The year is 2003. More and more consumers are carrying phones in their pockets, the Strokes are leading a garage rock revival, and President Al Gore has proudly announced that the cold war with the Soviet Union is finally over, citing the years of cooperation on our manned laboratory on Mars. For over a decade, our homes and cars have been powered by clean nuclear fusion, averting cataclysmic climate change, and the phrase “war on terror” has never been uttered on television.
This is the alternate history of Sony and Apple (AAPL) TV’s For All Mankind, four seasons after its initial point of diversion in 1969. In the show’s timeline, Soviets set foot on the moon weeks before Americans, leading the United States into a different kind of space race that continues indefinitely. The wild ambition and collective effort bring out the best in our country and the world, and the ongoing mandate for rapid technological advancement has a ripple effect on geopolitics and social justice. Thus at season four’s dawn of the 21st century, the future is looking a lot brighter than it did on our Earth. But though this new season continues to excite the imagination with the thrill of what could have been and what might still be, the very thing that makes the show unique and exciting — its sense of scale — is beginning to water down its character drama. As contrary as it feels to the very essence of the show, For All Mankind’s space race might benefit from taking its foot off the gas.
Each season of For All Mankind begins with a time jump of roughly a decade, filling us in on what has and hasn’t changed from our own history via a mix of real, altered, or wholly invented news clippings. The show’s alternate history is, by far, the most fun element to talk about. Four years ago in the series premiere the Soviet moon landing leads Ted Kennedy to cancel his fateful visit to Chappaquiddick, thus clearing the way for his Presidential victory in 1972. An episode later the USSR makes a show of landing a woman to the moon, forcing the US to follow suit with a female group of astronauts who become American heroes. As the series progresses, those female astronauts rally support to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, and one of them is elected President in 1992. And since outer space becomes the primary venue for competition between capitalist and communist powers, the Soviets pull out of Afghanistan in 1979. Lo and behold, as season four begins, 9/11 never happens.
But interesting as all this is, it’s mostly a backdrop for the story. For All Mankind follows the lives of key figures in the space program, and over the course of three seasons and three decades, these figures aren’t getting any more interesting. Characters who have been around since the story began in 1969 feel past their prime, endowed with rich histories but without complexity to match. Much of the original cast has moved on as their characters have died or outlived their usefulness, and the newer additions aren’t picking up the slack. There’s still high-stakes international intrigue and outer space problem solving (about as many people die in space each season as have perished in the entire real-life history of space exploration), but it’s the scenarios that create the excitement, not the people whose lives or careers are in danger. A feature film can get by on interesting things happening, but not a ten-hour season of television.
It doesn’t help that the handful of characters who remain from the first season are now 20 to 30 years older than the actors portraying them, yielding uneven results. Thirty-four-year-old Khrys Marshall ably pulls off playing 59-year-old NASA Commander Danielle Poole, but Joel Kinnaman (43) as Admiral Ed Baldwin (73) is a tall order, as is Coral Peña (22) as engineer Aleida Rosales (42). That said, the new wrinkle to the show’s grander story is a promising one. With the world’s superpowers now sharing a scientific base on Mars, their next challenge is to make this base self-sustaining, opening the door to permanent settlement. To do this, they’ll need to extract and process resources not just from the planet itself, but from the nearest asteroids, and that means expanding the civilian workforce.
Happy Valley, Mars quickly turns into a company town where workers, millions of miles from their families, are completely at the mercy of their corporate employers. Through the eyes of new character Miles (Toby Kebbell), Season Four of For All Mankind becomes the story of the Martian class war, as he and the rest of the planet’s second-class citizens struggle to make ends meet. The scenario leads to some solid drama and a side order of hijinx, but Miles and his compatriots feel less like people and more like instruments through which to advance plot and explore themes. Daniel Stern joins the cast as an affable former auto tycoon who’s taken over as NASA Flight Director, while Svetlana Efremova plays his cunning opposite number in Russia’s Star City and the closest thing the season has to an antagonist. (The real villain is, as in every season, authoritarian communist governments.) These characters serve a purpose, but do not inspire attachment.
Still, the closer For All Mankind’s timeline approaches the proverbial “end of history,” where Earth’s nations cooperate in harmony and advance their common interests into the final frontier, the more the audience gets to enjoy life-affirming moments of collective triumph. Season Four opens with a historic event in space exploration that belongs to no one country, and from which all of humanity stands to benefit. It evokes a feeling of warmth and optimism that is scarcely felt in our own reality, a glimpse at what we can achieve if we set our sights beyond what we know is possible and say, “we will make it possible.” This, alone, makes the show worth watching for fans of science fiction. Hopefully, next season, its storytellers will aspire to better drama, so that the characters might feel as engaging or inspiring as their contributions to the world in which they live.