‘For All Mankind’ Episode 1 review: ‘Red Moon’ and lofty alt-history goals

Apple TV+ poster For All Mankind

For All Mankind is an alternate-history drama, envisioning a world where the Russians are able to reach the Moon before the United States of America space program. It’s all about hope and lofty aspirations, but can the Apple TV+ drama reach its own goals?

For All Mankind stars a lot of people. That includes Joel Kinnaman (The Killing) as Ed Baldwin, Michael Dorman (Daybreakers) as Gordon Stevens, Wrenn Schmidt (Reservation) as Margo Madison, Sarah Jones (The Path) as Tracy Stevens, and Shantel VanSanten (The Boys) as Karen Baldwin. It’s a show that shines a light on the astronauts, engineers, and their families as the U.S. expands its sights on the stars as the global space race never came to an end.

It doesn’t take long to see that For All Mankind is well made. The production levels are top-tier, which should be expected as Apple doesn’t appear to be holding back in this regard for any one of its shows. It might not be as grandiose as something like See, or weird as Dickinson, but this isn’t meant to be.

This is a drama about hope, at its core, how events can change the whole world and its people. The series starts with the whole world essentially watching a video broadcast of the first person setting foot on the Moon. But it’s not Neil Armstrong, but rather a Russian cosmonaut. “Red Moon” shows the Russian flag being planted on the celestial body, and the “I take this step for my country, for my people, and for the Marxist/ Leninist way of life. Knowing that today is but one small step on a journey that someday will take us all to the stars,” spoken by the cosmonaut who takes the first step on the moon, is a stark departure from the “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” spoken by Armstrong in our timeline.

It might be easy to say it’s all overly-dramatic right out of the gate, but I think that would be a bit unfair. It’s definitely serious, but it fits in line with the events taking place. It shows a series of “almost moments” that the United States space program has had over the years, not just missing the first man on the moon, and how they try to recover from that.

As a result, the U.S. space program is seen as the underdog and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The first episode tries to rely on that hope, but what it really comes down to is competitiveness. A drive to be “first” in something meaningful that will last through the sages. To stop being beaten by “the other guy”.

The first episode drives that home. Fortunately it does it with worthwhile dialogue and strong performances across the board. Kinnaman especially stands out as Baldwin, a man who was so close to landing on the moon in an Apollo 10 capsule but “that wasn’t his mission”. Kinnaman makes it absolutely believable that he’s had something important, something vital, taken away from him.

The same can be said for Dorman and Schmidt and VanSanten. Really, everyone here is putting in the work, and, thankfully, the script isn’t holding them back. There’s enough emotion here to make it all worth watching.

The show’s production costs and real interesting bits come from the in-suit parts. It is all very nice to look at in all the right ways.

All you can really ask for from a first episode of a series is something to hold on to, something to propel you into the rest of the season. For All Mankind does that, as far as I’m concerned. Seeing the global space race from this alternative history is interesting by default, but the script and the characters and the actors give more to it all, just as it should.

How the rest of the series will turn out, with the “beat the other guy” mentality through each episode, remains to be seen. But while it can feel somewhat over-dramatic in parts, those elements are brief and the rest of the show holds its own.

Plus, you can’t take anything away from the pretty amazing way that the first episode ends.

On the other side of the coin there is an immigrant story that is playing mostly in the background, that, admittedly, feels a little out of place. At the same time it’s obvious this is going to play a big role at some point down the road, in subsequent episodes. At first blush, though, it does feel sort of random.

Here’s to hoping it stays that way.