For All Mankind review: A superb alternative history of the space race
When the Soviet Union lands on the moon first people in the US are shocked. But For All Mankind provides an even bigger surprise when one cosmonaut‘s identity is revealed, says Emily Wilson
19 February 2020
In For All Mankind the space race heats up after the Soviet moon landing
For All Mankind
Created by Ronald D. Moore, Matt Wolpert and Ben Nedivi
YOU may have been put off For All Mankind by the pretty mediocre reviews it received when it first came out as part of the Apple TV+ launch. “Adequately entertaining” was one verdict; “moves too slowly” was another. I think those reviews were unfair.
The show does take a while to put on its , but that shouldn’t be a surprise given it was created by Ronald D. Moore, who was behind the brilliant 2003 reboot of . This had an enormous amount of character set up and humdrum daily life (albeit on a ) before, in a thrilling heartbeat, the crew of the Galactica finally understood what was happening.
In For All Mankind Moore deliberately sets a scene that is almost nauseatingly familiar, in order to upend it. We begin with strong-jawed, white, male going back and forth between flight training and their thin, pretty, chain-smoking wives in those 1960s shift dresses.
At mission control we are served row upon row of men in dark-rimmed spectacles chewing pencils and doing flight calculations on bits of paper. There are women, but they are holding trays of tea or, at best, working in the back-up team.
Then comes the first what-if twist: the Soviet Union gets boots on the moon first. Suddenly we are plunged into an alternate timeline, in which the space race heats up rather than down, and a moon base becomes a US priority.
It is the second what-if twist, though, that packs the punch. While the US scrambles to get its act together, the Soviets land on the moon for a second time. On 1960s TV sets we see a cosmonaut standing on the lunar surface. Then up comes their mirror visor, and it is a woman.
This is when For All Mankind bursts into life. The women in those background shots at NASA and the wives watching at home can’t believe their eyes. The Soviet Union has , while the US doesn’t have a single woman in astronaut training.
Now, on Nixon’s personal orders, NASA scrambles together 20 female pilots for an emergency space training programme. Joel Kinnaman, who plays fictional astronaut Ed Baldwin, has top billing in this show and is excellent. But it is an ensemble piece, and Baldwin’s credibility as our hero is largely measured by the grace with which he responds to the new trainees.
The female astronaut candidates are all well written and acted, but most fun is Molly Cobb (played by Sonya Walger). Cobb was part of the Mercury 13 programme: she has proved she has what it takes. But her dreams have already been squished once, and so she is deeply cynical about the new training programme. Her tolerance for being patronised by male astronauts, meanwhile, is set to absolute zero.
There are beautifully played moments as Baldwin and the men learn how to get along with Cobb, while she in turn learns what it means to be a team player and a role model. One of the great things about this show is that you don’t know which rocket will crash, or who will get to the moon.
Nothing is ever perfect, and not every plot line in For All Mankind works, but this is a great show and more than deserves its upcoming second season. Also, if you have daughters, definitely watch it with them. Even if they have no plans to join NASA, I think they will find it inspirational.
Emily also recommends…
Also by Ronald D. Moore, this game-changing show proved that sci-fi involving robots that looked like humans could also be seeringly political and relevant. Kind of!
Also starring For All Mankind’s Joel Kinnaman, this is set far in the future in a near-exact copy of the Bladerunner universe. It is very violent and at times very silly, but it is great fun. Season 2 is out soon on Netflix.
More on these topics: