For All Mankind had its genesis in a conversation over lunch between Ron Moore (of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Battlestar Galactica, and Outlander fame) and former NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman, while the latter was working as a consultant to SpaceX. Moore was interested in creating new TV series about NASA set in the 1960s, but one that imagined an alternate history in which the Space Race with the Soviet Union had never ended.
The show’s premise is this: What if the Soviets had beaten America to the Moon? How might America and NASA have responded? In reality, of course, NASA won the Moon race in July of 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin touched down on the surface during the Apollo 11 mission. As a result of this event, the Soviet Union essentially gave up on the Space Race and the American space program wound down—Apollo was ended, and NASA moved on to the Space Shuttle, albeit at a much slower pace and with far fewer resources.
But imagine what might have happened if Alexey Leonov had been the first human being to walk on the Moon in 1969 instead of Armstrong. It’s entirely possible that America would have doubled down on spaceflight—accelerated its efforts and possibly set new and even more aggressive goals, including building a base on the Moon and moving on to Mars. If that had happened, how might American society—and maybe the world at large—have been transformed? How much might technology have been accelerated? And where might humanity be today?
That’s the central idea behind For All Mankind. But what makes its work is great characters, great writing, and a level of attention to all the details of spaceflight unlike anything I’ve ever seen outside of feature films like Apollo 13 and First Man, and maybe Tom Hanks’ From the Earth to the Moon series on HBO. The people who work on this series understand those details to a very impressive degree. And they delight in doing the research to get those things right on screen.
Better still, the writers and producers never let that detail weigh down the drama. The stories they’re telling are immediate and relatable—what would be the human costs paid by those who carry the torch of space exploration forward in a more accelerated way? What would be the rewards? How would it affect your family and friends? How would it affect society as a whole?
Many of you who are longtime Bits readers will know that Ron Moore’s revamped Battlestar Galactica is my all-time favorite science fiction series, because it’s a human drama. It never gets bogged down in the trappings of zap guns, robots, aliens, and warp drives. Its approach was simple: Here’s a fantastic, science fiction situation… now how would real people cope with it?
I grew up a huge fan of the science fiction genre, from Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek on TV to all of the great novels of its golden age in print—books by the likes of Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Anne McCaffrey, Frank Herbert, Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula Le Guin, as well as more recent classics by Douglas Adams, Octavia Butler, Kim Stanley Robinson, and many others. My favorite of those stories have always depicted an optimistic vision for the future of humanity. But I’ll be honest: As a citizen of planet Earth in the last twenty or thirty years, optimistic stories of the future have been harder and harder to come by. And when you look around at the chaos of the present, they’ve become harder and harder to believe in. Today, I’m much more interested in the notion of what comes next, as opposed to what happens five thousand years from now—so much so, that I’ve actually spent the last few years writing my own science fiction novels that explore this very question. (I’ve mentioned this a couple times before here on The Bits; I hope to publish the first of those novels soon.)
On the subject of TV science fiction, Roddenberry’s optimistic future in particular has become much harder for me to buy into. In fact, the last Star Trek show I really cared about, flawed though it was, was Enterprise… precisely because, at its best, it attempted to show how we might get from the world of today—with astronauts, cosmonauts, and real down-to-Earth problems—to that world of Kirk, Spock, and Uhura exploring the galaxy in starships. And that brings me back to Ron Moore’s new series.
That basic idea of how we might get from the troubled world of today, to a bright Star Trek-like future, is exactly what For All Mankind is about. This is… hands down… my favorite series on television at the moment. It’s actually my favorite science fiction series since Battlestar Galactica. And if I’m completely candid, it’s the series I’ve been waiting my entire adult life to see.
Season One is available in its entirety on Apple TV+ now—all ten episodes—in 4K with Dolby Vision HDR and Dolby Atmos sound. It starts in July of 1969 and runs to about 1974. If you’re a fan of spaceflight history, you’ll know the names of many of the people depicted here, though the characters are a mix of real historical figures and fictional creations. And if you love films like The Right Stuff, you’ll recognize the program’s early NASA test pilot vibe immediately. But what’s great is how the show soon evolves into something new, expanding its cast, its personality types, and its ambitions. The first couple of episodes can be a little tough to watch, as you see events that you know happened one way playing out differently. But stick with it—each episode gets better and the season finishes strongly. Here’s a brief teaser...
Season Two of the series debuts on Apple TV+ this coming Friday, February the 19th, with new episodes dropping each week into April. Full disclosure: As a member of the press, I’ve just had the great pleasure of watching the entire second season over the course of this past weekend. And let me tell you: It’s even better than the first.
I enjoyed Season One the first time so much that I convinced my wife Sarah to give it a try during my re-watch in anticipation of the new season. She ended up watching both seasons with me—all twenty episodes—and enjoyed them nearly as much as I did, not bad given the fact that this genre isn’t usually in her wheelhouse (though to be fair, she enjoyed Battlestar too).
If you look at the credits for For All Mankind, you’ll see that lots of Trek and Battlestar vets are involved—Moore, Joe Menosky, David Weddle, Bradley Thompson, Michael and Denise Okuda, etc. A few members of the creative team have come from other successful series as well, like Fargo, Entourage, The Walking Dead, Rubicon, Outlander, and The Umbrella Academy. That track record and that experience shows up on screen. Here’s one last clip, featuring some of the very people I just mentioned talking about their motivations for producing the series...
For All Mankind is a smart, deftly-written TV drama made by people who understand spaceflight and humanity. It just got renewed by Apple for a third season. And if your passions and interests are in any way similar to my own, it’s a series you should definitely be watching. I simply can’t recommend it more highly.
That’s all for now. Back tomorrow. Stay tuned…!