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One Small Step for Apple TV+: The Flaws and Fun of ‘For All Mankind’

What the series about what would’ve happened if the Soviet Union beat the U.S. to the moon lacks in subtlety it makes up for in madcap ambition (and cool astronaut stuff)

Apple/Ringer illustration

The N1 was the culmination of a lifetime of work by Soviet engineer Sergei Korolev, one of the greatest minds in the history of rocketry. The first stage alone had 30 separate engines, and fully assembled, the N1 stood 345 feet tall and weighed more than 3,000 tons, and was designed to lift a payload of more than 100 tons into low Earth orbit, or to send a 25-ton payload—i.e., a crewed spacecraft—to the moon.

The U.S.S.R. built four N1s, though Korolev did not live to see the vehicle completed. On the second launch attempt, in July 1969, the N1 suffered a first stage malfunction and dropped back onto its launchpad, setting off an explosion one-fifteenth as great as the Little Boy nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and earning the N1 a spot in my favorite Wikipedia article: “Largest artificial non-nuclear explosions.” Seventeen days later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon.

To this day no cosmonaut has left Earth’s orbit, and the N1 never made it to space. What For All Mankind, the new limited series on Apple TV+, presupposes is: Maybe it did?

Alternate history is having a bit of a moment right now; as The Man in the High Castle wraps up on Amazon Prime, HBO is in the midst of its Watchmen miniseries, set in 2019, but on a timeline that spawned from the 1985 depicted in the original DC comic series. (HBO’s Confederate could also be lumped into this group of big swings at alternate history, though it will never see the air and we’re all probably better off for it.) These programs indulge the natural curiosity about what might have happened if history’s great events had turned out differently—if the moon landing, or the Allies winning World War II, was such a watershed moment, what did it change?

Quite a bit, according to For All Mankind, which takes a maximalist approach to its view of the alternate history. The show’s opening scene is a montage of awestruck people watching coverage of the first manned lunar landing, meant to illustrate the power of the event as a unifying moment of global human achievement. It’s a scene familiar to anyone old enough to remember Apollo 11, or to anyone who’s seen Apollo 13 or Mad Men or any of the numerous films or TV programs set against this backdrop. Veteran character actor Michael Harney, as crypto-Cronkite news anchor Jack Broadstreet, narrates the events as the first man on the moon comes down the ladder, sets foot on the regolith, and salutes the flag. Only the flag in question carries the Soviet hammer and sickle, and the first man on the moon is not Armstrong, but Alexei Leonov, a real-life cosmonaut who was the first man to walk in space and commanded the Soviet crew of the Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975. And rather than commenting on the giant leap mankind has made, Leonov dedicates the achievement to “the Marxist-Leninist way of life.”

It’s a jarringly provocative image, and it sets the tone for the rest of the series. For All Mankind is named for the inscription on the plaque the crew of Apollo 11 left on the lunar surface, and its premise tests the sincerity of that sentiment. It depicts NASA, the Nixon administration, and the American public at large responding to Leonov’s landing with such ferocious outrage that the truth is laid bare: American astronauts didn’t come in peace for all mankind—they came to demonstrate the power of the American strategic missile program, and the superiority of Western capitalist democracy. That framing raised the stakes of the space race to unbelievable heights—superiority in space was an indicator of national and political superiority.

In our timeline, the United States kept playing until it could claim victory. The Soviets beat NASA to every major milestone of the first decade of spaceflight. The Soviets launched the first satellite, put the first living being in space, the first man in space, the first man in orbit, the first woman in space, the first probe on the moon, the first satellite to orbit the moon, the first two-man spaceflight, the first spacewalk, and the first space station. It wasn’t until the circumlunar flight of Apollo 8 in 1968 that NASA achieved a major milestone the Soviets hadn’t already accomplished. And yet NASA kept up the chase until it could quit while it was ahead.

In For All Mankind, Apollo 11 lands on the moon four weeks after Leonov—crash-lands, in fact, and is presumed lost for long enough that William Safire’s eulogy for Armstrong and Aldrin is read onscreen—and NASA keeps going. When the crew of the second Soviet moon landing features a woman, NASA hastily recruits a group of female astronaut trainees to answer that accomplishment. A permanent military base on the moon is proposed, and so on. The race to the moon might have been symbolic, but For All Mankind’s conclusion is that the effects of that race were anything but.

Within the first episode, Ted Kennedy cancels a weekend trip to Chappaquiddick to prepare for senate hearings into NASA’s failure to beat the Soviets to the moon. As NASA ramps up for an extended space race, Nixon frees up money and resources by pulling American troops out of Vietnam. And the public support for the women astronaut candidates, it is insinuated, leads directly to passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. So, uh, maybe we would’ve been better off if the N1 hadn’t blown up on that launchpad in Kazakhstan in 1969?

For All Mankind’s greatest strength is its depiction of a reality close enough to our own that it’s recognizable, but different enough to inspire the viewer to take a serious look at the real world and consider whether our society couldn’t be better. That’s no surprise—Ronald D. Moore cocreated the show. Moore is best known as a writer, producer, and showrunner on some of the most thoughtful—and thought-provoking—sci-fi and fantasy shows of the past 25 years, from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine to Battlestar Galactica to Outlander. For good or ill, Moore’s shows are usually ambitious in scope and message, unafraid to ask big questions or make big statements.

Great as the premise is, though, and for as much thought as Moore and his writers have put into executing it, For All Mankind still leaves much to be desired. The deviation from real-life events allows For All Mankind to focus on mostly fictional characters. The lead, such as there is one, is Joel Kinnaman’s astronaut Ed Baldwin, commander of the Apollo 10 mission that orbited the moon but did not land, and presumptive commander of Apollo 15. (Presumably this timeline diverged from ours not with Leonov’s landing but early enough to erase the real-life Apollo 10 crew of Tom Stafford, Gene Cernan, and John Young from history.) Armstrong and Aldrin are footnotes, and many crucial scientific and administrative figures are ignored or condensed into the characters of NASA administrator Thomas Paine and Marshall Space Flight Center director Wernher von Braun.

But the flaws of the men behind NASA are front and center, from casual racism and sexism to the proclivity of Apollo astronauts to cheat on their wives and drive their Corvettes around Houston in a state of debilitating intoxication. Von Braun is portrayed in the pilot by Colm Feore as a genial, kind, even protofeminist father figure to a female engineer trying to break into the ranks of flight controllers. But by the second episode, he’s exposed before Congress as not just a former member of the Nazi party but an SS officer who turned a blind eye when the Peenemunde rocket facility he oversaw employed slave labor from a nearby concentration camp. Von Braun walks off in disgrace, as Tom Lehrer’s scathing ode to the German rocket scientist’s moral flexibility plays in the background.

As important as it is to have a clear mind as to how NASA and von Braun got to the moon—and as much as I personally love Lehrer—the scene is a little too on the nose. So is the entire show, for that matter. Which isn’t the end of the world—it’d be disingenuous to praise For All Mankind for its madcap ambition on one hand while denigrating it for a lack of subtlety.

But the seams show from time to time. The dialogue hardly snaps; at the end of the first episode, Apollo 11 command module pilot Michael Collins, thinking his crewmates have crashed and died, tells Mission Control that for reasons passing understanding, he’s determined to die in lunar orbit—“I decided a long time ago that if something like this were to happen, that I wasn’t coming home alone,” he bewilderingly says. And while there are a few exceptions—Kinnaman isn’t bad, and Sarah Jones leaps off the screen as jilted astronaut wife turned NASA trainee Tracy Stevens—the acting isn’t that good. NASA dramas tend to benefit from the deep bench of quality white, male, 40ish character actors working in Hollywood at any given moment; From the Earth to the Moon got great work out of Stephen Root, Tony Goldwyn, Bryan Cranston, and Ted Levine, for instance. But For All Mankind somehow missed the boat, despite having a number of quality character actors on its roster. Feore isn’t so much faithfully portraying von Braun as he is donning a wig and a bad accent, while Chris Bauer plays Deke Slayton in a perpetual state of constipated anger.

Even so, For All Mankind milks the greatest hits of NASA dramas: handsome astronauts in sunglasses and sports cars, 1960s Houston as a company town built around spaceflight, and a killer soundtrack featuring not just Lehrer but Jimmy Ruffin. But unlike the great NASA dramas, For All Mankind offers the excitement of not knowing how the story ends, or even what track the story will unfold on. That, and the opportunity to examine our own real history, is what makes this show worth watching. Sure, we’ve been to the moon. But we’ve never been to this moon.