DirectorProduced by Ronald D. Moore, Matt Wolpert, and Ben Nedivi
Release Date(s)2019 (November 14, 2023)
Studio(s)Tall Ship Productions/Sony Pictures Television/Apple TV+ (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: N/A
What if the Russians had beaten America to the Moon?
Film and TV science fiction, much though I love the genre, has a long and well-established history of being a downer. Think of its greatest exemplars: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, The Matrix, Battlestar Galactica. All are essentially stories of technology gone wrong in one form or another. Meanwhile, Star Trek’s appeal has long endured for the simple reason that it offers a decidedly more positive take on the future. But even this venerable franchise has—in recent years—seemed a rather grim affair. Enter Apple TV’s For All Mankind.
The idea for the series originated in a conversation between Sony Pictures Television co-president Zack Van Amburg and producer Ronald D. Moore (Galactica, Star Trek: The Next Generation). Having worked together on Outlander, the pair would occasionally talk to brainstorm other projects, one of which was a Mad Men-style drama set at NASA in the early 1970s. Nothing came of the concept until Van Amburg (and fellow co-president Jamie Erlicht) left Sony in 2019 to help launch Apple TV+, at which point Moore was called to put the idea back into play.
But upon reflection, Moore realized that the concept had a flaw: After America won the race to the Moon in 1969, NASA’s budget and ambitions in space declined sharply. So what if the show was instead an alternate history? What might have happened, Moore wondered, if the Soviets had reached the Moon first, landing not only the first man but also (a few weeks later) the first woman on the Moon? The answer, he realized, is that America might have doubled down, not only continuing the Apollo program but increasing NASA’s funding—and adding women and minorities to its ranks much earlier—in a new race to build the first moonbase and eventually to beat the Russians to Mars. And that is where For All Mankind begins.
Now, you might have heard some claim that For All Mankind is more soap opera than science fiction. That’s because—initially—it really does start as a Mad Men-style period drama set at NASA. But the genius of this concept is that with each new episode, history as we know it begins to play out differently, first in subtle ways and eventually in major ones. What’s more, each new season leaps ahead a decade—Season Two is set during the Shuttle era of the 1980s, Season Three takes place in the 1990s, etc. With each leap, the changes in both the space program and society at large happen faster and earlier than we experienced in our actual history, so the science fiction premise becomes more apparent. What you realize, the more you watch, is that Moore’s goal—as well as that of co-creators Matt Wolpert and Ben Nedivi (Fargo, American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson, The Umbrella Academy)—is to take viewers on a journey to a future that should eventually look an awful lot like Star Trek.
If that’s not enough to intrigue you, consider that Moore has staffed the show with a who’s who of Berman-era Trek and Galactica production veterans, including David Weddle, Bradley Thompson, Maril Davis, Joe Menosky, Naren Shankar, and Michael and Denise Okuda. NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman even serves as a technical consultant on the show (and many other NASA experts provide unofficial support) to ensure the series’ fidelity to both real and ‘roads-not-taken’ spaceflight technology. And boy, does For All Mankind get those details right! Let me give you an example…
When Ron Howard’s team recreated NASA’s Mission Control for Apollo 13, they naturally included the various mission patches that hung on its walls... except they unwittingly copied the souvenir patch designs, some of which were very different than the actual flight patches the astronauts wore on Gemini and Apollo. (I know this because I have a framed set of the originals hanging on my office wall.) But For All Mankind not only gets those patches right, the art department even modified some of them to include the names of the series’ astronaut characters.
The show features a number of fictional astronauts and engineers—Ed Baldwin, “Gordo” Stevens, Margo Madison, Molly Cobb, Danielle Poole, etc—working alongside real historical figures like Neil Armstrong, “Buzz” Aldrin, Deke Slayton, Gene Kranz, Thomas Paine, and Wernher von Braun. This blending is part of what makes the drama so effective. Another minor detail that tickled my fancy: During the course of Season One, a trio of astronauts find themselves stuck on NASA’s moonbase with little to do but watch reruns of The Bob Newhart Show on Betamax… because in this reality, Sony actually won the format war over VHS!
But it’s the writing and acting that really makes For All Mankind shine. Season One begins with the world watching the first human being walking on the Moon—Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov—then tracks the impact of that event on each of its characters. We really get to know these people—their hopes, their fears, their struggles—and no character or subplot is left undeveloped. As the drama advances, and new historical events happen, or happen in different ways, each of these characters plays a key role in the overall ensemble. The cast includes Joel Kinnaman (The Suicide Squad), Michael Dorman (Joe Pickett), Sarah Jones (Alcatraz), Shantel VanSanten (The Boys), Wrenn Schmidt, Colm Feore, Chris Bauer, Eric Ladin, and many others, some of whom will be familiar to you, but all of whom are fantastic. Not only do their performances keep getting better and better, the season ends on a genuine high note. (The final episode also includes a post-credits teaser scene for Season Two, so be sure to watch for it.)
A co-production of Sony Pictures Television and Apple TV, For All Mankind is captured digitally using Sony Venice cameras and is finished in native 4K at the 2.00:1 widescreen aspect ratio. It then appears on Apple TV+ in full 4K with Dolby Vision HDR and Dolby Atmos audio. Sadly, the series is not yet available on disc in 4K, but you can finally purchase it on Region A Blu-ray here in the States. (Note that Dazzler Media released a Region B Blu-ray of Season One in the UK back in May, and have already released Season Two and Three as well—those should follow here in the States from Sony next year.) And I’m pleased to tell you that the show looks fantastic on disc in 1080p HD. The season’s ten episodes are spread across four BD-50 discs, so they have plenty of room to breathe, with video data rates that average 25-35 Mbps (and brighter scenes push the upper limit of that range). Colors are accurate, contrast is as pleasing as it gets for this format, and image detail is crisp and clean, with lovely refined texturing. The episodes also appear to be uncut and uncensored from their streaming versions.
Lossless audio is included in English 5.1 only in DTS-HD Master Audio format. The soundstage is nicely wide up front, with clear dialogue and lightly-immersive use of the surround channels for environmental sound effects and especially music, which includes not only composer Jeff Russo’s score, but also a host of period songs from the likes of David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Petula Clark, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Association, The Grateful Dead, Frank Sinatra, Janis Joplan, Chuck Berry, America, Louis Armstrong, The Guess Who, Tears for Fears, and more. Bass is modest but pleasing throughout. Subtitle options on the Sony Blu-rays include English, English for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, French, and Spanish. (This is in contrast to Dazzler’s UK Blu-ray, which included English SDH only.)
Here’s a breakdown of the episodes included on each disc:
- Red Moon (HD – 65:14)
- He Built the Saturn V (HD – 62:02)
- Nixon’s Women (HD – 62:13)
- Prime Crew (HD – 61:48)
- Into the Abyss (HD – 59:38)
- Home Again (HD – 60:08)
- Hi Bob (HD – 59:36)
- Rupture (HD – 57:52)
- Bent Bird (HD – 48:06)
- A City Upon a Hill (HD – 76:05)
One knock on this release is that there are no extras. (This was also true of the Dazzler edition.) That’s probably not surprising, as most of the features created for the show are likely exclusive to Apple TV+. But the lack of features does at least allow for 100% of the discs’ real estate to be used for the picture and sound. And the cover art is once again a generic Photoshop mash-up that has little resemblance to the series’ actual marketing imagery. When I asked about this, Sony was reluctant to discuss the topic, so I suspect it was something that Apple mandated. The result is that instead of the show’s actual logo—which uses a variation of the iconic NASA ‘worm’ font—this set uses a Star Trek-like font instead. And the artwork itself is... well... not great. It looks like something an AI image generator might produce, or that you’d find on a bootleg release. Still, I’m just thrilled to have these episodes on any physical disc format at all. (And I too have Photoshop and a color printer to rectify this issue.) Note that the cover insert has a reverse side that includes a list and synopsis of all the episodes. There’s also a cardboard slipcover, but it fits so tightly that I can only presume there’s been some kind of manufacturing error. (But it’s the fugly artwork anyway, so I’m tempted just to throw it away.)
The cover art and packaging issues aside, however, the bottom line is this: For All Mankind is a great television series that only gets better with each episode. It’s smart, surprising, gripping, and deeply moving—an alternate history story that begins as a competent period drama and gradually becomes pretty fantastic science fiction too. Think of it as the series that Star Trek: Enterprise aspired to be. It’s also, quite literally, a series I’ve personally been waiting my entire life to see, one that depicts spaceflight with impeccable accuracy, while offering a strongly-optimistic vision of the future. (Fans of Apollo 13, First Man, and From the Earth to the Moon should feel right at home here.) Trust me when I say that For All Mankind is worthy of your time and attention, and I simply cannot recommend the series more highly. I certainly hope it arrives on physical 4K Ultra HD at some point too. But if you love the series as much as I do, this Blu-ray release is welcome indeed in the meantime.
- Bill Hunt