The Fascinating Perspective of Apple TV's "For All Mankind"

With Apple being the latest company to make a push towards expanding into streaming, a multitude of new series are being launched in the next few months on Apple TV+. One of them is "For all Mankind," a space-oriented alternate history that takes place in a world where the Russians were the first to land on the moon, which prompts a series of social changes in the U.S., including getting women to space first.

"Overall the show is kind of a split focus," says series creator Ronald D. Moore. "It's definitely about people on the ground and people in space. Some of the characters work at NASA at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. It's about them and their families and it's also about astronauts and their families. It's trying to paint a portrait of NASA as a whole."

Moore was approached by an Apple executive a few years ago who had the idea about doing a show focusing on NASA in the 1970s but Moore opted to take a different twist on the concept when moving forward with developing the show. "The more I thought about it, I realised that you could do that show, you could do 'Mad Men' at NASA but the story of NASA in the 1970s in my opinion is a sad one. The budgets keep getting cut back, the program keeps getting smaller, we're not going to Mars, things keep not happening. When I was growing up, I was excited by what the program was supposed to be, all the amazing things that were going to happen in space that didn't come to pass. I went back to [them] and said 'What if we did the alternate version? What if we did the version of the space program that I thought we were going to get but didn't?' [They] got excited by that and I was talking separately with Matt Wolpert and Ben Nedivi as a team of writers looking for some project to develop with them. I mentioned it to them, they got very excited about it."

Given how deeply the show is rooted in the development of space programs, space travel, and the various historical events surrounding it on a global scale, it was important to do extensive research to ensure that the plot could make sense as best as an alternate history can and also be accurate in regards to how space travel and the various programs to do with it work. Moore started with a base level of knowledge as a fan of space programs but had additional consultations to help fill in any other blanks.

"I was always a fan of the space program, read a lot of the books, and I just was always really interested in it. But then yes, we consulted with a lot of outside people. Garrett Reisman is one of our technical consultants, who was a former astronaut at NASA. We also have Mike and Denise Okuda who come from Star Trek but had also worked with NASA in various capacities. Beyond that, all the different departments on the show had their own technical consultants and researchers. We had a full-time researcher in the writer's room so there was a commitment to really getting as much authenticity into the show as possible."

Producer Maril Davis shared about the various themes that will be explored in the first season's writing. "We talk about the idea of what it means to go beyond where you are, relationships, inter-relationships between the husband and wife and what happens when the woman all of a sudden goes out in the workplace as well and what that means to a relationship. Obviously optimism, we always talk about, by losing the race to the moon we ultimately will win. That's a theme we look at quite a bit in this first season and then hopefully in seasons beyond."

"It's an aspirational show," adds Moore. "It's a very optimistic show. It's really about, 'Here's the path that could have been that we still can do.' It's really saying, this was an amazing time and we could have gone this route. We could have really expanded the footprints in space, we could have committed a lot of resources to something positive and uplifting to people in the United States and around the world and by implication we're saying that we still can. That's the general, big theme of the series."

Full interview with Ronald D. Moore and Maril Davis:

Wrenn Schmidt and Jodi Balfour play Margo Madison and Ellen Waverly respectively, both of whom are part of the team of women astronauts that are empowered by this alternate history for the trajectory of the U.S. efforts towards space travel and exploration.

"The most recent trailer places a lot of emphasis on women joining NASA," says Balfour. "That's certainly a huge part of the alternate history premise. We get to see in more detail why as the show goes on but if Russia put a man on the moon on the moon first, maybe America could put a woman on the moon first, to compete. That is one really wonderful aspect of [the show] but it's got a lot more going on. It's this amazing ensemble story where we get to fall in love and get to know ten or so characters that have wonderful, amazing individual storylines. We're looking at an America that's been changed by the fact that Russia swooped in and took something from America that America thought was theirs, that they thought they had in the bag, and what the ripple effect of that is. Does that necessarily mean that bad things happen because of that or perhaps could there be social progress that happens? Things like bringing women into NASA earlier happens, things like the first woman in mission control happens. Perhaps that dystopian future isn't necessarily go hand-in-hand with this alternate history premise. It's like a period show, more than anything else."

Schmidt explains that Margo Madison's journey through NASA isn't that far removed from any historical or contemporary story of a woman trying to work her way up through NASA. "When you first meet her, she's somebody who's in the back-up room who's supporting flight controllers that are assigned to very specific pieces of the mission. She would very much like to be sitting in one of those chairs. Even though she's maybe more qualified than some other people, she's just not being given that shot simply because she's a woman. I really don't think that varies all that much from our American history. That was before Title X. It was before people were really starting to understand that women were being pushed aside. I feel like it's kind of in line with that. There was an article in the New York Times last year about women learning to code early on and it was because men didn't want to do it, so women actually had opportunities to do it. I think there are a lot of parallels. It's a while before our story really diverges."

Schmidt was drawn to the project for the multi-faceted merits of the show. "It kind of has it all. There's one scene in the first episode which is one of my favorite scenes in the whole season. Margo's in that back-up room and she knows the answer to something and somebody outside is totally dropping the ball. If it was just okay for her to step in and say, 'This is what you need,' everything would be fine. She both can't do it and at the same time can't keep her mouth shut. Juggling those balls and then also trying to understand all of the technical language, and understand what part of the rocket she's talking about, what computer she's talking about, why it matters, for me that's like candy. As a nerd and an actor, I'm like, 'Oh look at all this stuff! I've got to figure out what this acronym means and what is this? Why is she talking about this?' It's just exciting!"

"The writing is also just so good," adds Balfour. "The scripts were so undeniably good when they came in. It's always fun as an actor, I think Wrenn and I have this in common, when you have to take a giant leap to be able to play that character. It demands research, it demands knowledge acquisition, it's nothing like the world she and I walk in day in and day out. The corny analogy is that we talk about walking in someone else's shoes and so much of that is acting, and when the shoes physically are from 1969 and everything that comes along with that it's such a rich experience to get to time-travel in a way."

With a stronger push than ever before for better material to be offered for women to play on screen, "For All Mankind" seems like a prime example of offering actresses a remarkable array of journey to play and consequently inspire the viewers to be more empowered within their own pursuits.

"It's hard not to love the notion that in fact, the fact that Russia gets to the moon first ends up aiding social progress, specifically in America and then that ripples out into the rest of the world," says Balfour. "Specifically for my character, we as women come into NASA more than a decade before women actually were first invited to join the astronaut program. That's one symbolic thing that is rippled out throughout the series. There are certain totems of social progress that happen sooner in our story because of this supposedly bad thing that happens. I just thought that was such an interesting way to look at it."

Full interview with Wrenn Schmidt and Jodi Balfour:

Michael Dorman and Sarah Jones play a married couple, Gordo Stevens and Tracy Stevens, who have the added dynamic in their relationship of being a couple in the public eye and under media scrutiny.

Dorman said yes to the project before he had even read scripts for it. "When we sat down to have a chat about it and they were talking about their projections of what the storylines were, I was really interested in the love between my character and Sarah's character playing out like a public relationship in the public eye, the pressure that that brings, the inequality in the household in terms of gender bias at home and then how that plays out in the time and sort of changing history in a sense as to what happened and when change was implemented in society. This one happened a lot earlier and it really excited me, that aspect, which is separate to space, which is a whole other thing."

"I got to read the first couple of episodes," says Stevens. "I actually had some concerns. In the first two episodes, I really appreciated that they take their time in setting up the atmosphere and what is going on in the world, at NASA, in politics, the whole thing. The character, Tracy's position, concerned me. After having conversations with Ron and company, I couldn't resist. Who can say no to Ron, honestly? He's the coolest. Ron was a big draw and his storytelling."

Dorman didn't know much about space travel and NASA before booking the job. "I realised the more that I learned, the more that I don't know. It kind of freaked me out. We're asking questions... what is out there? It's so big! The more that I got to peek behind the curtain into NASA and the space program, the minds that came together to create what they did at the time is phenomenal. The courage, the bravery of these guys, these space cowboys that went up there is wild. They just strapped themselves to a rocket, go into the unknown not knowing what's gonna happen, or if they're gonna come back, saying goodbye to your loved ones and going, 'Hey this might be the last time we every speak. I've written a little letter which is in the drawer. If anything happens, go and open up the drawer and read the letter.' I don't understand. They're doing it willingly. 'Yep, I'll do it, sign me up!' It's crazy what they had to do."

"We had an astronaut as a technical consultant, Garrett Reisman," adds Jones. "The connection of how super human they are... they are super humans. They're not just physically super human, they are intellectually super human, emotionally super human, they're just super humans. I don't know if that's because our generation grew up when... I grew up in Florida where we would get to go get out of our class to watch a launch. That would be the perk is getting out of school work as opposed to the actual [launch]. Getting into this world and meeting with Garrett, having the opportunity to speak with him and learn more about astronauts just blew my mind and what they did with what they had."

Full interview with Michael Dorman and Sarah Jones:

Shantel VanSanten is quick to share about how she only had a few days after being cast as Karen Baldwin before having to begin filming scenes for the show. "What drew me to it initially was that Ron Moore was writing and producing, and Apple. Knowing those two forces, that was a no-brainer. But more than that, the material was phenomenal. I booked it on a Friday and I started on a Monday. I said it was like cramming for an SAT of historical events and deciding character. What a whirlwind! It was kind of great though because I felt like I didn't quite have a grasp on who Karen was and what I was even doing and what was happening. Where we start off the story, that's exactly where she was so I got really lucky! I could use all of that in the role of playing an astronaut's wife, which is yes, if you have to label it, what she is, it's so much more than that. There's no stability or certainty so I just tried to use every bit of the whirlwind and infuse that into beginning a project of this magnitude that I still don't think I've grasped and understood."

VanSanten is playing the wife to Joel Kinnaman's character, with whom she acted with throughout the first season. "Joel Kinnaman plays Edward Baldwin. He's an astronaut. Their characters are loosely based on different stories but no particular person. I always say that in the beginning you think of Edward and Karen as these marble statue, like perfection, the typical astronaut, the typical wife, and slowly as the story unfolds and as Ron so beautifully crafts emotional heartbreaking things we see the cracks and we see things start to crumble and eventually shatter, and the challenges. I don't even think I understood what being an astronaut's wife is. I think we all have assumptions, and especially for women in that day and age, we make a lot of assumptions but some of them have found such reward in doing that job. Me as a modern woman, I didn't understand it at first with Karen. I didn't like it because it's not something I relate to, not something I typically want. That was such a wonderful challenge to take on, was finding ways to accept and like and empathise even."

Full interview with Shantel VanSanten:

The most notable absence from the "For All Mankind" press session at New York Comic Con is Joel Kinnaman, who has top billing on the series. Executive producers/co-creators Matt Wolpert and Ben Nedivi are gracious enough to offer an insight into Kinnaman's casting and character.

"Joel, casting him was really one of the highlights of this process," says Nedivi. "He's one of these actors that, I don't know, there's something different about him. Yes, he's beautiful, but I do think he's also got a charisma and sort of this dark side to him too that we wanted to embrace with this character. This was a really difficult character to cast. It took months and the moment he became available we just pounced and went after him. His excitement for the show as you'll see soon, is palpable. It really did encourage us and help with our whole cast, our whole ensemble. There's a lot of actors on this show and to have a guy like that be able to embrace the idea of an ensemble helped with everything. He's great."

"His character really embodies that sort of prototypical astronaut of that era," adds Wolpert. "This sort of masculine, aviator sunglasses, drives a fast Corvette... but a historical detail we discovered as we were developing the show helped us reframe him. We discovered that the Apollo 10 mission, which was basically a dress rehearsal for the Apollo 11, it got almost all the way to the moon and they just didn't land. They just circled and came back. We thought, well if the Russians had beaten us to the moon, what would the feelings be about that crew that had almost done it and if they had been able to go for it... Joel is the commander of that mission. The sense of regret, the what-if of his character really drove the presence of the show."

Full interview with Matt Wolpert and Ben Nedivi:

"For All Mankind" premieres November 1 on Apple TV+.


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