Quarantine has oddly coincided with a promising outpouring of space-related news and shows, from the launch of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule to the ISS to the debut of several new streaming shows, most notably For All Mankind on Apple TV+ and Space Force on Netflix. It’s certainly odd to watch a show depicting space exploration one moment, and then flick over to the next channel to see the real thing (more on that later), but for space enthusiasts such as myself, both shows have made the time pass more easily during the shutdown. However, neither show is perfect and both deserve a critical examination.
Joel Kinnaman leads a team of female NASA astronauts in the alternate early 1970s
For All Mankind is the co-brainchild of Ron Moore, the talented writer who, along with his then-partner Brannon Braga, brought elements of quality television to Star Trek: The Next Generation before moving on to create the outstanding re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica, one of the strongest science fiction series of the past two decades. Moore’s background in the military informs his sensibility on BSG and For All Mankind (both shows feature large amounts of whiskey consumption, for example, and a certain blunt military shorthand in the dialogue), and he does have a talent for centring human conflict within technological suspense. But For All Mankind, for all its innovative alt-history ambition, feels oddly unfocused and unevenly paced – it rushes when it should slow down and grinds to a halt when it should step lightly. In other words, it’s no BSG. But for those interested in the great space race of the 1960s, it provides an intriguing and different look at the classic era of space exploration.
The show begins with the first moon landing in 1969, but not the one you remember. All over the world, people watch a man step onto the moon for the first time, but this man is named Alexi Leonov and his words are not the subtle and profound aphorism of Neil Armstrong, but a boilerplate piece of Soviet rhetoric about the superiority of communism. This event sticks in the craw of the United States, as one would imagine, and re-energizes their own space program after a time of mourning and existential angst. When the Soviets land a woman on the moon next, President Nixon writes NASA a blank cheque to do something spectacular and new in space to usurp the Soviets’ prestige, leading eventually to women astronauts (a decade early in the historical timeline) and a moon base (still to be realized).
For All Mankind’s alternate history contains just enough Easter eggs to feel authentic for us space obsessive – in one scene, for example, the plaque that Apollo 11 was supposed to have left on the moon is presented as a sad, second-place trophy, never to fly in space. Most of the astronauts are established historical figures, with the notable exception of Edward Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman) and Gordo Stevens (Michael Dorman), who in this reality were the Commander and Lunar Module Pilot (respectively) of Apollo 10. In reality, Apollo 10 was commanded by Tom Stafford (one of the few astronauts of that era who is still living) and the Lunar Module Pilot was Gene Cernan, who later commanded the last landing, Apollo 17, in 1972. Much narrative hay is made in the series of the fact that Apollo 10 could have landed on the moon if only Baldwin had been “bold” enough to take the bird down. This forms the major character conflict of the first few episodes and for those of us who know the history it’s a tough suspension of disbelief. The real Apollo 10 was a pure test flight: Stafford and Cernan (and their Command Module Pilot John Young) were there to test the hardware for a landing so the only unknowns left for Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins on Apollo 11 would involve the last bit of the landing itself. Apollo 10 was never meant to land on the moon, and in fact it could not have. Cernan himself admitted as much in his 2014 documentary The Last Man on the Moon, citing a deliberate under-fuelling of the vehicle to prevent some hotshot astronaut from taking it down without permission. In the macho re-imagining of For All Mankind, Baldwin, NASA and America itself are haunted by the possibility that they could have beaten the Soviets to the moon in May 1969 but chose caution, a conceit that is fundamentally flawed and quickly wears thin.
(For the Soviets’ part, historians do grudgingly admit that, all things being equal, Leonov would have been the pilot for the early moon missions, but the Soviet lander was never close to being ready in the 1960s due to the failure of the N1 moon rocket. The closest they could have gotten was a trip around the moon in a stripped-down version of the Soyuz called the L1, or Zond, and even that didn’t work in time.)
Films and TV shows always have to condense characters and historical situations, so the film scholar in me has no problem with other liberties the show takes, such as coalescing all of NASA’s management, involving dozens of offices and people, into essentially two characters: Werner von Braun (played by Canadian actor Colm Feore) and Deke Slayton (veteran character actor Chris Bauer). Of course, in reality, von Braun had little to do with the management of NASA – he rarely even visited Huston, instead working out of his Huntsville, Alabama rocket range and having responsibility over the function of the Saturn V but little else. Slayton, correctly portrayed as a former Mercury astronaut grounded for health reasons in 1962, is presented as being singularly in charge of all the astronauts and their crew selection. In reality, Slayton did have a very powerful role in this area, but wasn’t the ultimate authority and operated within a larger bureaucratic structure. Still, it is effective to have only two characters, one an easy target for blame over the failure to beat the Russians (von Braun) and one to persevere and be heroic in the later episodes (Slayton). Other fictional characters that play a role include Mission Controller Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt), who becomes the first female to occupy that position under von Braun’s tutelage, and a host of female astronauts including Sarah Jones as Tracy Stevens (Gordo’s wife, an astronaut herself) and Sonia Wagner as Molly Cobb, the first American female astronaut and based on a real historical figure.
American learns that the Soviets have landed a man on the moon
Herein lies For All Mankind’s biggest strength and most glaring weakness: so many characters over so many episodes with so many subplots and tangents dilute whatever narrative energy is generated with the grand science fiction “what if?” premise. Initially, the show does work: take the flight of Apollo 11, for example. We all know (some more intimately than others) the familiar cadence of that landing, having heard the words over and over for the past 50 years. But here is a moment in which I leaned forward in my seat, because while it was Apollo 11 being depicted (and the special effects are absolutely top-notch), this wasn’t the Apollo 11 I knew. Anything could have happened differently – the show had given itself the narrative freedom to pursue any ahistorical path. We get to watch a familiar event play out in an unfamiliar way, which is wonderfully absorbing stuff. What comes next is decidedly and frustratingly not absorbing, as the show meanders into too much family drama, too much time spent on the development of intriguing but pointless subplots (such as the forced marriage of a lesbian astronaut to a gay engineer) and a general lack of focus. Apollo missions, for example, which at first are covered in excruciating detail on Apollo 11 and Apollo 12, are quickly hopped over like stones in a pond, as we are suddenly in the middle of Apollo 24 before we learn what happened on, for example, Apollo 17. Years pass that are crucial to our narrative buy-in to this alternate history and we’re given little to no opportunity to follow the slow, step-by-step engineering challenges to land larger and larger spacecraft on the moon, all based on Apollo hardware. When the narrative finally slows down for the last two episodes and we’re watching Ed and Gordo repair a Betamax VCR in their moonbase, the tether to reality has been stretched much too far and we’re simply now in a retro-futuristic sci fi series. BSG was more convincing, because we never needed to relate its technology to something familiar and earth-bound.
John Malkovich, Steve Carrell and Ben Schwartz star in Space Force
In contrast to the earnest and Dramatic (capitals noted) For All Mankind, Space Force is a horse of an entirely different colour. Co-created by Greg Daniels and Steve Carrell, from the US version of The Office, this is a high-budget, special-effects heavy and astonishingly up-cast workplace comedy series. Carrell plays General Mark Naird, Air Force fighter pilot and war hero, tasked to head the newly-created “Space Force” on the orders of the (thankfully) unnamed President of the United States. Under intense pressure from the childishly impulsive and irrational Commander-in-Chief (once again, never named, but we all know who it is) to put “American boots on the moon by 2024”, Carrell has to manage his team of scientists led by John Malkovich (not a typo – it’s really Malkovich) and young astronauts as they face the inevitable technological challenges of meeting that completely ridiculous timeline. Kudos to the show for at least attempting to portray the Canyon of reality between the POTUS’s expectations and hard scientific facts. Naird comes across as unfocused in the first few episodes – Carrell and Daniels don’t seem to have a handle on exactly how much of an idiot to make the General (turns out not much of one at all by the end) and what tone to strike. But the rapport between Carrell and Malkovich, who steals many a scene with his underplaying and unique speech cadence, grows into something that feels genuine by the end of the ten-episode season. Naird turns out to be a more intelligent version of Michael Scott or Burt Wonderstone – someone full of bluster but this time with real affection for his daughter (Diana Silvers) and a deep commitment to his mission. Unlike the long-form quality-TV season narrative of For All Mankind, Space Force adopts the structure of a modern sitcom in which larger arcs play out behind stand-alone episodes, most notably “Lunar Habitat”, in which Naird volunteers for a simulated mission that goes horribly awry, and “Space Flag”, which features an elaborate game of laser tag between the Space Force and the Air Force. There are legitimately funny moments throughout, such as when Naird attempts to get a chimpanzee astronaut to repair a satellite, but the series ultimately feels like it should be funnier than it is, and by the end far too many technological corners are cut, and like For All Mankind, the tether to reality is stretched too thin.
John Malkovich and Steve Carrell share rare comedic chemstry
Space Force does boast and benefit from an incredible cast, many of whom are borrowed from the Christopher Guest company, such as Don Lake (hilarious in every scene as Naird’s secretary), Jane Lynch (no-BS Admiral of the Navy), Michael Hitchcock (who plays a didgeridoo on a moon base simulation) and the last role from the late great Fred Willard, who plays Naird’s slightly senile but still hilarious father. Other notables include Ben Schwartz, playing his usual hipster persona as Space Force’s social media coordinator, Jimmy O. Yang as Malkovich’s number two, and the criminally underused Lisa Kudrow, Dietrich Bader and Patrick Warburton as, respectively, Naird’s wife, the Chief of the Army and the Chief of the Marines. The standout junior cast member for me was Tawny Newsome, as Space Force Captain Ali, who blends military competence, hipster sarcasm and emotional vulnerability in possibly the show’s most human character.
Space Force arrived on Netflix just as the SpaceX Dragon was launching, and I binged it on the weekend of the launch and arrival of the US’s newest spacecraft, which made for some surreal sights. NASA’s streaming technology has reached a point where one can actually witness history live and in HD, begging the comparison between TV special effects and the real thing. It was a moment of profound cognitive disconnect to switch between an HD TV show featuring space launches and zero-G footage and an actual live stream of a real launch and real footage. Never have they looked so similar, simultaneously. (There’s something I think McLuhan would have found interesting in all of this.)
Neither Space Force nor For All Mankind is the show us space fanatics have been waiting for, but they’re diverting enough for these difficult times, and perhaps that’s a function worth celebrating. Both feature many strong performances, high production value (For All Mankind in particular commits to its period wardrobe heroically) and convincing special effects. Both shows also promise future seasons, so it is possible that they will grow into themselves and make good on their considerable potential in future years.