Sci-fi shows speculate on societal changes

Posted 11/29/23


The Apple TV+ streaming service delivered a couple of solid sci-fi series these past few weeks.

Friday, Nov. 17 saw the premiere of the first two episodes of "Monarch: Legacy of …

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Sci-fi shows speculate on societal changes



The Apple TV+ streaming service delivered a couple of solid sci-fi series these past few weeks.

Friday, Nov. 17 saw the premiere of the first two episodes of "Monarch: Legacy of Monsters," which is slated to last at least 10 episodes running weekly through Jan. 12, 2024.

"Monarch" is set in Legendary and Warner Bros. Pictures' "MonsterVerse" and I'd recommend having seen at least 2014's "Godzilla" and 2017's "Kong: Skull Island" before starting this one, which I suspect might also soon encompass the events of 2019's "Godzilla: King of the Monsters" and 2021's "Godzilla vs. Kong" as well.

"Monarch" is named for the covert scientific organization dedicated to tracking the giant monsters known as "Titans," and John Goodman puts in a welcome return cameo in the series opener as Bill Randa, the Monarch researcher who featured so prominently in "Skull Island."

Randa and his relatives are central players in the events that follow, in parallel storylines taking place not only during the 1950s, but also in 2015, one year after "G-Day," when Godzilla attacked San Francisco in the 2014 film.

"Monarch" depicts a world that's clearly been culturally and politically transformed by the Titans, as we encounter a Tokyo equipped with overpass-mounted missile launchers, as well as posted escape routes and emergency drills, in case of Godzilla attacks, at the same time that ordinary citizens circulate conspiracy theories online, claiming the giant monsters are hoaxes.

Because if Godzilla actually existed, of course there would be "Godzilla truthers."

The character who links our decades-separated parallel storylines is an Army veteran named Leland Lafayette "Lee" Shaw III, and the ingenious conceit behind this series' casting is that the older and younger versions of Lee Shaw are played by real-life father-and-son actors Kurt and Wyatt Russell, the latter of whom distinguished himself as temporary Captain America John Walker in the Marvel Cinematic Universe's "The Falcon and the Winter Soldier" on Disney+.

By the end of the second episode, both Shaw in the 1950s and in 2015 have acquired partners on their respective quests for the truth, and while each team is imbued with its own appealing dynamic, thanks to compelling performers such as Kiersey Clemons (whom I adored in 2018's "Hearts Beat Loud"), it's the Russell men who act as the glue that holds this narrative together.

Wyatt's younger Lee provides a man of action whose horizons are broadened by his Indiana Jones-style searches for strange new lifeforms in far-away wildlands, while Kurt's older Lee hints at his hard-earned wisdom with his level, flinty-eyed gaze and unfazed reactions to his younger companions' Jason Bourne-style games of pursuit and evasion against Monarch.

I can only begin to guess where this might be headed, but I'm along for the ride regardless.

This also sums up my feelings about "For All Mankind," whose fourth season premiered on Friday, Nov. 10, on Apple TV+, but which I didn't discover until I saw a promo during "Monarch."

How could you people have neglected to inform me of such a thoroughly thought-out, deftly executed alternative history series about the development of the space exploration program?

Fired, fired … all of you are fired.

The premise of "For All Mankind" is deceptively simple. In real life, Sergei Korolev, the father of the Soviet space program, died in 1966, and Russia's race for the moon never really recovered. But in this series' alternate history, Korolev lived, and Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov became the first man on the moon in 1969.

"For All Mankind" explores the "Butterfly Effect" implications of this change, across all levels of society, as an existentially threatened America that's fallen even further behind in the "Space Race" than it was after Russia launched Sputnik, becomes willing to resort to far more radical progress than the triumphant America that made it to the moon first in real life.

I've long admired America's astronauts as figures who approached the level of philosopher kings and Renaissance men of old, because they had to possess the mental capacity of engineers and the sheer strength of will of warriors, but even thrilling films like "Apollo 13" suffer from the fact that all it takes is glancing at Wikipedia to spoil the endings of their historic sagas.

The alternate history of "For All Mankind" throws a welcome uncertainty into the mix, as we're invited to speculate on whether the Americans' bid to reach the moon will finally succeed, whether American women will become astronauts years ahead of their real-life counterparts, what this might mean for women's rights as a whole, and even who will (or won't) get elected president, as side-effects of the American space program's progress.

The casting of "For All Mankind" makes the wise decision to lean on impeccably competent veteran supporting players whom most viewers have probably seen onscreen countless times, but none of whom would qualify as name-brand actors, with Joel Kinnaman (who made his American TV breakthrough in AMC's "The Killing" in 2011) and Colm Feore (playing Wernher von Braun here) as the first season's most well-known faces.

My parents and I marathoned our way through the first season in a single weekend, something my folks are rarely wont to do, because we just had to see what would happen next, and never before would I have believed that a sequence of comedic dialogue from "The Bob Newhart Show" could be so chilling in another context.