Saturday, January 4, 2020

First Season Review: For All Mankind

First things first.  I am going to say I loved For All Mankind.  That gets my biases out of the way, once and for all. As a work of alternate history, the series, whose first season has finished streaming on Apple TV +  is an emphatic, positive retelling of that early heroic age of manned spaceflight.

The series opens in June 1969, with people around the world glued to their flickering television screens to watch Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov step onto the lunar soil and plant the hammer-and-sickle flag and proudly claim the moon for the “Marxist-Leninist way of life.” Impossibly, the Soviets have beaten Apollo 11 to the moon by a few short weeks. Instead of sending the Americans reeling in panic, showrunner Ronald D. Moore -  producer of the reimagined Battlestar Galactica  -  has President Richard Nixon upping the ante and the space program’s budget by setting the sights on the establishment of the first lunar base. And so, the “race for the base” is on. 

Apollo 11 makes its historical landing – albeit with some complications.  From there on things get different, with the goal of all subsequent Apollo flights to find water on the moon to sustain the base.  In reaction to a female Soviet female cosmonaut making a lunar landing, Nixon orders a crash program to find and train suitable female U.S. astronauts.  The plot, which is tight, moves along briskly with enough moments that provide for suitable gasps and clenched teeth. It’s all very plausible stuff.

Moore and crew do an excellent job in blending fictional characters with well-developed story arcs with historical personalities. Some reviewers have complained about this at length and note many historical players appear to have been given short shrift. To my mind, they don’t seem to get it. This is first and foremost, a work of alternate history.  Historical figures such as Wernher von Braun, John Glenn, and Neil Armstrong are well represented. Actor Chris Bauer, for example, does a standout job portraying Deke Slayton, who in our history was one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts but due to heart problem, only flew much later on the Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975. As a space enthusiast, I commend Moore and his team for getting so many important details right.  

An N-1 booster shortly before
failure, June 27, 1972
An important question that many people who have watched the series are asking is when does the point of divergence from our history occur?  In our history, the Soviet N-1 booster which was to carry Leonov to the moon never made it off the pad, past a few disastrously short test flights, the last of which occurred in 1974.  Although the design process began in 1961, around the same time as JFK’s announcement to land a man on the moon and return him by the end of the decade, the N-1 project was plagued by poor funding and competing priorities. The project only seemed to gain any real impetus in 1964, by which time it was almost too late. Another problem was the fractured nature of Soviet space program which had multiple design bureaus competing against each other for scant funding and often not in best interests of the program. Finally, there was the health of Sergei Korolev, “Chief Designer” of the Soviet space program and chief backer of the moon program who died under routine surgery in 1966.

The only way I could see of Leonov getting to the moon is that the Soviet leadership took JFK seriously and funded Korolev’s N-1 project as far back as the U.S. President’s announcement. They would also have given Korolev total leadership on the project, so to rule out any competing visions. There is also the question of Korolev’s health, but we have a handy answer for that. Moore and the writers of For All Mankind have stated that in their history, Korolev survived the surgery and went on to work the kinks out of the N-1 in time to beat the Americans to the moon.

I highly recommend this series. This the new standard-bearer for alternate history on the small screen. This not only how the space race could’ve been, it’s how it should’ve been.  As of this writing, For All Mankind has been renewed for a second season.  Indeed, the post-credits scene in the season’s final episode ends things on a particularly triumphant note. I eagerly anticipate whatever direction the next season will take.  Mars, anyone?

What's Next?

It's been an eventful year-end around the old blog. I have a new job, for which I am exceedingly grateful for. I thank all of my readers for your continued support.

Next month I'll be reviewing the second book in S.M. Stirling’s alternate First World War series, Theater of Spies, which continues the adventures  of American super-spy Luz O’Malley Arostegui, and her companion, technical wizard Ciara Whelan. After that, I’ll be reviewing The British Lion, a novel of Britain under Nazi occupation, by Tony Schumacher. 

In the meantime, you can purchase Elvis Saves JFK! for just 99 cents and War Plan Crimson, A Novel of Alternate History, for $2.99 and now The Key to My Heart, also $2.99 (all are free to preview). All books -- which are already on Smashword's premium distribution list -- are also available through such fine on-line retailers such as Sony, Chapters Indigo, Barnes & Noble and Apple's iTunes Store.  Thanks.