“The solution to this first crisis was obvious,” realizes a cigar-chomping Salvor Hardin at the conclusion of Isaac Asimov’s first “Foundation” story, published in 1942. “Obvious as all hell!”
Revisiting that story, it’s striking to realize how much the broad strokes of its imperatives have been realized in the new Apple TV+ Foundation series, now four episodes in. Hari Seldon is gone, having apparently left a plan and a Vault that offer little comfort when the acquisitive “barbarians” (screenwriter Lauren Bello takes this word from Asimov) come knocking — the decaying Empire half a galaxy away, but not as uninterested as the Foundation’s encyclopedists assume.
Beyond that, David S. Goyer’s series continues to often feel as if it’s lifted the words but not the music of Asimov’s classic stories. The least successful elements of the new series involve its repeated reaches into high fantasy: not the realm where Asimov was most comfortable, though his Foundation stories absolutely helped lay the groundwork for authors like Frank Herbert, whose Dune (1965) was clearly inspired by Asimov’s interpolation of ancient kingdoms’ power struggles into outer space.
Herbert brought his own special sauce, however: not just a keen sense of character (also not Asimov’s strength) but a rich sense of ritual and religion. Goyer’s reaching for that, but the echoes of Dune in Foundation are wincingly explicit, right down to the blue-flashing eyes of a spice-slinging trader (Daniel MacPherson). The series aesthetic, which favors body-hugging flexible armor in the color palette of your local whiskey bar, suffers by comparison to Denis Villeneuve’s highly visible new Dune adaption…and, in another unfortunate twist for the Foundation, comparisons are inevitable.
Still, Goyer continues to demonstrate proof of concept, which is that the prestige era finally has at least the tools to capture the dynamic that makes the Foundation stories so compelling despite their lack of the romantic interest, epic action, and memorable personalities that Goyer so strains — with mixed results — to realize onscreen. By the end of episode four, “Barbarians at the Gate,” the series has clearly established the critical tension fueling the entire Foundation series: the fact that its characters are living through a series of events that seem to require them to rise to extraordinary challenges, while at the same time they know themselves to be part of a grand hidden plan that will supposedly play out no matter what specific decisions any one individual makes.
It’s here that Goyer and his collaborators finally start to gain some traction with the cloned emperors they’ve spent such time and care establishing. In “Barbarians,” the latest Brother Dawn (Cassian Bilton) is despairing at his place in the world, which he’s being informed in no uncertain terms is to follow the lead of his cruel predecessors. At the same time, those predecessors (Terrence Mann and an admirably exerted Lee Pace) are starting to fear that “Raven Seldon” was right: the Empire is collapsing, and there is actually nothing they can do about it.
(Goyer and Bello even consider a possibility Asimov neglected: that an Emperor, realizing Seldon wasn’t a complete fraud, might try to put his own mathematicians on the case. After all, as a responsible member of the scientific community Seldon did publish his papers in peer-reviewed journals. That leads as far as a mention of linear regression, which might actually bring the new Foundation series closer to an explicit discussion of how psychohistory as a discipline would actually work than Asimov ever got.)
An additional notion the show’s latest episode, directed by Alex Graves, takes from Asimov is that an Emperor, surrounded by the only swath of green space remaining on the Imperial headquarters planet of Trantor, would develop a relationship with one of his gardeners. In Asimov’s posthumous prequel novel Forward the Foundation, that leads to weird intrigue involving Hari Seldon’s spying son, a heroic sex worker, and a gardener who really hates his management position. Here, it takes the form of Brother Dawn seemingly flirting with a plant whisperer (Amy Tyger) who recognizes the robot dragonfly dispatched to stalk her.
The title “Barbarians at the Gate” was previously attached to a scathing 1989 book-length study of the leveraged buyout of RJR Nabisco, part of the ’80s binge of corporate raiding. Most economists, well-armed with their own regression models, correctly forecast that trickle-down economics wouldn’t work in the long term. As a society, however, we often have a hard time keeping our focus on the long term. That takes a Hari Seldon, or an Isaac Asimov.
Photo: Kubbra Salt in Foundation (courtesy Apple TV+).