For All Mankind, the alternative space race story from Apple TV+, returns with US-Soviet relations at a new low and NASA under pressure to militarise the moon
3 March 2021
Created by Ronald D. Moore, Matt Wolpert and Ben Nedivi
EARLY in the second season of For All Mankind, Ronald D. Moore’s counterfactual take on the space race, astronaut Molly Cobb is faced with an impossible decision: let a friend die on the lunar surface as a massive solar storm hits, or rescue him and risk getting a fatal dose of radiation. Viewers know Cobb has beaten tougher odds before, but as she is forced to choose, you fear that she is living in a world that no longer rewards heroics.
The show’s alternative history began with one key change: in this universe, the US was beaten to the moon by the Soviet Union in 1969. The rivalry between the nations grew and accelerated progress in space, with NASA sending women to the moon in the early 1970s and establishing a base, Jamestown, there in 1973.
After a slow start, the first season did a terrific job of conveying the importance of space travel, while killing off astronauts left and right to show what a grim endeavour it can be. All the same, despite the thrills, it felt a little soulless at times.
When the second series begins, after a jump to 1983, life on Earth doesn’t look too rosy. In its version of world events, Ronald Reagan became president earlier than he really did and superpower relations curdled, prompting yet more resources to be poured into space exploration. History fans should comb through the opening montage to catch all the ways this drama diverges from the real timeline: the Camp David Accords that brought peace between Israel and Egypt, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident and the Iran hostage crisis among them.
“Politicking threatens to scupper plans for an astronaut and a cosmonaut to shake hands while in orbit”
In this version of the 1980s, the moon is just another front of the cold war. Up to 30 astronauts at a time now live at Jamestown while looking for lithium at Shackleton crater, but the Russians edge ever closer to US mining operations. On Earth, the Johnson Space Center’s director Margo Madison and other NASA officials are under pressure to militarise the moon. Politicking even threatens to scupper plans for an astronaut and a cosmonaut to shake hands while in orbit, the lone gesture of peace in a world on the brink of annihilation.
For All Mankind is hardly the most nuanced take on the US-Soviet relationship – aside from a few scenes between Madison, astronaut Danielle Poole and their Russian counterparts, almost no common ground is acknowledged between the nations. Yet the cold war setting has made the show a leaner, darker beast.
Underdeveloped characters like Ed Baldwin, the sour-faced, square-jawed lead, have fewer but better things to do this time around. Ed, for instance, is now unhappily settled in his role as head of the astronaut office, sartorially muzzled by milquetoast sweaters and clearly longing for adventure.
And despite the streamlining, key plot threads from last season aren’t left dangling. Take Poole’s decision to break her own arm to hide a fellow astronaut’s declining mental health. Though she was the first African-American person in space, Poole’s “accident” gave NASA an excuse to sideline her – like the few other black astronauts.
As the season progresses, it is clear the astronauts and the NASA team are at the mercy of natural and geopolitical forces almost entirely outside their control – almost. It is in the small moments of defiance and sacrifice, whether that is staring down a solar storm or shaking an enemy’s hand, that For All Mankind proves it has figured out what kind of show it wants to be.
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