“For All Mankind” Needs these Course Corrections
I originally checked out “For All Mankind” when it premiered on Apple TV+ back in 2019. And while I understood the premise that this was an alternate reality where the Russians landed on the Moon first, I expected some type of explanation as to how this reality evolved or was created. That never comes. (Yes, I admit I’m heavily influenced by the whole MCU multiverse.)
And while it’s interesting to watch how this timeline continues to branch out, it’s really just background.
And as I watched the first episode, I couldn’t help but feel how slowly it moved. The plot kept focusing on the family lives of the characters instead of the space program.
And then it finally hit me. Oh, that’s what this show is really about. It’s a character-driven drama about the astronauts and ground support engineers who work for NASA… in an alternate timeline.
It’s fiction. But not really science fiction as we might traditionally expect.
This Alternate Timeline Moves Slowly
“For All Mankind” is created by Ronald D. Moore, who is royalty in science fiction television. He executive produced the reimagined “Battlestar Galactica” and was a writer and significant influence on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.”
The premise of an ongoing space race opens up so much possibility. It’s a great idea. But it’s not the engine that fuels much of the drama in this series.
The show takes its time, and you’ve got to be willing to go along for the ride with a whole host of characters, some more interesting than others.
The payoff wasn’t there for me. So, I quickly gave up on “For All Mankind” after the first couple of episodes.
A Second Chance
Fast forward a few years (as the show likes to do between its seasons). Some friends told me how much they enjoy “For All Mankind.” When I told them how I couldn’t reach orbit with the show, they told me that it gets better after season 1, and that season 3 was really good.
So I tried again.
Yes, season 1 was a slog with so much emotion to get through, but the series does get better. So I decided to strap myself in and get through all three seasons that have been released to date. And I’m happy to report that I’ve accomplished my mission.
And I’ve got a few thoughts to share (with some minor spoilers)…
A Rerun of our Past
“For All Mankind” is really ambitious, especially as it jumps from decade to decade. And in doing so, it leaves inevitable holes in its storytelling.
It tackles many of the major societal social struggles of the past half century. You’ve got to give it credit for its reach. But at the same time, this narratively forces the show to focus backwards on our actual past instead of forwards towards an alternate future from our past. (Got that?)
Science fiction stories often bake big social themes of the day into the storytelling. It’s simply more front and center here. But while the series does rewrite some pieces of history and has fun with an alternate set of presidents, the world is still fundamentally the same. This reality hasn’t branched out that much.
At its core, “For All Mankind” is simply a drama. Or maybe a historical narrative from an alternate timeline. Again, it’s not science fiction as you might expect.
That said, I do appreciate it when the writers throw a few bones to sci-fi fans with references to “Star Trek” and “Space: 1999.”
Lots of Secrets
The storytelling structure is unusual in that there really aren’t any ‘bad guys’… just a lot of grays in many of the characters. Yes, there are a few episodes on the moon when the Russians aren’t at their finest, but they have reason to be upset at the Americans.
It’s often difficult to create narrative tension where you don’t have a villain. And the writers do a pretty good job working around that by making sure just about all of the characters we care about have a secret that has the potential to destroy their lives.
Houston, We Have a Problem
While the heart of “For All Mankind” is focused on relationships at home on planet Earth, the best parts are indeed off planet and where the show comes closest to an action/adventure series. In many ways, the series finds a better balance as it sets its sights on the mission to Mars in season 3.
But as much as the show finally finds its groove in the 1990s, the writers continue to inject instability by (spoiler alert) killing off major characters across the seasons.
Is that supposed to make me feel that anything is possible in this show? I suppose. But I don’t feel all warm and fuzzy about a series that keeps killing my favorite characters.
And some of the ways our astronauts act are a little far-fetched. (Do they really disobey orders as a norm in this reality?) Then, I have to remind myself that this is not real… it’s still fiction. But does that make it okay?
And (spoiler alert) after the explosive ending to season 3, what’s really left that I might want to care about? A problem for the writers… to be sure.
Don’t Exhaust the Viewers
So yes, I’ve now watched all three seasons. And clearly I’ve got some issues with “For All Mankind.” Is there a reason to keep watching into season 4 when it comes out?
Well, that final reveal into 2003 at the end of the last episode that previews season 4 is certainly enough to peak anyone’s interest.
Here’s one suggestion for the writers…
Reality is tough. I know every story doesn’t get a happy ending. And this alternate reality seems intent on maintaining a healthy dose of this cruel truth. But that can feel exhausting.
I think it’s time for a little more healing, thank you very much.
Find the Right Balance in this Timeline
“For All Mankind” is bold. There’s nothing else like it as it jumps from decade to decade with many of the same characters. And each season improves on the last. But it takes a commitment get through.
The show has teased going to Jupiter after Mars. I’d like to still be there if that happens. But I’d appreciate a few more thrills and a few less tears along the way.
Mr. Moore, I’d prefer this journey across space and time to just be a little more fun.
Make it so?