For All Mankind – the Clarke connection (TV+)

I was lukewarm on For All Mankind (TV+) a couple of years ago when I first dipped in. Since then, I ought to have said by now, it has quietly won me over. The soapy aspects of it, the interpersonal relationships, the slightly ridiculous accumulation of situations, don’t work well at all, but the plot-driven part of the show does. We’re in an alternate time-line, one in which Russia got a man on the moon first, and because of this the Apollo programme doesn’t get cancelled early, and personed space exploration continues into the 80s, 90s, and beyond.

By Season 3 (which has reached episode 8 at the time of writing), we have reached Mars, and there are three competing missions: the Russians (still a communist régime, cast as not as good as the Americans, but willing to spy, blackmail and steal); NASA; and a third party, private organisation that boldly repurposes a failed orbital space station/hotel into a ship.

The show skips over much of the research and development, so we don’t see the years of experiments and iteration, just the end results (and the end results of the Russians’ spying). That’s fine, and it keeps the budget within its limits. And the money spent on the show is clear in the excellent special effects: it’s all there on the screen. Where you can see they didn’t spend money is also there on the screen: in the badly aged faces of the cast, who by Season 3 are supposedly 20+ years into their careers as astronauts and ground crew. Also, for some reason, terrible hair: like the hair you might see in a 70s TV movie.

It’s a really odd mixture. On the one hand, really quite awful Rich Man, Poor Man style soap opera storytelling about the people and their travails, complete with hair and makeup from the Rich Man, Poor Man era. On the other hand, gripping space opera with plot beats that manage to leave every episode on a proper cliffhanger.

In terms of the soap opera, in case you don’t believe me, here are some plot points:

  • An astronaut goes blind!
  • An estranged married couple of astronauts save everyone by making spacesuits out of masking tape and die in each others’ arms!
  • An astronaut’s wife sleeps with another astronaut’s son!
  • The President is a former astronaut!
  • And a woman!
  • And a lesbian!
  • In the closet!
  • Married to a gay man!
  • Also in the closet!
  • Who has an affair with an aide!

It’s kinda ridiculous. But as I was watching the eight episode a penny dropped for me and I realised why I still like it, notwithstanding the ridiculousness.

When I was growing up, there were (to my mind) two giants of science fiction. One of them wrote far future, galaxy-spanning stories of galactic empires and FTL travel; the other wrote near-future, realistic, hard-science stories set in our solar system. One of them was Isaac Asimov; the other was Arthur C Clarke.

Now. We’ve recently seen Asimov’s Foundation made for TV, and it was okay. I couldn’t read the books, which were terrible, so I finally got to see what it was all about. And if you read much science fiction, you know that these kind of far future galaxy spanning epics are very fashionable, thanks, probably, to the many various Stars, Trek and Wars. They run alongside the supremely fashionable fantasy genre, and are really closer to it than to the more realistic hard science stuff. But the latter is still out there. I suppose The Expanse owes more to Arthur C Clarke than Isaac Asimov, and the success of Andy Weir’s material shows that it’s still the basis of popular fiction.

But, aside from 2001 and its sequels, not much has been done with the Arthur C Clarke catalogue. Partly, that’s because he wasn’t very good at people, so his characters tend to be a bit one- or two-dimensional. Which brings us to For All Mankind, which is so much like classic Clarke that it can’t be a coincidence. For example, one of his early novels, A Fall of Moondust, is about a small transport that gets buried in a landslip (on the Moon, natch), and an against-the-clock rescue mission is required. Check: episode 8 of For All Mankind features a small transport buried in a landslip (but on Mars, okay) and an against-the-clock rescue mission is required.

The Episode is called, The Sands of Ares. Huh. Because another Clarke classic is called The Sands of Mars, and it features a spaceship called… Ares.

So, more than a nod to Clarke, then, which is not to mention the ring-shaped space station, which is straight out of his playbook. And look no further than Arthur C Clarke for the terrible soap opera character arcs. A protagonist befriends a younger man and tells him the story of his long lost love. The younger man turns out to be… his long lost son! And so on.

Anyway, it’s good, and it’s bad, but it’s good, so that’s okay.

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