There are many on-screen efforts to capture our relationship with space travel, the lives of the people who go there – and those who send them, and those they leave behind. For All Mankind seeks to distinguish itself by asking what if the United States lost the race to the moon, and then the Soviets showed us up again by sending the first woman to space? What if the space race continued fervently throughout the 1970s?
As a thought exercise, it invites not only a more diverse cast with surprising problems (what if an astronaut’s wife also tried to be an astronaut?), it also opens up the opportunity for a 2019 audience to feel the complete wonder and suspense that space travel once held, for perhaps the first time.
Produced by Ronald D. Moore of Battlestar Galactica and Outlander fame, For All Mankind has shockingly few BSG-esque exterior space shots – only one in the first three episodes, by my count. More importantly, Apple TV+’s new series struggles where Moore has so often seamlessly portrayed complicated women on equal footing, from a character perspective, as their male counterparts. The women of For All Mankind are no doubt fascinating, it’s simply unclear how interested the show is in examining that and, at least in the first three episodes, the execution is lacklustre at best.
For All Mankind picks up about a month before Apollo 11, when the Soviets shock the world by landing a cosmonaut on the moon. It seems everything prior to that episode matches our history, but everything after is up for grabs. Joel Kinnaman’s Ed Baldwin, who was on the Apollo 10 mission that intentionally didn’t land on the moon but came very close, amplifies NASA’s PR nightmare by talking to a reporter. He and the other astronauts are largely capable military men/scientists who ignore or actively cheat on their wives, barely know their kids, and race around their candy coloured roadsters to go day drinking.
The cast is sprawling but largely focuses on a smaller group of lesser known astronauts and administrators (though Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong are there too). President Nixon and some other politicians make cameos in archival footage and with the help of voice actors. When the show pivots toward the women, Sonya Walger’s Molly Cobb shines, and Sarah Jones is so transformed as “Astrowife” Tracy Stevens that I had to check to make sure she was the same woman from previous episodes. The archival tactic is put to even better use to contextualise deviations from our history, in a mix of real and altered footage concerning women in space. A side story centred on a young Mexican girl, Aleida (Oivia Trujilo) unspools in the background largely disconnected from everything else, to unknown ends.
For All Mankind is told from a distinctly American perspective, which lets them off the hook a bit from one of the toughest parts of their premise: since the Soviets are only seen from the US perspective, there’s no need to focus on how any of this was accomplished, only what the changes are and how they shift world events. Many of the deviations are based in the historical record, like programmes that NASA put on hold or various administrators wanted to pursue.
The “road less travelled” elements of the story sometimes feel like a fun scavenger hunt, though others – like Teddy Kennedy announcing that he won’t go home for a weekend party on the island of Chappaquiddick – strain credibility well beyond the breaking point. Either someone doesn’t understand the context of what kind of party that was, or they were simply incapable of finding another way to broadcast that the Liberal Lion is back in play for the presidency.
For All Mankind shows promise but takes far too long to get to the critical second half of its advertised premise: a space race where the US is behind the USSR and women astronauts come into play in a major way during the Apollo programme. The show doesn’t seem especially served by its 60-minute episodes, especially considering that the first two feel like so much preamble. It isn’t until the third episode that women astronaut candidates come into play, and it’s not until that same episode that there’s an acknowledgement of NASA’s black women computers, in spite of the first episode’s heavy use of a Motown soundtrack with a largely white cast. In a post-Hidden Figures world, that feels more than just a bit out of touch.
For All Mankind seems intent to focus on Joel Kinnaman’s stoically set jaw, but it’s not entirely sure why. He has his moments – a major decision involving a congressional hearing and his role involving the women astronaut candidates both stand out, as well as a small conversation with [famous astronaut]. He spends considerably more time beyond that on screen with little to show for it, emotionally or narratively speaking. The show has yet to make the case for his importance (or that of several other interchangeable white male astronauts), especially when so many firsts are in the supporting cast, like a woman in the control room (Wrenn Schmidt’s Margo) who grew up with Wernher von Braun (Colm Feore) as a family friend, are nearby.
Joel Kinnaman’s wife Karen (Shantel VanSanten, The Flash and One Tree Hill) seems to be at the centre of everything, without having much of an internal world of her own. We only see her as she reflects back on the choices of others, like the women in the astronaut programme, the other wives, or her husband’s choices, but she almost never has moments of candour or introspection with others or even alone with the camera to unpack the complicated serious of viewpoints that the script has assigned to her. After her husband makes that major decision at the congressional hearing, there’s never even so much as a private moment to see how she feels about it, and if it was a surprise to her, too.
For a show that seems at least nominally interested in a “what if” story revolving around women, For All Mankind shows remarkably little dedication to actually excavating those stories. How does it feel to have your work mentor, Wernher von Braun, sell you a line of “Lean In” bullshit and then when you do find success, have everyone assume he’s the only reason for it? For all the many minutes that For All Mankind spends ponderously ruminating on how men feel about space, whether they have set foot on the moon, and if they’ll be able to return to orbit someday, couldn’t a few moments be spared for the interior lives of women? When it finally does in episode three, it almost feels like we’re on a different, better show.
When For All Mankind brings us directly into moments of the dangerous, unpredictable and awe-inspiring reality of space travel and the unvarnished lives of the people who made it possible (but we rarely hear about) or who simply never got a chance to do it in our reality, it captures something beautiful. Everything else isn’t a “what if” – it’s what we already have here and now, and who needs more of that?
The first three episodes of For All Mankind are available to stream now. Future episodes will be made available every Friday on Apple TV+