For All Mankind’s Version of 2003 Is The Timeline We Wish We Were Living In
Ahead of Season 4, Inverse talks to creators of Apple’s breakout epic about telling a sci-fi story set in an alternate version of the 21st century.
Debates about science fiction often have to do with how the stories make us feel. For a genre supposedly all about speculation, the greatest sci-fi always seems to carry some kind of a message, and when that happens, people want to know what’s the good, what’s the bad, and what themes can help us with our own lives. As a result, sci-fi sometimes gets unfairly grouped into two categories: optimistic or dystopian.
But it’s not really that simple. The most so-called optimistic science fiction often has some of the darkest storylines, while supposedly dystopian stories can create great beauty. So sci-fi is not all one way, and the best of the genre usually walks a line of emotional realism. One contemporary show that gets that balance better than most is For All Mankind.
Returning for its fourth season on Nov. 10, For All Mankind isn’t a prestige drama driven by mystery box storylines or unflinching grittiness for the sake of unflinching grittiness. It’s also not a puzzle show nor is it lighthearted. But it is complex, and in that complexity, there seems to be a fair amount of things that might lead you to call the show optimistic after all. But is the alternate timeline of For All Mankind a better one?
“The show starts from a very optimistic point of view,” series creator Ronald D. Moore tells Inverse. “It says we can have a better future, that if we had gone out into space more aggressively and been more inclusive and really tried to do things ‘for all mankind,’ we could live in a better world today, and by implication, we could still do those things. We can still have that better world.”
The butterfly effect that began in 1969 with the USSR beating the USA to the Moon results in all sorts of surprising and progressive changes. Women and people of color are in space a full decade earlier, in the 1970s, technology throttles forward, and renewable energy is a fact of life by the 1990s. By Season 4, set in an alternate 2003, the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001 never happened, and spaceflight technology is more advanced than what even exists in the real 2023.
Designing a retro-future past
By For All Mankind Season 4, the show literally looks different than it did in previous seasons since, at this point, it’s no longer a kind of period piece.
“We’ve moved beyond our historical foundation,” costume designer Esther Marquis explains. “So it’s a careful selection process as to how you depict that.”
Marquis gives the example of the various spacesuits seen in Season 3 and Season 4, which are illustrative of the retro-future anachronistic tap-dance the show has to achieve to maintain its visual realism.
“We are designing it in a sort of future past mode where it still had to fit into the viability of a 2003 context,” Marquis says. “But yet we’ve never been to Mars and we haven’t ever seen a Mars suit. I tried to use the historical foundation to rein me in a little bit so I didn’t overstep and turn our Season 4 spacesuit into something that was way too futuristic.”
Essentially, just because the show sometimes depicts a better, healthier world, that doesn’t mean everything will look conventionally cooler. Realism is still the name of the game.
For NASA technical adviser on For All Mankind Garrett Reisman, the more science fiction-y setting of the newer seasons makes his job “a lot harder.” Speaking to Inverse about what made this season harder, Reisman says, “When we still had a historical perspective in Seasons 1 and 2, I could answer questions in real-time and be confident that I was giving the correct answer. When we get to Season 3 and now Season 4, we’re so far beyond what we’ve done in reality that a lot of times I find myself saying, ‘You know what? I have to get back to you.’”
So, a series that began with the realism and historical facts of the Apollo programs has now evolved into all kinds of spaceflight things that have never existed and certainly didn’t exist in an alternate 1993 or 2003. But the point of the show is, for the most part, all of this could have happened.
“We’re utilizing Garrett’s advice everywhere we go,” says production designer Seth Reed. “Some things haven’t caught up yet, and we’re back in 2003, but because it’s an alternate history some things have pushed ahead. It’s a big mix. But it’s a lot of research and a lot of collaboration that makes it happen.”
A complex, nuanced timeline
While it’s tempting to say that the collaborative, upbeat process behind the scenes mirrors exactly the action on the show, this is still fiction. There has to be conflict and tension. Things have to go wrong. For All Mankind is a realistic space drama, but it is still drama, not a commercial for NASA. This often gets reflected in the show’s very human characters.
“It’s the good and bad in everyone,” says executive producer Maril Davis. “I think as we’ve gone, we’ve shown there has to be some bad in order for there to be good. All our characters have both sides of that coin.”
What Davis means is that our heroes aren’t always perfect. From Season 1 to Season 3, we’ve seen all the recurring characters make questionable decisions. So, clearly, this alternate timeline has its share of troubles, too.
And yet, For All Mankind also depicts things that are still out of reach in our time. In Season 3, Ellen Wilson (Jodi Balfour) comes out as the first openly gay president — and a Republican president at that! Destruction on the Moon is avoided in Season 2, and in Season 3, despite tragedy and conflict, the United States, the USSR, Helios, and North Korea barter a kind of peace on Mars.
Creator Ronald D. Moore famously wrote for Star Trek and is responsible for some of that series’ best-loved installments, including huge chunks of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and the beloved film First Contact. He also steered the acclaimed Battlestar Galactica reboot from 2003 to 2009. So he knows a thing or two about how to depict darkness and light in equal measure in popular science fiction.
For those still sleeping on For All Mankind, looking at Ron Moore’s previous sci-fi cred might be a good way to think about the show. It has the optimism of Star Trek, tempered with some of the realism of Battlestar, but set in a world that resembles real life.
“We’re still human beings and we still take a lot of our baggage out into space,” Moore says. “And I think the show wants to not pretend that it’s an easy road to travel and that the will be setbacks and there will be cost. We still are people who are flawed and do terrible things periodically, but it doesn’t mean we can’t rise above that.”