For All Mankind

Did the world need a new streaming service? I’d say no, but for some reason Apple didn’t consult me before they launched Apple TV+. My flatmate got a year’s free access with her new phone, so we checked out For All Mankind, an alt-history series from Ronald D. Moore in which the USSR beats America to the moon, creating a world where the space race never ends.

It’s … interesting, but deeply flawed. I’ve watched all three episodes currently available, and plan to keep going with the series, but I desperately want to talk about it. And I could keep tweeting into the void, but, well, isn’t this what blogs are for?

When the series was first announced, I found the title irrationally off-putting. Yes, it’s a quote from the plaque left on the moon by the Apollo 11 astronauts, but I couldn’t quite shake the sense of being excluded. Like I said, it was irrational.

But it’s also a metaphor for the series, which I think aspires to be inclusive and universal, but is in fact deeply UScentric, male-focused and tokenistic in its treatment of people of colour.

Just how UScentric are we talking? Well, the USSR is considerate enough to schedule the live broadcast of their moon landing in the middle of US prime time.

It’s not clear how they managed this broadcast at all, given that Apollo 11 was dependent on a worldwide network of radio telescopes for its journey and landing. I doubt the Australian government was willing to let the USSR borrow the Parks Radio Telescope, for example. But For All Mankind is very much about the idea of the US going it alone while, for example, English teens are so caught up in the Soviet moon landing that they start wearing hammer and sickle T-shirts.

“I take this step for my people, my country, and the Marxist-Leninist way of life.”

Historical settings need worldbuilding. Consider the first episodes of Mad Men or GLOW: we meet our main characters, and the conflicts that will run through the series, but we also meet the world they occupy. You can’t just put cigarettes in people’s hands and call it a day.

The worldbuilding in the first episode of For All Mankind is thin. We don’t know how the USSR got to the moon first, and aside from the slap in the face to American pride, it’s not really clear to the viewer why it’s a problem. I’m old enough to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the Cold War is largely theoretical to me, and I couldn’t care less about America’s nationalistic pride, so it was difficult to empathise with all the white men being sad they didn’t get there first. I can only imagine how much harder it would be for viewers just a few years younger than me — but For All Mankind starts out on the assumption that we’re all on the same page.

We have a similar problem with the characters. The first two episodes largely follow Ed Baldwin, the fictional commander of Apollo 10. He spends a lot of time being petulant, self-absorbed and entitled — which is a brave take on a figure as iconic as an American astronaut, but it’s not entirely clear the writers realise how unpleasant he is.

Now, Apollo 10 was a dress rehearsal for 11. My very favourite fact about the Apollo program is that NASA deliberately sent 10 out with as little fuel as possible, because they knew the crew would absolutely attempt a moon landing if they could get away with it, thereby stealing 11’s thunder and (worse) rendering moot several years of careful planning.  And the real Apollo 10 astronauts are on the record as going, “Yeah, nah, that’s fair, there’s no way we wouldn’t have gone for the landing if we had enough fuel.” (I paraphrase.)

In this universe, Apollo 10 had sufficient fuel to make a landing — less than would be ideal, but enough. And the only thing that stopped them was that Werner Von Braun ordered them not to, and Baldwin, though he considered disobeying, ultimately chose to comply.

And that, apparently, was bad.

Von Braun is an interesting figure in For All Mankind. He’s introduced as a kindly mentor to Margo, a young engineer and the only female character in the first episode who isn’t married to an astronaut. I tweeted that having this woman being mentored by a literal ex-Nazi was peak white feminism, and I was having a really good time criticising this wildly terrible decision — when the second episode pivoted, and went from valorising Von Braun to revealing to the audience (and characters) his complicity in Nazi crimes.

He is ultimately ejected from the space program — though less for being a Nazi, and more for making Nixon look bad by losing the space race.

I was impressed by this writing. Knowing what I do about Nixon — and, well, human history in general — it was fitting, if terrible, that Von Braun’s removal would be about contemporary politics rather than his use of slave labour in Nazi Germany.

And I think there’s a cleverness in introducing a kind old man, then pulling the rug out from under the audience by revealing his terrible past. It’s just that this twist, like so much of the series, relies on the audience knowing nothing about the space program. (And yet, reviewer after reviewer has remarked that only space program tragics will enjoy this series.)

Let’s talk about the women in For All Mankind.

They are, as I’ve said, mostly the wives of astronauts, and one lone engineer, who I assume was inspired by Poppy Northcutt — although she was working in mission control by Apollo 8, and Margo only gets there after Apollo 11. (Fictional depictions of the space program are invariably more sexist than the reality.)

Margo is introduced sleeping secretly in her office at NASA, dressing and applying  her make-up in a cute little montage which, frankly, only works if you have no idea whatsoever about beauty standards for women in the late 1960s. At first I thought it was a nice touch that she was wearing pantyhose — a relatively new product — rather than garter and stockings, but then I realised she wore no slip, or any of the other undergarments without which a woman would not be properly dressed, and her toilette involved neither hair products nor eye make-up.

Of course, not every woman in 1969 looked like she stepped out of a magazine. But all the astronauts’ wives — even in scenes where they’re dressed up — have flat hair and no eyeliner. There’s not a beehive or a bouffant to be seen — nor is anyone wearing a girdle, not even the older women.

One of the reasons Mad Men‘s costumes looked so good is that all the women wore period-appropriate underwear. That’s not the case here, and it’s a strange, annoying oversight.

And even the men have a distracting wrongness about them — hair that’s just a couple of centimetres too long on the astronauts, for example, men who were chosen in part for their clean-cut, conservative appearances.

A male astronaut leads a cohort of female astronaut candidates onto the airfield. All wear aviators and have period-inappropriate hair.
Every single hairstyle in this picture upsets me.

Wait, but I was going to talk about the women…

Episode 3 is titled “Nixon’s Women” — with the USSR having just put the first woman on the moon, the US is suddenly playing catch-up, and Nixon demands that NASA recruits female astronauts.

This is the best episode of the three available — although it’s still deeply frustrating for reasons I’ll get into.

Our new astronaut candidates are a mixed, interesting bunch. A former Mercury 13 candidate is by far the best pilot, but she’s — well, if not butch, then definitely tomboyish. And outspoken, disrespectful and given to playing pool in dive bars, silently daring the men around her to object. (Spoilers: I love her.)

At the other end of the spectrum we have Tracy, introduced in episode 1 as the long-suffering wife of a philandering brostronaut — but now we learn she, too, was once a pilot. She’s not remotely the best candidate, but she’s blonde and pretty, and Nixon saw an article about her and has become fixated on the idea of husband and wife astronauts. So she can’t be cut.

(I know Nixon was a Weird Dude, but honestly, this plot point feels more like a comment on a more contemporary president.)

In between, we have a second ex-Mercury 13er, an heiress who might be a lesbian (or maybe she just likes staring at women), and Danielle, an African-American who already worked for NASA as a computer. And a handful of others, but these are the ones I can remember.

I like this group of women, but I’ve seen this story before — and better.

It’s time to talk about the Mary Robinette Kowal in the room

Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series posits an alternate history where an asteroid strike wipes out the eastern seaboard of the USA in the mid’50s. The ensuing environmental effects will render the whole planet uninhabitable within a couple of centuries. We follow mathematician and pilot Elma York as she becomes the reluctant face of the space program — and, eventually, an astronaut in her own right.

The series is widely and highly praised, but I’m personally a bit mixed: I like the worldbuilding, but I think it’s hampered by the tight first person POV, and the sex scenes are truly egregious. (Rocket metaphors abound, unfortunately.) Elma is a very likeable protagonist, learning over the course of the series that good intentions and nice southern manners aren’t enough to overcome institutional prejudices, but it doesn’t always feel organic.

But the books cover similar ground to For All Mankind — and better. Like Tracy, Elma has to contend with being less qualified than other candidates, but she — and the writing — is more self-aware. She and her colleagues contend with hostility, institutional sexism, and things like “training sessions” which involve bikinis and photographers.

The FAM astronauts have it easier: although the intention is to put a beauty queen in a spacesuit to “make the women’s libbers happy”, Deke Slayton (a real historical figure) insists that the women will be trained exactly the same as the men.

The only pushback comes from Baldwin’s wife, Karen, who regards the training of women — and Tracy in particular — as an affront, an insult to her test pilot husband’s achievements.

And I love this! Not because I agree with her, but her arguments do make a certain sense, and I think it’s valuable to depict that backlash.

The problem is, it’s all we get. By the end of episode 3, a generation of little girls are inspired, and America has passed the ERA. Which is great, but I was like … where is Phyllis Schlafly? Where is the burgeoning religious right? Where’s the backlash?

Like so much in For All Mankind, it’s simplistic. What’s happening in Vietnam? Is that war being impacted by the billions of dollars suddenly going into the space program? What about the civil rights movement? Really, none of the white people at NASA have a problem with an African-American woman training to be an astronaut?

And — Danielle is very much on the sidelines, so far, but she’s the only African-American character to have dialogue at all. In three episodes. We see black men in mission control, but they’re extras.

My friend Stephanie Lai says that, when she looks at a fictional utopia — or dystopia — she asks, “Utopia for whom?”

For All Mankind is supposed to be a series about building a utopian future, but so far it’s getting there by focusing on white people and avoiding the hard questions.

Having said all this, I’m still watching

Frustrating as the show is, I want to see what happens next.

I haven’t mentioned Aleida yet, because her plotline has been separate from the rest, but all through the series, we’ve followed a young Mexican girl — I’d say she’s about twelve. She watched the moon landing with her dying mother, and then crossed the border with her father, who is now working as a janitor at NASA.

Right now, she’s a sad adolescent pyromaniac, but she is clearly going into space — and I love that story. It’s far more compelling than the angry white men who got most of the screen time in the first two episodes.

For All Mankind isn’t as good as it thinks it is, and its characters and setting aren’t as likeable or interesting — but there’s something that keeps pulling me back in, even as I resent it for ensuring we’ll probably never get a Lady Astronaut TV series.

If I were the type of person to give out letter grades, I’d give it a B minus — or three alternate-universe Nixon tapes out of five. Even if it improves, there’s a weakness in the concept itself that I have trouble setting aside. And yet, here I’ve spent 2,000 words talking about it, so maybe it’s doing something right.

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