In episode 5 of For All Mankind’s second season—“The Weight”—the writers of the show slipped in a hilarious Easter egg to the most famous Trek movie of them all. And, in doing so, confirmed that the alternate history of the show impacts the growth of popular science fiction as well as politics. The premise of For All Mankind might be fixated on an alternate development of NASA during the late ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, but the context takes place amid some pop culture that is different from our own.
Mild spoilers about For All Mankind seasons 1 and 2 ahead. Plus, a very old 1982 spoiler from The Wrath of Khan.
Briefly, if you’re unaware of For All Mankind, and you’re mostly just here for the wacky alternate universe Wrath of Khan stuff, know this: the show takes place in a timeline in which the USSR landed on the moon before the US in 1969. In the first season, this leads to an escalation in the Cold War space race, which results in an American moonbase called Jamestown being established on the moon in 1973. This chain of events sets other historical changes into motion, including a one-term presidency from Ted Kennedy (yep!) instead of Gerald Ford. And, in season two, this means that Ronald Reagan becomes president four years earlier, in 1976.
The U.S. presidency isn’t the only change that the show writers have mapped out. John Lennon is also alive in the second episode of For All Mankind which takes place in an alternate 1983. Thanks to a newscaster (played by Star Trek: Enterprise actress Linda Park) we also learn that John Lennon may be reuniting the Beatles in a new “Concert For Peace,” in this timeline.
Just as in our timeline, the first space shuttle orbiter in For All Mankind is named Enterprise. In our timeline Gerald Ford made the call to change the name of the first test-orbiter from “Constitution” to “Enterprise” as a direct result of Trekkies writing letters. In the For All Mankind timeline, we have to assume the same letters probably had an effect on Ronald Reagan, as two episodes in For All Mankind’s first season establish that Star Trek and its fervent fandom very much exist in this alternate timeline. Specifically, in the episodes “Home Again,” and “Hi Bob,” astronaut Danielle Poole (Krys Marshall) admits to having some deep TV knowledge that includes even the name of guest stars on Star Trek: The Original Series. While the Jamestown crew watches The Bob Newhart Show, Danielle identifies the character actor John Fiedler, from the TOS episode “Wolf in the Fold.”
Thus far in season two, the Trek Easter eggs have gotten significantly less obscure. And that’s because in Episode 5, “The Weight,” we learn that in this version of 1983, The Wrath of Khan is a relatively new theatrical release. After getting into trouble for reckless behavior with both NASA and his wife Karen (Shantel VanSanten), veteran astronaut Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman) tries to suggest a date night to go see The Wrath of Khan. (Which, as a movie that opens with all of its cast dying then Chekov getting earwormed, is clearly a launchpad for romance!) In Ed’s absence, Karen has already seen the movie with their daughter Kelly. Ed asks her if the movie is good, and Karen says yes, and then drops the bomb: “and then Spock dies.”
The scene is funny because we’re supposed to think, oh, Ed just had the ending of Wrath of Khan ruined for him. Bummer. This is hilarious for several reasons other than it’s funny to think of Spock’s death as a spoiler.
First of all, when The Wrath of Khan was released in 1982 (not ’83!) the death of Spock was pretty much not a spoiler. Quite the contrary, among hardcore Star Trek fans, it was widely known. Major newspapers reported on it at the time, and most research suggests that Gene Roddenberry himself leaked the planned death of Spock to the public in an effort to change it. (There are even letters printed in Roddenberry’s authorized biography where he admits he was against the death of Spock.) The point is, Spock’s death wasn’t exactly a spoiler in our timeline, so it’s fun to think that maybe in this timeline, the spoiler of Spock’s death was kept under wraps better? (Either that or Ed is too busy to follow mainstream entertainment news, which is just as likely.)
But the next piece of this puzzle is more interesting. Again, Wrath was released in 1982, not 1983. Not only that, it was a rush job, and the script was rewritten in just 12 days by Nicholas Meyer to hit the theatrical release date of June 4, 1982. So, how do we account for an alternate version of The Wrath of Khan that hits theaters in 1983? Keep in mind, in our timeline, Return of the Jedi also came out in the summer of 1983, on May 25 to be exact. Is For All Mankind creating a bizarro pop culture timeline in which a Star Trek movie and a Star Wars movie had to duke it out at the box office? (In our timeline a Trek movie and a Wars movie have only debuted during the same year twice. First, in 2002 when Attack of the Clones and Nemesis were out the same year, and again in 2016, when Star Trek Beyond was out the same year as Rogue One. But in both of those cases, at least 6 months separated those releases. Trek and Wars have never gone head-to-head in the summer or holiday seasons at the box office.)
Another possibility is that Wrath and Return of the Jedi don’t come out in the same year at all, because if they did then wouldn’t Ed and Karen want to choose the highly-anticipated conclusion to the Star Wars trilogy as their date movie? This leads to speculation that’s even more interesting than an alternate pop culture history for Trek: Star Wars might not exist at all in For All Mankind!
Although the show is taking place in the ’80s, there has been no direct reference that indicates that the Star Wars franchise exists in this timeline. Yes, in the second season opener, Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative is being referred to by the media as “Star Wars,” just like in our timeline. But here’s where things get tricky. In our timeline, Senator Ted Kennedy mockingly refers to the Strategic Defense Initiative as “reckless Star Wars schemes” in March of 1983, clearly referring to the events of the (then only two) Star Wars films. The Washington Post picks up the comment and it goes viral. But in the timeline of For All Mankind, Ted Kennedy is a disgraced former president and most likely wouldn’t be making any public comments. So where does the nickname come from?
Now, naturally, it’s tough to imagine the Star Trek film franchise without the existence of Star Wars, only because the pilot episode from the second TV series “Star Trek: Phase II,“ is largely attributed to Paramount seeing the success of Star Wars, and thinking a Trek film was a better bet. That said, there were other factors as to why “Phase II,” eventually became Star Trek: The Motion Picture, so who knows? Maybe the Trek film franchise in the For All Mankind timeline developed on its own, without the influence of Star Wars. (EDIT! Hey guess what Star Wars definitely exists in this universe thanks to sneaky bonus content. See the comments below!)
There’s at least one other “geek” franchise in this timeline that has a wildly different trajectory. In season two of For All Mankind, we briefly see a clip from the cartoon The Real Ghostbusters, but… the film Ghostbusters didn’t come out until 1984, and the cartoon debuted in 1986, a full three years later than its appearance in For All Mankind. Dan Aykroyd didn’t even start writing the movie until 1982, and he intended Venkman’s role for John Belushi… but we clearly see Bill Murray’s Venkman in the cartoon, so did Belushi die earlier in this timeline? And is it somehow connected to John Lennon surviving? But wait! It gets even creepier! In our timeline, there’s an oft-repeated story about John Belushi visiting The Wrath of Khan set hours before he died. Although Belushi possibly visited the set at some point, the timing of this story is disputed. In For All Mankind, it almost certainly didn’t happen
So, to recap: For All Mankind has John Lennon alive in 1983, The Wrath of Khan premiering a year late, The Real Ghostbusters cartoon airing three years early—perhaps suggesting an even earlier version of the film that stars Jim Belushi—and possibly has teased a pop culture ’80s where Star Wars might not exist at all. For All Mankind has also not mentioned the existence of the 1978 series Battlestar Galactica, which was certainly made viable by the existence of the first Star Wars. But what’s also telling about a pop culture timeline sans Battlestar, is that For All Mankind co-creator Ron Moore is, somewhat famously, responsible for the popular Battlestar reboot in the 21st century. Does For All Mankind’s timeline lack a Battlestar?
All of these anachronisms are (probably) 100-percent intentional. Ronald D. Moore got his start writing for TV on Star Trek: The Next Generation during its third season. (Specifically, the episode “The Bonding.”) Moore later became a producer of TNG and DS9 and co-wrote both Generations and First Contact. And one of the writers of the specific episode with the Wrath Easter egg is Joe Menosky, who has writing credits on TNG, DS9, Voyager, The Orville, AND Star Trek: Discovery Season 1.
When it comes to roads-not-taken in pop culture in general—and Star Trek in specific—Ron Moore and Joe Menosky know exactly what they’re talking about. The only question is what happens when For All Mankind jumps into the ’90s. Season 3 is coming, does that mean Ron Moore and Menosky are going to have to deal with addressing alternate versions of themselves working on a slightly different version of The Next Generation? If we’re lucky this Wrath of Khan Easter egg is just the beginning, and someday, we can get a spin-off show of For All Mankind that only explores the alternate dimensions of pop culture. What do John Lennon’s post-1980s albums sound like, anyway? (For that matter, what do post-1980s Paul McCartney albums sound like?)
For All Mankind airs new episodes on Apple TV+ On Fridays.
Ryan Britt has contributed to Tor.com for over a decade. He is the author of the forthcoming non-fiction book Phasers On Stun! How the Making and Remaking of Star Trek Changed the World, to be published by Plume Books (Penguin Random House) in June 2022; the 40th anniversary of The Wrath of Khan. (In this timeline!) His other work has been published with Inverse, Vulture, Den of Geek!, SyFy Wire, and StarTrek.com. Ryan’s first book was the essay collection Luke Skywalker Can’t Read, published in 2015, also by Plume Books. He is an editor at Fatherly.