What if the Soviets had landed a man on the moon before the United States back in the 1960s? What if they had then landed a woman on the moon before the United States? What if the Cold War did not end in 1990 because Gorbachev never took power in the USSR, and the Space Race took off like a Saturn rocket and brought the Soviet-American rivalry to a perilously new precipice on the Moon, and possibly beyond?
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This author, admittedly, is not usually a big fan of alternate history/“what if” science-fiction. For whatever reason, it has always failed to capture my imagination, and seems simplistic and derivative. Little tweaks are made here and there to the actual historical timeline, which then tend to result in fantastical changes to the subsequent alternate timeline, offering little human drama or depth beyond the cheap thrill of the alternate scenario (“Oh wow, Hitler won and Germany took over Europe. Yikes.”)
The Apple TV+ series, “For All Mankind,” however, has made me a believer in the genre (at least as far as this one series goes). The show is superbly written, acted, and produced, and achieves that rare feat of making the viewer believe that what is unfolding, following the Soviets landing first on the Moon, is not only completely plausible, but also the likely alternate history. Nor does the show rely solely on cheap “what if” thrills or fantastical alternate historical developments to entertain us, but rather, the human drama and adventure that unfolds within the milieu of a prolonged Cold War and Space Race does most of the emotional heavy lifting.
And there is drama by the shuttle-load. From the smallest, most intimate personal dramas amongst the astronauts and their families, to the larger, politico-military drama that unfolds between competing superpowers, both on Earth and the Moon, pretty much anything you would think would unfold does. Romance, rivalry, marriage, divorce, birth, death, espionage, intrigue, brinksmanship, and all the rest are there. What makes the show really hum along, and keeps the viewers enthralled, are the victories and the tribulations that befall Americans and Russians alike, as both countries seek dominance of the off-Earth battlespace.
It is not hard to fathom all the drama and excitement that would have unfolded amidst an expanded Cold War and Space Race, and the show does an excellent job of exploring what might have unfolded in such a scenario. It crucially does not overdo it, in the process. The showrunners have envisioned a completely plausible alternate course of events — filled with both the successes and the failures — and also manage along the way to keep us caring about the characters, who change and grow throughout.
The primary characters are a handful of American astronauts and their families, various engineers and administrators at NASA, and the various other “regular” (non-NASA) people who get wrapped up in their lives along the way. A great example is the husband of the first American woman to go to the Moon in the show. He is a wreck, sick with worry about her, and relies on painting and recreational drug use to manage his anxiety. He is also delightfully out of place amongst the late ’60s/early ’70s housewives who wait alongside him for their spouses to return safely from the Moon.
The coping mechanisms employed throughout the show range from philandering to alcohol abuse to drug use to repression to psychological breakdown, and everything in between. These are human characters, with all of the accompanying flaws, frailties, and strengths that that entails. All of them are superbly written, especially the astronauts, who are all-at-once incredibly driven, hard-working, and focused, while also beset by insecurities, doubts, personal struggles, and setbacks.
I imagine the show runners and writers sat down early on in the process and made the decision to produce an excellent science-fiction/alternate history series — with all of the cool tech advances, adventures, and excitement — which was also firmly anchored by the resulting interpersonal drama that results when human beings are engaged in something as fraught as great power geopolitical rivalry and space exploration. If that was indeed their goal, then they achieved it in spades throughout the first two seasons. There are moments of high tension and excitement centered around the military and space-going action — both on and off Earth — as well as heart-warming and heart-wrenching family triumphs and tragedies that ribbon through the narrative like ice in the lunar bedrock.
It is also painstakingly detail-oriented and true-to-life when it comes to the sights, sounds, and feel of the various decades in which it unfolds. We start in the 1960s, move through the ’70s, and into the ’80s throughout the bulk of the first two seasons. The music, clothes, technology, decor, and social attitudes adjust and change along with the passage of time. The result is an authentic and familiar background against which completely fictional events unfold. This does wonders as far as placing the viewer at once in a comfortable, plausible, and believable setting, while a completely fictional, adventure-laced, and tension-loaded tapestry is weaved before their eyes.
In other words, you will be enthralled, thrilled, and excited by the quest for exploration and dominance of near-Earth space, while you will also care about the characters and what they are going through. All the while, you will find the America of alt-late 20th century completely believable (for both good and bad), and you might even find yourself rooting for the U.S.A, while also hoping that the Soviets and Americans can somehow overcome their mutual distrust and conflict.
Do yourself a favor and blast off with “For All Mankind.” You will not be disappointed.
Feature image courtesy of Apple TV +