Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Joel Kinnaman stars in For All Mankind

The space and streaming races come to a head with For All Mankind and Apple TV+

Joel Kinnaman stars in For All Mankind
Photo: Courtesy of Apple

Premiering November 1 on Apple TV+, Ronald D. Moore’s For All Mankind is poised to be an antidote to the bleak alternate realities of series like The Handmaid’s Tale, The Man In The High Castle, HBO’s possibly defunct Confederate, and of course, the dystopia in the making that is our current political landscape. The series, which will be available on the launch day for TV+, drastically reimagines the past, with its vision of the U.S. space program playing catch-up to its Russian counterpart. When season one begins, the lunar plaque is collecting dust at the Kennedy Space Center instead of heralding the arrival of NASA astronauts on the moon “for all mankind.”

Being thwarted in space exploration is an undeniable setback, but Moore, whose Battlestar Galactica reboot serves as a testament to humanity’s resilience, doesn’t use that pivotal moment as carte blanche to subject his characters to misery and suffering. Instead, Moore and his For All Mankind co-creators, Ben Nedivi and Matt Wolpert, envision the loss in 1969 as “just the beginning of an aspirational story that sees the American space program remain a priority and continue to spur the imaginations, hopes, and dreams of a nation.” The show and its executive producers, including Star Trek and BSG vet Maril Davis, are unabashedly optimistic about everything from venturing further into the galaxy to this country’s ability to rally around common goals to For All Mankind’s chances at capturing viewer imagination in an ever-crowded programming landscape.

When I visited the For All Mankind set in February of this year, Moore et al. looked like they had every right to be confident about the show’s odds, even as details of production—and the larger streaming service—were predictably shrouded in secrecy. At the time, Apple was still a month out from a big keynote address about its Apple TV+ service, which, despite being perceived early on in the press as a possible Netflix slayer, was presented as more of what TV editor Erik Adams (who attended the event) called “a Silicon Valley spin on a skinny bundle.” Back in February, the journalists on site, including myself, didn’t yet know the name of the service or what it would cost or when it would premiere. The lure of a new Ronald D. Moore show proved strong enough, which is probably what Apple was counting on. Journalists received press notes just hours before touring the set and conducting interviews with the cast, including Joel Kinnaman, Shantel VanSanten, Jodi Balfour, and Wrenn Schmidt. Little strips of plastic were placed over the cameras on our smartphones, and we were assured that we wouldn’t need to rely on handheld audio recorders because the three- to five-minute interviews would be on camera, and the footage would be sent to us closer to the premiere.

The camera thing wasn’t unusual, as candid photos are almost always forbidden on set visits. Relying on third-party recordings for your interviews kind of was, though; how could we be sure that Apple would turn over unedited footage for use in features like these? (Thankfully, it did.) It was, as Moore noted at a panel that February morning, the first such event for Apple, though you wouldn’t know it from the personal escorts (who came straight from the Genius Bar/Apple store floor) assigned to all reporters. That’s also not an entirely uncommon practice, but it certainly created an even more controlled environment for a set visit, which was a little disorienting after the secrecy and sudden flood of information.

Set visits often have a roulette aspect to them—even when you’re dropping by a show you’ve covered for years, you never really know what you’re going to get out of the round-robin interviews or discussions with production and costume designers. With its escorts, amenities (beverage service at every interview setup), and precise scheduling, Apple was effectively offering concierge service at what would have otherwise been a standard press event. The media conglomerate was, intuitively enough, determined to make a great first impression. And the early afternoon went like clockwork—it had to, because a second group of reporters was set to arrive not long after my group wrapped.

For All Mankind
For All Mankind
Photo: Courtesy of Apple

There’s nothing wrong with being organized, but the efficiency and clarity of vision on display that day stands in contrast to the rollout for the Apple TV+ service. Obviously, the latter is a much grander endeavor, with many more moving parts, including multiple series premieres at launch. In addition to For All Mankind, TV+ subscribers will have access to the Jason Momoa-led series, See; the unmitigated pep of The Morning Show duo Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston; and a YA take on Emily Dickinson in Dickinson on November 1. That’s in addition to kids series Helpsters and Snoopy In Space, as well as the latest iteration of Oprah’s Book Club. But the company initially glossed over much of this crucial info (as well as timing and pricing) at an event last spring, before finally and properly pulling back the curtain at a conference last month.

It’s not that the lead-up to the full announcements was botched, exactly—you’d be hard-pressed to look at the lineup of concepts and talent and conclude that Apple, which has upped its original programming budget to $6 billion, doesn’t know what it’s doing. One of its biggest plays is For All Mankind, which marks Moore’s return to space/sci-fi dramas—though he was quick to clarify that the alternate history is the most sci-fi element early on in the show— and promises the same bold and humanistic storytelling of Star Trek and BSG. At least, that is what I gathered from the panel with Moore, Nedivi, Davis, and Wolpert, and the series of interviews with cast members. The day of the event, we were treated to a sizzle reel; since then, Apple has released a couple of trailers. But, as of the time of this writing, critics have yet to receive any screeners.

Still, For All Mankind should get a lot of mileage out of its pedigree and premise. Maybe it’s just a sign of the times, but “the present/past, but worse” concept has become the go-to approach for most alternate histories and realities. Which is what makes Moore’s vision all the more refreshing—and appealing. In the series, after that huge fictional setback in 1969, NASA redoubles its efforts, casting a wider net for astronaut candidates than ever before. On the show, “the right stuff” for a shuttle mission can be found in women and men, in mothers and military pilots, and in bright-eyed human computers (how NASA referred to its mathematicians in the ’50s and ’60s), as well as jaded alums of an initiative inspired by the real-life Mercury 13 program. But the show still centers in part on the kind of men we’re used to seeing at the center of these stories (most recently in Ad Astra), men like Edward Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman), a NASA astronaut who’s as frustrated as the rest of his colleagues, including Gordo Stevens (Michael Dorman), about being beaten to the moon by Russian cosmonauts. The decision makes sense, not least of which because Kinnaman’s been racking up the sci-fi and sci-fi-adjacent credits with leading roles in Altered Carbon and Hanna. But Kinnaman and his co-star Shantel VanSanten (who plays Edward’s wife, Karen) reminded us just how extraordinary the men who did make it into space were, even when compared to the superheroes populating the big and small screen.

Video: Courtesy of Apple

The show’s revisionist history makes room for female engineers in mission control, women like Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt), but it doesn’t erase real-life bigotry or economic realities. Moore said the team was highly selective about what historical events were altered. The greatest change is the one at the core of the show, which dares to imagine that the road not taken could result in a better future. As Moore said during the panel, after noting that most alternate realities in pop culture are built around some terrible event, e.g., “Hitler winning the Second World War”:

The Apollo 11 astronauts left a plaque on the moon that said “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon July 1969. We came in peace for all mankind.” That’s the inspiration for our show, the inspiration for our title, and I think that’s the inspiration for the spirit of the show. We really want to do something that is about a better planet, a better people, a better future… It’s still something that we can do today. It’s still something that we can reach for tomorrow.

That “better future” hinges on a past that’s being constructed by Moore, Nedivi, and Wolpert—who all share scripting duties—a setting that could easily have been “Mad Men meets the space race.” According to Moore, that was one of the ideas he and Zack Van Amburg (formerly of Sony, now working for—you guessed it—Apple as one of the heads of video programming worldwide) bandied about in 2017. Ultimately, Moore proposed a different vision before pitching the show to Apple: “I came back to Zack, and I said you could do that show. You could do the ‘Mad Men ’70s show,’ but what if we did the other version? What if you did a show about the space program that we were promised that we didn’t get?”

For All Mankind
For All Mankind
Photo: Apple

Although the show’s sets are as exquisitely well-appointed as Don Draper’s domiciles, it’s safe to say the minds behind For All Mankind aren’t interested in dwelling in mid-century or even early ’70s politics. At the panel, the writers said they considered the dangers of militarization of the space program when establishing the show’s present as well as determining its future. While sexism has kept women out of the space program in the show, once the doors are thrown open, Black women, including Krys Marshall as NASA computer Danielle, are able to walk through them. But as Marshall’s co-star Sonya Walger, who plays the cocky but bitter Molly, notes, racial inequalities remain present.

That’s also evident in the story of Octavio and Aleida Rosales (played by Arturo Del Puerto and Olivia Trujillo, respectively), a family of migrants who make their way to the United States and, more specifically, NASA. Moore says Aleida’s arc will span multiple seasons, as she’s a brilliant young woman who inherits a fascination with space from her late mother. Although many writers will be itching to comment on the show’s timeliness, Trujillo points out that “immigration [was] just as big of an issue then. It just maybe wasn’t as televised or as spoken about as it is now. But young girls like Aleida or people like [Aleida’s father, Octavio], they were still going through it… I think that’s why this character is so powerful.”

That kind of matter-of-fact approach to inclusion can be found in Moore’s previous works, whether we’re talking Star Trek: The Next Generation or Battlestar Galactica, the latter of which traded Dirk Benedict’s Bucky for Katee Sackhoff’s Starbuck and never looked back. But For All Mankind’s historical setting really sets it off—whereas many showrunners use the past as a shield to ward off criticism about lack of multidimensional female characters as well as people of color (let alone LGBTQ+ characters), this show seems intent on finding the bright spots in “dark” ages. That’s nearly as exciting a prospect as this cast and the kind of VFX budget that tech giant money can buy.

But eight months later, that excitement has waned somewhat. The day of its premiere, For All Mankind will vie with network, cable, and streaming debuts as well as multiple Apple offerings, including the buzz-heavy The Morning Show, to say nothing of the Disney+ slate. Moore’s series will have a 10-day head start on Disney+, which is set to launch on November 12, but whether that will be enough is debatable. The streaming competition—sometimes referred to as a “war”—isn’t letting up, and For All Mankind could find itself grounded.

Courtesy of Apple

When I had the chance to speak with Moore one-on-one in February, we were both under the impression that For All Mankind would be the show that launched Apple TV+; in fact, he called it Apple’s “first.” If that had turned out to be the case—the show is now one of the first shows to premiere on the streamer—it would have provided a fascinating juxtaposition to the debut of Netflix’s original programming, which all but set off the deluge of scripted content. For All Mankind’s messaging is almost diametrically opposed to the “shady politics as business as usual” philosophy of House Of Cards, the first Netflix original. The show’s disparate ethos are themselves polar opposites of their real-world contexts; House Of Cards and its political swamp debuted in the midst of Barack Obama’s second presidential term, while For All Mankind’s inclusive storytelling will premiere in the lead-up to a presidential primary that seems far more fateful than any in recent memory.

For All Mankind could still make a great first impression, as crowded as premiere day will be. Audiences are primed for well-executed and uplifting storytelling more than ever, no matter what rewatches of Black Mirror might suggest. And it wouldn’t be the worst thing if the window for the pop culture obsession du jour remained open longer than a weekend (though we still don’t know if For All Mankind will premiere with a single episode or the complete first season). For now, Moore and his team can take heart from a line in their own trailer: “We thought it was about being first. Turns out the stakes are much bigger than that.”

Disclosure: Travel and lodging for this report were provided by Apple.

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