Series Premiere Review – Foundation

Apple TV's long-awaited adaption offers much to love and hate.

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Overview

Directing Rupert Sanders

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

Writing David S. Goyer and Josh Friedman

Starring Jared Harris, Lee Pace, Lou Llobell, Leah Harvey, Laura Birn, Terrence Mann, Chipo Chung

Genre Science Fiction

Platforms Apple TV+

Release Date 09/24/21

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: A man is vaporized early in episode one, with some blood and gore shown. A terrorist attack destroys a space station causing several violent deaths, including children (though those happen off-screen). A woman has small stones removed from her face. We see some blood.

Language/Crude Humor: Minor cursing such as sh** or da**

Sexual Content: No nudity. The emperor is seen shirtless in several scenes. There are no sex scenes in the premiere episode, but there are in subsequent episodes. Nothing graphic is shown. 

Drug/Alcohol Use: Several characters drink wine

Spiritual Content: One of the main protagonists comes from a planet that considers science and math to be evil, and there is discussion that people who dabble in such things are marked as heretics and killed. Gaal struggles with faith and whether God still sees her. There is also some indication that her advanced mathematical skills are a sixth sense.

Other Negative Themes: The elder emperors are ruthless and sociopathic. The heir to the throne is still somewhat innocent and seemingly horrified by the elder rulers’ decisions.

Positive Content: The protagonists stand up for what’s 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.  

Overview

Cover Art for the first Foundation novel by Michael Whelan

I have only read the first of the Foundation books, and that was after seeing the teaser for the Apple TV series. I remember being pleasantly surprised. While the scope of the novel was quite vast, it wasn’t dense or inaccessible as I had always assumed. The entire Foundation trilogy is a collection of short stories written over many years by Isaac Asimov. From what I can gather, the television series pulls characters and themes into this narrative that are not present in the titular first book, but are in others. It also radically shifts and invents plotlines and characters to heighten the drama – both to good and ill effect. Lush visuals and strong performances carry the premiere, but changes made to the story left me concerned about the rest of the season.

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 world-city that is 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. This 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. Seldon proposes a Foundation be established on a remote planet at the edge of the galaxy to allow work on this 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 as it seeks to hold fast as the galaxy descends into chaos around them.

Review

Episodes one and two were released simultaneously, with the remaining eight episodes of the season to be released weekly. For the purposes of this review, I will cover only episode one, with a full review after all episodes have been released.

The television series starts with a bang. The visuals are lush, cinematic, and on par with what you would expect from a large-budget theatrical film. The series does an admirable job of trying to create a universe that feels vast. While production values are high, the producers have chosen to mess with several base elements.

Science fiction and fantasy are experiencing something of a Golden Age right now. Big and small screen adaptations and reboots of some of the most beloved franchises are being released over the next few years. Considerable effort is being made to update these properties and make them more relevant to contemporary audiences. To this end, some of these decisions work, while others feel forced or even rob the source material of what made it so good to begin with. Foundation is no exception.

The casting choices are solid. A number of characters are gender-swapped for the television series, and their roles greatly expanded. The most notable at this juncture is Gaal Dornick, played by Lou Llobell, who brings a wide-eyed innocence to her performance. Gaal seems to be more of a stand-in for the audience in his appearance in the first chapter of the book – an excuse for Hari Seldon to do a lot of explaining, and for Asimov to do a little preliminary world-building before diving into the meat of the Foundation stories. The television series, in addition to swapping genders, makes Gaal more integral to the Foundation and the storyline as a whole. Gaal is the only person besides Hari who can understand the Prime Radiant, the device containing the equation at the heart of Psychohistory. She is also enveloped in a conspiracy to discredit Seldon and bring about his death.

Jared Harris commands the role of Hari Seldon, younger here than in the novel. Harris’ portrayal carries a paternal warmth and sadness at what he knows is coming for humanity. A beautiful moment is his first meeting with Gaal in the Imperial Library. He offers her a gift: a rare manuscript of a poem that contains the mathematical solution Gaal used to win the contest that brought her to Trantor. Gaal lost everything in pursuit of mathematics. She is branded a heretic on her home-world for her pursuit of science. In Seldon, she finds a mentor, surrogate father, and kindred spirit.

Jared Harris as Hari Seldon and Lou Llobell as Gaal Dornick, Foundation 2021 Apple TV+

Lee Pace plays the sitting Emperor, Brother Day, as well as previous incarnations of the clones from adulthood through middle age. He plays the role with a disturbing mix of charm and cruelty. His aged predecessor, Brother Dusk, played by Terrence Mann, offers guidance, while they both rear the younger successor, Brother Dawn. These three Emperors reflect the same person at different stages, both physically, emotionally, and intellectually. Cooper Carter plays the ascending Dawn with a measure of innocence and hopefulness, perplexed by the ruthlessness of the ruling Day. Day seems to perpetually make the same mistakes, albeit learning the same lessons. At the end of their life, Dusk always reflects and tries to council his younger self, to no avail. This is an interesting change for the series that offers a lens into the heart of the Empire that was missing from the book.

Determined to maintain peace but threatened by Seldon’s predictions, the Emperors contrive to arrest Seldon and use Gaal to discredit his theories. But, Hari is one step ahead.

Cooper Carter as Brother Dawn, Lee Pace as Brother Day and Terrence Mann as Brother Dusk, Foundation 2021 Apple TV+

The series advances the start of the Empire’s collapse to coincide with Hari’s trial for treason. Two delegations have arrived from the Outer Rim to have a dispute mediated by the Emperors. During Seldon’s trial, as the Emperors are espousing their own greatness and the lunacy of the Empire’s collapse, terrorists who appear to be from the Rim worlds attack Trantor and destroy its spaceport. In the book, the erosion of the Empire happens in the background, and the Foundation only catches distant glimpses of this. The attack serves as a catalyst for the Emperors, and Hari is granted a reprieve and allowed to create the Foundation.

This was all according to plan. Hari knew the attack would come, but not from whom, and that the Emperor would exile the Foundation to a remote corner of the galaxy.

Foundation 2021 Apple TV+

While Asimov was a devout humanist, religion plays a key role in the first novel, and I’m interested to see how this will play out on screen. The Seer Church, an invention for the television show, has deemed Gaal a heretic for her pursuit of math, and she has been told God no longer sees her. In the books, religion is used by the Foundation to manipulate and ultimately subjugate the worlds falling to barbarism on the wild fringes of the galaxy. Their purpose is to bring order and control technology that can tip the balance of power. Despite the Foundation’s lofty motives, it’s still manipulative and deceitful. Colonialism was often justified as bringing order to chaos, so I’m curious to see how the series handles this element of the books. Religion in Foundation also ultimately reflects a humanist worldview: that there are no supernatural beings or powers at work in the universe.

Despite this, I found there is a faith component perpetually playing out in the book. Hari Seldon has a master plan to guide humanity, but can’t reveal the details or it won’t come to pass. The Foundation must rely on Seldon’s predictions to see them through troublesome times. Often, this pits those who believe Seldon planned for every crisis they will face against those who want to take matters into their own hands and do things their own way. Ironically, I found this to be a mirror of our Christian walk. Hari Seldon is not God, but we often have to trust what we were told at the beginning of our walk with the Lord to see us through the most difficult parts of our journey. Only after do we see the guiding hand in it, just as the Foundation does.

The series hints at elements of mysticism. Gaal and Hari make reference to mathematics almost being a sixth-sense, enabling them to see into the future. Psychohistory is a predictive mathematical model that only works on large populations. Hari jokes that he can’t predict what someone will have for dinner. However, the series hints that Gaal’s mathematical abilities are actually a type of prescience. Gaal boards a jump ship for her journey to Trantor. As the ship enters jump-space, all the passengers are put to sleep, as jump-space can drive most people mad. Immune to this effect are the spacers who watch over the passengers during the journey. Gaal wakes up mid-jump, to the horror of one of the spacers, who immediately renders her unconscious again. She senses danger and also seems at times to hear others’ thoughts. Telepaths come into play later in the books, so perhaps the writers are dabbling with these concepts.

Foundation 2021 Apple TV+

While the premiere certainly captures much of the feel of the first part of the Foundation book, later episodes do not. I’ll reserve judgement until I’ve seen the whole, but minor changes are evident in the premiere and compound in episodes two and three. Later episodes also contain more violence and sexuality, though neither is terribly graphic.

Adapting a written work into a visual one requires different story-telling techniques. I can accept that. The Foundation books also cover centuries and multiple generations. There are also backstories and side stories, and the whole is tied to a larger universe that includes the Robot and Empire sets of novels. So perhaps some of these plot choices are to move the story along and introduce elements in a novel way, pun intended. Perhaps, because I have not read all there is to read, certain changes seem baffling to me.

In spite of some successful updates, other new elements seem to detract. There are components that seem borrowed from other franchises, but perhaps this is only because Asimov proposed it first and others built on what he had already done. Frank Herbert’s Dune was written almost as a response to Foundation, while George Lucas freely sampled from both for Star Wars. Don’t be surprised when you hear names in Foundation that sound almost identical to ones in a galaxy far, far away.

I’m willing to continue with the series and will have a thorough review at the season’s end. For now, Foundation is worth watching. If you are a hardcore fan of the books and a purist, it may be a little challenging.

The Bottom Line

 

A large budget and impressive cast make for an eye-popping and engaging adaptation of Asimov's novels. However, changes to the basic storyline and additional melodrama may alienate fans of the books.

 

7

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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