For All Mankind reminds us that little changes can have big consequences

A Soviet rocket scientist survives an operation in 1966, and by 1992 a woman is poised to become the U.S. president

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At the start of Season Three of the AppleTV+ science fiction series For All Mankind, Gary Hart is finishing his second term as president of the United States. There’s a hotel in low Earth orbit, about to welcome its first guests. NASA and the Soviet Union are each prepping for a first manned mission to Mars. Electric cars are growing ever more popular.

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The year is 1992.

Counterfactual histories are fascinating to fathom. What if the Second World War had turned out differently, or the First World War had never even been fought? For All Mankind kicked off Season One with the Soviets beating the Americans to the moon in the summer of 1969. And all it took was one man not dying.

It’s widely assumed that U.S. president John F. Kennedy’s speech at Rice University in September 1962 (“We choose to go to the moon!”) galvanized his nation’s efforts to reach our natural satellite before 1970. But half a world away, the death of Sergei Korolev, father of the Soviet space program, after a fairly routine operation in 1966 may have scuttled the Russians’ chances of getting there first, or indeed at all.

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The creators of For All Mankind started with the idea that Korolev remained alive to guide the Soviet push to the moon. In the aftermath of America’s second-place finish, Senator Ted Kennedy heads up an investigation into what went wrong. The car crash on Chappaquiddick Island that year that killed Mary Jo Kopechne never happens. Kennedy defeats Richard Nixon in ’72. By Season Three, former astronaut Ellen Wilson (Jodi Balfour) is running for president against Bill Clinton.

Make no mistake, For All Mankind is an excellently plotted show, with memorable characters and strong writing. But it can be fun to watch it just to see the weird differences between our timeline and theirs, the ways in which fictional 1992 has jumped ahead, and the ways it hasn’t.

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Chief among them is social change for the better. After the Soviets put not just a man but a woman on the moon, NASA doubles down on training female and multiracial astronauts. The Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution is ratified in 1974, and Black astronaut Danielle Poole (Krys Marshall) becomes one of NASA’s top flyers. In Season Three, she’ll be one of the candidates to command the first mission to the red planet.

In the area of gay rights, however, For All Mankind’s 1992 seems about on par with our own. Presidential hopeful Wilson has been in the closet since the ’70s, going so far as to marry a fellow NASA employee (Nate Corddry) to allay suspicions. I don’t know how Season Three plays out but I wouldn’t be surprised to have her orientation become a political liability.

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Jodi Balfour as Texas Senator and U.S. presidential hopeful Ellen Wilson in For All Mankind.
Jodi Balfour as Texas Senator and U.S. presidential hopeful Ellen Wilson in For All Mankind. Photo by AppleTV+

The show is also adept at tossing oddments of historical change into the background. Prince Charles married Camilla Parker Bowles, and not Diana Spencer, in 1981. Pope John Paul II and Margaret Thatcher have been assassinated. John Lennon has not, and remains a vocal advocate for peace amid a Cold War that lasts into the 1990s. (Also, there’s a Beatles reunion tour in 1987; imagine!)

Then there’s technology, which has leaped ahead in many respects but not all. Video calls and email (referred to as d-mail, short for digital mail) are already commonplace, but look at the scene in the first episode of Season Three, in which NASA chief Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt) goes to make clandestine contact with a friend in the Soviet space agency.

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Her cover is that she’s going to pick up a new LP from a record store, but she ducks into a phone booth to make a call. And when she gets out of her car she carefully engages the physical door-lock button. Plus, the car itself has the boxy look of the early ’90s, and the characters’ fashions are similarly dated. Some things never change, while others change at their own pace.

For All Mankind is, of course, entertainment, but it can remind us that we are living through our own kind of counterfactual timeline. Before COVID-19 hit, the world was on one path. After March 2020, it was on another one entirely. Pollution fell. Venice’s canals ran clear as tourism all but vanished. Zoom calls became commonplace. Computer chips became scarce.

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Personal lives changed, as well. Some couples broke up from the strain of living through lockdown together. Others found their relationships strengthened. Air travel, which had been growing at between four per cent and eight per cent for the last decade, dropped by more than two thirds overnight. Hours spent driving went down, but traffic fatalities increased, possibly because emptier roads made risky driving easier.

Strange to say, but even aside from COVID deaths, there are people today who are dead – or still alive – because of the pandemic. Sometimes one tiny change, even at the microscopic level, can have wide-ranging, unforeseen consequences.

For All Mankind is available on AppleTV+, with Season Three having begun on June 10, and new episodes released weekly.


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