Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek offered a glimpse at an optimistic future where humanity came together to take to the stars in the name of exploration and discovery. As time has gone on, however, the beloved sci-fi series has moved further and further from Roddenberry’s idealistic vision.
It’s curious then that For All Mankind, a series set not just in the future but during the days of the Cold War – and in an alternate timeline to boot – seems to be taking up the abdicated mantle of the most optimistic science fiction TV series. In case you’ve somehow missed it, For All Mankind tells the story of Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman), a NASA astronaut living on a world similar to our own but also radically different.
In Ed’s timeline, the space race played out very differently, with the Soviet Union beating the Americans to the Moon. This galvanised the two superpowers and made space the newest front in the Cold War. The first season dealt with NASA trying to establish the first settlement on the Moon. Meanwhile, the second saw tensions rise between the US and Soviets – culminating in a historic meeting of cosmonauts and astronauts that helped avert nuclear disaster.
That superficial description may make it sound like For All Mankind is set in a chaotic dystopia where the Cold War escalated to the point that humanity was fighting wars on the Moon. But as the show moves out of the ’80s and into the ’90s, as well as its third season, things have started to change.
The show makes clear that the escalating space race has led to new, clean energy technologies, space travel far in advance of what we’re capable of, and, best of all, a coming together of different people – just like in the future Roddenberry envisioned.
Ahead of the For All Mankind season 3 debut on June 10, we spoke to several cast members about the future presented by the show and asked them how they felt about the comparison with arguably the best sci-fi series of all time.
“From the very beginning, Ron Moore (one of the show’s creators) wanted it to have this aspirational feel,” said Shantel VanSanten, who plays Karen Baldwin, Ed’s ex-wife. “Now, that doesn’t mean that everything goes as planned. There is a reality within it. But I think there’s more of an awareness of civil issues, women’s rights and diversity. In many ways, it’s quite a few steps ahead from where we find ourselves today, even as the show is set in the 90s.”
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While VanShanten played down the notion that the show’s set in some sort of utopia or in any way preachy – an accusation sometimes levelled at Trek – she was clear in her hopes that people walk away from season 3 seeing that “progress is a huge possibility”.
That sense that tomorrow can be better than today and that despite our differences, we’re at our best when we work together is, of course, central to Star Trek, but it’s also a subtle theme that runs through the course of For All Mankind.
When we pointed out this clear link between Trek and For All Mankind to VanSanten, she was delighted, admitting she often gets so wrapped up in her character Karen that she doesn’t see the similarities between the show.
“That’s a very beautiful comparison. Thank you so much. I think we do feature a humaneness,” she said. “Even with a character like Karen, we’re not afraid to make choices that people are uncomfortable watching, or that are difficult to see… But the one thing is it’s always redemptive. There’s always a way through where you learn, grow, and you’re able to take that and build something better. I think that there’s a real resilience to the human story. And that, for me, has always been inspirational and aspirational.”
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While VanShanten was pleased by the comparison between the two shows, her onscreen ex Kinnaman took things a little further, saying For All Mankind could be a very unsanctioned prequel to the Star Trek we know and love. “Yeah, I think [the comparison is] really accurate”, Kinnaman said. “I think that there will be a very unofficial handover from where we are [in For All Mankind] to a kind of Star Trek-style future.”
We suspectKinnaman was probably being a little tongue in cheek, further confirmed when he laughed at us asking if he just wants Ed to be the next Captain kirk. However, he thinks that the two series fundamentally share a common optimism for the future. “I think our show is inherently optimistic,” he said. “You know, it’s not perfect, but definitely optimistic. I think For All Mankind’s future is one that I would definitely like to live in.”
Even Wrenn Schmidt, who plays one of For All Mankind’s more down to Earth characters, NASA engineer Margo Madison, agrees that despite the show exploring a version of history where the West ‘lost’, it drives humanity on to bigger and better things.
“I think the excitement of discovery and seeing how far humans can go is inherently optimistic,” Schmidt said. “There’s so much science in season three, and in all of our seasons, that it’s hard to kind of drill down to one thing in particular, but I do think [the science explored] in the show especially is optimistic.
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Ultimately, though, the thing that makes For All Mankind such a strong show is its humanist spirit. The show is fundamentally about people reaching their full potential and although they may stumble (or make it to the Moon second), For All Mankind’s central thesis is that it’s in coming together – be that as individuals or nations – that we can achieve miracles. We think that’s a message Roddenberry could have got behind.
For All Mankind season 3 airs weekly on Apple TV Plus from June 10.