For All Mankind: Ronald D. Moore on How They Built an Alternate History, Episode's 5's Surprise Ending, and More to Come

Apple TV+ launched this month and one of its debut offerings is For All Mankind. The series [...]

Apple TV+ launched this month and one of its debut offerings is For All Mankind. The series imagines an alternate history where the Soviet Union beat the United States to the moon. The series hails from Ronald D. Moore, whose most recent work includes developing and showrunning Starz's Outlander. Before that, he told plenty of stories involving space travel in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Battlestar Galactica. But For All Mankind is a different kind of speculative fiction, one born of our own history. There are a lot fewer space battles and a lot more realistic astronaut training.

Anyone who has been following the series knows that being inspired by history doesn't mean this show can't surprise. In its five episodes so far, the series has expelled a key figure from the space program, put women at the forefront of the astronaut training program, and hinted at much bigger things to come. spoke to Moore over the phone to ask him about how he and his team built this alternate history, what episode five's surprise ending means, and what's still to come in the show's first season.

Watching the series, it's clear that NASA had a big influence on you when you were younger. What are your thoughts on NASA, its role, and the role of space travel in society today?

Ronald D. Moore: I think that I wish NASA had a clearer mandate and a clearer focus on return to manned space flight, both in low earth orbit and to the moon and beyond. I think there's a variety of reasons why it hasn't. I think a lot of it is the nature of the turnover of administrations and each administration coming in with a different set of priorities. "We're going to the moon, we're not going to the moon, we're doing this, we're not doing that." As a result, they're never able to quite get their feet under them over at NASA.

I think they're always just operating in an environment where their budgets are constantly under threat and the priorities of whatever administration is in power are shifting. I think it's just unfortunate. I think I wish that NASA had an ability to be a little bit more independent and could chart its own path because I think that the men and women that work there today are extraordinary professionals, just like the ones that were there back in the Apollo era. If given their head and a decent budget, I think they could still accomplish extraordinary things.

As someone with a lot of sci-fi in your background, you know that people think of good sci-fi as a way of using the future to discuss the present. It seems the same can be said of alternate history stories, using the past to discuss the present, or maybe to remind audiences of something lost. What are you trying to reflect or remind people of with For All Mankind?

RM: Every science fiction piece on some level reflects the time in which it's made. Certainly we're making a definite decision to paint an optimistic view of the future and of space travel and to say that, "Hey, history went in this one direction and it could've gone in a better direction," and that we, by implication, could have a better present and then we could have an even better future if we did some of these things. The show is trying to portray an optimistic sort of adventure in space. I feel like at the moment, we need a bit of optimism and we need something positive to believe in and we need to sort of rally around certain core ideas in our culture and in our society and the world at large. I think that the show was trying to paint an idea of a better world.

When coming up with this alternate history, how much does staying "historically accurate" in the sense that you're staying true to how things really could have gone weigh against going after the most interesting stories?

RM: We talk a lot about that. I think everything that we've done in terms of the alternate history has been thoroughly vetted in the room and debated and talked about. We've done a lot of research and our mandate has always sort of been, "it needs to be plausible." We're not necessarily saying this is the way it would have happened, because who could know that? But what we're saying, on any given historical turn of events that happens in the show is, we believe that there's a logical chain of events that can get you there and that it's more than plausible that these things could have happened. We try to take great care to incorporate real historical events into the series overall and how they change. Sometimes they happen in different ways. Sometimes certain historical events feel like we've skipped them or that maybe they didn't occur and then a similar occurrence pops up later. That's part of the fun too.

Speaking of, the fifth episode, "Into the Abyss," has an ending that is sure to have fans talking. We see the first space base land on the moon, but it's two years into the future. Can you say whether that's a brief flashforward or if the show is going through a time jump? And can you talk a bit about how far out you're looking to take this alternate history and how different it could become from our world over time?

RM: First of all, we have jumped to 1974, I believe. It's not a flash-forward. We moved the show forward. You'll see in episode six, suddenly it's years later. Part of the fun of that show will be in the first few minutes, catching up on what's going on and who was where and what's happened in the intervening years, which I think is really kind of cool. Overall, we sat down at the beginning and sort of sketched out a very large arc. We sketched out a seven-year plan, seven-season plan for the show and it goes through many years and decades. The plan is to sort of start the progress of this space race, of this space program, in kind of a multigenerational way. It has a very broad ambition. It has a sort of big sweep so you can really see the changes, not just in the space program, but how those changes can influence life here on earth and how we stepped out into the universe in a much more substantial way.

Something I found interesting was how the show chose to handle the historical figure that is Werner von Braun. His importance to history can't be denied, but his past makes him a complicated figure. I imagine there may have been some interesting discussions about how to deal with him, especially with how we tend to reevaluate our historical figures these days?

RM: Actually. Matt Wolpert and Ben Nedivi, who are junior writers who I co-created the show with, brought that to the table in one of our very early conversations. They were already interested in von Braun. I think they had talked about trying to do some project about him among themselves. When we started talking about this, they started telling me about Operation Paperclip. I sort of had a basic working knowledge of von Braun and his past, but I hadn't really delved into that aspect of him. The more they talked about it, the more I realized that could it be an important thing for the show because you're sort of going back and changing history and re-examining historical events and moving them in alternate directions. Perhaps this was something that maybe we should have known about or that should be at least discussed and thought about today. It was like, "Okay, do we want to go down this road?"

In all honesty, I had conflicted feelings about it because I grew up with an image of von Braun from the Disney shows that he did in the '50s, that I had seen in reruns and in popular culture. He was just sort of the kindly German father of the American space program and kind of a great man. I was hesitant and kind of felt weird about delving into this aspect of him, but the truth is the truth. We decided, "All right, let's deal with it."

We just tried to be very careful and say, "Well what do we actually know and what did he actually say?" If you look carefully at what he does say during that congressional hearing and what he says to Margo afterward, all those quotes are kind of based on things he actually said either in the original army interrogations after the war or in subsequent interviews. We tried to also be fair to him, like what did he actually say in his own defense? That's what he pretty much had said in his own defense. Operation Paperclip was a real thing, those photos were the real photos, the information in the show was real. It was factual. It wasn't just an argument about opinions. These are the kind of the facts and let's just do it in that light.

For me, the show really seemed to find its voice in "Nixon's Women." Can you tell me a bit about the decision to turn some of the focus of the series towards women astronauts?

RM: It was something we talked about very early on in development. When Matt, Ben and I were first discussing the concept of the show and we were saying history would change and things would go in a different direction, there would probably be cultural change, too. What could that be? We started talking about women in the program earlier. How would that have happened? Because we were still talking about the idea of how a Russian landing on the moon at all would rock the country, I think I was the one that said, "If you put a woman on the moon, that would rock the country, too. Americans, in the same spirit of outrage about, 'Why aren't we as good as they are?' would also say, 'Hey, where are our female astronauts?'"

And that would spark a move to put women in space and that as a result, you'd have women doing dangerous, exciting, adventurous things. That would change pop culture and that would change the culture. That would change the conversation about women in the workplace much faster. That would have jump-started a lot of things that took a longer period of time to play out in real history. It was one of those key discussion points as we were talking about the series at the very beginning.

Are there any last notes you want to leave fans with? Teases about what's to come in the rest of this first season?

RM: I think there's still a lot of surprises left in the second half of the season. Some people you've kind of come to know are going to change and some other people are going to come back and I think it's going to be quite a ride to the end.


The first five episodes of For All Mankind are now streaming on Apple TV+. New episodes become available on Fridays.

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