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Apple TV Plus launches For All Mankind on a meandering space race

Review: For All Mankind is an alternate history of NASA that isn't alternate enough.

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A group of astronaut candidates from For All Mankind.

Video screenshot by Erin Carson/CNET

Mission control has a problem. 

In the first episode of For All Mankind, Apple TV Plus' fictionalized space race drama, something  in the room is amiss. Instead of nervously chattering into headsets and pushing buttons as their own colleagues prepare to venture onto the moon, NASA staffers are watching the Russians land the first man on the lunar surface.

And so, For All Mankind, which premieres on the new streaming platform Nov. 1, kicks off its alternate imagining of the space race. It tosses historical figures and events, as well as invented characters, into a post-Soviet-success scramble that takes quite a while to find its footing.

For the first five episodes, the show (written and created by Ronald D. Moore) has all the hallmarks of a period space drama. It's the mid-century modern world you'd expect, with mustard-colored shirts, tasteful high heels, bottled-up emotions and cigarettes in every hand. The score is elegant and soaring. 

This version of NASA faces two primary directives driven by Soviet advances and a presumably sweaty Richard Nixon (a periodic presence via phone): establish a military base on the moon and put a woman up there too -- preferably a blonde. 

For its first half, the 10-episode show doesn't always succeed in balancing its storylines. Sometimes it feels like For All Mankind could just be about the group of women training to be astronauts in the face of skepticism, sexism and a steaming pile of microaggressions, partly because the women face plenty such obstacles. One of the candidates, Tracy Stevens (Sarah Jones), is married to an astronaut herself. Another, Molly Cobb (Sonya Walger), is presented as being one of the Mercury 13, a real-life group of women who underwent the same screening as the male Mercury astronauts. In some ways, it's a companion piece to The Morning Show, another series launching on Apple TV Plus that tackles sexism in the workplace in the #MeToo era.

At other times, the show is about a greater identity crisis at NASA. The safety versus daring conflict has been plenty real over the decades. You get a window into the politics and struggles of astronaut life through Edward Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman) and Gordo Stevens (Michael Dorman), who are supposed to be contemporaries of Neil Armstrong and Co, while their spouses grapple with the dangerous jobs of their loved ones.

It's not that the show can't or shouldn't encompass all those elements. It just has a tendency to let certain plotlines wander, only to resurface them, giving you a moment of, "Oh yeah, that's still happening." 

One subplot, for example, involves a little girl and her father crossing the US/Mexico border after her mother dies. The girl displays an interest in setting fires, but also, somehow, rockets and space travel. What could be an attempt to broaden the show's scope beyond the elite world of NASA and explore the impact of visible women astronauts on young minds feels awkwardly tacked on. 

On the plus side, the show does a good job weaving together fact and fiction. In one scene, astronaut John Glenn says women can't be astronauts because it's a "fact of our social order" -- a direct quote from a speech by the real John Glenn. Molly Cobb is a nod to Geraldyn "Jerrie" Cobb, an accomplished pilot who was part of the Mercury 13 but was never allowed to become an astronaut. And the show is littered with little references to tidbits like real-life astronaut Deke Slayton's heart problems that make the world feel real. (Though, if you're looking for a '60s vibe, marital issues and visceral-feeling space exploits, you could just watch First Man or Apollo 13.)

Clocking in at about 60 minutes an episode, For All Mankind could get to the extrapolation of what might have been faster in the show's first half. 

Take the militarization of space. In the '60s, there actually was a feasibility study about building a base on the moon. GPS is operated by the US Air Force. And today, well, we have Space Force

The first woman went into space in 1963. Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova was followed by Svetlana Savitskaya and Sally Ride in the 1980s. Though it should be noted no woman has been to the moon, there was a congressional hearing about sex discrimination in the astronaut program. It takes a full five episodes for something to happen that inches the show toward a radical departure from real life. 

When that event happens, though (and for the next three episodes, at least), For All Mankind becomes sturdier. It finds a way to more naturally integrate  issues like gender politics at work and Cold War tensions. The characters become more clear and some who started out in the background, like astronaut Danielle Poole (Krys Marshall), finally get some depth.

For All Mankind isn't unlike the actual push toward the moon. That took awhile to get there too.  

For All Mankind premieres with three episodes on Nov. 1, followed by new weekly episodes every Friday.

Originally published Oct. 28.