I’m such a big NASA nerd that when the 1202 alarm went off during an Apollo 11 simulation in For All Mankind, Apple TV+’s new alternate history of the space race, I immediately knew it was the same alert that in real life nearly scuttled the first lunar landing. I’m such a big NASA nerd that as soon as it was established that the show’s lead astronauts, Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman) and Gordo Stevens (Michael Dorman), were on the Apollo 10 mission that came within a few hundred feet of landing on the moon, I knew they were fictionalized stand-ins for Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan (and, for that matter, that as commander of Apollo 17, Cernan remains the last human being to stand on the lunar surface). Hell, I’m such a big NASA nerd that I can tell you who Stafford and Cernan’s backups were without looking it up — and even that Dennis Quaid played one of those backups, Gordo Cooper, in The Right Stuff.
All of which is to say that I should be the ideal target audience of For All Mankind, in which the Soviets beat America to putting the first footprints on lunar soil, setting off a cascade of changes to the history that we know. The subject is catnip for me, as is a creative team led by Battlestar Galactica‘s Ronald D. Moore. But through the eight episodes Apple made available to critics, the series is mostly in test-pilot mode, struggling to figure out how far and fast it can go while surviving the journey. Now and then it manages to fly beautifully — and on the whole is easily the best of Apple TV+’s underwhelming debut class of shows — but it doesn’t seem to know the best way to get where it’s going.
We open in what seems like familiar territory to anyone who’s seen Apollo 13, First Man, From the Earth to the Moon, etc., as crowds gather around the world to watch TV news coverage of the first man to set foot on the moon. But instead of Neil Armstrong, whose own mission is weeks away, it’s Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov (who in real life was already the first man to walk in space). There is still talk of “one small step” signifying something bigger, but those words are spoken in Russian, with all of For All Mankind‘s characters reacting as if they were at a funeral.
In our reality, the Soviets never came close to landing on the moon ahead of Apollo 11. Neil and Buzz made it there first, the Russians gave up on the moon altogether, and America followed suit a few years later. In this version, courtesy of co-creators Moore, Ben Nedivi, and Matt Wolpert, the arrival of a “Red moon” only intensifies the conflict between the two superpowers. As pioneering rocket engineer and NASA official Werner Von Braun (Colm Feore) puts it in For All Mankind‘s second episode, “This is not the end of the race. It’s simply the first stage.” There is immediately talk of putting a permanent military base on the moon, of manned missions to Mars and beyond. All of it seems a very intriguing what-if approach to the history we know.
But For All Mankind doesn’t seem in any hurry to get there. In the early episodes, the butterfly effect on history is much more apparent away from NASA headquarters than inside it. Ted Kennedy, for instance, cancels his infamous party at Chappaquiddick to launch Senate hearings into our failure to beat the Russians, while President Nixon’s decision to double down on NASA changes the timeline on America’s exit from Vietnam.
The main focus of the first two episodes, though, is on Ed and Gordo’s frustration that they weren’t allowed to land on Apollo 10, and on the impact Ed’s public discussion of that frustration has on his career. Among the series’ bigger problems is that its two main characters are bland compendiums of clichés from every other story about the space race. Kinnaman and Dorman have done interesting work as more obviously flawed characters on, respectively, The Killing and Patriot, but until very late in the season, neither finds anything solid to latch onto playing these square-jawed flyboys who are wound a little too tight and/or take too much advantage of the perks of astronaut celebrity. Too often, scenes with Ed, Gordo, and several of the other NASA folks (even an endearingly gruff Chris Bauer as chief astronaut Deke Slayton) play like Apollo fan fiction. They hit the expected beats of the story — Gene Kranz (Eric Ladin) even gets to give a variation on the famous “failure is not an option” speech — but don’t provide any of the specificity necessary to make it worth watching this version instead of the real thing.
Not coincidentally, things perk up a lot in the third hour, “Nixon’s Women,” which features a big deviation: to court the women’s liberation vote, Nixon orders NASA to induct and train a class of female astronauts. It’s cynical rather than enlightened — one administrator explains that they’d prefer a pretty one, because “We need Marlo Thomas, not Danny Thomas!” — but it still raises that glass ceiling to the moon, and possibly beyond. And the female astronaut candidates — including Molly Cobb (Sonya Walger), a real-life member of the short-lived “Mercury 13” attempt to integrate women into the initial astronaut corps, and Gordo’s pilot wife Tracy (Sarah Jones) — come to life in a way their male counterparts never quite do. Ed’s doting, picture-perfect wife Karen (Shantel VanSanten), for instance, is offended by Tracy’s career move for reasons she can’t even recognize as dissatisfaction at her own life being entirely subordinate to her husband’s.
That episode’s a winner, as are the ensuing ones that diverge most from history. (There’s another strong one set largely on the moon, where, of all things, The Bob Newhart Show proves a major plot point. That one’s also by far the best use of Dorman.) But the show still seems torn between heading off in bold new directions and simply playing the NASA greatest hits: triumphant slow-motion walks, anxious loved ones watching on TV, and so on. The show’s reality grows more different from our own as time goes on, but at such a slowly escalating rate as to make the thought exercise behind it feel too abstract. Among the regular characters is Aleida Rosales (Olivia Trujillo), an undocumented teenage immigrant whose family crosses the border the night of the Apollo 11 landing. There are hints that she’ll one day be an astronaut herself, maybe even the first person to make it to Mars. But even though her father Octavio (Arturo Del Puerto) works as a custodian at the Johnson Space Center, at this stage she feels too far removed from where she and the show are heading that it’s frustrating to not be much closer to that destination.
In May of 1961, President Kennedy announced a desire to put an American on the moon before the end of the Sixties. It took NASA more than eight years to make that wish a reality, with a lot of trial (including four different types of spacecraft, counting the lunar lander itself) and error (including multiple deaths) along the way. Moore and company are clearly NASA nerds on a level that surpasses even mine, so it’s not hard to understand why they might want to take a similarly slow-and-steady approach, filling in every key detail along the way that explains how and why their universe is different from our own. But the differences are where For All Mankind is strongest. The sooner the series emphasizes them, the better.
The first three episodes of For All Mankind debut November 1st on Apple TV+, with additional episodes premiering one a week after that.