Apple TV+ For All Mankind: Flawless, Imperfect, and Fascinating

I like For All Mankind, Apple TV+’s SciFi show from Battlestar Galactica (reboot) creator Ronald D. Moore. On a micro level, it’s flawless, even while the macro level is imperfect. Regardless, it’s a fascinating show that I’m enjoying immensely.

Please note that I include minor spoilers in this review.

For All Mankind

As of this writing, Apple has released four episodes of For All Mankind, a show that explores the idea of what might have happened if the Russians—or, more specifically, the Soviet Union—had made it to the Moon before the U.S. It’s an alt-history thing—which I tend to love—hinging on a moment in time I’ve not seen explored before, the Space Race.

It starts in 1969 with NASA getting ready to land Apollo astronauts on the moon when suddenly Russia beams its own moon landing to the Earth, completely unexpectedly. Drama ensues, Werner Von Braun is outed as a former Nazi by a Nixon crony, and OMG WHAT DO WE DO NOW?!?

The point of the show is not to poke at NASA or the fact that the U.S. did decisively win the Space Race, shutting the Soviet Union’s moon-landing efforts down for good. Like all good alt-history stories, the idea is to explore what might have happened…if.

Flawless

There is so much this show just nails. The Corvettes, the clothes, the home decor, the homes, the place of women—and the burgeoning fight to change that place—kids calling their fathers “sir,” utilizing archival footage to tell a story that didn’t happen, and the smoking. So much smoking. I hate the smoking, but like I said, they nail it.

And Ted Kennedy canceling his party in Chappaquiddick? Holy impending showdown with Nixon in 1972, Batman!

Imperfect

As much as I like this show, I wish it had started in 1991, rather than 1969. I’d really like to see Ron Moore’s vision of how the Space Race not ending would have reverberated through few decades. That would be more interesting than Werner Von Braun outing as a Nazi because Nixon wanted him gone, even though that was definitely interesting, too.

Instead, the show dives right into the immediate aftermath of this fictional Soviet landing. A shaken NASA, shaken astronauts, shaken engineers, and then how the whole things whip them into a fighting frenzy of get-it-done.

Fascinating

Despite my claim that it’s imperfect, I love seeing this periscope into the past and into a past-that-never-was. I love watching the pencils and the slide-rules, and the (real) women who were pioneers at the time being thrust forward into prominence. I love seeing the technology being invented, and the struggles to put NASA and the U.S. back in front of their communist rivals.

It’s a great show. It’s ambitious, epic, and real, all at the same time. The story is interesting, the telling is solid, and they nail the details. I’m a fan of Ron Moore’s work, and I’m delighted with For All Mankind.

Odds and Ends

The casting is great. Joel Kinnaman as the fictional astronaut Ed Baldwin has been an delightful surprise. After watching him in Hannah (Netflix) and Altered Carbon (Netflix), I was trepidatious about him playing a U.S. astronaut. I was worried he would be too much of the Swedish meathead I’ve seen him be in those other projects.

But, I was worried for naught. He’s terrific, and if I didn’t know he wasn’t an American, I’d never thought about it in this show. He brings a touching vulnerability to scenes with his wife (Shantel VanSanten as Karen Baldwin, who is also terrific), and he brings an intensity to scenes like reaching out to the surviving husband of a trainee who died.

Watch It

I like this show. If you’re interested in alt-history, the Space Race, early space tech, or NASA, definitely check this show out.

5 thoughts on “Apple TV+ For All Mankind: Flawless, Imperfect, and Fascinating

  • Spoiler alert? Wait…are you saying that people already landed on the moon?

    Bryan:

    ‘For All Mankind’ is indeed worth the watch, and should my household start paying for Apple TV+ when our free subscription expires, it would be for this reason.

    As you are no doubt aware, there is a great deal of reality behind this alt-reality show. For starters, the smart money on who would win the ‘race to the moon’ was on the Soviets in 1968 (just look at who’s slightly ahead in Time Mag’s cover prior to Apollo 8 http://content.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,19681206,00.html ), and indeed had Zond 5 and Zond 6 not failed, were poised have a cosmonaut circumnavigate the moon prior Apollo 8 in December 1968 (they actually had a life-sized mannequin in a suit in the capsule and had broadcast a simulation of ‘conversation’ with the dummy cosmonaut as a publicity stunt). In his book, ‘Rocket Men’, Robert Kurson points out that NASA was on pins and needles in October – November 1968 knowing that was the window in which the USSR could steal a march on the lunar circumnavigation, and thereby beat NASA. And had they succeeded in that, would have in all likelihood landed a man on the moon prior to the USA (there was no shortage of patriotic Soviet cosmonauts prepared to go on a one-way mission in order to beat the Americans). So, the idea of the Russians beating the US to the moon was a real possibility, and a thing back in the day.

    And there were 13 women selected by a privately funded programme in 1959, later dubbed the Mercury 13, who underwent the same screening tests as their male counterparts, and lobbied to be included in the astronaut corp. As well, there were early African American candidates, such as Ed Dwight, who was selected as an astronaut trainee in 1961, but not selected as an astronaut (often confused with Ed White who was an astronaut), and Robert Lawrence, who was the first African American selected as an astronaut in 1967 for the Manned Orbiting Lab mission, that was cancelled, and thus never flew into space.

    Regarding the ‘space race’, as my son who has spent considerable time in Russia and is fluent in the language and culture likes to point out, Russians will tell you that they (okay, the Soviets, but let’s not quibble) won the space race (first satellite, first man in space, first to circumnavigate the earth, first woman, first space walk, first space lab…), but were never in a race to the moon. Right, but point taken.

    Whether or not Russia landing a woman on the moon would have spurred the USA to field women into the corp and send them to the moon is open to debate. The data we have indicate that Valentina Tereshkova flew into space in June 1963 under the Soviet flag. It would not be for a full 20 years that an American woman, Sally Ride, would follow her under the Stars and Stripes in June 1983. This was hardly a race.

    It is difficult to predict what societal and cultural impact having a more diverse and representative astronaut corp would have had on American and Western culture more generally, but Ed Dwight was a feted celebrity in the USA and in Western Africa, and women were advocating for inclusion in the 1960s and 70s, but one cannot imagine that it would have worsened anything that actually transpired, and certainly would have been an inspiration to boys and girls worldwide, as the diverse cast of the Starship Enterprise would go on to prove.

    1. “…and indeed had Zond 5 and Zond 6 not failed, were poised have a cosmonaut circumnavigate the moon prior Apollo 8 in December 1968…”

      Kind of a major “if only”. But they failed, as did a bunch of our rockets, as did Apollo 1, etc. Was USSR “poised” to accomplish a successful Earth-Moon-Earth transit, I don’t know, they were rumored to have long distance navigational issues, but they were first in line for sure.

      Regardless, I always look forward to your long-form posts.

      And re: the show itself, the smoking is a little overdone, especially among the astronauts depicted, who, even if they did smoke, were told to stop during selection and training. Can’t have a smoke break in space. This from a family member who was in the program at the time (in our reality at least).

      1. Roger Wilson:

        You are correct that this was a major ‘if only’, however I highly recommend Robert Kurson’s book, which goes into considerable detail that was not widely known to the public about just how close the Soviets came to beating the US to the moon. The CIA was well aware of how far advanced they were in their planning, and in part based upon that intel, NASA engaged in one of the gutsiest moves in modern history to fast track the Apollo missions and repurpose Apollo 8, using the Atlas platform that had not and would not be human-tested beyond earth orbit to travel, for the first time, to another celestial body. There were a number of public calls, including from families of the astronaut corp, to stand down and at least conduct an unmanned test to the moon. At a dinner hosted by Susan Borman, the wife of Apollo 8’s mission commander, Frank Borman, Susan Borman asked Chris Kraft privately what were the astronauts’ chances of success (and therefore survival), and he put their chances at 50/50. She thought those odds were better than she had expected, and was relieved.

        I think it is only in retrospect, having successfully landed and returned crewed moon flights, that today we underestimate just how narrowly the US beat the Soviets, but more importantly, how precarious were those missions, how risk-filled, and how many things could have gone disastrously wrong from the perspective of those tasked to make those missions happen, which far from detracting from those feats, make them all the more remarkable.

        In my view, these were some of the bravest men and women, warriors all, ever to have lived and served.

  • The author is entitled to his opinion but I’m pretty sure he didn’t live through the actual event like those of us who were teenagers in 1969 did. It makes a big difference in perception when you lived through the time. Alt-history doesn’t sit too well with me in this case. There was more drama in watching Walter Cronkite grab onto his desk live when the Saturn V took off during one of its first test launches, violently shaking the bunker he was in five miles away from the launchpad. The realization of the raw, naked power involved in that machine gave us goosebumps and made the hair on our necks stand up. So excuse me if I chuckle at the alt-history of the Russians getting there first. Turns out they weren’t even close.

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