"For All Mankind," Apple's 1970's alt-history space program drama, is enthralling, and based on our viewing of the entire launch catalog of programming, it is the best new series to be included with the Apple TV+ launch.
Joel Kinnaman in "For All Mankind," premiering November 1 on Apple TV+. (Photo courtesy of Apple)
There have been a lot of high-profile dramatizations of the American space program over the years. Most focus on the triumph and tragedy of the Mercury and Apollo missions.
There even been some additions to that filmography of late, in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Notable additions include last fall's feature film First Man and this spring's documentary created from newly rediscovered Apollo program footage, called simply Apollo 11.
For All Mankind, the new series making its debut at the launch of Apple TV+ on November 1, has a lot of the visual and thematic DNA of those earlier shows, with one key difference. The show is an alternate history, in which the Soviet Union's space program beat Apollo 11 to the moon in the summer of 1969, and the space race continued throughout the 1970s.
The series was co-created by Ronald D. Moore, who has worked on multiple Star Trek series but is best known for the 2003 revival of Battlestar Galactica, along with his collaborators Matt Wolpert and Ben Nedivi. Moore also created Outlander.
The three creators are the main writers. The series uses different directors, including Seth Gordon, who made both the comedy Horrible Bosses and the beloved documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.
AppleInsider was granted access to the first three episodes.
Apple TV+, you are go for launch
For All Mankind is dramatic, tense, and thought-provoking, and belongs in the pantheon of great dramatizations of the space program, along with the TV series From the Earth to The Moon, the movies The Right Stuff, Apollo 13 and Hidden Figures, and this year's documentary Apollo 11. We've seen all five Apple TV+ launch programs, and For All Mankind is the best series of the lot.
The series is structured as a radical orbit change versus From the Earth to the Moon. In For All Mankind, the Soviet Union gets to the moon first, which leads to the U.S. space program being seen not as an example of American leadership, but something of an embarrassment.
So instead of victory parades and unquestioned heroism, like in real life, astronauts are criticized in the media, dragged before Congressional committees, and given a place in American life that's essentially the opposite of what actually happened.
This leads to a butterfly effect of changing world events, including pressure from President Richard Nixon to shape up the moon program, instead of cutting it short like he did. The cascade effect includes an early withdrawal from Vietnam for a national refocus, and a drive to put a group of woman astronauts through a crash course to prepare them for space travel.
And — in one ingenious detail — the failure of the U.S. to beat the Soviets to the moon causes Sen. Ted Kennedy to skip his fateful trip to Chappaquiddick. Instead, he emerges as a viable political opponent to President Nixon.
For All Mankind combines the early 1960s-style Americana familiar from most fictional treatments of the space program, with some more modern ideas. In the early batch of episodes, there is one where the Russians put a female cosmonaut on the moon, leading Richard Nixon to demand the same from NASA.
One of the better moments of the series is a re-enactment of the actual Apollo 11 landing which — because we know it's a revisionist treatment — is absolutely nerve-wracking. Between For All Mankind and Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, it's been quite a year for revisionist treatments of iconic historical events from 1969.
A very different space age
The characters are a combination of real-life space program figures and fictional ones. Chris Bauer, a familiar face from HBO prestige series such as The Wire, plays Deke Slayton and holds his own in a part that's been played over the years by such actors as Scott Paulin, Nick Searcy, and Kyle Chandler.
The likes of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and John Glenn appear, albeit not as major characters. Actors Joel Kinnaman and Michael Dorman play fictitious astronauts, while Sarah Jones plays the wife Dorman's character. Sonya Walger, best known for playing Penny on Lost, plays another woman astronaut candidate.
The series also boasts a soundtrack that's heavy on period-specific classic rock, from the likes of period-appropriate artists like the Rolling Stones. No cheap covers of familiar songs here.
Beyond the soundtrack, Apple clearly spared no expense in the set dressing and period detail, giving the show a Mad Men-like sheen that fits the time period, and most of the characters era-accurate wardrobe and haircuts. We haven't seen — and aren't expecting — errant Starbucks cups to pop up on set.
Not lost in space
The first season has ten episodes, with the first three debuting at launch November 1 and then an episode a week arriving each Friday through December 20. The show has already been renewed for a second season, and filming is reportedly already underway.
Ronald D. Moore is the type of creator who Apple was right to get into business with when it started making its own shows. He and his collaborators have made a thought-provoking, visually impressive show with the potential for several seasons of great material. But, it won't appeal to everybody.
If you have no interest in "what if" programming, evaluating what may have happened if a historical event went awry, then For All Mankind will likely hold little dramatic draw for you. But, you'll be missing out on a well-executed drama. and a practical demonstration of what Apple can pull off.
Who For All Mankind will appeal to, is space program buffs, as well as those interested in that particular era of political and social history. Fans of From the Earth to the Moon, in particular, will likely enjoy comparing this treatment to the most historical takes from those earlier efforts.
But even if you're not a NASA fan — and honestly, the space program's place at the center of American culture has receded over the years — For All Mankind is likely to appeal to those who simply enjoy effective storytelling.