series called Dark Galaxy, which starts with Galaxy Dog:
What starts as an ordinary invasion of an alien planet brings to light an ancient archeological site of huge importance. A young man called Knave makes a life-changing discovery there and rises from a lowly position as an infantry trooper to become a player among the powers of the galaxy.
The entire series is available to buy from Amazon.
In For All Mankind, for example, we see the iconic moment from history where the first man on the moon says his famous few words, but it is not the famous quotation you may be expecting about a “Small step for a man” you might have expected to hear. Instead the astronaut praises the “the Marxist, Leninist way of life”. This small change acts like a butterfly wing and brings creative chaos to the NASA space effort. One small change brings another, and another, such as the fact that in this universe the Chappaquiddick incident no longer happens.
Initially, the focus is on Edward Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman), a fictional astronaut who has something to prove. He had been moments from landing on the moon, before the Russians, and came so close that he could see the surface, but he was pulled away by mission control because fuel was low and they were not yet ready yet to take such a big risk.
Russia’s second crewed mission comes hard on the heels of the first and it puts a female astronaut on the moon. This leads Richard Nixon to demand that the US do the same and suddenly everything changes. The space program in this alternate history starts to radically diverge from the one we know. Ordinarily, I’m not a huge fan of alternate history, and For All Mankind’s premise would not in itself have been enough to perk my interest, but there is so much more going on here. In this vision of history, where Russia has sent a woman to the moon, NASA is forced to invest heavily in a rushed program to do something they hadn't even been considering to that point, to train some women astronauts of their own. This adds a very timely and important additional layer to a show that might otherwise have been dry space heroics, and this rushed female space program develops very pleasingly over time.
Sonya Walger plays astronaut Molly Cob, and we spend time with her, but the show also devotes time to the drama of the male astronauts who resent her presence. The hostility of male colleagues is an important part of almost any woman's story of success in her career, and it is good to see that it is not ignored here. The show starts with a setting of patriarchal straight white men, led by an actual Nazi, in the figure of Wernher von Braun. Braun is initially depicted as a heroic Captain Kirk figure, making the revelation of the true depths of his involvement in Nazi atrocities, and his subsequent fall from grace all the more shocking.
With von Braun gone, the focus gradually shifts to at least include some white and black women, both trainee astronauts and employees at NASA on the ground. This allows for some less conventional tensions to arise, as the women must deal with the men around them not giving them the credit they deserve. Racial animus is also addressed, and the whole thing feels like a realistic enough representation of the world of work and science in the 1960s.
With the space race heating up, there’s also a desire from Nixon to build a military base on the moon, which is a terrifying echo of Trump’s space force. Just yesterday, federal workers in the US were promised 12 weeks of paid parental leave, and in return Donald Trump is being given his cherished space force. But enough of the terrifying real world, and back to the comforting world of luxurious Apple fiction.
This is an expensive, heavily detailed series that feels full-on space-epic lovely, with no expense spared on the glorious spacecraft imagery or on the details of costumes, sets, or settings. This is the kind of beautifully realized ‘hard’ science fiction that we never get to see on TV, or at least very rarely. Moore’s storytelling is also never less than well-honed, nicely tying the space porn together with actual plot and character development. There is also an intriguing side plot about a young Latina girl (Olivia Trujillo) who immigrates to the United States with her father and idolizes the women astronauts. Her presence bodes well for where this show intends to go, and may be where this show truly diverges with the xenophobic and fascist US of real life. Not talking about the people, of course, just the government and its leader’s base.
This is a series with one eye on the sweep of history, and so it moves fast, slowing down to look closer at important moments in this alternate timeline, before speeding again to the next interesting stretch in the timeline. I could imagine the show telling the entire sweep of its history at this pace. As such it felt like a miniseries to me, destined to be self-contained and fondly remembered, but no, it was recently officially renewed for a second season. Fittingly, as NASA celebrated the 50th anniversary of Apollo 12, the second crewed moon landing mission, Apple TV+ let it be known that there would be a second season of For All Mankind.
I, for one, am all in and I already can't wait for series two, even though I haven't yet finished season one. I must admit that I prefer more fantastical sci-fi, like Star Wars, but you also need a little hard sci-fi in your diet, if you want it to be balanced. Right now, For All Mankind is the only show that fits that need, and it does it well.
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