Tuesday 10 December 2019

For All Mankind

There are several moments throughout Ronald D. Moore’s Battlestar Galactica reboot in which the crucial question that humanity faces is not how to survive, but if its conduct and choices make it worthy to continue on, if humanity should survive. The show often asked questions about how much we are willing to give up to save our own skins, what boundaries we are willing to cross for mere survival. In the course of surviving, humanity tortured enemies, committed atrocities, reversed reproductive rights, tore itself apart not just in its fight against a much stronger enemy, but in a struggle against itself. Back in the mid-2000s, it was the perfect mirror for what was happening in the world, but from the perspective of Ronald D. Moore’s newest show, For All Mankind, it is perhaps most useful to remember the nature of humanity’s exodus from its homeworlds: a catastrophic flaring up of a decades old conflict that had cooled down to a Cold War, a mutual waiting. It’s difficult to comprehend what the decades after the Second World War would have felt like to anyone born around or after the end of the Cold War, but the imagery of complete destruction that happens in BSG’s miniseries maybe encapsulates that greatest fear, the outcome if Mutually Assured Destruction should fail as a doctrine. It’s interesting that both Battlestar Galactica and the Star Trek show that Moore has worked on most consistently (and that maybe set the tone for BSG) both paint space travel not as a matter of exploratory spirit or the endless curiosity of humanity, as something that is based in scientific wonder, but as a necessity that more often than not leads to more catastrophe (in BSG, it doesn’t take more than a few episodes to get to the claustrophobia of 33, in Deep Space Nine, the Federation’s expansion collides with the colonising forces of an alien race, and our heroes are, for the most part, precariously stranded on an unmoving object right on the line between two civilisations). 
Alas, space exploration. For All Mankind begins with the first steps of humanity in space, with faces glued to television screens, with women and men who have worked tirelessly so that one of them may take that first step on the moon. Except in this version of reality, the first step is taken by a Russian cosmonaut, and the first words spoken on Earth’s satellite are in Russian. NASA has lost the race, which was never just about putting a man on the moon – the essential part of the mission statement was getting their first.
The first few episodes of For All Mankind (which is from the Apollo plaque that never made it onto the moon in this version of events) focus on what happens within an organisation that has catastrophically failed to successfully complete its primary mission. The astronauts (we focus here on pilots who may have gone up in a later mission, Joel Kinnaman’s Ed Baldwin and Michael Dorman’s Gordo Stevens) who are facing a future in which their country has to figure out where to go from this great defeat, the scientists and engineers working at NASA (among them, German migrant Wernher Von Braun, whose history as a Nazi collaborator will later cost him his position, and the trust of his protégé, Margo), the wives of the astronauts whose whole life is about following their husbands wherever they go. While NASA and the fledgling Nixon administration, looking for anything to distract from its president, struggle to find a new focus, the Russians do not rest on their laurels, and instead manage to meet another milestone: the first woman walks on the moon. 

It’s a turning point for NASA as well as the show, which up to then has threatened to be solely about thwarted male ambition and identity tethered to heroic acts. While Russia has sent a woman to the moon, NASA is still debating if Margo (Wrenn Schmidt) is capable of working on the floor of Mission Command. The sole previous attempt to recruit female pilots as astronauts has been a private one, and eventually failed. Nixon, desperate to distract the public from his scandals, decides that NASA’s mission is to send a woman to space – and one more photogenic than the Russian cosmonaut. 
This sexist mission statement, made exclusively for publicity and by a failing presidency, reveals the heart of the show. What if women had been trained to go to space in the 1970s? What if that great ambition to be part of the race for discovery had included women from the beginning? It is unclear still where and how far For All Mankind can go – how far would humanity have come in its travel into space if the Apollo programme had continued, if the Cold War had continued to be fought in the realm of space flight? And in all of this, the balance between discovery and scientific curiosity and the militarisation of space discovery is palpable, and dangerous. Early on, the President dreams of a military base on the moon. Early on, because a military base requires different kind of resources than occasional forays onto the moon do, ice is discovered on the moon – by the first American woman to walk on it, in a hazardous but glorious display of stubbornness, of making the right call between being cautionary and forging on. This moment comes after a harrowing period of time in which a group of highly trained and qualified female pilots undergo the vigorous training at NASA, a training that ends in disaster for one of them. These women compete with each other, and yet, the first sign of how this version of history may be qualitatively different from how ours has played out is when Gordo’s wife Tracy (Sarah Jones), who has been hand-picked by the President for the headlines about astronaut couples, decides to help Ellen (Jodi Balfour, from Bomb Girls) in an endurance exercise instead of pushing for a win. What if the future here is cooperation, not competition? In the end, the most qualified among them makes it to the moon, in defiance of the President’s command that she must be the most photogenic, and conventionally feminine. Sonya Walger’s Molly Cobb makes a great heroine. 

While political wars wage about the Equal Rights Amendment, while Ted Kennedy becomes President becomes the scandal that ended his ambitions never happened, each of these women – Margo, Ellen, Tracy, Danielle (Krys Marshall) face the sexism and limitations of their time, only to overcome it. Subtly, a different world emerges, even when good old boys complain about the changes, and the qualifications of female mission commanders are questioned over and over again. For All Mankind isn’t as much about national ambition as it paints a picture of progress driven both by individual ambition and a collective spirit of cooperation, which becomes absolutely necessary (for example, when Gordo, Ed and Danielle have to work and live together for over 100 days on the US’ first base on the moon, Jamestown). Progress here doesn’t happen because of a progressive country or a progressive presidency, it happens because of the stubbornness (and sometimes, morally questionable decisions, as with Margo’s advance at NASA). It happens in spite of bureaucratic barriers, like when Ellen, who has low-key been dating the bartender of the NSA dive bar ever since beginning her training finds out that she will have to marry her beard to get rid of an FBI-agent who encapsulates the rampant homophobia of the era. She gives up love for her career, and she gives up being herself, for being the first female mission commander. These are impossible choices, and yet, we hope they somehow lead to a better future, or at least a future where it becomes easier for a female astronaut to love another woman earlier than it has in our timeline. 

Beyond all of this, the marvel and horror of being on the moon, of living in what should be an uninhabitable environment. Where will this show go? Where will its youngest main character, curious Mexican immigrant Aleida (Olivia Trujillo), who dreams of the stars, be able to go in a few years? Or maybe that spectre of a Cold War threatening to become hot fought over resources in space looms too large for any of this to end well. 

2019-, created by Ronald D. Moore, Ben Nedivi, Matt Wolpert, starring Joel Kinnaman, Michael Dorman, Jodi Balfour, Wrenn Schmidt, Sarah Jones, Shantel VanSanten, Chris Bauer, Krys Marshall, Olivia Trujillo.

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