In episode 143 of the Liftoff podcast, Stephen Hackett and I interviewed the show’s co-creator, Ronald D. Moore about the second season of his TV series “For All Mankind,” which debuted last week on Apple TV+.
If you’re not a regular podcast listener but are interested in reading what Moore had to say about his series, we’ve created a transcript of that interview.
JS: Ron, thank you so much for joining us on Liftoff. It’s really exciting to talk to you. I’ve been watching your stuff on TV for years, not just “For All Mankind”. And it’s great to talk to you about, we’re going to nerd out about some space stuff, I think.
Oh, fun. That’s why I’m here.
Let me get into it. I’ve got so many questions that I’ve formed really while watching season one, and then watching episode one of season two. The thing that fascinates me about “For All Mankind” is that, it is this mixture of real science and real NASA history with your extrapolation because you’re in kind of alternate timeline and alternate history.
I’m curious, what is your process about what connections do you try to maintain to real stuff that people are going to be familiar with from our history, while also having the freedom to kind of tell whatever story you want to tell? In season two, the space shuttle is there, but it’s not quite the space shuttle we know. We see Ronald Reagan. There’s a Skylab in season two. Clearly you’re not just saying, “Well, that stuff didn’t happen and we’re going in our own way.” You’re trying to weave in some real stuff with your storytelling. So how do you approach that?
Well, from the get go, we wanted this to all be plausible. We wanted to say, “Okay, how could the space program have really expanded and kind of become the program that people like me growing up in the 70s thought it was going to be.” So from the Soviets landing on the Moon, first forward, everything had to sort of have a sense of reality to it. And we also wanted the audience to kind of recognize certain elements of whatever time period we were in. Whether it was the 70s or the 80s or beyond, so that there was a sense of, “Oh yeah. I kind of know that history, I’ve heard some of those things.” And even people that aren’t deep aficionados of the space program, yeah, they kind of know where the space shuttle is and they can kind of recognize that.
And then it was a question of, in our alternate reality, what are the connections that we’re drawing? How do you get to a space shuttle in our alternate reality? And what’s the purpose of Skylab in the alternate reality. And we sort of said, like in those two particular instances, “Well, the space shuttle was part of the original NASA program that was presented to Nixon,” and I think 69 or thereabouts that had the shuttle, it had space stations, a Moon base and a Mars mission. And the Nixon administration basically said, “Ah, we’ll take space shuttle.”
So in our version, we said, “Well, they’re going to get them all.” They’re going to basically green light everything because the world has changed and the national priorities have changed, but space shuttle is still part of that. Same thing with Skylab. Planning for Skylab was already underway when the Moon mission happened in our version of reality, what was going to be Skylab, the first Skylab sort of becomes the Jamestown Moon base, but the idea to do a Skylab is still there at NASA. In our version, they’re still making Saturn five. So they sort of continue that development process. And they make a Skylab.
You’ll note when you see our Skylab, it actually does not have the wounded Skylab. The Skylab that was launched, as listeners of your podcast probably know, one of the big solar panels was broken and damaged and never deployed correctly. And in our version it does. So it’s taking things like that and just deciding, well, what could have happened in an alternate scenario that is still tethered to reality? Because we didn’t want to get so far away from the history that people knew, that it just felt like we were telling a story about a completely made up world that had no real relationship to the one that exists.
You’ve got a lot of presidents in “For All Mankind”. I know in season two in episode one, we hear Ronald Reagan a lot. And I know your timeline is different because you had Ted Kennedy, and then Reagan gets elected a little bit earlier in ’76. But it’s also a little bit of a touchstone to reality to say, “Well, you guys know Ronald Reagan. Well, here he is.” It’s sort of helps anchor the show maybe a little bit in some of our reality, even though it’s a very different world.
Yeah, definitely. Because if you’re doing a show about the 1980s, I mean, it’s the Reagan era. It’s hard not to tell a story about the 80s without some touchstone of Reagan. If he was completely missing from the show, you are living in a very different world. So we also just wanted to embrace that. We wanted the second season to become a Cold War piece that the confrontation between the Soviets and the Americans is heightened. The Cold War is heating up and that the militarization of space pulls the space program into the confrontation between the two super powers. So Ronald Reagan had to be kind of part and parcel of that whole equation.
SH: Does it get harder to maintain that connection to our actual timeline, the further the show goes along?
Oh, sure. I mean, you can see we’re diverting more and more as time goes on. It’s an expanding angle. Eventually it’s going to be very separate from where we are in reality, but we’re going to still try to maintain certain touchstones. As we get into the 90s in season three, okay now we’re really… lots of things have changed. The presidents are very different. The space program is radically different. The world has changed, but we still want some kind of common touchstone so that people are watching it and kind of go, “Oh yeah, that is the 90s.” Whether it’s music or pop cultural references or certain political things, you still want them to kind of recognize the decade.
JS: Yeah. You still got to have some flannel in the 90s. Right?
Just a little. Just a little. I mean, you mentioned something like not the bad sort of broken space or Skylab, but the good Skylab. One of my earliest memories as a kid was, my parents took me outside and we watched Skylab pass overhead. Which sounds beautiful except it was as it was having its orbit decay and it was going to reenter over Australia. So it’s like, “There it goes. Goodbye.”
JS: One of the things that you and presumably you’ve got some great consultants, I get the sense that there are a lot of space nerds on the show, but you’ve also got some great consultants too. I’ve been impressed with the untraveled NASA paths. I mean, you mentioned that original plan. You ended season one with that Sea Dragon launch. Is there inspiration and research that goes into ton of digging up the roads not taken? And is it mostly fun Easter egg stuff? Or do you actually use it as inspiration for telling the story you want to tell?
It’s definitely both. I mean, beginning of season one as we were putting the writers’ room together, I started digging into, “Well, what is out there? What information is there on plans that NASA came up with but didn’t realize?” And I was pretty surprised to see how much there was. I mean, there was an entire book whose title is escaping me now. There was like an ePressBook that was, I think, almost Roads Untaken or something, that had chapter by chapter all these different programs that I had never even heard of. There was like a plan to convert the Gemini Spacecraft into something that would go to the Moon, and to take a third person in it. And all these wild things. Various plans for Moon bases. Various plans for other orbital laboratories and spy platforms.
And somewhere in that research, I stumbled across Sea Dragon. And I was like, “What? Seriously?” And then I googled more online and found there were some websites that put together a sample launch of what it might look like. And I was like, “Are you… That’s amazing. It launch out of the water, and how big is this thing?” And I went back to the original book and sure enough it was in there and had all why it didn’t happen, but that it was a real thing. I just thought that’s perfect, because it really symbolized how different the space program could have been and how ambitious it truly could have gotten. The launch alone will look nothing like we had ever seen a rocket launch look like in this country, unless you were looking at like a Poseidon missile or something.
And I thought that’s a great way to end season one. We kept trying to work it in all season one actually. If you look carefully in the second episode during von Braun’s testimony before Congress, he’s holding a model of the Sea Dragon and talking about it. And there were some cut scenes where von Braun and Margo Madison, they’re in a conference room and they’re talking about something else, but on the chalkboard behind him, he’s working on an engine for Sea Dragon. And Sea Dragon was going to be something that von Braun in our version was a big proponent of and then Margo was going to take up the cause and make that the big follow onto the Saturn five.
We never quite realized that it was like an idea that we just kept playing around with and it ended up just kind of playing in the background of that scene but then giving us the end credit sequence that takes us into season two. And then by the time you get into season two, Sea Dragon is now a common motive of lift. It’s actually lifting the components for the Jamestown base or lifted by Sea Dragon. Most of the resupply missions come from Sea Dragon. And that in combination with the space shuttle are our major elements of the way NASA does business in the 1980s.
JS: It sounds like you’re sort of starting with doing a bunch of research and knowing about these little pieces. And then as you’re building your story for the season, you think, can I work that in, what fits, what doesn’t fit.
JS: Do you ever have to go… like say, “We really need something here,” and then see if you can find something or does it mostly work the other direction?
It does kind of work both ways. Like in season one, when we were coming up with the whole in sequence and Apollo 20 or 21, I mixed up the numbers in my own head, forgive me. But the crippled spacecraft that’s on the way to the Moon and the rescue of it and how that was going to work with the L Sam. We sort of knew, conceptually, basically, that we wanted one ship to be crippled and we wanted Baldwin to come up from the surface and somehow rescue it. And we kept kicking different ideas around. Didn’t really have an idea of how it was going to work and brought in Garrett Reisman, who is one of our technical consultants and a former NASA astronaut.
And he helped us figure it out. Come up with the tank. And could you throw the tank between the two ships? How could they refuel? There’s all these technical things that normally aren’t that important in a sci-fi show frankly, because you can just gloss over a lot of things when you’re making up all the technology. But when we were sort of saying, “Well, we wanted this all to be rooted in real things they had and how real spacecraft worked at the time, that kind of limited our options. And it became a very technical discussion with Garrett getting up and drawing diagrams on the whiteboard and explaining where orbital mechanics to us, and the fuel supply and how this… It was very technical for a bunch of liberal arts writers in a room. There are a couple of writers that are more into the space program than others and some had never even really, really knew anything about the program until they start working on the show. But we all sort of had to dive in and really kind of understand what we were writing about in order to realize it.
SH: That scene made my hands very sweaty while watching it.
JS: Super, super tense. I mean, it sounds like you all have a commitment to trying to make it real rather than just making something up and saying, “Oh, well it’s magic. If you can keep it real.”
Yeah. Yeah. That was important. It was important to me personally and to Matt and Ben, my co-creators of the show. I mean, but for me in particular, it was trying to realize the dream of the program that could have been, which was something that mattered to me a lot growing up and I was always heartbroken that we never got that program. So I didn’t just want to make a magic program that did all kinds of things. I wanted to kind of see what the program could have really done. What it might’ve really looked like. What were its capabilities and then to have an adventure with them. So that was kind of always the goal.
SH: I think another way that this show has really resonated with people, not only setting it like what we’ve been talking about against the backdrop of possible visions of what NASA could have been in this era had things gone differently, but you also have historical names and characters. And in season one, we meet a lot of those people. But as the season goes on, some of them fade into the background and the main characters that we’re following now are people who have fictional characters inserted into this alternative timeline. How do you go about decision-making when to use a historical figure, when to use a new character and how they should interact even?
JS: Because you had Gene Kranz and you had Deke Slayton. And I think Sally Ride is in season two. You do have historical figures there, but they’re not our main characters.
Right. I mean, with historical characters we kind of feel unbound to keep them within the realm of who they really were and who those people were. So if you’re doing wild and radical things with characters or making them alcoholics or whatever for story purposes, you don’t really want to do that to someone who’s real. That doesn’t feel like you’re playing fair. So you try to keep the historical people involved in the show in a way that sort of honors them and who they were for the real people they were and kind of ask yourself, well what would really happen to Deke Slayton?
Deke Slayton was a real person. He’s really in charge of the astronaut office when the show fades in. How do these events affect him? And we tried to just play the character as close to what we thought Deke’s personality was and what his attitude on things would be. But then there was also just sort of the fun of realizing that Deke did decide just to put himself in Apollo Soyuz because he could. And we said, “Well, that man is still going to go into space in our version, and he’s just going to go into space in a different way.”
JS: Yep. Makes sense. Another thing that you did with the divergence that wasn’t necessarily required, but you’re making a show in the 21st century. So obviously the real history of NASA in the early days is, it’s a lot of white guys. And your show is diverse. You have lots of women, you have people of color in the cast not just as astronauts, but people behind the scenes. We’ve seen things like there’s the Mercury 13 documentary about the women who were qualified, but not allowed to be astronauts. And there’s obviously things like hidden figures about the women behind the scenes. What was your approach to this? Because you could have said, “Well back in those days, it was all white guys,” And that’s not even remotely what “For All Mankind” does.
Well, we said it’s going to start there because that’s where it was. But I wanted the show to sort of say, “If we had gone into space in a bigger and more committed way, the world would have changed for the better.” So what are the ways in which the world can change. And would there be societal change, and cultural change as a result. And how do you get there from here? Then it was, “Well, we just start thinking about it.”
The Soviets put a woman in space 20 some odd years before NASA did. Well, what if they try to up the ante once they get to the Moon by putting a woman on the Moon. Wouldn’t that freak out the Americans into saying, “Hey, where’s our women astronauts? Where are they?” And that NASA, and the administration kind of react to that by like, “Well, get us some women. Get us some women.” So you have Nixon’s women suddenly.
But once they’re in space and doing their job, and doing heroic things, and being brave and proving on a national stage like that, women can do different things that was thought of at the time, mostly, it was a time of great social ferment and change, and the women’s liberation movement was in full swing. And so the cultural ground had already been laid for it. But when suddenly they’re doing these things and they’re doing them in space, and they’re doing them dramatically in a very dangerous venture, wouldn’t that go even further to cultural change? Wouldn’t that start making people think about women in the program? And once you start talking about women in the program, wouldn’t that also be like, “And where people of color.” And wouldn’t it open the door to greater diversity and start sparking that kind of social change?
So that’s where it all kind of came from. And I again wanted one of the advancement of the space program to mean something, not just technologically, but culturally. That we would become a better people. That the program would provide inspiration, and it would provide impetus to make greater social change in the United States and around the world and that the show is ultimately kind of showing you a more optimistic path to the future. I’ve said many times, this is like the road to “Star Trek”. This is like the road that gets you to that kind of optimistic future where technology is our friend and where we solve a lot of the problems here on earth and we go forward as a better race.
SH: I like that a lot of that was done through the lens of the time, like you said. I remember in season one, thinking back over it at how some of the husbands and the male partners of these women, how they reacted and how it felt very real for the time. But for the most part, they came along with it. I hope that that continues in season two and that as you said, the world is a better place for this, which is a much more concise way of thinking about it than I had. But I guess that’s why it’s your show and not mine.
JS: I mean, you also didn’t make it this idealistic not to bring up “Star Trek” again, but in “Star Trek”, there’s a lot, especially in the original series that sort of like, well, we solved everything now. Everything’s good. And there’s pushback in “For All Mankind”. There’s push back to the women astronauts and there’s pushback… There is a really painful dramatic scene where a character comes out and her partner in the spacecraft basically is like, “That’s too far.” I think the pain of that is real, that it’s real people having to work at it and not just sort of say, “Oh, well, great. We’re good now.”
Right. That’s a deliberate choice because we didn’t want it to be, “Well, it’s just all easy now, everything’s solved.” because that’s not true. And it devalues the effort and the struggle that people have to overcome these things. So we felt like we should show some of that.
SH: How has the reaction been from people in the space industry since this does hit at least starting close to home and shows us alternative timeline?
Oh, positive overall. I mean, we don’t get any official reaction from NASA, because they can’t really have anything to do with the show. As NASAs sadly, because they’ve taken so much flack over the years for the fake Moon landing that they’ve retreated to a policy that says we can’t support anything that is not 100% historically accurate. So as a result, they couldn’t really do anything with our show. So we never really have any feedback from the actual space program. Unofficially, we hear through the grapevine, they like it.
JS: That’s good. Do you have the Space X… Did you get an email from Elon Musk or something like that saying, “I love it.”
No, I’d love to. Garrett Reisman used to work at the Space X though. He says that we have fans over there for sure.
JS: Yeah. I bet. I mean, they got to love it. I do think that there’s sort of a mirror going on here where there are people working in space today who are looking then saying, “Yeah, well, we didn’t do it like that then, but we’re trying to make it happen now.” That’s like the Artemis stuff that has been in the works for the last few years, the idea of going back to the Moon. I do feel like that’s part of the resonance in “For All Mankind”. Is like, “Well, we didn’t do it then.” Are we trying to get back on course now? I think it adds a little bit of something to watching “For All Mankind”, to know that that work is progressing now.
I did too. You know it’s current. It’s not something that’s just part of a nostalgic past. It’s still in the cards, people still get excited about it. People tuned in when Space X did that. The dragon crew launched to the space station was kind of a big deal. Those videos of the Space X rockets flying straight up and then landing vertically, which is something you’ve seen since Forbidden Planet. It’s like, “That’s been around forever. We’ve never actually done it.” “No. Oh my God, look at that. It looks just like the Forbidden Planet it’s kind of cool.”
Although, I got to correct that, sorry. Forbidden Planet does not have a rocket like that. Forbidden Planet is a big saucer, but it’s all those 50s shows in the 1950s.
JS: All the 50s with the rocket show. Yeah.
All the 50s. Yes. Yeah.
JS: I saw forbidden planet for the first time, a couple of years. And I was like, “Oh, this is where they got all the art direction for “Star Trek”. I see it now.”
There’s a lot of DNA in it from “Forbidden Planet.”
JS: It’s amazing. Season two, we’re going to talk in a minute about sort of episode one, because Stephen when I watched it the last couple of nights. But before we dig down into it a little bit more, I wanted to ask you a broader question about… There’s the Jamestown base that is established in season one. And then obviously that is expanded upon in season two. I know I’d asked a version of this question before, but obviously you had to do a lot of thought about like, well, what is that big built-out Moon base look like? Is there some inspiration you can take from existing plans or is that much more of extrapolation of like, okay, what would a Moon base be like? What kind of work did you have to sort of imagine how life on the Moon works in season two?
Yeah. It was more of an extrapolation. I mean, we did talk about what are the current plans for a return to the Moon and what are the Moon base. But whenever we looked at them, it was hard to sort of retrofit them because they’re all then based on things we know today, technologies that are available today, lessons learned over the span of time. You had to kind of deconstruct that too well. But what would they be thinking back in the 70s and it never helped? So it was easier to just start with 1970s technology and build on top, have the technology advance at a faster pace. Assume they have a lot more money and more, more political willpower to do it. The first base they throw up is, like I said before, it’s part of what was originally going to be Skylab. So that kind of defines the original habitat module. And then they make plans to sort of expand it later in a modular kind of way.
So that by the time you get to season two, you can kind of see the thought process and, “Okay, they started here, they added on this section, what are the things they’re going to need?” They’re going to need an operation center. They’re going to need a place for the crew to live. There’re going to be laboratories. There have to be a power plant et cetera, et cetera. And then you start thinking, “Well, what’s the purpose of the base generally?” “Well, they’re here as part of this mining operation, they’ve discovered ice right over there.” Okay. So how do you expand the mining operation from this point? Where are they going to land the El Sams? Where’s the waste going? Where’s the nuclear power plant?
It just became a logical exercise of going through the things, what you would need, how you would do it, how many flights you could have plausibly made in the 10 year span using Sea Dragon as a regular thing to get their components up there, then to build them and assemble them and how… There was a lot of just sort of thought of how could they do this at the time, if all went reasonably well. Those decisions kind of informed the basic layout of Jamestown and the design we ultimately came up with.
JS: Now, we’ve peppered you with a lot of technical questions and we’re going to dive into episode one here. But for people who are listening, who haven’t seen the show, I’ll just say, it’s fun to talk about all of this extrapolation. This is one of the things that makes “For All Mankind” so fun to watch, but it is all in surface of the stories you’re telling with the characters. I don’t want to overdo it with the technical information about making a Moon base and say, “In the end, the Moon base is the setting. For a lot of drama, some of it is very technical. A lot of it is very character driven.” And that’s why I love the show is that it’s set in this. You obviously considered all of the science and technology, but you also are using it as a stage to tell your stories about your characters. I appreciate that too.
No, thanks. And that is how we think of the show. It is a character show first and foremost, everything else is about how does that support the story of these people.
JS: Right. So don’t be afraid, potential viewers-
JS: … Just go watch it. We’re going to fire off the spoiler horn now if you’re afraid of spoilers for episode one. Come back to this part after you’ve watched episode one, which premieres on Apple TV+ on February 19th.
Spoilers For S2E1 of “For All Mankind”
So there’s a huge time jump that you make in season two, which is not surprising because it’s about the 80s. You do with this montage. You wrote this episode. It’s your baby. We talked about a little bit before, but what goes into deciding what goes in that montage? Because you’re like, “Oh, so John Lennon survives. Sadat doesn’t get assassinated because there’s no peace with Israel, but Pope John Paul II does get assassinated.”
How much of that is just having fun with old history, Easter eggs and how much of it is… what is the download that I need to give the viewers to understand the March of time. Because it’s a really fun segment and I was sitting there thinking, did you just make a list of like all the alternatives that you could have put in about what happens between the 70s and the early 80s?
It was sort of all the above. It was something that’s developed as we were working on the show. Actually that was one of the Apple executives suggested, he said to me, he was reading scripts for season two. He said, “I really love that piece you did in the first episode of season one where we used some of the archival footage of John Kennedy and him in the early days of the space program, that kind of puts you in a certain time and place. Wouldn’t it be fun to do that here?” And I really took that to heart and thought, “That’s a great idea. That was a nice pieces of the first season.” We had a lot of things in our alternate timeline because we had fleshed out a fairly detailed alternate timeline of history for the whole series. And there were a lot of things in that timeline that we never got around to being able to put into the show proper. And then there were some things that are in the background of the show and some things that come more to the forefront.
So it was sort of a matter of, “All right. Let’s build out this montage. Let’s talk about the events the audience needs to know, like Ronald Reagan gets elected in 1976.” And what are the fun things and what are the sort of interesting, “Ooh, Oh my God, I can’t believe that.” Or, “I’d about that.” To put a lot of it in there to make it something you’d have to watch more than once just to see everything that’s going by. There’s quick off hand references to the Camp David Accords collapsing, and the Soviets are not going to invade Afghanistan, and all these sorts of alternate pieces. Almost all of them were important for our alternate history that they were building blocks to things that we were doing. And some of them are more important to know than others.
John Lennon was an important one because he does figure into the story a little deeper into the season, it’s not the last time you’ll hear his name come up. So we went to posit right up front that, “Hey he’s alive,” in this version of alternate history. Whereas the death of the Pope was sort of an interesting thing that we kicked around, but wasn’t really meaningful in a story sense to our particular show, but it was sort of an interesting detail and hey, why not? Let’s put that in too.
JS: No. I really enjoyed it. It’s a really fun montage. I like old history stuff, but that was… it was a lot of fun to see the Butterfly Effect going on. It’s our world, but not quite as we know it, kind of thing. It’s a lot of fun.
SH: I thought it was really interesting and I really enjoyed it how the episode begins with this emotional and inspirational scene. The astronauts are going to go out and watch the sunrise. They’re singing. We see their response to the sun hitting them. It is a very nice collective moment. And then the show basically backs up. What is it? 24 or 48 hours to… and kind of fills in what’s going on. So many shows start with a moment of danger or like, “Hey, something wild is getting ready to happen. We’re going to back up.” But in episode one, we start with this beautiful moment and then back up from there.
JS: It’s good vibes. Good vibes to kick it off.
It’s great. We need more of those in 2021.
I completely agree.
SH: So what went into that choice?
It was that we wanted to start it on a positive note. We’d want the show to be… it is an inspirational show and aspirational show. And we wanted to sort of touch on that from the very beginning that, “Hey, we’ve moved into the future and a lot of scary things are going happen this year, but we’re in a positive place, positive state of mind, and good things are happening there and in the world and sit back and enjoy the show.” That was just kind of the spirit in which we wanted to open.
JS: I mean, Bob Marley, every little thing’s going to be all right.
I mean, you watch the show and you realize that actually this is right before a moment of high drama and peril, but the show doesn’t make us feel the peril yet. Instead it’s like, “Start with good vibes and then we’ll get there, eventually.” I think that worked really well. I really enjoyed that.
I want to ask you about… and this is a long-term planning thing, and since you’re an Apple TV+ show, I know you don’t want to comment on future products, that’s an Apple thing, one of your challenges… Because we’ve read about how this is sort of like the 70s and then the 80s, and you said the season three, it’s the 90s. So you’ve got your characters aging, more rapidly than they do in real life. And you’ve got the stories you’re telling about the characters we know from last season. You’ve got some new characters. We have familiar characters that have moved on to different jobs or they’ve left NASA. To what extent is “For All Mankind” a story about the characters that you’ve got and how much of it is a story of the people who kind of move through the space program? Because over time you do have to age up these characters.
I know this is kind of a weird question to ask, but how much of it is, “We’re going to follow these people that you met in season one and we’re going to follow them forward.” And how much of it is, “You know, some of them are going to filter out and new people are going to filter in because we’re telling a broader story.” Because it’s characters, but it’s also a broader canvas.
I think it is both of those things simultaneously. And we kind of knew that from the beginning. They were telling the story of this program. But you tell that story through the eyes of the people who participate in it. And over the span of time, yeah, you’re going to see some people age out, other people are going to die or move out of the program. But you’re going to see other people coming up behind them. People that were kids in the first episode or the first season are now adults in the second season. Then eventually hopefully you get to see their kids. And there’s a generational aspect to it, which is, I think part of saying that the space program is a larger endeavor that is not just about specific moment in time. It’s something that is working for the betterment of All Mankind, this part of the title. The idea that this is some is a multi-generational endeavor that they’re all engaged in.
It’s also hearkening back to… part of the inspiration for this con for the structure was a miniseries that I loved back in the 80s that was called Centennial. And Centennial was based on, I believe a James Michener novel, if I’m not mistaken. It told the story of a town called Centennial that was in Colorado. It told the whole story. I think it literally begins with the formation of the earth and the coming of the dinosaurs and so on. But then it gets to the Indians and the first settlers or the first French trappers. And it goes all the way up until the 1980s.
Over the course of that mini series, you got to know characters. Fell in love with them. But watch them age then you got to know their children and their grandchildren. And then new people came in and other characters die. And it was fascinating. And I loved it and I was really caught up in that kind of storytelling and watching time pass. And yet you were watching the town grow, and you’re watching the environment change or you’re watching the country change. You’re really being told this very big Epic story, but you were doing it on this intimate level of the particular people that were involved in, that passed through this particular location in time. I thought that was a really interesting structure.
Yeah. I mean, episode one of season one does have prominently a young girl who is looking up at space and at the Moon. You don’t have to put your cards out on the table, but watching that I was like, “Well, this is a very important… Oh, this is going to be an important character.” I felt like that was the show saying, “We’re playing a long game here.” Right?
Like, “You’re going to see this little girl grow up.” And what she ends up doing is open to question you watch and see, but this is an epic. It is a multi-generational long timescale kind of story from the very beginning.
Yeah. Again, that was a deliberate choice. You weren’t going to see a leader become part of the space program in season one obviously. But you knew that she was somebody that was going to be important and it was a promise and it was like a marker to lay down to be picked up later. And in season two you’ll see where a leader is in 1983.
I love it.
SH: Before we go, both Jason and I felt… I think we felt a little overwhelmed in the scene where Margo is getting briefed on everything that’s going on. So we hear about Skylab. We hear about a whole bunch of space shuttles. Jamestown base-
JS: There’s that whiteboard basically of like, “Oh my God.” Military shuttles at Vandenberg, which is a really nice a space nerd reference. I love that.
SH: … Yeah. Yeah. I caught that too. And I feel like it was meant to be a little overwhelming. So we see very efficiently how huge the space program has gotten. There’s like… I don’t know about my count, like a half dozen missions or more going on. There’s people everywhere. Things happening all the time. How do y’all balance that enormous scope of the world and this program, how big it’s gotten, with the specific stories that you want to show the audience.
Well, I mean, you’re telling it… You’re saying here’s the story that you’re following week to week, of these particular people. Is just taking place in an enormous backdrop. But it’s not that different from doing it in any large organization. If you’re telling a story about the military, the Pentagon is a vast, vast organization with hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions of people working for it around the world and doing all kinds of things all the time. And if you’re doing a story at the Pentagon, that’s going to be part of the backdrop and it’s going to be happening and it’s a very busy, chaotic place. But you’re still picking out a particular story that you’re telling about particular people. And why are we tuning in this week and where’s this all building to?
So it’s still the same thing. It’s just, I think, a bit overwhelming to us to watch now, because we’re just so used to the space program being so much smaller and just very discreet missions that weren’t launched one after a time, after great buildup and all this thought. We were positing a different future where NASA had become a national priority and what had taken front row in a lot of ways. So it just felt like the program would explode. And then there’s still the Soviet competitors out there. And that the Soviets are matching a step for step so that the space race was still going. So they had to compete in all these different fields and they were seeing real benefits from them. They were seeing benefits from the mining that was going on in the Moon. They were seeing benefits from the R&D that was going on in basic science and technological change was happening as a result.
The consumer benefits were happening. It was helping the economy. And it was all kind of building upon itself to the point where it was like, “Well, of course, we’re going to keep going, why would we stop” That that would be kind of the attitude. And then on a story level, you’re just picking and choosing what are the important things. Okay, how does this affect Margo’s story? What’s Margo up to? Where’s her personal life? What is she interested and involved with? Where’s Ed Baldwin in his life now that he’s not full-time working astronaut in space and he’s head of the astronaut office. What’s his family life like? What is it saying about him as a character with all this mission going on? Where’s his place in it now that he’s not on the bleeding edge anymore? He’s like flying a desk now. So you’re still sort of-
…Yeah, he’s golfing. He golfs a lot and he golfs in the show.
JS: I have one last question, which is more of a TV nerdery question, but I got you here. So I’m going to ask it before we go. Apple TV+ is a weekly release schedule. Outlander comes out on Stars. It’s a weekly release schedule. We live in this era of binge-watching. And your storytelling… I’m going to say I’m biased here. I think binge watching is great, but I really like being able to go with cliffhangers and talk about every episode week to week.
How do you feel about it? I don’t want to put you in a corner where if Netflix comes to you and says, “We want to drop a whole season of a show as a binge.” That you’re like, “I’m on the record as being against that.” But how do you feel about the weekly storytelling? Because it’s obviously something you’ve been doing for a long time, but I watch “For All Mankind”, and think this is a story built to be told weekly with the pauses in the middle and with dramatic endings. Am I reading too much into that? Is it really just making TV and it doesn’t matter how it releases, or do you have a feeling about having that weekly roll out?
I think they’re both valid ways to watch and I certainly binge show. So it’s not like I looked down on bingeing and think that’s a bad way to do it. I do believe though, that you get one shot at this idea of the weekly rollout and that you get one shot to sort of have people take a week in between episodes to talk to each other, to discover a sense of community and to speculate about what’s coming next. Because once the show is finished, then it’s going to be bingeable forever.
So you only get this one narrow timeframe where you can build that kind of a fan base and that kind of conversation and have people guess and speculate. And I think that’s part of the fun of being a fan of a show is wondering what’s coming next and talking your friends about it. So I’m still a big fan of that format.
I think you’re absolutely right that my story instincts are still very much geared to the weekly format because I do kind of think of them in that way like, “Here’s a discrete episode and the next week you’re going to see the next one.” And that does influence the way you construct the story. If I was doing them for Netflix, and I knew that they were all going to be dropped at the same time, I would probably construct them in a different way. They wouldn’t have quite the same endings. The internal rhythm of each hour episode would be very different. It’s sort of like if you think about… I mean, the only one that I know off the top of my head, there’s House of Cards.
When they did House of Cards, it’s almost impossible in my mind to separate them out into different episodes. They all just kind of run together. It’s just like one big story and you’re telling it just pretty much continuously. And there was one episode, I think the first season where the president goes back to his alma mater, his college. And that one was kind of almost like a standalone episode. But for the most part, that series just ran continuously. And that’s a different viewing experience.
When you’re watching shows like mine back to back to back, there is a certain roller coaster effect to it. You’re riding towards a climax and then, okay and now we’re to go on the roller coaster again. And then you ride towards the next climax at the end of every hour. You could just kind of tell shows that are meant to be viewed in a certain way. It doesn’t mean you can’t. It just means that’s part of the intention of the creator.
It’s somewhat similar to when I go back and I look at… Say, if I look at an episode of Next Generation or Deep Space Nine. And every once in a while, pulling down, “Ah, I’ve watched this in a while.” And then watch it. When you’re watching those shows without commercials, it’s very odd because it keeps building to these commercial breaks that don’t exist anymore.
And it’s a very odd rhythm to sit down and watch, now a 45 or 48 minute episode or whatever it is that has this internal clock that’s always driving you to a phantom commercial break. So when you’re watching Outlander back to back to back, it’s probably a similar experience. You’re probably very aware that, “Okay. Yeah, that’s the end.” So I don’t know. I think both the methods are valid. I think people still enjoy both methods. And I think we’ll probably continue producing both methods for foreseeable future.
I grew up watching “Doctor Who,” and they edited those 25 minute episodes into omnibus versions for PBS. And it was the same pacing, which is like, “Why is something dramatic happening every 25 minutes?”
It doesn’t make sense. But that was how it was built.
Yeah, it’s odd.
SH: Well, Ron, thank you so much for taking some time with us, to talk about “For All Mankind”. I know we have really enjoyed it and our audience, I’m sure will enjoy our time together too. So thank you.
Absolutely. It was a pleasure to be here.
JS: And everybody can check it out. Apple TV+, starting on February 19th and rolling out weekly. Very important. Rolling out weekly. And then you can binge it later, if you like.
JS: Thank you so much.
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