The Apple+ series For All Mankind is absolutely first-rate science fiction with a simple but powerful premise: what if the space race between the United States and the U.S.S.R. had never ended? Starting with a stark divergence point in 1969, the first two seasons chart a profoundly different historical course for humanity’s efforts to conquer space through the seventies and into the eighties. In the process, it examines how such scientific endeavors, and the sense of wonder that fueled them, might have reshaped the world politically and sociologically.
It opens with a captivating hook: all across the United States, shellshocked Americans tune in to watch TV coverage of the first lunar landing. But in this alternate timeline, it’s the Russians who make history — much to the chagrin of proud Americans everywhere, including NASA astronauts Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman) and Gordon “Gordo” Stevens (Michael Dorman), who could practically taste the surface of the moon on their most recent test flight. The Russians’ moon landing victory, however, does have a silver lining, triggering the nation’s competitive streak and accelerating its own space program in an effort to keep up. These efforts quickly bear fruit with a harrowing but successful American moon landing, but not long thereafter the Russians up the ante, promptly placing the first woman on the moon. This prompts NASA to respond in kind, re-launching a previously abandoned female astronaut training program which quickly ensnares Gordo’s wife Tracy (Sarah Jones).
For All Mankind is, first and foremost, utterly gripping television drama. Virtually every episode is an intense and compelling mix of politics, interpersonal conflict, and realistic, high-stakes adventure. The cast bringing this all to life — anchored by Kinnaman, Dorman, and Jones, but also including Shantel Vansanten, Jodi Balfour, Wrenn Schmidt, Sonya Walger, Krys Marshall, Chris Bauer, and on and on — is exceptional. And that’s before you even consider the show’s science fictional content, which is a fascinating blend of alternate history details and period re-imaginings of the NASA space program, which in this timeline advances at a slightly different pace, pushed to new extremes by its more urgent rivalry with the U.S.S.R. One of the more impressive aspects of this is the accelerated pace of change for gender politics, caused by the rise to prominence of NASA’s female astronauts (in particular the characters played by Jones, Walger, Balfour, Marshall) whose exploits influence the wider world and reshape the feel of the eras depicted. Somehow, For All Mankind delivers impressive period verisimilitude even as it subtly mutates its era. The vision, while definitely more progressive, is convincingly of its time, adding an intriguing speculative layer to its surface conflicts.
It would be criminal not to mention the outstanding production values that enhance the experience. Stunning special effects, particularly in its space and moon sequences, go a long way to generating the show’s awe-inspiring sense of wonder. And various production techniques really sell the scenario — everything from dramatic re-enactments of period-specific news anchors (actors portray fictional versions of Walter Kronkite, Barbara Walters, Connie Chung, and other famous historical personalities), to the vocal mimicry and deep-fake visual effects that eerily bring historical figures back to life.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of For All Mankind, though, is its sheer ambition. In the course of two seasons, it covers nearly two decades of history, aggressively gapping time both within and in between episodes, vastly widening the scope. Somehow it accomplishes this without being jarring, and it’s a strategy that also prevents the show from falling prey to content bloat that sometimes besets prestige TV. That technique is more successfully deployed in the first season; the establishing year seems more focused on exploring the premise and truly communicating the enormous challenges and dangers of space travel. By contrast, season two orients around Cold War tensions between rival national space programs and the creeping militarization of the moon; this season feels somewhat more structurally conventional. Even so, by the end of the year it throws down the gauntlet for season three, implying a thrust toward Mars in its alternate nineties.
Overall, it’s a remarkable achievement in science fiction television, and TV in general. If you’re searching for an excuse to subscribe to Apple+, For All Mankind is the most compelling one yet; this is an astonishing show that deserves more attention.