Monday 12 February 2024

For All Mankind, Season 4 | review by Stephen Theaker

Season 4 of For All Mankind, Apple's big-budget alternate-history science fiction show, jumps forward eight years. In their world, Stanley Kubrick finished AI: Artificial Intelligence himself, John Lennon played the Superbowl half-time show, and the USA got its first lesbian president. In 1995, humans had barely a toehold on Mars and a bomb had devastated NASA's command centre. In 2003, the multi-national Mars colony is well-established and the next stop planned is asteroid mining. After an early attempt ends in disaster, it takes a particularly valuable prize to get things going again.

Though we barely see Jodi Balfour as President Waverley in this season (Al Gore now being President), and many other major characters have died or retired along the way, there are some survivors from the late 1960s. Astronaut Ed Baldwin is a cranky old man now; hardly a surprise since he was such a cranky young man. Joel Kinnamon's performance conveys the character's age better than his rather dusty make-up. He doesn't want to leave Mars, especially with his daughter and grandson on the way there. He's not happy when old friend Danielle Poole (Krys Marshall) is sent from Earth to become his boss. Her instinct was to decline the job, but she returns to service out of duty.

Although the Cold War was in theory over, partly thanks to the international co-operation seen in previous seasons, Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt, whose excellent performance had me completely forgetting her actual age) gets caught up in a coup that sees Gorbachev removed from power by hardliners. Her young protégé Aleida Rosales (Coral Peña), who we first met as a little girl, the daughter of a NASA cleaner, is working with Baldwin's daughter Kelly (Cynthy Wu) on a project to find life on Mars. They inspire Dev Ayesa (Edi Gathegi) to take his company back, like Steve Jobs did with Apple, but it's interesting that, like the tech entrepreneur in Invasion, he's not always shown in the virtuous light you might expect from an Apple show.

Among other new characters, this season introduces Toby Kebbell (so good in Servant, also from Apple) as a new male lead, Miles Dale. He's an oil rig worker who lost his job to the march of progress. His trip to Mars is motivated by the need to make money to save his marriage, and like a lot of workers on that planet he is disappointed to find the bonuses are small and getting smaller. As their resentment at Earth and its representatives grows, it starts to feel like we are in Heinlein territory: "The Roads Must Roll", The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress and "The Man Who Sold the Moon" all came to mind at various points.

It's impressive how smoothly the show has moved from a realistic retelling of historical events, albeit slightly tweaked, to stories that would have been seen as out-and-out science fiction back in the 1960s, without ever feeling like we have crossed the line into fantasy. Perhaps that's the goal of Apple, and Sony, who make it, to make us feel like it could be real, to get us to think of the future, reconnect with those possibilities, and imagine what could be waiting for us. There are no aliens here, no stargates, no magic, no monoliths, just slight tweaks, like there being enough ice on the Moon to sustain a base. Everything is portrayed as realistically as possible: spaceships, Mars, asteroids, human nature.

And this is a very good season of the show. There are remarkable twists and death-defying adventures galore – as ever, if things can go wrong in For All Mankind, they will – and far less, blessedly, of the family drama back on Earth. Plus, if you enjoyed The Americans, it works well as a sequel to that too. I always think I'm going to find it a bit dry and dull, an intellectual exercise, with too much time spent with grumpy Ed Baldwin, consistently one of television's least likeable protagonists, but once I'm watching it I inevitably get caught up in the drama and excitement and political wrangling and don't watch anything else till I'm finished. It might feel slow-paced, but at the end of each season you look back and realise how far you've travelled. Stephen Theaker ****

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