It’s been a half-century since the first lunar landing; 50 years of a post-Apollo 11 timeline shaped by tiny decisions that grew to have massive ripple effects. So the premise built into “For All Mankind” — Ronald D. Moore’s alternate-history TV series in which the Soviet Union was first to plant a man on the moon — comes with a chance to break free of a preexisting mold and really examine what might have shifted after such a mammoth change.
Across its opening season, this new Apple TV+ drama certainly does its best to rewrite the NASA history books. But that reimagining comes with a series of self-imposed narrative restraints. Presented with a bevy of options, “For All Mankind” spends most of its episodes presenting this new world in the least imaginative and most inert ways possible.
To start, “For All Mankind” makes a critical error during entry by focusing on Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman), a fictional creation for the show and an astronaut who flew on an Apollo 10 mission that passed up the chance to land on the lunar surface before Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins. Over the opening hours, Ed’s main role seems to be the designated summarizer, rewording jargon-laced speeches and monumental personnel decisions in plain speak. Having a blank slate at the heart of the show not only makes it uninteresting, but his repeated explanatory role underlines the points where “For All Mankind” doesn’t trust its audience to keep up.
This, sadly, becomes a recurring problem. If there’s one thing “For All Mankind” does more than anything else, it’s remind you what’s at stake. From NASA mission program head Deke Slayton (Chris Bauer) to veteran astronaut Gordo Stevens (Michael Dorman), the series’ through-line characters are burdened with having to sell the enormity of their respective missions every time there’s a new development. Every word insists on its own importance, whether it’s in arguments with spouses or envoys from the show’s various presidential administrations. When the gratingly standard TV network news missives and magazine headlines can’t carry the weight of how the show’s reality is different, every early conversation is drenched in a barrage of heavy emotional snippets to pick up the slack.
Beyond the hurdles presented by its shallow bench of central characters, “For All Mankind” falls prey to a classic alt-history conundrum. Every evocation of real-world parallels either feels like a condemnation of those people who didn’t do their homework or an obligatory nod to those who have. Every evocation of John Glenn or Chappaquiddick or any other square on the ‘60s/‘70s Bingo card is delivered with the subtlety of a hammer blow or a self-satisfied slickness. “For All Mankind” is quick to point out these changes, but rarely has the time or interest to thoughtfully consider what comes in their wake.
That’s par for the course here, where there’s precious little sense of what’s happening outside of the frame, either in the series’ writing or staging. Every action or overheard bit of dialogue in crowd scenes is designed to catch the camera as it goes whizzing by. Key conversations take place only after one of the characters involved happens to see a historically relevant piece of information coming from their TVs. For a show built on the premise of unlimited possibility, “For All Mankind” moves in a stubborn straight line with full blinders on.
The show does turn the smallest of corners in its third episode, which centers on a group of women brought into the space program to keep pace with Soviet advancements. When Deke introduces them to basic training, it’s almost like the show hits a self-aware reset button. Even though this influx brings some new perspectives on the space program, it takes a while before any of these new astronauts feel like actual human characters and not just “something different.”(And just when it seems the show is starting to build some momentum, a painfully on-the-nose needle drop or a tediously framed cockpit sequence hint that these later changes are the exception rather than the rule.) Eventually, with standouts like Molly Cobb (Sonya Walger) based in part on members of the real Mercury 13 program, their exponentially more compelling origin story is a good enough case for them being the basis of this show and not just a prominent subplot.
In a midseason episode, series co-creators Ronald D. Moore, Ben Nedivi, and Matt Wolpert undo some of the damage of Moore’s pilot script by giving viewers something more inventive, trying, at least, to speak to the intertwined nature of television and space-bound imagination. By then, the show is having to work so much harder to free itself from its opening hours that — like this team of American astronauts trying to outmaneuver their Soviet opposition — it’s stuck in a hamstrung, catch-up mode.
Whenever the story cuts back to boardroom suits and command liaisons discussing the vital importance of their task, things come to a grinding halt. The gradual progression of the show phases them out in time, and once the glimpses of life back on Earth are squared more in family and friends than bureaucratic squabbling, the rest of the show gets a little more breathing room.
But even then, it takes a few episodes to break free from rehashes of well-worn stories: unfaithful and distant spouses, unruly kids, interfamily envy. Every character on this show is saddled with an initial, perfunctory purpose. It’s only with the benefit of hours spent with them that more dynamic parts of their corner of this galactic web get to emerge — and that’s too long to wait.
As the show strays further from reality, it gets to actually build out some of its own ideas, rather than merely reacting to existing ones. One critical development veers from mere revisionism to show a fundamental shift in how we (would) understand the purpose and logistics of space travel. Considering who’s responsible for this discovery, it seems like the show is finally ready to embrace its expansive potential and reframe who’s at the heart of this story… but then that character is quietly jettisoned in favor of the bland alternative. Even walking a different path, “For All Mankind” still finds ways to take one step forward and a giant leap back.
“For All Mankind” premieres its first three episodes November 1 on Apple TV+. New episodes will be released weekly thereafter.