'I think space exploration by private entities is a good thing, ultimately,' says co-creator and executive producer Ronald D. Moore.
Nearly a decade may have passed since the deaths of Tracy (Sarah Jones) and Gordo Stevens (Michael Dorman), but their duct tape sacrifice has certainly not been forgotten as For All Mankind returns with its third season.
As teased in the explosive (or nearly explosive) Season 2 finale of the Apple TV+ drama, it's now the mid-1990s, and the continuing space race has set its sights on Mars, with a new competitor entering the course: an ambitious billionaire Dev (played by Edi Gathegi). NASA, the Russians, and a new company called Helios are all trying to be the first on Mars, with the best habitat on Mars, doing the best science on Mars. Absolutely nothing goes exactly as planned, but then again if it did, it would be a pretty boring TV show.
While the moon has long been conquered, the fact that Tracy and Gordo ran across it in only duct tape to stop a nuclear meltdown looms large throughout the entire third season — and not just literally, as a statue outside NASA.
"It's become like a big thing," co-creator and executive producer Ronald D. Moore tells Metacritic. "They're making movies about it. It's one of those heroic things that people mythologize as a culture, and it has a lot of disparate reverberations after that."
The deaths also have a huge effect on the Stevens children, Danny (Casey W. Johnson) and Jimmy (David Chandler), who are "haunted" by the event and facing the expectations of a country that idolizes their parents.
The race to Mars is a whole different game from that race to the moon, with new dangers lurking around every corner. It was also a new challenge for the writers, whose show suddenly had a whole lot more eyeballs on it after the end of Season 2
Here, Moore and co-creators Matt Wolpert and Ben Nedivi reveal Season 3 secrets, including that they most definitely tried to top last year's finale, with two final episodes that are "bigger" than anything that has come before, and tease whether For All Mankind might ever see an alien. (Spoiler alert: No. But also, maybe?)
I would love to know what the experience has been like for you since the last season aired because it blew everyone away and I know you've gained a lot of new fans since then.
Ben Nedivi: It's interesting. When Season 1 came out, we were so proud of it, and we're like, "Why aren't people watching?" I think in this landscape of so many shows and so much content, it's really hard to get yourself out there. What was so rewarding about [the attention after the Season 2 finale] was that it felt so organic. It felt like it came from word of mouth buzz from critics and press, but we could feel the slow buzz as the season went. And then with the finale, it almost boiled over and suddenly everyone was talking about it. It was really really rewarding to see that reaction.
So many things were happening at once in that finale, including Tracy and Gordo saving the moon, and the U.S. and Russia shaking hands in space. Can you talk about what kind of a ripple effect it's all having, even years later?
Ronald D. Moore: Every season is a new challenge. It was baked into the concept of the show that we were going to do these kinds of jumps. So, at the end of each season, you feel ready to leave this year behind, and you're looking forward to the challenge of the next decade. It's frightening. It's like, "What are we going to do? How is this going to work? What's the fabric of history that we have to weave to get from the last season to this one?" But that's what makes it a unique show, and it's what makes it a unique challenge as writers. So, it's really kind of great.
Matt Wolpert: Yeah, the hallmark of our show is how things affect a character going forward. So, in terms of the broader, international picture of coming that close to nuclear war, basically, and then Reagan and Andropov having that handshake and taking a step back from that encroaching militarism and refocusing on a more optimistic future or progress or scientific pursuits, that was really the pivot point between Seasons 2 and 3. I think it was also really interesting to us because that doesn't mean the Cold War is suddenly over. It's just shifted into a different type of competition, where it's less about guns and missiles and it's more about a bit more of what it was in Season 1, which is who gets the bragging rights, the symbolism of, "I'm first, I'm the better nation." And then on a character level, the loss of Gordo and Tracy just reverberates throughout the entire season, particularly for their children. It was something we were fascinated with — the heroism of that sacrifice. There's also negative consequences of that for the people that love them, who maybe aren't equipped to process that grief in the right way. So, seeing their sons and how they navigate the world in the wake of that tragedy was really fascinating to us.
Do you have those 10 years or so in between seasons mapped out completely?
R.D.M.: At the beginning of the show, way back when, we developed a master timeline overall: "These are the kinds of major events that are going to happen politically, some culturally, and certainly what are the major events of the space program?" Over time, that timeline has evolved and changed but not radically. We're still following the basic path of what we thought the progression was going to be, so that's been very useful as a spine to our storytelling.
Obviously the show is further advanced than we are now, but do things happen in the real world now that get incorporated into the show?
R.D.M.: In certain ways. We started talking about nuclear fusion early on, but it's been interesting to see that contemporaneously, you're starting to see actual progress in nuclear fusion, and we were so happy that we were doing real time research into what's the state of play right now, and saying maybe we can get to nuclear fusion and using helium-3 on the moon faster in our alternate history. It's nice to see that synergistic effect back and forth.
The U.S.'s relationship with Russia has changed quite a bit in just the past few months after the invasion of Ukraine, and obviously your show has some very sympathetic characters who are Russian. How did you balance that with the precarious situation we've been in lately?
B.N.: It's funny, you know, life imitating art imitating life. We wrote this season before any of these events happened, and I have to say, I was grateful that a lot of the storylines this season really play into this idea of trying to find the humanity in each other in spite of our differences [and] being forced to work through circumstances to work together. So, in many ways, I think the last thing we expected is that our show that's about the Cold War [is airing as we are] suddenly realizing that we're in that world again. In many ways, I think it makes the show more relevant than ever. The reality is that a lot of what these people are doing has nothing to do with the struggles on Earth. They want to explore further — they want to get to Mars — and I think that's the level they're connecting on. But like is the nature of our show, the politics, the tension on Earth can't help but spread to Mars. And I think that's something I'm glad we can touch on this year, even though I have to say it's entirely coincidental that it happened this way.
What is it like for you guys to watch the news as you're working on this show?
M.W.: It's heartbreaking, honestly. I mean, even just seeing the way that the International Space Station is being affected, and the way that the astronauts and cosmonauts up there are caught in the middle of all this. Obviously, there's so much tragedy across the board, but the idea of cooperation in space and putting aside the conflicts of Earth was always such a hopeful idea, and that it's kind of being impacted by that is really a tragedy.
B.N.: Science fiction speaks about what's happening today without directly speaking about what's happening today. I think the last thing we expected is for our show to become so close to what's happening today, but at the end of the day, our show is a drama. It's not capturing the reality of the current situation, nor do I think we'd want to capture that right now. I think it's really how that would affect the space race, and those similarities are sort of eerie in many cases.
Can you talk about creating your own Elon Musk character and diving into private space flight? That's also been a conversation happening a lot in real life lately.
R.D.M.: I think the notion of private space travel was something we were talking about very, very early. One of my very first conversations was with Garrett Reisman, who was a former astronaut who was working at SpaceX. So, I went and met with Garrett at SpaceX to have initial conversations about, "Could the Soviets have beaten us to the moon?" Those took place in the SpaceX commissary, so that was always part of the show conceptually. It just felt like this was the point where technology had moved that far forward. There'd been so much space exploration already, it was becoming more commonplace, and it felt like this was the right point in our story to bring in that element.
M.W.: Elon Musk was definitely one of the people we talked about in terms of an iconoclastic figure who has a lot of resources and is able to impact the world and change things and challenge the status quo and push things forward. Dev has an altruistic end goal, and it's really about, do the ends justify the means with him? But the more we read about some of these guys in terms of Musk and [Jeff] Bezos and Steve Jobs, the way they inspired and had this passion for the people who worked for them, they felt like they were changing the world. And I think that's really Dev's goal: to change the world for the better and break out of that Cold War cycle.
What was it like for you to be putting this together and hearing the conversation around Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos spending so much money to go to space? A lot of people seem to think they should be putting their money elsewhere.
R.D.M.: It's interesting. That's always the argument, and I've always been a little tired of that argument because you could always make the case, "Oh, you could spend this money on this other thing," but that never happens. I think space exploration by private entities is a good thing, ultimately. Right now, it looks like a lot of ego boosting, but SpaceX is doing really good work with NASA, and yeah, they want to take a ride on their spacecraft. So what? I don't have a problem with that. And I was personally tickled that Bill Shatner got to fly into space, which is an amazing thing.
I think people get a little overwrought about that kind of thing, and I think ultimately, if we are going to move into space travel and space exploration becoming more commonplace, you have to turn to the private sector because otherwise, it's just not going to happen. There's just too many strictures on the way the government operates. NASA, for all its amazing success, has just become way too cautious, in my point of view, and I think that if we're going to do some of these things, you have to engage private enterprise.
How far do you see the show going? How much more can you age up Shantel Van Santen and Joel Kinnaman?
R.D.M.: Well, the concept of the show is not everyone's gonna go for the whole ride. As soon as certain characters go away, you bring new ones in. We've seen children grow up on the show. It's a multi-generational story conceptually. So, as you see in this season, we made a point of having Danny Stevens [be a big part of the action] in the first episode as a passing of the baton to a different generation. It wasn't just Ed and Pool rising to the challenge; we wanted to make a point that time is passing, things are moving on — yes, some of our beloved characters are now aging but — there is a new generation coming up behind them, and there will be another one behind them.
Finally, I want to talk about aliens. There's mention this season of searching for life, and your show feels a little too grounded for traditional aliens, but are you dealing with that at all as you get further into space?
B.N.: Yeah, that doesn't feel like our show. I think our show is somewhat grounded alternate history. So, even when we talk about searching for life, we're not talking about finding aliens on Mars. We're talking about bacterial life, or is there life in the water? I think it's important to us with this show that even though we're jumping in time and showing that advancement, I think it's how do we keep it feeling as grounded as possible, which to us is still exciting. You could still do a fun, exciting space show without aliens. It's possible, and I think in the landscape with so many superhero and alien big shows, I like that our show found its own niche, and holding onto that is important to us. But yeah, as things go, if we're lucky enough to tell this story moving forward, I think it will go further and further. I don't think aliens is in the cards, but there'll be surprises, let's put it that way.
It just feels hard not to address that at all because hopefully there's something out there.
M.W.: It is one of the huge questions of this sphere of the world. Are we alone in the universe? I definitely think the show will confront that in some way the further we go along. I don't think that means that somebody pulls off their face and they're a lizard alien, or maybe not. Maybe we do that in Season 6.
B.N.: Ed's an alien.
M.W.: That's why he's so ripped as an old man.
For All Mankind Season 3