‘For All Mankind’: Expansively Entertaining Season 3 Heads to Mars

Science fiction is most engaging when it isn’t just about the future, but about what feels near and possible. For all of our technological advancement, as a species we have not even truly begun exploring the stars. Apple TV’s “For All Mankind” began as an intriguing experiment in the classic sci-fi genre of alternate history. What if the Soviets had made it to the moon first? For its first two seasons the show knew how to expertly play with this idea, delivering alluring images and suspenseful plot twists mixing fictional characters with real historical ones. Now the third season aims for a combo of speculation and classic futurism. Any devoted viewer knew that at some point, the series would have to aim for Mars. 

It’s now the 1990s, alt-rock is in and Gary Hart is in his second term as president. Mikhail Gorbachev still runs the Soviet Union, which has grown as an expansionist power. John Lennon survived an assassination attempt, which means the Beatles are launching a reunion tour. In trying to get one up on the USSR, the U.S. is now aiming for the red planet. But amid the standoff between capitalism and Communism, entrepreneurs like Dev Ayesa (Edi Gathegi) want to develop their own programs to achieve the same milestone (sound familiar?). At NASA, Margo (Wrenn Schmidt), Aleida (Coral Peña) and Bill (Noah Harpster) are attempting to prep a nuclear-powered engine for the Mars journey, but it keeps failing. Margo is still maintaining a long distance, quid pro quo connection with Sergei (Piotr Adamczyk), who is getting pressured by the KGB to get more info on the nuclear engine. Up in space, Sam (Jeff Hephner) and Karen (Shantel VanSanten) still run a luxury hotel. They are hosting the wedding of Danny Stevens (Casey W. Johnson), son of Gordo (Michael Dorman) and Tracy (Sarah Jones) who died last season.  But a disaster at the wedding ends with the hotel imploding, Sam dying and Karen coming back to Earth to become part of the saga to reach Mars.

What makes “For All Mankind” continuously engaging is creator Ronald D. Moore, a veteran of the “Star Trek” franchise, structuring it like a real historical drama that ebbs and flows with the passing of decades. The writing convinces us this is real history progressing with players who die, grow and move into new stages. Every new season updates us on these lives as if we’re reuniting with personalities who kept going after the last season ended. Margo Madison has moved up from mission control heading NASA. However, the past still haunts Danny and his brother, Jimmy (David Chandler) following the death of their parents. Jimmy considers the deaths to have been nothing but proof of life’s meaninglessness. Of course, the tragedy was also a catalyst for Danny to become an astronaut himself. Other characters are reaching for political power. Former astronaut Ellen Wilson (Jodi Balfour) is running for president as a Republican. She has to be careful to keep her lesbian identity in the closet. Her opponent is a Democrat named Bill Clinton. Ellen is one example of the stronger presence of female roles this season, from head-strong astronaut Molly Cobb (Sonya Walger), to Ed and Karen’s adopted daughter, Kelly (Cynthy Wu), who researches the potentials for life on Mars on a microbiological scale. 

While the space exploration angle is exciting, this season of “For All Mankind” also continues an ongoing trend in films and TV of tackling a dominant theme of the ultra-rich and ambitious trying to control human progress. Dev Ayesa is another take on the Elon Musk archetype. He’s the big dreamer essentially building his own counter to NASA and lures Karen in with promises of innovation. He also takes her advice on who should command the Mars mission and comes very close to edging out both NASA and the Soviets. The personal journeys combine well with the expected doses of suspense involving landing on Mars, facing tech crises or trying to help a potential Soviet contact defect and come over to the United States. It’s all pulled off with the show’s established tightness of plot and rich visuals, which never overdo the CGI scenery. Reportedly, the plan is for the show to only run for seven seasons. By charting a definite course, “For All Mankind” is a mission worth continuing, with speculations about the past and future that also make it a wonderful stimulant for the imagination.

For All Mankind” season three begins streaming June 10 on Apple TV+.