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

A Soviet rocket scientist survives an operation in 1966, and in 1992 a woman is set to become President of the United States

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At the start of season 3 of the AppleTV+ sci-fi series For all mankind, Gary Hart is completing 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 preparing for a first manned mission to Mars. Electric cars are becoming more and more popular.

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The year is 1992.

Counterfactual stories are fascinating to understand. What if World War II had turned out differently or if World War I had never even happened? For all mankind kicked off the first season with the Soviets beating the Americans to the moon in the summer of 1969. And all it took was for one man not to die.

It is widely believed that US President John F. Kennedy’s speech at Rice University in September 1962 (“We choose to go to the moon!”) galvanized his country’s efforts to reach our natural satellite by 1970. But halfway around the world, 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, if at all.

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The creators of For all mankind started with the idea that Korolev stayed alive to guide the Soviet push to the moon. In the aftermath of America’s second-place finish, Senator Ted Kennedy leads an investigation into what went wrong. The car accident on Chappaquiddick Island that year that killed Mary Jo Kopechne never happens. Kennedy defeats Richard Nixon in 1972. In season three, former astronaut Ellen Wilson (Jodi Balfour) runs for president against Bill Clinton.

Don’t make a mistake, For all mankind is a perfectly plotted show, with memorable characters and strong writing. But it can be fun watching it just to see the weird differences between our timeline and theirs, how the 1992 fiction leaped forward and how it didn’t.

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

In the area of ​​gay rights, however, For all mankind1992 seems about as high as ours. Presidential hopeful Wilson has been in the closet since the ’70s, going so far as to marry a NASA colleague (Nate Corddry) to allay suspicion. I don’t know how season three plays out, but I wouldn’t be surprised if its orientation becomes 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. Picture by AppleTV+

The show is also adept at throwing trivia of historical change into the background. Prince Charles married Camilla Parker Bowles, not Diana Spencer, in 1981. Pope John Paul II and Margaret Thatcher were murdered. John Lennon didn’t and remains a strong advocate for peace amid a Cold War that lasted well into the 1990s. (Plus, there’s a Beatles reunion tour in 1987; imagine!)

Then there’s technology, which has leaped forward in many ways, but not all. Video calls and emails (called d-mail, short for digital mail) are already commonplace, but watch the scene from the season three premiere, in which NASA chief Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt) goes make clandestine contact with a friend from the Soviet space agency.

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Her cover is that she goes to get a new LP from a record store, but she hides in 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 character modes are also 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 live in our own kind of counterfactual timeline. Before COVID-19 hit, the world was on one track. After March 2020, it was on another entirely. Pollution has fallen. Venice’s canals have cleared as tourism has all but disappeared. Zoom calls have become commonplace. Computer chips have become rare.

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Personal lives have also changed. Some couples have separated from the tension of living together during confinement. Others have found their relationships strengthened. Air travel, which had increased by 4-8% over the past decade, fell by more than two-thirds overnight. Hours spent driving fell, but fatal crashes increased, perhaps 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 – due to the pandemic. Sometimes a small change, even at the microscopic level, can have large, unintended consequences.

For All Mankind is available on AppleTV+, with season three beginning June 10 and new episodes releasing weekly.

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