Series Review – Foundation: Season One

An ambitious, somewhat bloated adaptation of Asimov's books.

Foundation-Season-2

Overview

Directing Alex Graves, Roxann Dawson, Jennifer Phang, Andrew Bernstein, David S. Goyer, Rupert Sanders

Producing David S. Goyer, David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Bill Bost, Robyn Asimov, Marcy Ross, Josh Friedman, Cameron Welsh

Writing Isaac Asimov, Josh Friedman, David S. Goyer, Sarah Nolen, Olivia Purnell, Lauren Bello, Marcus Gardley, Leigh Dana Jackson, Victoria Morrow, Caitlin Saunders

Starring Jared Harris, Lee Pace, Lou Llobell, Leah Harvey, Laura Birn, Terrence Mann, Cassian Bilton

Genre Science-Fiction

Platforms Apple TV+

Release Date September 24, 2021

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Characters are shot, stabbed, poisoned, hung, vaporized, jettisoned into space, have their necks snapped, and throats slit. Violence isn’t over the top, but it is present in several episodes, with a fair amount of blood when it does happen. An android kills a human and, in grief over their actions, rips their face off to reveal the robotic skull underneath. No blood, but still disturbing.

Language/Crude Humor: Mild occasional profanity such as d**n and s**t.

Sexual Content: Of the ten episodes, most had some form of sexual content or partial nudity occurring about once in each episode. The camera usually cuts away before anything too graphic, but some scenes are a bit more gratuitous. Strategic camera angles and shadows block most nudity. In one brief scene, a concubine disrobes and is seen nude from behind.

Drug/Alcohol Use: Characters drink wine.

Spiritual Content: Two religions are depicted in the series. One is a goddess-centered religion focused on reincarnation. It uses a triquetra similar to a symbol used in Wicca, but otherwise bears little resemblance. Another repressive religion eschews technology and kills those who use it. Both are used to pose philosophical questions and explore faith.

Other Negative Themes: Moral ambiguity is present here more than in the novels. Characters lie and manipulate to get their way or serve the “greater good.”

Positive Content: Themes of love, understanding, faith, learning, and kindness. The protagonists stand up for what is right, even when it costs them everything. The members of the Foundation are willing to sacrifice all to save a galaxy that does not take the threat seriously. They also work to help future generations they will never see. 

Premise

In a far-flung future, humanity fills the galaxy in a vast Empire. At the heart of this is the capital planet of Trantor, a vast world-city that is also the seat of the Emperors. The Emperors are three clones of the same man, Emperor Cleon I, at three different ages. This “genetic dynasty” has kept the peace for four centuries, ending the petty squabbling of succession. However, the heir to the throne, Brother Dawn, ruling Emperor Brother Day, and previous Emperor Brother Dusk also create an insular ruling line. They are prone to the same way of thinking and the same choices. This leads to the same mistakes being made over and over again, contributing to a slow erosion of the empire as a whole.

Gaal Dornick, a brilliant young woman from the remote outer world Synnax, wins a math contest and is invited by noted mathematician Hari Seldon to come to Trantor. Seldon is a pioneer in the field of Psychohistory, a branch of mathematics that can accurately predict the future of large populations. Seldon’s equations have predicted the Empire, which has ruled for thousands of years, will collapse within a few centuries, plunging the galaxy into a new Dark Age. The Fall will be followed by an age of chaos, and barbarism will last for thirty thousand years. The only hope is the preservation of all the knowledge of mankind to guide future generations as they rebuild civilization. This repository of knowledge will shorten the Dark Age to a mere millennium.

Gaal Dornick, Foundation, Apple TV 2021

Seldon proposes a Foundation be established on a remote planet at the edge of the galaxy to allow work on an Encyclopedia Galactica. It will be remote so as to be both largely unaffected by the Fall, and free from meddling by the powers that be.

The series follows the Foundation in its infancy as it seeks to establish itself at the edge of the Galaxy. Specifically Salvor Hardin, an outsider who seems to be the key to helping the Foundation survive its first test. It follows Gaal as her path diverges from the Foundation and she discovers she is in possession of a prescient awareness of the future. Finally, it follows the Emperors as they seek to cope with the reality of their decline.

Review

I wrote my initial review after seeing the first three episodes. While the pilot was great, the next two episodes left me with questions and a number of concerns.

Taken as a whole, Foundation is an engaging and ambitious piece of television. The scope is immense, the effects stunning, and the casting solid. However, the writers have significantly altered the story, both to update it for a modern audience and to make ten hours of television. While I loved the look and feel of the show overall, the changes made detracted at times from an otherwise solid piece of television.

The first book (from which this season’s material is taken) focused mainly on the Foundation itself on Terminus. The television series follows both the Foundation and the early stages of the Empire’s collapse on Trantor. This provides an interesting counterpoint, as we watch the events that lead to the fall.

In the book, the vulnerability of Trantor is that it is completely dependent on other worlds for survival. The city that engulfs all but the Imperial district leaves the planet unable to produce food and other needed resources to support its population. As Trantor has been the seat of the empire for centuries, the assumption is it will always be, and the Empire seeks only to maintain the status quo. In this assumption lies its greatest weakness. The television series takes this a step further by adding the insular rule of the Genetic Dynasty and its social, moral, and spiritual implications.   

The Emperors themselves are just one of several changes made to the narrative. While I was skeptical at first, this change proved to be a good one. Many of the series’ innovations, reinventions, and expansions of the core story are excellent; others fall flat and feel designed to lure in viewers rather than tell a good yarn.

The books follow the Foundation through a series of crises, and the television series focuses on the first of these. Each crisis must be successfully navigated in order for the Foundation to survive, shorten the Dark Age, and form the next empire. Psychohistory specializes in predicting the actions of large groups but starts to fall apart at the individual level. It also starts to unravel if too many people in the group know what’s going to happen.

For this reason, Hari keeps everyone largely in the dark. There is often tension between those who trust Hari has a plan, and those who think they should take matters into their own hands. After the successful navigation of a crisis, a vault on Terminus opens, and plays a holographic message from Hari, confirming the Foundation’s success. Hari does not accompany the Foundation to Terminus in the books and dies long before the first crisis. In this version, Hari’s consciousness (or at least a reproduction of it) lives on in various incarnations: As an AI on a starship, and the aforementioned hologram, for example. Thus, he is able to converse with the Foundation and offer some guidance. This lends a nice touch and provides an excellent reason for actor Jared Harris to have something to do across the whole narrative.

Hari Seldon, Foundation, Apple TV 2021

The first season follows the events leading up to the first crisis. This means ten hours of television are devoted to adapting a very small selection of written material. Thus, how the Foundation navigates it all is bloated and stretched to fill those hours. If I were binge-watching this in one sitting, it might have been fine, but watching it week to week had me rolling my eyes as it careened from one drawn-out cliffhanger to the next. The crisis itself begins in episode two and is not resolved until episode nine; much of the added drama just feels unnecessary. The book had the Foundation solving problems without violence – with wit outsmarting physical strength.  Not so here. In the show, the Foundation takes up arms against would-be invaders, and there is significant loss of life.

The writers pull from other aspects of the series to help flesh some of that time out. There’s treachery, twists, and angst galore, but it often feels a bit tired and cliché.

The more interesting narrative, while a completely new fabrication for the show, is that of the Emperors. Four hundred years prior, Cleon I established the genetic dynasty, cloning himself into perpetuity. While it is said this was done to end the conflict that arises from succession, in reality, it is one arrogant man’s attempt to hold onto power for eternity. The dynamic between the three emperors is fascinating, as we see each of the actors play multiple versions of the successive incarnations of Cleon. Ironically, the clones change little with each incarnation. Heir apparent Brother Dawn is always hopeful and full of potential. As he matures and becomes sitting Emperor Brother Day, he always resorts to the same self-absorbed ruthlessness that he himself found so horrifying in his youth. When he finally relinquishes the throne and becomes Brother Dusk, he is jaded, somewhat wiser, but still the same man. Thus, the cycle continues for centuries. After Hari’s dire predictions, the Emperors must cope with the reality their reign will come to an end. Brother Dusk, who was the sitting Emperor when Hari made his predictions, struggles to hold onto what was. Day, who was a child at the time, attempts to make changes and alter the future. Meanwhile, the current Brother Dawn discovers he is not like the other Cleons and this could have deadly consequences.

Watching over them is Demerzel, the last sentient android in the universe. She is thousands of years old and has served as an advisor and surrogate mother to the Emperors for generations. Her loyalty is unwavering, and she often provides a note of wisdom and tempers the rashness of the Cleons. However, she also has her own agenda. She is loyal to the throne itself, not any one Cleon…except perhaps the first. While she cares deeply for each incarnation, she also ensures each one adheres to the original Cleon’s master plan.

The Emperors and Demerzel, Foundation, Apple TV 2021

In adapting the series, one of the successful changes is the gender-swapping of several characters, including Gaal Dornick, Salvor Hardin, and Demerzel.

Gaal Dornick was something of a throwaway character in the book and seems to have been upgraded to an integral part of the story here. She is a mathematical genius, despite the backward and repressive world she comes from. While she was meant to lead the Foundation in its early years, events conspire to remove her from that role. Her ability to see the future also threatens Hari’s plans and the outcomes psychohistory predicts. Asimov dabbled in telepaths in later books; I’m guessing Gaal’s abilities are hinting at this.  

Salvor Hardin is also gender-swapped. Here, she is a Warden patrolling the perimeters of the Foundation instead of the politician the character was in the book. She serves roughly the same purpose but is hot-headed and unsure. She routinely sees visions and echoes of the past that seem to hold some clue to solving the Foundation’s current dilemma. She thinks Hari is communicating with her, and that her abilities are part of his plan to help the Foundation through the crisis. She’s an outsider, with a mysterious past and the only one who can save everybody. While Leah Harvey gives an excellent performance, this “chosen one” narrative is an oft-used trope, and starkly different from Salvor in the book.

Salvor Hardin and the Vault, Foundation, Apple TV 2021

While Asimov was an atheist, I was surprised at how much faith plays a role in the story. The members of the Foundation have to trust Hari had a plan. Asimov delved into actual religion in the books as a means of control. I’m guessing this will come into play in later seasons. That said, the television show doesn’t shy away from spirituality.

Hari warned the Emperors that one of the milestones that would foretell the fall was a major proclamation from one of the great religions. Decades later, the leader of a goddess-centered religion dies. In the ensuing grasp for power, the influential priestess Halima (in a show-stealing performance by T’Nia Miller) implies the Emperor-clones have no souls. Brother Day wrestles with whether this might be true and embarks on his own spiritual quest. Conversely, Demerzel, an adherent of the same religion, talks openly of her faith and visions, despite being a machine.

Demerzel and Halima, Foundation, Apple TV 2021

Gaal wrestles early in the series with whether or not she is seen by God. Synnax is home to the Seer Church, which believes a divine sleeper is dreaming the world. Synnax has recently undergone a religious upheaval, where science and technology have suddenly been deemed heretical. Those who are found to be dabbling with either are killed. Unable to suppress her intelligence or mathematical abilities, and knowing both could lead to her death, Gaal walks away from her homeworld and her faith.

I found the religious themes to be a compelling touch, even though both religions depicted have little to do with Christianity. The Seer Church, with its legalism and Inquisition-esque suppression of knowledge, is a stark reminder of the struggles often faced by the Christian church. History is riddled with destructive and repressive interpretations of the will of God, used to justify unspeakable atrocities. Gaal’s fear she is no longer seen by God is something I think every human has faced – a moment of darkness, wondering if God is even aware of you or your suffering.

The Luminist religion, with its cyclical belief system of reincarnation, delves deeply into concepts of forgiveness. Without giving too much away, one of the most powerful scenes occurs later in the series as Demerzel seeks absolution from her sins and receives that forgiveness from the very person she has irreparably wronged. 

While there is much to applaud, there was also much I didn’t care for. The bloating of some parts of the narrative was tedious, and at times the changes felt contrived and strained. The violent aspects seemed out of place, based on the original novel, but were probably tame compared to some offerings on television these days.

Another unnecessary addition was the gratuitous sexuality in nearly every episode. Streaming networks seem to have established a formula for adding adult content in the hopes of attracting viewership. While Foundation keeps this mostly PG-13 and stops short of anything graphic, it often feels forced and serves no purpose in the plot. The show pushes the envelope as far as it can, with carefully placed shadows, furniture, and shooting angles obscuring most nudity. But nearly every episode has a random moment, ticking off the adult content box, before getting back to the story.

If you are a fan of the books, you may find this version bears little resemblance to the source material. I personally had to let go of my expectations after episode two. That said, there is much to enjoy and ponder over in Foundation, and it does set a high standard for speculative television.

The Bottom Line

 

A cerebral story supported by high production values, Foundation is not fully faithful to its source, but worth watching.

 

8

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Timothy Taylor

Timothy Taylor is a lifelong creative, nerd and story teller. He spent more time reading and drawing as a kid than being outside. He is an artist, a teacher and a writer of fantasy, science fiction, and the occasional play. He continues to devour books, plays tabletop games and video games, and obsesses over the minutiae of made up worlds, including his own.

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