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For All Mankind's problem is that it sounds like a lot of things that nobody likes

Billing Apple TV's For All Mankind as an alternate history of the space race does it more harm than good.

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In January the Apple TV alt-history space show For All Mankind finished its fourth season with an insane geopolitical-brinksmanship-meets-asteroid heist storyline that completely upended the status quo for many of its characters. It’s the kind of bold storytelling that has become a signature for the series. And yet even after four years, nobody is talking about this show.

As someone who refused to watch For All Mankind until last year and now won’t stop talking about it, I think the show’s problem is both really simple and really hard to overcome: It sounds like a lot of things that most TV fans hate. Say “alt-history space show” to a sci-fi fan, and, if they can even get their heads around that concept—What do you mean “alt-history?” We don’t even have much real history in space yet—here’s what they think of:

Or, if they’re a comic book reader, maybe this:

The fact is, 99% of alternate history stories have at best a kernel of a good idea that inevitably ends up turning stupid. I don’t care how twisted (and sexy) the universe that Jean-Luc Picard that lives in is, he’s just not doing Sleeveless Daddy. Seriously, how is that even starship-practical?

Meanwhile, the only thing at all interesting about The original Star Trek Spock's goatee is that Gene Roddenberry thought it was interesting (or presentable). But it does highlight the problem: No matter where they start, alternate universe stories always seem to end up in some kind of incoherent, nonsensical, or just plain annoying place. Scarlet Witch confronts an alternate universe’s Avengers, cuts Captain Carter in half, and I'm supposed to roll with it?

Excuse me, but no.

It’s true, For All Mankind does begin with an alternate history premise—the Russians land on the moon in 1969 before the Americans. But what follows is not Beardo Spock zaniness. There is no Soviet take over of the suburbs of Chicago. Margaret Thatcher is not suddenly more palatable. No one discovers a UFO. Instead, the show is marked by the kind of love for the U.S. space program of old movies like The Right Stuff or Apollo 13, married to the closely-considered political realism of Oppenheimer or The Crown.

Even as the series leaps ahead ten years at the end of each season—the showrunners’ ultimate goal is to catch up with today—and we see advances we have never known, like a base on the moon or travel to Mars, still the show never trucks in hand-wavey sci-fi. Like The Martian or Gravity, it finds its drama instead the actual hardships that would come with space travel or life on other worlds. A gun fired in a space station has the potential of killing literally everyone. The overcrowding and inadequate resources involved with living on another planet makes for a hot mess of conflicts. And going "outside" is always, always dangerous.

Truly, rather than an alternate history show, Apple TV should be pitching the series as a history of our descendants. For All Mankind is not about some wacky past that never was. It’s about the future that’s still to come.


For All Mankind just pulled off one of the greatest heist stories ever - IN SPACE!

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For All Mankind

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About the Author
Jim McDermott avatar

Jim McDermott

Contributing writer

Jim is a magazine and screenwriter based in New York. He loves the work of Stephen Sondheim and cannot take a decent selfie.
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