For the last month, I’ve been struck with a problem I fear far too few people have been struck with. I’ve been confusing my sharply written sci-fi shows that use alternative history to explore the ways we marginalize whole groups of people. Watchmen has explored the travesties America has committed against black people, while Apple TV+’s For All Mankind explores the absurdity of sexism.
To be sure, For All Mankind is much softer in its criticism, and less nuanced in its exploration. It also barely considers the intersection of racism and sexism. Watchmen is so good it seems unfair to compare the two, but For All Mankind is clearly out to tell a multi-season story, whereas Watchmen needed just one. For All Mankind feels a bit more traditional—while Watchmen feels like watching 3D chess. But For All Mankind ain’t bad. It’s just been overshadowed, and with its final ep airing today and Watchmen completely wrapped it’s a perfect time to pick up the show you almost certainly didn’t watch.
And who can blame you! Trailers for For All Mankind suggested it was a rote From the Earth to the Moon rip-off with an impressive amount of talent (and money) behind the camera, including Ronald D. Moore, the creator of the Peabody Award-winning Battlestar Galactica. The only hint at an alternate history in trailers is a brief sequence about the Soviets beating the Americans to the moon—that happens in episode one, and by episode two, a new version of the Cold War is unspooling.
There are two major differences between the world we live in and the world of For All Mankind. The first, obviously, is the Soviet Union gets to the Moon. The catastrophic failures in its N1 series of rockets never happen.
The other big difference is astronaut Ed Baldwin, played by a constantly furious Joel Kinnaman. Ed is one of the fictional main characters of the show and he’s the one who drunkenly rants to a reporter that NASA has been too careful and cautious since the real-life Apollo 1 accident that cost three astronauts their lives. He blames that caution for the USSR’s success.
Before he can be drummed out of the program, the president and press are agreeing and the Russians are busy lapping the Americans again—landing a woman on the moon just after Apollo 11 crash lands on the surface (Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin survive).
The result of all this is a decision to speed up trips to the moon—and get an American woman up there too. Baldwin is tasked with training the new class of astronauts, which include his best friend’s wife, who is picked because she’s a pilot and having an astronaut couple will be good for PR, and two women based on the real women who participated in the Mercury 13 program—a privately run program focusing on women’s fitness in space that ran around the same time the Mercury 7 prepped to launch into space in the early ‘60s.
One astronaut, Molly Cobb (played by a rough and tumble looking Sonya Walger) is based on real pilot Jerrie Cobb, and she’s got a chip on her shoulder. Molly’s frustration at the sexism that had led to her ousting and then return to the space program combines tumultuously with Baldwin’s drive and leads to them performing a risky and unsanctioned mission—and ultimately, to a show that’s less about training and more about what rival moon bases in the early ‘70s would look like.
For All Mankind takes a while to really get cooking. Early episodes focus too much on the ennui of grounded men and too little on the politics and the new classes of astronauts. But by the end of episode three, it’s rapidly veering out of well-trod “the Space Race is hard” drama and into a show firmly about an alternate history Cold War. That said, the space race drama never goes away—there are still plenty of Apollo 13 moments.
Crucially though, the show forces us to reconsider our notion of NASA. If you’re like me you hear vague strands of Kennedy’s Space Race speeches when you think about NASA and astronauts. You think of The Right Stuff and the Mercury 7 being something apart from the fighter and test pilots manning the Air Force’s own space program.
Those that explore space are noble heroes tasked with a terrifying and awe-inspiring mission. They do what billions of others cannot. But while it’s certainly true that astronauts exist in a rarified stratosphere apart from most of our own, it’s also true that NASA and its space program were born out of the desire to win the Cold War. It was a distinctly military operation, manned by military pilots in the ‘60s and ‘70s. NASA continues to be a military operation. The whole Space Shuttle program was developed to get spy satellites into orbit.
That’s at the forefront of every episode of For All Mankind. It’s painfully aware of what the goal for a ‘70s-era NASA with a station on the moon would be. It reminds us with talks of nukes and worrying about chains of command. Characters with no military upbringing proudly puff their chests when they get their astronaut pins.
But it’s also aware of how much of NASA has been PR bullshit. When a white former pilot turned astronaut tries to find common ground with a black soldier returned from Vietnam, the show makes it clear who is the arsehole and who is the one chewed up by the military machine. It reminds us that while being an astronaut is scary, it’s also an enormous privilege.
As frank as its appraisal of the militarization of space exploration is, For All Mankind is also fully aware of the role of women in both domestic and political society. Two main characters are astronaut wives and they seem to take a note from every big-name actress before them who had to dress up in her ‘60s finest and sit on an ugly orange couch, staring at a fuzzy picture on the screen as a Walter Cronkite’s sound-alike used purple prose to lay out the threat of death for her husband.
But then one of them becomes an astronaut and the other is left behind and both of those journeys are explored. What does it mean when your job is to be an emotional rock for every woman and man who finds themselves with a loved one in space? What does it mean when you’re suddenly lifted up into the ranks of astronauts and find yourself competing with your husband and rejected by your best friend and an entire world expecting something from you? And what does it mean for America to get a crash course in feminism a few years before the height of the Second Wave?
The series showcases its new world in subtle ways: a woman anchoring the nightly news a half-decade before Barbara Walters; a plethora of women in casual spaces in pants; an Equal Rights Amendment that actually succeeds. There are less expected twists to history too. Like the U.S. pulling out of Vietnam a few years earlier (to focus on its moon base) and Ted Kennedy, of all people, beating Nixon to become president (in this universe Mary Jo Kopechne isn’t killed on Chappaquiddick Island and instead becomes Kennedy’s mistress).
The new world sketched out is a fascinating one. A world that feels more nuanced in its twists and turns than the alternate universe of Watchmen. There’s a purpose to it where oftentimes Watchmen’s larger world feels like window dressing. But it veers to melodrama where Watchmen veered to shrewd plotting, and the decision to be based entirely in our past, while also in an alternate sci-fi history, means there’s some science that definitely beggars belief.
For All Mankind lures you in with familiarity and gives you a thoughtful and nerve-wracking 10 episodes for your commitment. It may have found itself on the dark side of this big moon of prestige TV, but it’s still a compelling show full of smart ideas, tremendous world-building, and a cast of characters you want to see soar.
For All Mankind currently airs on Apple TV+. It’s been renewed for a second season so you can watch the first season without fear of cancellation.