Enough pessimistic fantasy — Apple TV’s ambitious alternate history drama is the best show you’ve never heard of, and it deserves to win the streaming wars.
It’s been a good few weeks for fans of epic fantasy. At the end of August HBO Max released House of the Dragon, the streaming service’s blockbuster follow-up to the legendarily popular Game of Thrones, which continues to hold the record for most watched show of all time. And on September 2nd, Amazon Prime Video swung hard into the competition for viewers’ eyeballs with The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power — another high fantasy prequel to a popular franchise which holds the distinction of being the single most expensive TV series ever made.
Ever since HBO’s eye-wateringly profitable flagship came to an end in 2019, the race to claim “the next Game of Thrones” has consumed the world of streaming. Yet this fall the final battle of the streaming wars has, seemingly, arrived: House of the Dragon and Rings of Power are clear frontrunners for the win, and it seems doubtful that viewers will have enough time to feed them both. Whichever emerges victorious seems to be the clear heir to Game of Thrones’ fanbase — and profit margin.
But could we just, not?
Don’t get me wrong, I have no fight to pick with epic fantasy. Personally I quite like The Rings of Power, and if one of the two has to win the Amazon series has my vote. But there are better shows, and ones less burdened with the unenviable task of shoehorning a prequel into whatever wider universe it occupies.
Take, for example, For All Mankind, an unsung triumph of streaming TV that has, with its recent third season, once again proved it deserves far more love than it gets. Set in an alternate timeline where the Soviet Union beat the United States to the moon, the show is an ambitious masterclass in worldbuilding, chronicling a history in which, far from fading into obsolescence, the space race gripped the world for decades.
While the series’ first season bears a clear resemblance to The Right Stuff, with a lovable crew of fearless test pilots vowing that “the future will be ours to fight for and ours to win” as they race to build a permanent human colony on the lunar surface, it’s in later seasons that the show truly finds its voice. In perhaps its most impressive trick, the series skips more than a decade between each new season, racing from the small change of Aleksei Leonov’s 1969 landing to the return of the Mercury 13, a real corps of female astronauts who were never allowed into NASA in our history, to a 1983 Cuban Missile Crisis in space involving black ops “moon marines”, to the election of America’s first woman president in the early 1990s and, most recently, the 1995 human colonization of Mars.
Along the way the series touches on everything from forbidden love at the height of the Cold War to the limits of nationalism and the brutality of systemic racism in America. And, more importantly, a story of such scale allows for characters far more complex than most seen on the silver screen. Take, for example, Aleida Rosales. First appearing as a girl in Mexico watching the Soviet moon landing on a small black and white TV days before her mother’s tragic death, Aleida fights with her father to complete the dangerous crossing to the US border. For her the space program is a chance to seize the mythical “American Dream,” one promised to so many and given to so few. For Danielle Poole, meanwhile, being an astronaut requires a reckoning with the tension between her identity as an African American woman and her service to a country that has, for so much of its history, brutally oppressed those of both her race and gender. And for Margo Madison, underestimated protégé of Wernher von Braun, the race for the stars dares her to find out how far she’s willing to go to make a name for herself in the history books.
It’s characters like these who make For All Mankind feel real, who send chills down your spine when, for example, they choose to stay at their posts in Mission Control as the nuclear strike sirens sound rather than let an astronaut in orbit fight for their life alone. And that gets to the heart of what makes the show so gripping, and so much more deserving of your watching time this fall than Amazon or HBO’s offerings.
The series certainly scratches the itch for drama, complete with more espionage, backstabbing, forbidden love, firefights, space acrobatics, and high flying heroism than I would have previously believed possible to fit into three seasons of television. But it also has something else that’s harder to define — a sense of vision and boundless hope that’s impossible to ignore. For all its historical setting, it is nevertheless a show about the future, a future that, while imperfect, we can perhaps believe in enough to fight for and to win. A future where we fight for each other, no matter the walls that divide us. And in that way it truly is an epic in the old fashioned sense of the word — a story of the heroes who define an age, of love, hope, and human daring in the face of the uncaring stars. I’ll take that over a prequel any day.
About the Author
As a new editor of the Quest, Declan is already at work on a new version of the Quest site and, when not in class or reading a book somewhere in the canyon, is likely to be found holed up in the SPO listening to music and muttering something incoherent about semicolons and divs. Like Anie, Declan looks forward to working with both new and returning Quest writers this semester, and plans to spend more than a few late nights in the Quest office (before staggering into his 9 AM history class on Thursday morning).