‘For All Mankind’ explores a reimagined history in which Soviets, NASA, American business race to the Red Planet
Imagine the Soviet Union putting the first man on the moon.
From there, space history takes off in all kinds of directions, to the point of a race to put the first humans on Mars in the mid-1990s. There are three entities in this race: NASA, the Soviets and a private American company, Helios.
And they’re all racing to Mars at the same time. Who will get there first — in a race where getting there first means everything?
That’s the dramatic backdrop of “For All Mankind,” which recently started its third season on Apple TV and is one of the most imaginative series in the universe of streaming.
This season, the series has an Elon Musk-like entrepreneur who has modified a former hotel/space station (similar to the large rotating one in “2001: A Space Odyssey”). He’s flying it to Mars!
Commanding the Helios’ company’s giant Phoenix ship is former NASA astronaut Edward Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman), whose late friend’s son Danny Steven (Casey Johnson) is one of the pilots. Meanwhile, Edward’s daughter Kelly (Cynthy Wu) is the microbiologist on the Sojourner, the NASA spacecraft that has a clever trick up its sleeve to beat Helios and the Soviets to Mars. (It’s nothing sinister, just imaginative American know-how.)
“For All Mankind” succeeds because it has found the right balance between exploring the characters and exploring outer space. The series has just the right amounts of science, politics and personal drama to keep fans engaged, and the outer space heroes are flawed but likable people.
The first two seasons saw NASA and the Soviets establishing bases on the moon and some twists in history on space and Earth. This season, a former astronaut runs as the Republican candidate against Bill Clinton in the presidential race.
So far, the series has gone from the early 1970s to the mid-1990s, and changes in relationships are explored along the way. Edward was recruited to be an astronaut for Helios by his ex-wife, Karen Baldwin (Shantel VanSanten).
Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt), who’s brilliant at math and music (she’s a pianist), has risen through the ranks at Mission Control at Johnson Space Center to become the NASA administrator. And she and her Soviet counterpart have been secretly exchanging information in the name of science, but unknown to Margo, he’s getting his orders from the KGB. So yes, there’s a Cold War spy element in “For All Mankind.”
Margo also has been helping her protege, the brilliant and loyal Aleida Rosales (Coral Pena), at NASA, so there’s a story about mentorship as well.
Ultimately, “For All Mankind” appeals to a wide range of viewers because it’s about space, the Cold War, political history and, for soap opera fans, personal drama. The series also benefits from the background of its co-creator, Ronald D. Moore, who was a key producer and writer in “Star Trek” during the 1990s and 2000s.
As you might expect, the series occasionally refers to “Star Trek.” And while it’s grittier and messier than “Star Trek,” “For All Mankind” shares the “Trek” franchise’s positive message of optimism and courage.