Based on Isaac Asimov’s groundbreaking, galaxy-spanning science fiction trilogy, Foundation, Apple TV+’s spectacular, spare-no-expense ten-part series, arrives on the streaming service with a mix of hope, anticipation and, at least for some lifelong fans, apprehension.
Anticipation and hope due to the original trilogy’s status as an urtext for the science fiction genre, generating tropes and conventions that would be ceaselessly mined by lesser writers and filmmakers for decades to come, and dread due to the original’s longstanding status as unadaptable in non-literary form given the time-jumping, centuries-spanning nature of Asimov’s seminal, genre-redefining work. Spoilers: Asimov purists will likely not be pleased. Everyone else just might be.
From practically the first scene, however, it’s obvious that co-creators David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight Trilogy) and Josh Friedman’s (The Terminator Chronicles, War of the Worlds) long-form, serialized adaptation diverges significantly from Asimov’s original, beginning with the introduction of the gender-swapped Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell), a generational genius born on Synnax, a literal backwater devastated by perpetual flooding due to climate change, a rejection of science and rationality, and the embrace of a rigid, monotheistic religion that considers scientists and their ilk as heretics worthy of persecution, exile, or even execution. That leaves Gaal, all but forced to become an acolyte in the religion that dictates every aspect of life on Synnax, in an unenviable, potentially fatal position.
Entering and then winning an imperial math competition gives Gaal the opportunity to not just leave Synnax behind, but to join Hari Seldon (Jared Harris), an increasingly divisive social mathematician seen by some as a prophet and others as a heretic and traitor to the Empire, as student, protege, and eventually intellectual heir on Trantor, the Galactic Empire’s homeworld. Before Gaal can settle into the pursuit of higher mathematics, she’s drawn into the central conflict that defined both Asimov’s trilogy and Goyer and Friedman’s free-associative adaptation of Asimov’s trilogy: Seldon’s newly burnished modelling of large social groups, including the Galactic Empire, predicts a precipitous fall into 30,000 years of war, violence, and barbarism. Called “psychohistory,” Seldon’s predictive modelling also suggests another alternative, the creation of the Foundation of the title, an off-planet community of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians (among others) centered around a repository of knowledge. If accurate, Seldon’s Plan will shrink the interregnum from 30,000 years to a mere 1,000.
With the exception of Gaal’s deepened backstory and her increasingly instrumental, active role in Seldon’s Plan, Goyer and Friedman’s adaptation doesn’t really begin to stray from the source material until their adaptation shifts focus from Seldon and Gaal to the current Emperor, Brother Day (Lee Pace), Brother Dusk (Terrence Man), the former emperor and senior advisor to the current one, and Brother Dawn (Cassian Bilton), the emperor in waiting. Clones of the first, long-dead emperor, Cleon I, their existence is meant to ensure what one character later calls “imperishable permanence.” Seldon’s prediction, real or not, presents the emperors and by extension, the Galactic Empire, a direct threat to their rule and the political culture they’ve cultivated as near deities across the empire.
An acknowledged influence on Asimov’s trilogy, traces of Edward Gibbons’ “The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire” and echoes of Roman history can be found scattered throughout Foundation, though viewers will see a more recent influence, HBO’s once popular adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s still unfinished fantasy series, Game of Thrones, in the political intrigue, plots, and counter-plots that encircle the emperors on Trantor. A major departure from the source material and thus potentially divisive to longtime fans of Asimov’s original trilogy, the emperors and their struggle to halt or even slow the dissolution of the Galactic Empire, emerges not as a background or supporting storyline, but a key, parallel one practically on par with the central storyline involving Seldon and his intellectual heirs.
Seldon’s eventual fate remains mostly unchanged from the source material: Along with his followers and supporters, he’s exiled to Terminus, a rocky, inhospitable planet on the Outer Rim of the Galaxy. The two-year journey from Trantor gives Gaal the opportunity to develop a romance with Seldon’s adopted son, Rache (Alfred Enoch), another addition to the adaptation, before jumping forward 35 years to Terminus and Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey), the warden/protector of the Foundation’s small, struggling community. Driven by visions of another time, person, and character, Hardin emerges as the de facto leader on Terminus and the focal point in resolving a conflict between warring worlds, warring peoples, and the unsurprising long-term consequences of an empire built on fear, violence, and genocide.
Across Foundation’s incident-heavy first season, the conflict between different, warring ideologies, between the temporal power of empires and emperors and the spiritual/metaphysical powers of mass religion and the almost cult-like belief in Seldon’s supposedly science and math-based plan repeatedly moves to the center. Goyer and Friedman intelligently contrast the fundamentalist fervor of Synnax’s homegrown religion with the ideological rigidity of imperial politics. Where Gaal has to choose between religion and science, Brother Day, born and bred to rule with tyrannical cruelty, military force, and a self-belief bordering on the messianic, clearly sees an existential threat in the sudden rise in a charismatic religious leader who openly questions the divine right of the emperors, each one a clone and in her interpretation, soulless.
With essentially three overlapping storylines, Hari and Gaal’s, Salvor Hardin on Terminus, and Brother Day, running through its first season, Foundation demands an intense level of attention and concentration from viewers especially given how dialogue- and Big Idea-heavy, the latter an Asimov trademark, each episode tends to be. There’s no shortage of action on the ground or off into space, though like too many streaming series, Foundation leans a bit too much on Gaal’s recurring voiceover narration and one-on-one chats between characters for the world-building needed to set the stage for the larger, future-set story, individual characters, and their development within that story.
Considering the potential to bore casual viewers, it’s a major risk for a series of Foundation’s scope and size, though one ameliorated by a major set-piece at the end of the first episode that creates significant, episodes-spanning consequences for the entirety of the first season. With top-notch production values equal to anything produced by HBO, a talented team on one side of the camera (costumes, production design, visual effects deserve special mention), and uniformly perfect casting on the other, Foundation rarely falls short, delivering exactly what it promises: Not just an adaptation of a long-revered work of science fiction, but a thoughtful, provocative, consistently compelling series worthy of the investment in time and effort to reach the final moments of its ten-hour running time.