Ronald D. Moore’s alt-history space race series proves to be one of Apple TV+’s most alluring offerings.
For many, alternate timeline stories prove both incredibly intriguing and undeniably unnerving. If they end in disaster, the viewer has to witness it even as though it’s the route not taken by history. On the other hand, the story may go well, perhaps even better than how history actually progressed. This leaves the viewer forced to sit with a better reality, one just out of reach. For All Mankind provides one with helpings of both — the horror of the history just dodged, the disappointment of promises unrealized in our own timelines. But does it compel?
For a time, the answer is that Mankind does, but only fitfully. The initial twist to the timeline – in which Russia gets the initial victory in the space race in 1969 – hits like a thunderclap. The fallout, however, feels minor: the Apollo 11 mission still reaches the moon, Neil Armstrong is still the first American on its surface, and so on. Most of what changes either affects our fictional characters in ways more frustrating than Earth-shattering or takes place subtly in the political realm. People not well versed in history may miss all but the biggest signs. In fact, it takes another big turn to really jolt the show onto its noticeably new path. Given how meticulously the show is assembled, that it takes not one but two big alternate events to create the new history felt like a strange and disappointing oversight.
In the early episodes, one may repeatedly find their mind wandering. The game of trying to identify the thinly veiled analogues to real life often proved more tempting than following the action. Gordo (Michael Dorman) and Tracy (Sarah Jones) Stevens are obviously Project Mercury power couple Gordo and Trudy Cooper, but is Edward Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman) meant to be Apollo 15 commander David Scott or a wholly made-up character?
However, over the course of the five episodes provided for review, the show’s slow assemblage of changes starts to find their advantage. Showrunner Ron Moore (Battlestar Galactica) has been here before, and his confidence in the work shows. The subtle timeline shifts begin to accumulate in ways that feel surprising and logical. It has the effect of keeping things recognizable while still providing the sort of “nothing can be relied on” shaking ground that gives alternate timeline stories their energy.
The subtlety extends to the social issues the changes bring to the forefront. Everything you expect to be held up for exploration — sexuality, gender, race — is, but more sideways than one would expect. For instance, race underlines the tension of a scene between two astronauts and a soldier returning from Vietnam. The conflict, though, reaches its boiling point from the white liberal-leaning astronaut’s judgment of the My Lai Massacre. Mankind proves even more in-depth and complex on the issue of gender.
Kinnaman, ostensibly the male lead of the show, continues to be a rather difficult performer. However, like the show itself, the time to evolve does aid his acting. From the start even his most emotional reactions feel almost performative. As the show progresses, it becomes increasingly suggested that this is no accident. While Kinnaman might prove frustratingly flat in films like Robocop and Suicide Squad, he seems to have harnessed that deficiency here. Baldwin’s attempts at emotions read as a man ill at ease with nearly everything in his life — family, friends, work — an interpretation that gives the character more and more depth as Mankind moves forward.
Over the course of the five episodes provided for review, the show’s slow assemblage of changes starts to find their advantage.
Even if this interpretation of Kinnaman’s limitations doesn’t work for you, there are plenty of other performances to enjoy. Sonya Walger’s Molly Cobb — an analogue to Mercury 13 aviator Jerri Cobb — wonderfully authors a woman so often burned by promises from men, she now wields her wounded faith as a wicked blade. Colm Feore makes the real-life Wernher Von Braun a compellingly warm presence, as well. Given our current moment in history, the show’s choice to make him a living breathing example of how complicity can be as damaging as firing the missile is a smart and bracing one. And so on down the line. The show is rich in supporting characters and it’s hard to find a bum performance in the bunch.
The limitations of television do sometimes undermine the reality of Mankind’s world. More than a couple of flight scenes have green screen effects so bad you would be forgiven if you initially thought it was rear-projected. On the other hand, sometimes — as with LEM piloting practice — that limitation becomes a strength, giving the images a haunting, almost alien quality. On a show that relies on the queasy feeling of treading close to (but never on) our reality, it works as accidental symbolism for a viewer’s internal experience.
The five episodes provided make up half of For All Mankind’s total length, which gives the show time to fully find its (space) legs. Each episode builds out the world with care and confidence. While predictions are a fool’s game, it feels likely that this momentum will slingshot Mankind to its final re-entry.
For All Mankind takes one giant leap onto Apple TV+ when the service debuts November 1st.