One of the classic, genre-defining texts of mid-20th century American science fiction, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, seemed destined to remain in the”unfilmable” category well into the next century. Writers, directors, and producers came and went over the years, each one promising far more than they could deliver. It took the arrival of Apple’s then fledgling streaming service, Apple TV+, and with it the need for original programming, for an adaptation worthy of Asimov and his ideas. The series, co-created by David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight trilogy) and Josh Friedman (War of the Worlds), debuted in 2021 across 10 densely packed, richly textured, incident-filled episodes, and has now returned for its sophomore outing.
Season 1 deftly introduced the key players in the Foundation universe, along with the world-building necessary to create the far-future backdrop for its galactic empire. Led by Brother Day (Lee Pace), the latest iteration of the first emperor, Cleon – cloned in perpetuity to guarantee dynastic stability – and accompanied by Brother Dusk (Terrence Mann) and Brother Dawn (Cassian Bilton), the kingdom maintained dictatorial control from the center of the galactic empire, Trantor. Like the city-state of Rome, Trantor symbolized the triumph of science, progress, and technology over the chaos, anarchy, and entropy of the Outer Reaches.
Like Asimov’s novels, the streaming series contrasts the Galactic Empire’s faltering rule and inevitable collapse with the efforts of Hari Seldon (Jared Harris). He is the inventor of “psycho-history,” a mathematically grounded form of sociology that can accurately predict not just the future, but also inflection points that, if properly managed and controlled, could limit the aftershocks of the empire’s collapse. Predicting that collapse publicly sets Seldon against the empire and its rulers, inevitably leading to his and his followers’ exile to Terminus, an inhospitable planet located in the Outer Reaches.
While he provided Asimov’s series with a structural framework, Seldon just as naturally exited the books, dying off-page from natural causes. Here, however, Apple’s series makes another key departure from Asimov’s novels; it gives us not one, not even two, but three iterations of Seldon, one biological and the other two digital. One of those digital ghosts in the machine exists in a Vault on Terminus, appearing only as needed when a new crisis surfaces to threaten the Foundation.
The other Seldon “lives” as a downloaded hologram aboard a colony ship, the Raven, initially serving as a residual mentor to Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell), a next-level mathematician who eventually balks at serving both Seldon and his Plan. This highlights the thematic tension and conflict between historical determinism and the free will of individuals to influence and shape history. Their conflict also neatly foregrounded the dangers of treating mentors (so-called “great men”) as beyond reproach or criticism, made explicit in season 2’s treatment of Seldon as a prophet-like figure.
Gaal’s rebellion, however, seemingly permanent, proved temporary in the final moments of the first season. She, awakened from cryosleep after more than a hundred years, found herself face-to-face with her own daughter, Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey). Hardin is an ex-Warden of Terminus, pivotal to resolving the First Crisis a century earlier, who found herself inexplicably drawn to her mother’s homeworld. It was a bit of a head-scratcher that also meant most of the first season’s supporting characters were done and dusted story-wise. Inevitable? Sure, but all things considered (i.e., audience investment), also potentially disappointing.
Season two picks up almost immediately after that first awkward meeting between mother and daughter on the former’s homeworld. There’s little time for a meet-and-greet, though, as Gaal’s homeworld, Synnax, has disappeared, swallowed by rising oceans. With the somewhat vexing assistance of Seldon’s digital double, they eventually make their escape, only to realize a second crisis awaits them and the current leaders of Terminus: a seemingly unstoppable armed conflict between the Foundation and the still powerful Galactic Empire.
In a season already heavy in character and intrigue, a new storyline introduces additional characters: Poly Verisof (Kulvinder Ghir), the High Cleric of the Church of the Galactic Spirit, a Terminus-funded religion exported to other, nearby worlds; Brother Constant (Isabella Laughland), the High Cleric’s chief assistant and attendant; Hober Mallow (Dimitri Leonidas), an ethically challenged trader mysteriously called by one of Seldon’s digital simulacra to assist with the impending crisis.
Another episodes-long subplot involves a character drawn from the original trilogy, Bel Roise (Ben Daniels), an ex-general and ex-commander of the Superliminal Fleet recruited by Brother Day to find out whether the Foundation still exists and, if so, defeat it before it becomes an existential threat. In yet another subplot, Brother Day considers ending the genetic dynasty created by Cleon I, substituting dynastic marriage to Sareth (Ella-Rae Smith), the newly crowned queen of the Cloud Dominion, and their progeny as the rightful rulers of the Galactic Empire. That, in turn, would relegate his clones, including Brother Dusk and Brother Dawn, into irrelevance.
Asimov wasn’t particularly interested in expending time or labor on court intrigue or dynastic squabbling in his series. However, given we live in a post-Games of Thrones world, it’s far from surprising that Goyer, Friedman, and their collaborators split the narrative between the characters central or tangential to Seldon’s Plan and newly invented Empire-centered characters. This includes inserting a repurposed Eto Demerzel (Laura Birn), an android from Asimov’s I, Robot series, into the chief imperial advisor.
As with Foundation’s first season, Apple TV+ spares almost no expense production-wise for their flagship series. The balance between character, story, and spectacle still tips heavily toward character and story, but there’s rarely any sense that corners were cut. The expansive world-building remains objectively among the best of any streaming service, including tech, costumes, art, and everything in between. Minimizing the use of green-screen and relying instead on physical locations adds a layer of verisimilitude even the most talented digital artists can’t duplicate.
Season 2 of Foundation premieres Friday, July 14 exclusively on Apple TV+, with new episodes available every Friday.