New Star Wars, new Star Trek, Russian Doll, Severance—these days sci-fi fans face an embarrassment of riches. On Friday, they will get even more with the return of For All Mankind, the ambitious, surprisingly effective alternate history series from Apple TV+ that also happens to be one of the greatest science fiction shows of the modern TV era.
Now in its third season, For All Mankind started with a simple question: What if the Americans weren’t first to put a man on the moon? From that premise, though, it has built something far more complex: a show that combines political intrigue, military brinkmanship (aka a lunar standoff between American and Russian forces), and a space race that eventually lands on the surface of Mars.
But as much as the show, unsurprisingly cocreated by Battlestar Galactica and Trek producer Ronald D. Moore, can get wonky and gleefully trope-y, its success doesn’t lie in the verisimilitude of the faux NASA hardware or brilliance of its space scenes. Instead, it’s the fact that Moore and his cohort opted to treat the entire show like a grand workplace drama; Mad Men, but for NASA.
Not that For All Mankind wants for action—the rocket misfire and subsequent rescue of Apollo 24 at the end of the first season is everything good about Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity and then some—it just doesn’t make that the main attraction. It doesn’t hide lousy writing under a veneer of VFX. Instead, like Mad Men was a commentary on the con of the American dream disguised as 1960s nostalgia porn, Mankind examines human exceptionalism through the lens of human failures.
True, redefining the boundaries of the final frontier is much different than running an advertising agency, but the parallels remain. Matthew Weiner’s AMC show excelled because it demonstrated that the people controlling the narrative of the ideal mid-century American life—ad execs—were complicated, messy. Their visions, hollow. Mankind does the same, showing that those entrusted with humanity’s hopes for a better life often struggle to simply improve their own.
These issues with romantic relationships, professional boundaries, and personal morals make the fantastical, science fiction stuff all the more poignant. It’s one thing to watch someone find ice on the moon for the first time, but it’s another to watch someone it feels as if you know do it. (And when she’s being assisted by another television friend, all the better, especially when they don’t necessarily get along and you get to enjoy the ensuing fireworks.)
For All Mankind does what the best science fiction has always done: humanize all the abstract ideas that serve as the genre’s foundation. It makes arguments for why space exploration is important and for the impact it can have here on Earth, but it does so through a prism of the familiar. For All Mankind’s victory is transforming the science fiction genre into, as Star Trek once famously put it, a human adventure.