alt-history 101

Let’s Get on For All Mankind’s Timeline

Ellen Wilson’s career is a roller coaster that only goes up. Photo: Patrick McElhenney

It’s become a For All Mankind tradition to use archival material — some real, some deep fake — to set the table in each season premiere. After starting the very first episode with about a minute of visuals featuring only JFK’s voice laid over them, the show aimed a bit higher in season two, and in season three it has reached heights of alternate reality that can only be described as dizzying. Let’s take a spin through all three and a half minutes of the latest bonanza to deduce some of the themes and topics that will shape this season and compare how these milestones stack up against their analogous events in our timeline.

President … Gary Hart?
If you weren’t paying attention to presidential politics in 1984, either because it wasn’t your jam or because you were not yet alive, here’s the deal: In For All Mankind’s timeline, Ronald Reagan is at the very end of his two-term presidency (1976–84) in season two, and Democrat Gary Hart wins two terms in 1984 and 1988, handily defeating Republican nominee Pat Robertson. In our timeline, Robertson ran in 1988 but had no momentum after the New Hampshire primary. The fictional USA in this universe is a nation that votes on the basis of hope, from Reagan’s likening of Jamestown Colony to John Winthrop’s shining city on a hill in the season-two opening montage to Hart’s cross-generational appeal to idealism (and, seemingly, an anti-nuclear-power and -weapons platform). In our timeline, Hart had to withdraw from a very promising 1988 presidential campaign because of allegations of marital infidelity. He went on to serve on the Homeland Security Advisory Council and as U.S. special envoy for Northern Ireland.

Moon treaty!
At the end of season two, Dani Poole’s historic televised handshake in space with cosmonaut Stepan Alexseev inspires Reagan to fly directly to Moscow to negotiate in person with Soviet premier Yuri Andropov. Those negotiations paid off, and now we learn they signed a historic treaty to preserve peace on the moon. Each of them subsequently retires from politics. In our timeline, there is no moon treaty.

Rogers Commission Report.
This one is sad but also very cleverly done: The presidential committee that investigated the near-nuclear meltdown at Jamestown is chaired by William P. Rogers, the former secretary of state and attorney general. In our timeline, the Rogers Commission investigated and reported on the tragic 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.

Outposts everywhere you look.
After Karen Baldwin sold the Outpost to Sam Cleveland last season, he spun it off into a franchise operation with Outposts opening in Berlin, Tokyo, L.A., and NYC. They’re a dynamite and creative business partnership!

Good and comforting.
As in season two, in which we saw Aleida Rosales and Bill Strausser watching Jeopardy! together, Alex Trebek is still the host. This matches our timeline, and I request confirmation next season that LeVar Burton was their Reading Rainbow host as well.

Bad and unsettling.
British prime minister Margaret Thatcher is assassinated in a bombing by the IRA. We see only the headline and a photo of the late PM, and there’s no mention of her successor. In our timeline’s 1984, this attempt failed. Not only was Thatcher not injured, she went on to deliver a speech at the Conservative Party’s conference the following day. Iron Lady, indeed.

The thriving Soviet economy.
Mikhail Gorbachev succeeds Andropov as Soviet premier, and his more forward-looking policies launch an economic boom in the USSR, facilitating the spread of communism throughout Latin America and into Mexico. This alternate history made me believe that Philip and Elizabeth Jennings were way more effective in For All Mankind’s timeline than in ours, in which Gorbachev led the Soviet Union through economic doldrums and its eventual dissolution into individual nations in the early ’90s.

No Last Dance, probably.
In the show’s timeline, Michael Jordan is drafted by … the Portland Trail Blazers? This may be a little nod to how, in our reality’s 1986 and 1987, the Trail Blazers drafted players from the USSR and Yugoslavia. In our timeline, well, you know. I have more questions about this particular change than any other in this season’s montage. How many years does this MJ play for Portland? Does he later get traded to a Chicago Bulls in which Dennis Rodman is the Robin to Scottie Pippen’s Batman? Does he ever win a single NBA championship? Do Air Jordans exist? Whither the Dream Team? What about Space Jam???

File under: Bummers that apparently exist in this timeline after all.
For the first two seasons of For All Mankind, I was happy to notice that HIV/AIDS didn’t seem to exist in the show’s version of the 1980s. But now there’s a very brief little visual indicating that HIV/AIDS has emerged in this timeline after all. Since they’ve achieved so many technological advances over our timeline, here’s hoping their Big Pharma manages to create the triple cocktail and a vaccine way faster, too.

Important new character Klaxon.
Here we have our first mention of Dev Ayesa, a brilliant young scientist who has made a huge breakthrough in nuclear fusion with his business partner, Richard Hilliard. Remember his name: We’ll be seeing a lot of this guy.

Our esteemed colleague.
Ellen Wilson’s career is a roller coaster that only goes up with her handily winning a Senate seat representing the great state of Texas in 1986. In our timeline, there was no senatorial election in Texas in 1986. Instead, incumbent Democratic senator Lloyd Bentsen won reelection in 1988, the same year he was Michael Dukakis’s running mate in their unsuccessful presidential campaign against George H.W. Bush and Dan Quayle, who got a little mixed up in a vice-presidential debate and needed Bentsen to remind him that he was not in fact Jack Kennedy. Bless his heart.

Another curveball.
In For All Mankind, the 1986 FIFA World Cup ends with legendary Argentine footballer Diego Maradona’s infamous “hand of God” goal being declared invalid, so he never scores the final, winning “goal of the century” from our timeline. This sports-history amendment would most likely adversely affect the value of his match jersey, auctioned at Sotheby’s in our timeline for nearly $9 million.

Karen Baldwin, gifted businesswoman.
Remember last season when Karen speculated that whoever could successfully launch a space-tourism business would make all the money in the world? Guess what? She and Sam Cleveland went and did it! Their business, Polaris, gives spectacularly rich people the opportunity to part with their ducats for the chance to touch the infinite. They seem more normal than Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, but I have concerns, even when they subsequently announce their most ambitious project to date, a luxurious space hotel.

They wanna hold our hands.
Last season, we learned John Lennon was not assassinated by Mark David Chapman, instead living to become a peace activist. Because he’s alive, the Beatles can launch a reunion tour! It’s a tiny missed opportunity not to have had them play LiveAid in the For All Mankind–line, but we can retcon that with a totally frivolous and unnecessary deep-fake interview clip next season. What could be a higher priority for a sci-fi drama than dramatizing happy and healthy golden years for the Fab Four? (Obviously, in the show’s timeline, cancer is cured, so George Harrison doesn’t die in 2001.)

Scandal! in the Navy.
A big headline blares that Navy analyst Jonathan Pollard is convicted of spying for Israel. This matches events in our timeline, in which Pollard remains the only American sentenced to life in prison for spying on behalf of a U.S. ally nation. Our Pollard was paroled in 2015 and moved to Israel in 2020. This tidbit functions mainly to remind us that Margo Madison is a KGB asset.

Lucrative science.
Dev Ayesa and his company, Helios, win a contract from NASA to mine helium-3 on the moon. Apparently, it’s an ideal resource for nuclear fusion, which has become the main source of energy on Earth, slowing the progress of climate change.

File under: Phew, that’s a relief.
In 1987, an 18-month-old named Jessica McClure fell down a well at her aunt’s house in Midland, Texas. She was rescued after 56 hours of intense effort. This is another match for our timeline — and a nice one, at that.

Beating swords into (space) plowshares.
Rather than throw good money after bad with their ballistic-missile program, North Korea invests more in its space program. Remember this fact as you watch the rest of the season-three premiere.

Greed is … good?
If For All Mankind’s timeline includes some later iteration of the 1987 global stock-market crash we experienced, it hasn’t happened by the time this season begins. Instead, we see a huge one-day Dow Jones Industrial Average increase of 1,200 points.

Heyyyyy, batter batter batter.
The Los Angeles Dodgers triumph over the Oakland Athletics to win the 1988 World Series. Another moment that matches our timeline!

Gordo and Tracy Stevens, heroes and icons.
We see a statue of Tracy and Gordo, racing against time in their ersatz duct-taped space suits, and spy a huge marquee at the premiere of their inevitable tragic biopic, Love in the Skies. Both are well intended and a little bit ghoulish, but the choice to cast late-’80s / early-’90s Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan in that movie is an unimpeachable stroke of genius.

Trouble in paradise.
United States–USSR relations hit a bump in the road as the Americans discover audio surveillance devices at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. The U.S. immediately withdraws its Soviet ambassador. Can these two work out their differences? Just spitballing here, but perhaps in space?

In Soviet Union, luxury condos build you.
A headline trumpets real-estate developer Donald Trump’s intention to build luxury condos in Moscow. Ew. But also, if those are a success, maybe he’ll be too busy with real-estate projects in thriving communist nations to undertake any political ventures at home in the show’s timeline.

A suitable memorial.
NASA launches the Thomas O. Paine Space Telescope. As a lifelong stargazer, he’d have loved that so much. Sniff!

All in the family.
We see Danny Stevens, astronaut, via some grip-and-grin footage from his arrival at Jamestown. What must it be like to live and work at the site of your worst personal trauma? Why would NASA agree to send him there?

Never get involved in a land war in the Middle East.
President Hart declines to send troops to Kuwait in 1991; it’s unclear if Kuwait is annexed to Iraq in that timeline, but it seems likely.

Red Planet, ho!
After years of patient planning, NASA announces a manned mission to Mars for 1996. We haven’t done anything like that (yet).

Here we are now, entertain us.
In 1991, Celebrity Chronicle (alt-timeline People magazine) publishes a cover story about grunge featuring a photo of Kurt Cobain. Fingers crossed for a long and healthy life for Kurt in the For All Mankind timeline.

Bring it on.
The opening montage comes full circle as Ellen Wilson announces her 1992 presidential campaign. Her opponent will be Bill Clinton, who gets a little moment in the sun with a clever repurposing of his aspirational talking points about American jobs for the new global space economy, playing that audio over lots of brief glimpses of advances in consumer technology, aerospace, and NASA tidbits that would make any STEM advocate’s mouth water. It’s not hard to see where this is going!

Let’s Get on For All Mankind’s Timeline