For All Mankind

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday November 4, 2019

'For All Mankind'
'For All Mankind'  

In 1959, CBS aired a single season of a visionary television series that looked seriously at the technical challenges and personal costs of putting human beings onto the Moon and beyond. Titled "Men into Space," the series — which ran for 39 episodes — featured concepts that were ahead of its time, including the depiction of realistic personal problems, women breaking down barriers to serve as astronauts and contribute technical expertise, and even mull the idea of married couples taking flight for space.

It's a show that's not available for streaming, or on Blu-ray, and has largely been forgotten. But if it sounds like your cup of Tang, then you won't want to miss Roald D. Moore's ("Battlestar Galactica") new series, "For All Mankind." Moore recruits serious sci-fi and dramatic talent to the project, including producers/writers Bradley Thompson and David Weddle, co-creator and writer Matt Wolpert, and executive producer / writer Naren Shankar, among many others.

The result is a compelling alternative history of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union, with the series envisioning a scenario in which the Soviets beat the Americans to the Moon and triggered even more intense scientific competition between the two superpowers. At the eye of the political storm are the astronauts, engineers, and flight controllers who made the American space initiative possible; the show presents a mix of fictional and historical characters. Among the fictional characters (some of which are what seem to be fictionalized versions of real people) are main protagonist astronaut Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman, "Altered Carbon") and his wife Karen (Shantel VanSanten), as well as husband-and-wife astronauts Gordo (Michael Dorman) and Tracy (Sarah Jones) Stevens, African-American astronaut Danielle Poole (Krys Marshall), ambitious flight controller Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt), and closeted lesbian astronaut Ellen Waverly (Jodi Balfour).

The historical figures — or rather, the alternate history versions of them — include Deke Slayton (Chris Bauer), Gene Krantz (Eric Ladin), early female astronaut candidate Molly Cobb (Sonya Walter), and, in occasional roles, astronauts even casual space history buffs will recall, such as Buzz Aldrin (Chris Agos) and John Glenn (Matt Battaglia).

Season One spans about five and a half years, doing which time the space race heats up and boils over — as do the lives of the NASA personnel the show follows. For every social and technical achieventment, raodblocks and setbacks loom. Women gly into space — America is shamed into training female astronauts after a Russian woman cosmonaut walks on the Moon — and a racially diverse cadre of astronauts are recruited, trained, and placed on missions; at the same time, though, the FBI still zealously probes NASA's ranks for gays and lesbians to out, humiliate, and ruin. A "race for the base" — in which the USA and the USSR hasten to establish a permanent presence not he Moon, in the proximity to water ice that can be made into rocket fuel — unfolds alongside the passage of the ERA, only for the underpinnings of social progress to later stand revealed as little more than a happy byproduct of political chicanery.

While the technical stuff feels realistic, the focus here is on the private lives of the main ensemble cast, members of which rotate in and out of the spotlight as the season advances. Marital strife is one major plot point, arising from career missteps as well as infidelity (those hot-blooded all-American macho men can't be expected, after all, not to chase women, right?). But other, subtler family stresses also emerge, including the effect on children when their astronaut parents are away for long periods of time. (Around the time of World War II, similar effects were seen, on a large scale, thanks to so many fathers being deployed overseas; the spike in juvenile delinquency triggered a backlash against... wait for it... comic books. That's right. And we wonder why, after 9/11, the United States invaded Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with the devastating attacks in 2001.)

Season One is clearly only a prelude of what Moore and company have in mind for the show's overall, orbital arc, and so there's no sense of hurry. Plot points progress step by step, in a logical — but sometimes too-leisurely — manner. That's all right: As the show hits it stride, the viewer adjusts to its pace and scale. Space is big, and the potential for this new show — one of the first from new streaming service Apple TV+ — feels huge.

"For All Mankind" is now available on Apple TV+.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.