“Foundation” Season One Reveals Asimov’s Genius — By Omission
David S. Goyer’s Foundation is the most extravagantly respectful Isaac Asimov adaptation ever seen on television. (In the movie realm, that title’s still held by Chris Columbus’s Bicentennial Man, which captures the Grand Master’s sentimental side.) That being the case, it’s striking that the show isn’t particularly faithful to its source material.
(Spoiler alert! Stop here if you don’t want to know about surprises in both the show and stories.)
While Goyer and his collaborators take inspiration from the basic premise of Asimov’s Foundation stories — a brilliant mathematician establishes a Foundation meant to protect knowledge and execute his plan to soften the fall of a decaying Galactic Empire — the show diverges from the specifics of Asimov’s narrative in such significant respects that if it weren’t for the carefully placed Easter eggs, you’d think Goyer might have been going on a description of the plot provided via cocktail party chit-chat.
It was always clear that a successful adaptation would have to take liberties; Asimov was simply not a cinematic writer. What the new Foundation series helps drive home, though, is that the un-film-able nature of his science fiction wasn’t just a matter of whether he bothered to dream up exciting action sequences. (When he tried, the reader was often left wishing he hadn’t bothered.)
From the outset, Asimov’s great theme was the tension between individual freedom and human happiness. Although as a trained biochemist he had mixed feelings about the social sciences, like his midcentury contemporaries in sociology and economics he was fascinated by the potential for scientific investigation to explain and, ultimately, predict human behavior on a large scale.
The central thinker of his Foundation stories is Hari Seldon: not a religious or political leader, but a scientific one. Seldon devises a way to spare the Galaxy thousands of years of suffering, but his Plan (Asimov pointedly capitalized it) would only work if its subjects were unaware of the nature of its workings. Knowledge of the Plan would introduce a new variable. In the original stories, the Plan is only disrupted by the emergence of a superhuman intelligence with abilities Seldon could not have accounted for.
Variously chagrined and impressed, the stories’ characters make frequent references to Seldon’s “dead hand.” As he reveals via pre-recorded messages, he accurately predicted the consequences of events he set in motion before his death, which comes at the outset of the first Foundation book. (In the short stories as originally published, Seldon was out of the picture from the beginning.)
One of Goyer’s most telling deviations from the original stories is to keep Seldon around in various capacities. He takes off for Terminus with his faithful encyclopedists — unlike in Asimov, where Seldon dies on the Imperial core planet of Trantor, leaving his intellectual heirs to make the epic journey. Then, after he dies en route, he’s resurrected as an artificial intelligence in at least two venues, in both cases actively dialoguing with living beings who are central to the Plan’s success.
The first season includes an indication of what might be the show’s version of Asimov’s Second Foundation — a clandestine stopgap Seldon created to patch up the Plan where needed — but by that point, it hardly matters. It seems clear that Seldon never had much faith in his own Plan to start with, or he would have kept his posthumous nose out of things.
Of course, in the show’s version of events, Seldon (Jared Harris) has good reason for concern. Again and again, characters are faced with genuinely consequential decisions regarding their own fate and the fate of the Galaxy. Seldon’s adopted son Raych (Alfred Enoch) falls in love with young mathematician Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobel) and saves her when he was meant to save himself. Brother Day (Lee Pace), one of the triumvirate of cloned emperors, zips around the Galaxy playing politics rather than lounging complacently in his palace, as Asimov’s emperors largely did.
In a particularly significant deviation, the Foundation’s Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey) ends up at the controls of a rogue superweapon, capable of destroying Trantor or, it seems, pretty much anything else. How could any Plan account for such a development? This Seldon seemingly could; in fact, he says that he used the weapon’s seemingly random movements through space to test his equations’ integrity. And yet he stuck around, just to be on the safe side.
The screen Seldon’s least characteristic moments, vis-a-vis his literary counterpart, come when he actively exhorts the Galaxy’s surviving residents to take particular courses of action. His avatar confronts Dornick in the swirling debris field surrounding his home world of Helicon (in another departure from the stories, Seldon identifies this as the “stars’ end” that is seemingly home to the Second Foundation; in Asimov’s original, that’s Trantor itself). Later, he appears before warring factions on Terminus to encourage them to unite against the Empire. If the Plan actually works, why does Seldon need to keep showing his “dead hand”?
In fairness, the problems with the Plan are what concern most of the original Foundation stories; the encyclopedists are only on track until the Mule shows up to steal the show. Still, Goyer and his collaborators get disappointingly little traction from the stories’ central tension: whether the Foundationers should succumb to the higher power of the Plan or to go their own way.
The original stories’ first sequel, 1982’s Foundation’s Edge, is entirely animated by the quest of one Terminus politician to root out the Second Foundation he believes to be controlling the Galaxy. In the show, at least as of yet, the Plan is on such shaky ground from the get-go that for it to work too well is the least of anyone’s concerns — including Brother Day, who spends a multi-episode arc proving the existence of his soul to appease a religious faction that no one else seems to care a whit about.
It didn’t take the show long to confirm that Demerzel (Laura Birn), the Imperial advisor whose secret identity as a robot is a major reveal in the Foundation prequel novels, is a mechanical being in the show as well — but hardly an “Asenian” robot, as characters in Asimov’s universe call robots that conform to the author’s Three Laws of Robotics. There’s zero discussion of the Three Laws in the Foundation show, even when Demerzel proves herself a ready murderer, thus breaking the paramount law.
Asimov’s robots eventually get around to willingly harming humans, but they only do so with profound angst and on behalf of humanity writ large. If the screen Demerzel makes such calculations, she doesn’t share them with us; she also has a spiritual side that Asimov’s own robots only approached when one of them decided to worship an energy converter as a god (“Reason,” 1941).
Of course, we shouldn’t have expected a Foundation series to concern itself with the Three Laws when even the movie I, Robot (2004) couldn’t restrain its eponymous automatons from turning on their creators. The Three Laws, perhaps Asimov’s most famous creation and the basis of most of his published fiction, seem to be just too boring for what the author dismissed as “eye sci-fi” onscreen.
Nonetheless, the author’s daughter Robyn (a producer of the Apple TV+ Foundation series) insisted her dad would have enjoyed I, Robot. Presumably she feels sanguine about the new show as well, and it’s certainly true that Goyer has read and appreciated the source material. If he takes it in the direction so many of the shows and movies influenced by Asimov have gone, that’s only to be expected. Asimov adaptations onscreen, it seems, will always be fundamentally — foundationally, one might say — different from the author’s published works.
What the new Foundation demonstrates once again is just how profoundly Asimov’s interpolation of the decaying Roman Empire into the far future has influenced popular entertainment. The show evokes comparisons to Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien, and other science fiction colossi that themselves were animated by Asimov’s ideas. As Hari Seldon — a character who Asimov openly embraced as an alter ego — would have appreciated, a dead hand can pull a lot of weight.
Photo: Jared Harris in Foundation, courtesy Apple TV+