'For All Mankind' season 4 episode 1 review: Lots of moving parts but light on plot

Still from the T.V. show For All Mankind (season 4, episode 1). Silhouette of an astronaut miner holding a pick axe whilst standing on a large rock. Above them is the show title "For All Mankind" with a teaser line above that which reads "A new gold rush begins." At the very top is the Apple TV+ logo.
Strap in for season 4 of "For All Mankind." (Image credit: Apple Inc.)

After the obligatory time jump, Apple TV Plus's "For All Mankind" splashes down in 2003. The U.S. has teamed up with the Soviet Union and other allies to build a thriving colony on Mars, and plans are afoot to capture and mine asteroids that will help the base to become self-sustainable.

But, this being "For All Mankind," there's also plenty of human drama to unpack. Indeed, the key players are still dealing with the aftermath of a 1995-set season three finale in which NASA was left reeling by the Johnson Space Center (JSC) bombing that killed both Karen Baldwin (Shantel VanSanten) and hero-of-the-hour Molly Cobb (Sonya Walger). 

Kelly Baldwin (Cynthy Wu), meanwhile, gave birth in orbit around Mars, as Danny Stevens (Casey W. Johnson) faced stern consequences for causing the deaths of some of the red planet's first human inhabitants. Plus, former NASA boss Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt) seemingly struck up a deal with the Soviets to defect and avoid punishment for passing on state secrets.

Related: Season 4 of 'For All Mankind' debuts with alternate asteroid history

Picking up the story eight years later, "For All Mankind"'s fourth season premiere, "Glasnost," has a lot of work to do establishing its new world order. As such it can sometimes feel like a case of information overload, but – thanks to its big action set-piece – we reckon it lays the groundwork to ensure the show's latest run of episodes is ready for launch.

Spoilers ahead for "For All Mankind" season 4 episode 1: "Glasnost"

As ever with "For All Mankind", there's a lot of catching up to do in the opening minutes of this season premiere. In what's quickly become one of the show's hallmarks, the episode opens with a montage of news clips strategically placed to fill you in on eight years of alternative history.

Some of the pop culture events – Woodstock '99, the rise of reality T.V., chess champion Garry Kasparov taking on IBM computer Deep Blue, hit movies "Jerry Maguire" and "Castaway" – look remarkably familiar. However, beyond that it's clear that the "For All Mankind"-verse is diverging further and further from our own reality, nearly 40 years after the space race began to unfold very differently back in season one.

Since we last visited the Happy Valley Mars colony in 1995, humanity's expansion into the solar system has continued at pace. Trips to the moon are now increasingly commonplace, with plenty of job opportunities and even a hotel for the growing business of space tourism. Seven leading space-faring powers (including the U.S. and the Soviet Union) have established a "Mars-7" agreement to help keep things cordial on the Red Planet, while private sector space pioneers Helios have unveiled an advanced new plasma propulsion technology. This cuts the travel time to Mars down to one or two months, and will undoubtedly be a narratively expedient way for the writers to negate the vast distances and timescales generally involved in space travel. It's also surprisingly sci-fi tech (for now, at least) in a show that's generally kept one foot in the real world.

"For All Mankind," now streaming on Apple TV+. (Image credit: Apple Inc.)

Back on Earth, Jimmy Stevens (David Chandler), younger son of former astronauts Gordo and Tracy (Michael Dorman and Sarah Jones, respectively), made a plea bargain after testifying against the perpetrators of the Johnson Space Center bombing. Meanwhile, ex-astronaut Ellen Wilson (former series regular Jodi Balfour) won an unexpected second term as President in 1996. So, during her term in office she legalized same-sex marriage and subsequently married her long-term sweetheart, Pam Horton (Meghan Leathers). Her running mate, George Bush Sr., fared less well than his son did in real-life, losing the 2000 election to Al Gore. 

Former Beatle John Lennon performed a successful halftime show at Superbowl XXXVI (it was U2 in real-life) and over in the Soviet Union, Premier Mikhail Gorbachev had significant success with his new Glasnost and Perestroika reforms. Gore later declared the Cold War over.

An older looking Ed Baldwin thanks to an excellent make-up team. (Image credit: Apple Inc.)

With the alt-history revision done and dusted, the episode wastes little time reminding us where all the familiar "For All Mankind" faces find themselves in 2003. Series mainstay Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman) is still employed by Helios and is the second-in-command at the thriving Martian mini-metropolis at Happy Valley. Part of the same generation of spacefarers as Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and the other Apollo astronauts, Ed is now well into his 70s, and – as is the case with the other survivors from season one – the show's make-up department has done extensive work adding three decades onto the 40-something. The results are both impressive and convincing.

Ed's due back on Earth in two months' time and daughter Kelly (Cynthy Wu) can't wait for his return. She's busy raising "space baby" Alex whilst she has a difficult house guest in the form of Olga, the mother of the kid's late cosmonaut dad, Alexei. Right now, however, Ed's busy commanding the Ranger One spacecraft on a groundbreaking mission to haul an asteroid into Mars' orbit, where it will be mined for resources that will help make Happy Valley self-sustaining. Cosmonaut Grigory Kuznetsov (Lev Gorn) – the first Soviet on Mars – has the honor of taking the first ever steps on an asteroid.

Ed's daughter, Kelly, awaits his return. (Image credit: Apple Inc.)

With the Johnson Space Center in Houston destroyed in the season three finale, the impressive Mars Mission Control Center – at the renamed Molly Cobb Space Center – has a modern new look. It's also under new management, with Eli Hobson (Daniel Stern) now pulling the strings as the boss of NASA. Interestingly he's a recruit from the private sector, credited with driving America's move to electric vehicles when he was CEO of Chrysler. The adoption of alternative energy sources seems set to be a major theme in this new season, as does Hobson's penchant for cost cutting. 

A few feet away from him, engineer Aleida Rosales (Coral Peña) follows the action from her console, as Kuznetsov pilots his self-propelled suit towards the asteroid. Naturally, his efforts culminate with him as the focus of a beautifully composed shot of a guy standing on the horizon of a tiny, rocky world.

Engineer Aleida Rosales reporting for duty. (Image credit: Apple Inc.)

As teased by the season three finale, former NASA head Margo Madison wakes up in a sparse Moscow apartment, her morning routine a neat echo of the old days back at JSC – albeit without her trusty piano. Living under the alias of Margaret Reynolds, she's now clearly doing her best to assimilate on the other side of the Iron Curtain – she speaks Russian with a strong American accent – and keeps up with current affairs via the International Tribune.

Meanwhile, Danielle Poole (Krys Marshall), the first American on Mars, has left NASA and is keeping a close eye on the family of disgraced astronaut (and Jimmy's elder brother) Danny Stevens. The episode never reveals what happened to Danny after he was banished to solitary confinement on the Martian surface, which suggests there's a big reveal to come later in the season. Whatever Danny's ultimate fate turned out to be, it still haunts Danielle.

The significant new addition to the cast is Miles Dale (Toby Kebbell), an offshore oil driller who's fallen on hard times following the decline of fossil fuels. Estranged from his young family, he applies for a job extracting natural resources from the moon, but doesn't bank on the booming popularity of careers in outer space, fueled, in part, by the hit "Moon Miners" reality T.V. show. After lying about his college experience, he manages to get a placement that will start in two years' time, but complains that it's not soon enough. He's ultimately offered a two-year trip to Mars – harder, longer and further away, but with a "bigger upside." Reasoning that it's the best option for his family, he accepts the position.

"For All Mankind" introduces new cast member Toby Kebbell who plays an offshore oil driller named Miles Dale. (Image credit: Apple Inc.)

"Glasnost" spends so long getting its pieces in the right place on the chess board that there's little time for actual plot. What story there is focuses on the aforementioned Martian asteroid and – in the long-established tradition of the show – what happens when something goes very, very wrong.

The mission starts out with plenty of promise, as astronauts, cosmonauts and private contractors team up to build the apparatus that will tow the rock back to Mars' orbit. In fact, the construction of this surprisingly Death Star-like structure plays out like an outer space version of the famous barn-raising scene in "Witness."  

When the connection with the ship inevitably starts to malfunction, the episode makes ingenious use of sound effects, music and "2001: A Space Odyssey"-style silence to ramp up the tension. Grigory immediately volunteers for a spacewalk to fix the problem and he's joined by Parker, a private sector colleague keen to secure his bonus. The situation quickly goes from bad to worst, as Parker is fatally impaled and Grigory finds himself trapped with his suit running out of air. Ever the action hero, Ed wants to go outside to rescue his friend, but the Soviet commander tells him it's pointless and sacrifices himself for the good of the crew. For Aleida, the incident triggers flashbacks to the JSC bombing and she rushes out of mission control. She subsequently dodges all phone calls from NASA.

Margo Madison (played by Wrenn Schmidt) meets an interesting someone whilst sitting on a park bench. (Image credit: Apple Inc.)

Like the space hotel disaster in the season three premiere, Polaris, this failed mission seems primed to be the catalyst that sets this year's events in motion. Within hours, Margo is making her way to Star City to meet with Soviet Space Agency director Catiche, although it turns out she's not as important as she used to be. She obviously made some kind of deal to consult on space matters when she relocated to Moscow, but nearly a decade after she left NASA, she's in danger of becoming obsolete. An official tells her never to come to Star City without an appointment again and she's escorted out of the building.

One week later, Margo has an interesting encounter with a woman on a park bench. Initially, the only thing that would raise eyebrows about this benchmate is her surprisingly deep knowledge of the migratory habits of bullfinches. However, she suddenly starts talking English and events shift into the realms of a Cold War spy movie. The woman claims to have Margo's "best interests at heart" and reminds her that she "must be patient." The fact she also knows Margo's real name suggests that the exiled former NASA boss still has a significant role to play – this is no accident.

Welcome to Happy Valley. (Image credit: Apple Inc.)

Back in the U.S., we learn that asteroid missions are grounded until the Mars Commission publishes its report. Changes are already afoot at Happy Valley, as commanding officer Colonel Peters' position has been deemed untenable in the wake of the debacle. Ed – who's clearly not keen on heading back to Earth anyway – uses it as an excuse to stay on Mars longer, reasoning that a new commander will need the continuity of a long-standing executive officer to help them settle in.

NASA director Hobson's first choice for the job is Danielle, but she's reluctant. It turns out that she only agreed to meet him because of what happened to Grigory, one of her closest friends. Unsurprisingly, Hobson's not inclined to take no for an answer and proves to be a master of persuasion, pointing out that she's the only person with a chance of controlling Ed Baldwin.

NASA director Hobson and Danielle come to an agreement. (Image credit: Apple Inc.)

Danielle eventually accepts, and the episode ends with her floating on board a Unity spacecraft ready to fire up its plasma engines to Mars – and sitting further back is none other than Miles Dale. 

Not a vintage "For All Mankind" episode, perhaps, but it's one that puts this fourth season on the launchpad for an intriguing journey into the 21st century.

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Richard Edwards
Space.com Contributor

Richard's love affair with outer space started when he saw the original "Star Wars" on TV aged four, and he spent much of the ’90s watching "Star Trek”, "Babylon 5” and “The X-Files" with his mum. After studying physics at university, he became a journalist, swapped science fact for science fiction, and hit the jackpot when he joined the team at SFX, the UK's biggest sci-fi and fantasy magazine. He liked it so much he stayed there for 12 years, four of them as editor. 

He's since gone freelance and passes his time writing about "Star Wars", "Star Trek" and superheroes for the likes of SFX, Total Film, TechRadar and GamesRadar+. He has met five Doctors, two Starfleet captains and one Luke Skywalker, and once sat in the cockpit of "Red Dwarf"'s Starbug.