Space Wars

For All Mankind Season 2 proves real-life Star Wars would actually suck

Weapons in space is an old sci-fi trope. But what if it was real?

AppleTV+

In 1984, one year after the release of Return of the Jedi, Star Wars was still so popular that several politicians and the media used the phrase to describe a burgeoning new military program.

Although the Strategic Defense Initiative (also known as the “Star Wars” program in unofficial circles ) never produced any tactical satellites, the idea was to use all kinds of spacey-sounding weapons — including lasers and particle beams — to thwart a potential nuclear attack. Thankfully, in the timeline we live in, this never actually happened, mostly because the technology simply didn’t exist. The cold war wasn’t pushed into space, even if Reagan tried to push it there.

But, in the alternate-timeline of the Apple TV+ sci-fi series For All Mankind, the idea of weapons on the Moon isn’t just speculative — it’s a very serious problem. And, unlike countless science fiction stories, For All Mankind Season 2 is doing what seemed impossible: for once, the thought of weapons in space doesn’t seem nifty in a pew-pew way. It’s just terrifying.

A shot from a forthcoming episode of For All Mankind Season 2.Apple TV+

SPOILERS ahead for the first half of Season 2. (And some of Season 1.)

From the moment that space travel became a real possibility, science fiction has brought war to the cosmos. From Robert Heinlen’s various novels of space conflict like Starship Troopers to the earliest exploits of Buck Rogers, substituting the battlefield on Earth for the stars is such a common sci-fi trope that we barely stop think about how nuts it is.

The umbrella term “space opera” is largely used to make excuses for all sorts of over-the-top battles in the stars, but when we walk this back and let go of our kneejerk love of blasters and ray guns, fighting in space would be scary as hell.

Part of the brilliance of For All Mankind is that in its first season, it barely seemed like science fiction. Set in an alternate history where the Russians beat the US to a moon landing in 1969, For All Mankind imagines a world where the United States developed a moonbase called Jamestown, fully operational in 1973. The USSR establishes its own moonbase shortly thereafter and in the Season 1 finale, one American astronaut — Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman) — briefly captures a Cosmonaut (Mark Ivanir) on the suspicion that the Soviets are spying on the American moonbase.

In Season 2, this suspicion is seemingly proven to be correct, albeit a decade later. Now, the show is taking place in an alternate 1983. Reagan’s “Star Wars” program has been advanced by about a year, and in this timeline, he’s been in office since 1976. (John Lennon is also alive in this version of 1983, and Prince Charles did not marry Diana.)

All of these timeline changes are executed deftly, and by the time you get to For All Mankind Season 2, you sometimes forget what you’re watching is historical alternate universe sci-fi. Unlike The Man in the High Castle, the changes to the timeline in For All Mankind still result in a world that is recognizable. So, when big stuff happens — like the brief threat of all-out nuclear war between the US and the USSR — you buy it.

In the world of For All Mankind, the NASA space program is simply more robust than it was in our timeline and the Jamestown base is the ultimate example of that progress. In Season 1, Apollo astronauts discover water in the Shackleton crater, which, in real life, is a place on the moon where water is suspected to exist. In this timeline though, that water and that area of the moon are strategically important enough that both the Soviet and US moonbases are located at the edge of the crater. It’s all classic brinksmanship stuff, but the one thing For All Mankind has not done is armed the astronauts or cosmonauts.

Until now.

Everybody is spying on everyone on the Moon.Apple TV+

In Episodes 3 and 4 of Season 2, the USSR takes control of a US mining site on the moon. This immediately prompts Reagan to tell NASA to “hold” the mining site. The slightly hawkish Baldwin and the somewhat peace-loving Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt) both agree with the President; they have to take back the mining site. But then, the other shoe drops — in order to do this they have to talk about giving astronauts guns.

For All Mankind shows how this would play out in real life: in a closed-door conversation at a government agency. The show hasn’t actually introduced astronauts toting space guns (yet), but the option is on the table, and in that single dialogue-heavy scene in Episode 3, featuring people who seem real, the notion of guns in space ceases to be fun. Instead, viewed through the lens of a policy decision made at the highest level, it feels scarily realistic. We haven’t even seen the space guns in Season 2, but the trailer tells us they’re coming.

In our timeline, the nations of Earth enjoy a few non-aggression pacts relative to outer space, and the moon in specific. The Artemis Accords is the most recent example. Although echoing the alternate ‘80s politics of For All Mankind, the Artemis Accords were publicly criticized by Dmitry Rogozin, who compared the treaty to the US vying for control of natural resources in the Middle East. For context, this all happened last year in real life. The difference is, right now, conversations about peace treaties on the moon are largely theoretical because nobody is actually living there.

But what happens when that changes?

With the notable exception of the new “Pathfinder” nuclear space shuttle, For All Mankind hasn’t introduced a ton of fake-technology. The ability for people to live and work on the Moon in large numbers isn’t a question of tech, but more of economics and politics. If the Cold War was still going on, and a bunch of people were living on the Moon, For All Mankind is saying quite clearly: it would get really dangerous, real fast.

For All Mankind Season 2 airs Fridays on Apple TV+.