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From Watchmen to For All Mankind, Alternate History Narratives are Having a Moment

Prestige dramas are taking a "What If?" approach to recent world history, President Redford and all.
  • In the alternate universe of Apple TV's For All Mankind, the soviets are  first to walk on the moon. (Photo: Apple)
    In the alternate universe of Apple TV's For All Mankind, the soviets are first to walk on the moon. (Photo: Apple)

    World War II, presidential assassinations, and the Cold War are subjects television dramas never tire of. Recently, however, TV auteurs have become enamored with historical revisionism, setting their stories in a world where pivotal events unfolded differently, with the ripple effects having all sorts of fascinating consequences. From Watchmen's altered presidential lineage, to the version of world events seen on the new Apple TV+ series For All Mankind, where the Soviets were the first to walk on the moon, and the space race escalates to thrilling new heights.

    This isn't a brand new concept, of course. Time-travel narratives on TV have done their fair share of historical revisionism. On Quantum Leap, Dr. Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) typically leaped into the body of an unknown figure, as his missions focused on the personal, not matters of global security. Nevertheless, there were exceptions to the rule, including the JFK assassination, in which Sam ultimately saved Jackie Kennedy from getting killed. JFK was obviously central to Hulu’s adaptation of Stephen King’s 11.22.63., which tried to prevent the Kennedy assassination itself. And while we're at it, JFK also showed up as both a teenager and tangentially as an adult on the NBC series Timeless.

    In time travel narratives, the central concern is usually the preservation of the timeline we recognize as our own. If something changes it, it must get changed back. Alternate history narratives, however, pose a "What If?" question and then stick around to explore the possibilities. The 2017 BBC series SS-GB envisioned a world in which the Nazis occupied Britain in 1941 after a successful invasion. The Resistance movement that existed in France is now a reality in Great Britain. Well-reviewed as it was, SS-GB only lasted for one season. But in 2019, the alt-history trend is flourishing. The Man in the High Castle returns next month for its fourth and final season on Amazon Prime. HBO’s highly anticipated Watchmen adaptation has expanded the world of the graphic novel into the present day. And later this year will bring  The Wire creator David Simon's mini-series adaptation of Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, which imagines an America in the thrall of a charismatic fascist during the lead-up to World War II.

    Apple TV+ launches this week, and one of their first offerings is For All Mankind, the rare alternate history that doesn’t have source material to fall back on (or be judged against). I also happens to be an alternate history that posits a world that isn't all bad.

    Here's a quick guide the many revisionist universes headed our way in the coming months:

    The Man in the High Castle (Amazon)

    What's Different? Based on the 1962 Philip K. Dick novel of the same name, The Man in the High Castle imagines a world in which the Allies were defeated in both Europe and Japan during World War II. Instead of parts of Europe splitting into East and West, the United States is divided into the German-run American Reich (or Nazi America) and the Japanese Pacific States. The Rocky Mountains are the neutral zone between the two superpowers experiencing Cold War-esque tension. Other major changes to the timeline include Franklin D. Roosevelt’s assassination at the hands of Giuseppe Zangara (who did try to kill FDR in 1933) and a Washington DC atomic bomb attack.

    Where Are Things Going? A fourth and final season is coming to Amazon Prime later this month (November 15), in which the American resistance is about to shift into a full-blown rebellion. This isn’t just an alternate history, but one of many worlds experiencing different outcomes. The so-called "Man in the High Castle" is someone who has been feeding footage of other parallel Earths (including one matching our own) to the resistance. Rufus Sewell plays Nazi leader John Smith, who is tasked with finding the footage of these alternate realities. In the final season, he is making moves to invade these other worlds because one empire is apparently not enough. Resistance hero Julia Crain (Alexa Davalos) can travel between dimensions and she is filled with hope after witnessing our Allied-winning reality, "If the Nazis can be beaten in that world, they can be beaten in this one."

    Watchmen (HBO)

    What's Different? Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' graphic novel ends in 1985 after Adrian Veidt launched a fake alien squid attack on New York City in a bid to end a soon-to-be-nuclear conflict between the United States and the USSR. He believes the deaths of millions are a necessary sacrifice to stop a full-blown atomic war. Before this, President Richard Nixon — aided by Dr. Manhattan — has led the U.S. to victory in Vietnam, a country that is now a U.S. state . Watergate never happened and as a result, Nixon abolished presidential term limits (he ended up serving five terms). Since the events of the original graphic novel, President Robert Redford has surpassed Nixon’s record and has been in office since 1992 (No Sneakers?!). However, racial tensions are high as Redford has passed a law giving reparations (aka "Redfordations") to the victims and direct descendants of racial injustice (including the Tulsa Massacre of 1921 that opens the first episode). White supremacist group, the Seventh Kavalry is looking to settle the score, which has led to much bloodshed and violence. Masked vigilantes are outlawed, but cops in Oklahoma have to wear disguises after the Seventh Kavalry-led "White Night" massacre, in which police officers were murdered in their beds, resulting in this new covert uniform.

    Where Are Things Going? After supposedly retiring from the police force, Angela Abar (Regina King) is a mom of three and a bakery owner by day. In reality, she is still a detective and is currently investigating the murder of Chief Judd Crawford (Don Johnson), who has some skeletons (and KKK robes) in his closet.

    For All Mankind (Apple TV+)

    What's Different? Set in 1969, For All Mankind is exploring a space race that never ended. Instead of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planting the American flag on the moon, the Soviets got there first. In reality, NASA was a beacon of hope in a tumultuous decade in US history, but after the 1969 moon landing, funding was cut and the nation lost interest. On For All Mankind, however, Russian success keeps prodding NASA to reach landmark achievements, and the money keeps on coming, as Nixon has something to prove. In this alternate history, Nixon pulls out of Vietnam early and focuses on the space program instead. Ted Kennedy cancels his trip to Chappaquiddick, so that tragedy never happens, ensuring his push for the presidency is not marred in a scandal.

    Where Are Things Going? Ronald D. Moore has experience writing for a space landscape and rewriting history as the creator of Battlestar Galactica and Outlander. Not only does a surging space race impact national and international events, but women become a larger part of the story. Sure, the U.S. isn’t going to get the first man on the moon, but there are other significant leaps to be made by the likes of Joel Kinnaman as astronaut Ed Baldwin and Wrenn Schmidt playing NASA engineer Margo Madison.

    The Plot Against America (HBO)

    What's Different? The Man in the High Castle isn't the only alternate history that changes FDR’s trajectory to tell its story. In Philip’s Roth’s 2004 alt-history novel, a younger version of the author plays a prominent role in witnessing a turn toward fascism. When Roosevelt is defeated by noted aviator-hero and xenophobic populist Charles Lindbergh in 1940, instead of entering WWII, the new president signs a treaty with Hitler and promises there will be no interference from the U.S. with Japan’s Asian invasion plan.

    Where Are Things Going? Told through the eyes of a working-class Jewish family in New Jersey, The Plot Against America depicts racial and antisemitic tension in the 1940s. David Simon and Ed Burns are adapting the Roth best-seller for HBO as a six-part miniseries starring Winona Ryder, Zoe Kazan, and John Turturro. Turturro has been cast as a conservative rabbi, Lionel Bengelsdorf, who is a vital part of Lindberg’s team despite the persecution and antisemitism caused by this administration.

    It's no accident that these works of historical revision all happen to be hitting at the same time. Turbulent political times lend themselves to this type of storytelling. Alternate histories offer an opportunity to explore a terrifying vision of the past while commenting on the state of the present. They're hypothetical scenarios we hope will remain science-fiction, no matter how thin the line is between what did happen and what could have happened.

    Emma Fraser has wanted to write about TV since she first watched My So-Called Life in the mid-90s, finally getting her wish over a decade later. Follow her on Twitter at @frazbelina

    TOPICS: For All Mankind, Apple TV+, HBO, The Man in the High Castle, The Plot Against America, Watchmen, David Simon, Ronald D. Moore