TV review: Holding onto the cracks in “Foundation”

TV review: Holding onto the cracks in “Foundation”

Well, Hari, this is a fine mess you’ve gotten us into. Your star student is younger than her daughter, the Empire is coming for the Foundation, the future of humanity is veering way off Plan, and you’re stuck inside a tchotchke. Actually, that last part is kind of impressive given that you’re technically dead.

David Goyer’s increasingly loose adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series of science fiction stories is back for a second season on Apple TV+, and it’s getting downright gonzo. Only a few minutes into the season premiere, Lee Pace is fighting for his life in a fully nude scene that would be awkward enough if it hadn’t already been shown up by Jennifer Lawrence — who didn’t, unlike Pace as Brother Day, have her naughty bits hidden by careful camerawork.

What, exactly, Brother Day is up to when he’s attacked is more of an authentic Asimov nod than casual fans might realize: Forward the Foundation, the author’s final book in the series, took the concept of merging the Foundation and robot stories to an unexpectedly erotic level. Suffice it to say that inclusion-minded authors of Foundation slash fic suddenly have reason to be disappointed at Imperial advisor Eto Demerzel’s gender swap in the transition from page to screen.

As in the first season, the second season opener is most compelling when it touches on the central tension in the original stories. Hari Seldon used math (somehow) to anticipate the crises his Foundation would encounter, and assured its members that everything will work out for the best. That’s easy for him to say, his characters think as they face threats from all sides.

In the stories, Seldon lives on only in the form of recorded messages. On TV, however, he hedged his bets by creating at least two duplicates of his consciousness, which are occasionally available to badger the Galaxy. As the second season opens, the psychohistorian is seemingly going mad as he grapples with the geography of his own Prime Radiant: a Plan storage device that also turns out to be handy for holding a human mind and who knows what else.

Taking a page from Asimov’s peer Arthur C. Clarke, Goyer extends his characters’ reach through time by way of frozen slumber. Thus it is that Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell) and Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey) form an unlikely mother-daughter team facing something akin to a sci-fi Amazing Race challenge. The stakes are so conceptual that it’s hard to really engage with their plight, but the second season premiere finds them on Dornick’s home planet of Synaax, a water world that continues to provide the show’s most striking visuals.

The irony of Foundation, the TV series, is that although Goyer has the luxury of planning things out at least a season at a time, it still feels like the writers are following Asimov’s lead and improvising as they go. Goyer did keep some major developments in his pocket for season two, or even subsequent seasons: the stories’ major villain, the Mule, has yet to emerge. The show has also just teased the idea of extrasensory mental powers, which are key to the original stories’ workings.

Fans have a reason, then, to keep watching. The show’s second season may yet hit its stride, but as of the opening episode, Foundation the show is the opposite of Foundation the book. It looks nice, but doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Jay Gabler is the author of Robots and Foundation: A Reader’s Guide to Isaac Asimov’s Future History

Photo: Lee Pace in Foundation, courtesy Apple TV+