For All Mankind review: A space race still waiting to take off
Ivan Radford | On 31, Oct 2019
This spoiler-free review is based on the opening three episodes of For All Mankind.
The Man in the High Castle, but space. That’s the elevator pitch for Apple TV+’s most intriguing original series as the new streaming platform prepares to launch. But when space race alt-history drama For All Mankind finally takes off, you soon realise that the elevator’s taking a while to climb to the impressive heights promised.
The premise is wonderfully simple and full of fascinating potential: what if Russia won the space race? The opportunity for surprises is apparently immediately, as we see the moon landing take place in 1969, only for a Russian astronaut to end up on our lunar cousin, leaving America facing a red moon in the sky.
The response is both shame and determination to catch up, and so we follow NASA as it races to get back in the pilot’s seat. It’s a cracking concept for a series, one that resonates with themes of national identity, global politics and scientific progress, but after the initial few episodes of For All Mankind’s first season, those themes are still hovering just out of reach, waiting to be fully touched upon.
It’s no fault of the cast, who are uniformly fantastic. Joel Kinnaman brings a simmering intensity to Ethe part of Ed Baldwin, who was part to the Apollo 10 crew that chose not to land on the moon – a decision that sparks a hot topic debate in the press about whether he made the call or whether NASA did. Michael Dorman is equally convincing as his co-pilot Gordo, who burns his ambition by chasing women rather than historic milestones – much to the frustration of his wife, Tracy (Sarah Jones). Stealing every scene he can is Colm Feore as Werner von Braun, the German scientist who gave his ideas to the US, only for them to question his loyalties when their astro-plans go awry.
Strong support also comes from Chris Bauer and Eric Ladin as Deke and Gene, NASA’s two top dogs trying to keep everything on track, not least because President Nixon keeps announcing new priorities every 10 minutes. One episode, the White House has decided a moon base is essential. The next, it’s all about training up women astronauts, because Russia has one.
Ronald D. Moore, who has done fabulous things with Outlander and Battlestar Galactica, knows exactly what components to assemble to make a compulsive watch, and the Cold War tensions are just waiting to erupt. The period recreation is also seamless, jumping from Houston to Florida via captivated US living rooms with a confidence and lavish budget.
But those surface details don’t quite come together in the way you expect, with For All Mankind happy to luxuriate in that gorgeously rendered backdrop, rather than use it as a launchpad for something gripping. The most interesting strand that may change that is the US push to bring in a wave of female space explorers – Episode 3 is a delight to watch, as Jones gets more to do as fledgling pilot Tracy, who goes to training camp alongside hard-bitten, sassy veteran Molly Cobb (a brilliant Sonya Walger). That duo is offset nicely by the advancement of Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt), the first woman to get a desk in Mission Control.
In a world that’s so well realised that it instantly feels like all the familiar space movies we’ve seen in the past, there’s the chance here for For All Mankind to blast the cobwebs away and deliver a rousing, alternate view of a nation building its legacy – a progressive antidote to America’s real life trajectory. But there’s no sign otherwise of Moore using his alt-history premise towards any real purpose – the presence of a young girl in Mexico, Aleida (Olivia Trujillo), who moves to the US with her dad, a janitor at NASA, feels disconnected to the rest of the plot, apart from the notion that she represents a direction it might take in the future. (The fact that Apple TV+ has already renewed it for a second season suggests it will eventually get there.)
The result is an impressive, solidly built version of the space race, which hooks you in with its bold starting point, but three hours after launch, For All Mankind is still searching for the fuel to propel it forwards.
For All Mankind is available on Apple TV+, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription, with a seven-day free trial. For more information on Apple TV+ and how to get it, click here.