Third-episode verdict: For All Mankind (Apple TV+)

Losing the space race, but ultimately winning

For All Mankind

In the UK: Available on Apple TV+

Behold! We are entering a new age. Apple TV+ is upon us. Depending on when you last bought an Apple product, there’s a new streaming service in town that’s either free for a year or £4.99/month – and it’s got four new TV shows for you already. Or at least the first three episodes of four new TV shows for you – how quaint and not boxsetty.

It’s an equally quaint initial line-up:

  • The star-studded The Morning Show, which is a sort of Aaron Sorkin take on morning TV
  • See, a post-apocalyptic fantasy show, in which everyone (more or less) is blind, that hopes desperately to be better than every other TV show in which Jason Momoa has starred (cf Frontier, Stargate: Atlantis, Baywatch Hawaii)
  • Dickinson, a sort of A Knight’s Tale biopic of Emily Dickinson

And For All Mankind – the most appealing of the bunch. It’s billed as coming from the mind of Battlestar Galactica creator Ronald D Moore and depicting an alternative reality in which the space race never ended and “astronauts were seen as rock stars”.

That is not what For All Mankind is like. At all.

For All Mankind

Red Peril

For starters, Ronald D Moore doesn’t have much to do with it, as far as can be seen, beyond co-writing the first episode. Equally, over the first three episodes, it’s considerably more depressing than you might think. Okay, that’s quite Ronald D Moore, I’ll admit it.

The first episode sets up this alternative universe in which “the space race doesn’t end” by having the USSR pip the US to the post. First man on the Moon? Alexei Leonov who doesn’t say anything about it being “one giant step for mankind” but dedicates his landing to the Marxist-Lenist way of life.

The US is miserable. The whole world is miserable. All the US astronauts are miserable. It doesn’t help when NASA loses touch with Apollo 11, just a few weeks later, when the LEM crashes into the moon’s surface. Poor old Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin; hell, Michael Collins is going to kill himself while he’s still orbiting the moon.

Depressing, huh?

Yet it’s from that thoroughly miserable start that the show does at least manage to course-correct and become something a bit more interesting. And less depressing.

For All Mankind

For All

I’m not sure if there is a term for what For All Mankind is so I’m going to invent one: ‘gestalt TV’. Since the original Apollo missions, there have been numerous documentaries, films and TV shows, some fictitious, some not, describing the 1960s US space programme and the official record of the programme. Some have done their best to exemplify those astronauts and scientists (First Man), while others have tried to tease out overlooked stories, often involving minorities (Hidden Figures, The Astronaut Wives Club), while others have looked at darker secrets (Chasing The Moon).

For All Mankind takes all those stories and sticks them together. Its aim seems to be not to create some sort of alternative reality in which astronauts are rock stars and get to have lots of fun as they head off to Mars and Saturn by the year 1990. Instead, it uses the failure of the US to get to the Moon first to highlight the importance to the US psyche of the Moon landing at the end of the 1960s. It then explores the politics of the time and how the Nixon presidency would have interacted with such failure. And then it looks at how the space programme would have adapted – and who would have adapted it.

For All Mankind

Star-spangled cast

For All Mankind‘s cast isn’t quite as starry as The Morning Show‘s, but we do have Joel Kinnaman (Robocop, The Killing (US), Hanna, Altered Carbon) playing Edward Baldwin, an alternative reality Apollo 10 astronaut who’s a bit peeved his dress rehearsal mission never made it to the Moon’s surface, allowing the USSR to beat the US.

However, unlike Nixon, he doesn’t blame NASA mission leader Wernher Von Braun (Colm Feore) but himself and a culture of zero risk-taking following the explosion of Apollo 1.

The first episode of the show is a downer. The show uses archive footage, impressionists and CGI to very realistically create Walter Cronkite’s famous narration of the Apollo 13 mission, here flipped in new directions. There’s audio recordings of Nixon’s reaction and when things go pear-shaped for Apollo 11, we get what would have been Nixon’s speech if that had happened for real, too.

If you’ve seen First Man – which for me is now the gold standard for space travel – or simply know rather a lot about the moon missions, you’ll pick up on the little details that the show plays with, such as would-be operations controller Wren Schmidt (Boardwalk Empire, The Americans, Person of Interest, Outcast) knowing what errors 1201 and 1202 mean and Armstrong having to use manual control to land because the moon rocks are too big.

It’s all hugely convincing, even if the CGI is a bit made-for-TV at times. Sometimes, it’s only because you recognise an actor’s face that you realise you’re watching mocked up footage. But all of Nixon, Cronkite and Kissinger’s dialogue sounds like the real thing, for example.

It’s just really depressing, as you watch real-life heroes and heroines’ achievements smashed to smithereens. It doesn’t help that Armstrong and the real people don’t get more than five lines between them.

The ending of the episode redeems it, but then the second episode adds further kicks to the American ass. Anyone familiar with the timeline of Soviet space firsts in the 1960s will probably guess what happens in the second episode, beating the US yet again, and then it’s a take-down of Von Braun’s Second World War activities. And, of course, Nixon wants to build military bases on the moon. Paging Space Force?

For All Womankind

It’s only during the third episode that the show starts to open the envelope and come up with a plausible reason for creating a league of female astronauts. Here, we get the tie-in with The Astronaut Wives Club and Hidden Figures, as well as the Mercury 13 who were the subject of a Netflix documentary recently.

I have to confess that I’d been wondering what the likes of Shantel VanSanten (The Flash, Shooter, The Boys) and the very talented Sarah Jones (Vegas, Damnation, Alcatraz) had been doing slumming it as forsaken wives until that point.

But the episode allows them and new arrival Sonya Walger (Lost, FlashForward, The Catch) and others to really shine and give the show something it didn’t have until then – charisma, originality, positivity and fun. It also doesn’t pull its punches, showing that being an astronaut wasn’t a walk in the park and that any woman trying to be one in those days really needed The Right Stuff to make it. After all that tearing down of idols in the first episode, it’s nice to see them restored again.

And then the ending is really depressing. I mean yes, it was the 60s and health and safety wasn’t the greatest. But give us something to look forward to.

For All Mankind

To infinity and beyond?

Despite that uptick, we are left in a somewhat odd position by that third episode. There are another seven episodes to come, probably weekly, just of this season, with a second already commissioned. And we have no idea where this is going. We’ve now taken in some overlooked figures from history, and highlighted the fact that even Down With Love knew about: Nazis helped us get to the Moon.

What now? Are we going to get those rock star episodes? What’s going on with those Mexican illegal immigrants we’ve been following? Is Skylab really going to be repurposed for military purposes? Are they going to build a moon base? Is there ice on the Moon? Will they go to Mars?

Normally, you can see where a show’s going after three episodes, but these three are collectively a pilot episode that gives us a rough idea of what the show might be like. Which isn’t helpful.

Lunar lander

Nonetheless, it’s a strong start. Joel Kinnaman may not yet be an exciting lead, but he’s now got something to work with. Jones is always an exiting lead and now very definitely has something to work with. Supporting actors are largely very good, particularly Chris Bauer (The Wire), although Colm Feore’s Von Braun is clearly non-Germanic – something not helped by the inclusion of footage of the real Von Braun in episode two.

The show’s very clever at blending the real and the fake. It’s also good at thinking through the ramifications of its changes to history, although it takes dramatic shortcuts at times – for example, the Soviets did have a very advanced programme for landing a man on the moon that involved as many test flights as the US, but For All Mankind suggests they somehow managed it ex nihilo.

But the fact we’re up to episode three without any really strong drive or indication of where the show’s going means we’re as much in the dark as the astronauts it depicts. Still, we have been promised ‘astronauts like rock stars’ and the idea that it’s America the plucky underdog fighting back against Soviet domination that makes it happen is an intriguing take.

Fancy taking a chance? I think I do.

Barrometer rating: 2

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