Friday 24 November 2023

From Voyager to For All Mankind: Ronald D. Moore's fabulous forays into the cosmos

For All Mankind hero image

For All Mankind
 season one is superb TV. 

It's one of the best sci-fi shows out there. Maybe one of the best shows on TV currently, period, and for a number of reasons. 

They say with good writing, you:

1) Create characters people love.

2) Put those characters through sheer hell.

FAM does exactly that. 

The cast of characters is nuanced, diverse and easy to root for. Rather than engaging in easy breezy cynicism, it displays the resilience, courage and adaptability of humanity. And yet, these are no idealized supermen: they struggle with their own flaws and weaknesses, often being forced to acknowledge their own imperfections in order to better collaborate with others.

This is the latest foray into the cosmos by the extraordinary show runner Ronald D. Moore. Every time he gets both more brilliant, and closer and closer to reality. 

He started his career submitting spec scripts to Star Trek (his favourite show), and on the strength of those, got into the writer's room of The Next Generation. That is no easy feat. From there, he went to the more serialized Deep Space Nine; where he wrote some of its best and most memorable episodes.

He followed that up with a very brief stint on Voyager. Unfortunately, he hated it, and quickly bounced. In an interview, he didn't hold any punches: Voyager failed to fulfill the promise of the premise.

the other voyager
Not this Voyager, the other one

"I just don't understand why it doesn't even believe in itself. Examine the fundamental premise of VOYAGER: A starship chases a bunch of renegades. Both ships are flung to the opposite side of the galaxy. The renegades are forced to come aboard Voyager. They all have to live together on their way home, which is going to take a century or whatever they set up in the beginning. 

I thought, This is a good premise. That's interesting. Get them away from all the familiar STAR TREK aliens, throw them out into a whole new section of space where anything can happen. Lots of situations for conflict among the crew. The premise has a lot of possibilities. 

...This ship was going to have problems. It wasn't going to have unlimited sources of energy. It wasn't going to have all the doodads of the Enterprise. It was going to be rougher, fending for themselves more, having to trade to get supplies that they want. 

That didn't happen. 

It doesn't happen at all, and it's a lie to the audience. I think the audience intuitively knows when something is true and something is not true. VOYAGER is not true. If it were true, the ship would not look spick-and-span every week, after all these battles it goes through. How many times has the bridge been destroyed? How many shuttlecrafts have vanished, and another one just comes out of the oven? 

That kind of bullshitting the audience takes its toll. At some point, the audience stops taking it seriously, because they know that this is not really the way this would happen. These people wouldn't act like this.”

I can't argue with that: Moore makes very good points. Sadly, he couldn't make any headway against the executives running the show.

That fruitless creative collision led Moore to jump ship and reboot Battlestar Galactica instead, turning it into the best sci-fi show on TV in the early 2000s. It was innovative, gritty and far more adult than anything Star Trek had done to date. The fleeing survivors of Caprica dealt with all kinds of shortages, unlike the pampered TNG crew who could just replicate anything they wanted with the push of a button (or 'Tea. Earl Grey. Hot'). Ships flew in a more realistic manner, and they even toyed with removing all the sound from space scenes. 

Storylines were daring, dark and tied back to The War on Terror, making it must-see TV.

At least, it was for the first two seasons. 

Battlestar Galactica
BSG: So good it can get away with a pic like this

One of the main themes of the show (That everyone never agrees on anything, making compromise and negotiation necessary for civilization to function) got jettisoned out the airlock in the finale. The survivors put their ships on automatic pilot and sent them soaring into the sun, along with all their tech, universally adopting a hunter-gatherer subsistence existence on earth. 

Okay, sure.

Yuval Harrari would be proud. 

Thanks to the hive mind, BSG wrapped up with a neat if perplexing bow. Maybe I just didn't understand the premise of the show. Moore would know. I can't help but imagine a postscript where, once everyone else is frolicking in hippie-time meadow, criminal gangs reveal squirrelled away tech & weapons and take over.

But for the first two seasons, it was breathtaking, genre defining sci-fi. BSG pushed the sci-fi envelope and then some. 

Now, Moore is back with some of his best work yet: an alternate history show centred around the space program. The central conceit is that the Soviets landed on the moon first. Like the flapping of the wings of a butterfly, this causes a cascade of further changes. As the show progresses through the decades, the more it diverges from what we know as reality. 

Moore wisely avoids rehashing The Right Stuff, Apollo 13, and the like. Instead, the space program is the supporting scaffolding upon which human drama can be hung. For All Mankind is as much about culture, prejudice, social change, organizational and individual fallibility, and the human experience as it is about space shuttles and moon bases.

Each season covers a decade, starting with the sixties. The period details are wonderful, and the evolution of the cast's fashions fun to digest. 

Thanks to the Soviets landing a woman on the moon, the Americans are forced to include women in the space program. Propaganda posturing propels them to become more inclusive, the better to win hearts and minds. Yet the social improvements that cascade out of these calculated, reptilian motives winds up improving society as a whole. 

Allowing everyone to contribute to a society to the best of their ability maximizes human capital, making society stronger and healthier.

The show tackles everything from panic attacks, alcoholism, egotism, to geopolitics and space hazards, yet remains hopeful and positive throughout. 

It's a virtuoso performance: For All Mankind sees all the warts, yet loves humanity anyway.

Give it a watch on Apple+. 

It's too good to miss.

astronauts from For All Mankind
Astronauts heading out to watch For All Mankind

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