I don’t think the new Foundation series on Apple TV+ is actually very good.
It’s hard for me to judge it objectively. The series’s development has helped shape several years of my life — not because I was involved with the series, of course, but because while showrunner David S. Goyer and his team formulated a script, designed effects, and navigated Covid during principal photography, I was sitting at my Minneapolis kitchen table writing a reader’s guide to Isaac Asimov’s future history. My intent was to reach people inspired to read Asimov after viewing the series, and who were wondering where to start.
While the series is inspired by what the opening credits refer to half-erroneously as “the novels of Isaac Asimov” (the original Foundation stories were written and published individually in science fiction magazines, only later being collected into book compilations; eventually, Asimov did write four additional novels in the series), the plot makes mincemeat of the details of the author’s future history. Of course, it had to. Asimov was simply not a cinematic writer: one commenter on a Lit Hub piece I wrote on this subject aptly describes the Foundation stories as “Dinner With Andre from the future.” A hyper-faithful adaptation in the style of Harry Potter or The Hunger Games was never in the cards.
In broad strokes, here’s what the series preserves from the books. (Spoilers ahead, for both books and show.) Hari Seldon, a brilliant mathematician in a far-future Galactic Empire, devises a means of predicting collective human behavior and foretells the Empire’s coming fall. This understandably displeases the sitting Emperor, who exiles Seldon and his followers to the distant planet of Terminus. There, they establish a Foundation to preserve civilization during a period of disorder — and to use Seldon’s science, psychohistory, to intervene so as to shorten the inevitable reign of chaos.
In Asimov, Seldon never actually makes it to Terminus: by the time the Foundation establishes a foothold, he’s a very old man who dies on the Galactic capital world of Trantor, knowing his vision is being fulfilled. Goyer and his team need a little more juice from Seldon (Jared Harris), though, so they pack him up into the mobile colony making the several-year journey to Terminus. During the journey, the future Foundationers experience drama of a sort Asimov definitely never designed.
Of all the show’s departures from the text — including a cloned triumvirate of Imperial leaders, and a tethered space station that’s attacked by terrorists — the one that Asimov (who died in 1992) might find most head-scratching is the duration of the Foundation’s journey to the Galactic rim. The show has Brother Day (Lee Pace), effectively the Emperor, spiting Seldon by depriving him of access to Imperial jump ships that can bend space and time…but what form of space travel technology, exactly, takes five years to travel 50,000 light years? Asimov, who agonized over miniaturized characters’ breathing ability when asked to novelize the movie Fantastic Voyage, would have made this one of his first script notes.
The show holds its momentum through the first episode, as Seldon’s dilemma is established and we start to get indications of his grand plan. We also closely follow the journey of Gaal Dornick; in one of Goyer’s best innovations, the Seldon lieutenant who’s a bland man in the books becomes a promising young woman (Lou Llobell) who’s daringly defied her know-nothing home world to study science. By the second episode, the Foundationers are aboard their mobile colony; the confusing and fragmentary onboard struggles, which for some reason seem to revolve around a swimming pool used only by Dornick, are less than engaging.
The series’s biggest disappointment may be that its conversations are just…well, boring. Say what you will about Asimov’s shortcomings as a writer, he managed to become perhaps the most popular science fiction author of all time despite filling his books largely with conversations among small groups of characters. Those conversations carried the sweep of big ideas, all coming back to Asimov’s core theme of human freedom versus happiness. To what extent should free will be curtailed to maximize peace, contentment, and safety?
At least in the first two episodes, Foundation the series comes nowhere near that theme. Maybe we’ll get there, but at the outset the show is more concerned with the sadly relevant theme of leaders who spurn science when it threatens their comfortable positions of power. Whether or not Brother Day’s theatrical hangings of dissidents compel viewers’ attention in the era of A Handmaid’s Tale, Asimov fans can enjoy Goyer’s invocations of people and places from across the author’s future history — stretching right up to his final novel, the posthumously published Forward the Foundation.
Viewers familiar with Asimov’s place in science fiction history may also find themselves reflecting on how prescient the author was. Asimov isn’t remembered as having great foresight when it came to human history and technology (with the notable exception of robots and artificial intelligence), but he did foresee the future of science fiction. Watching Foundation, it’s impossible to miss moments that take direct inspiration from films like 2001, Star Wars, and Blade Runner as well as the Star Trek series — all of which were, for their part, closely inspired by Asimov’s writing. There’s a gratifying sense of this material coming full circle.
Even if prestige TV hasn’t delivered a fully satisfying Asimov adaptation in this case, the fact that science fiction writ large occupies a central space in our society’s most ambitious entertainments is a testament to the conviction of Asimov and his Golden Age counterparts that science fiction was a genre with limitless potential for substantive storytelling. The author wasn’t a visual storyteller, and to the end of his life he remained suspicious of the potential for TV and movies to dilute the meaty ideas and authentic science he championed.
Foundation isn’t quite as dilute as the “eye-sci-fi” Asimov most disdained, but it takes ample liberties. Some of those risks may start to pay off in coming episodes; if not, the series risks being less compelling than My Dinner With Andre in space. After all, My Dinner With Andre is a pretty good movie.
Photo: Leah Harvey in Foundation (courtesy Apple TV+).