Foundation — premiering Friday on Apple TV+ — is technically based on the eponymous series of novels written by Isaac Asimov. But when Asimov began writing the series in the 1940s, he wasn’t writing a novel but merely a series of short stories. Chronicling the fall of a Galactic Empire that has stood for over 12,000 years, the events of the Foundation books span centuries. Asimov had a penchant for jumping time frequently, with characters introduced and forgotten quickly. There’s little connective tissue between the stories, and that would never translate well to TV. Foundation (the series) does jump forward in time on a couple of occasions, but for the most part, the events of the first season take place in the same year.
That’s smart because good longform TV is built around characters, not events. If Foundation is going to go on for eight seasons that co-creator, showrunner, head writer and season 1 finale director David S. Goyer — best known for writing Man of Steel, and the Blade trilogy — wants it to, then it’s going to need characters the audience can invest in. The Apple TV+ series also improves on the lack of gender and racial diversity in the books — Asimov was allegedly a serial sexual harasser, and he was catering to a white Western audience — with more women characters (some gender-flipped) and several played by Indian or Indian-origin actors. And to keep the central ones around for the long run, Foundation uses gimmicks (from cryosleep to cloning).
Asimov himself might have approved of this approach. In a foreword to an updated edition, Asimov agreed that the Foundation trilogy had “no action” and “no physical suspense”. He acknowledged the critique that “all the action takes place offstage, and the romance is almost invisible.” Foundation the TV show fixes that. There’s a lot more action and romance on display here, though I’m not sure about the suspense bit — let’s go with intrigue. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work as often as it ought to. The action is in spurts. Even elaborate scenes are directed in a manner that flattens the excitement. There’s little joy in the romantic pairings and escapades. The dramatic happenings come out of nowhere, and do not flow organically from a previous entanglement.
Foundation is a laborious ponderous show that takes itself too seriously to ever come close to being Game of Thrones in space. There are 10 episodes in season 1 — I’ve seen all 10 — with most running between 49 and 56 minutes, and some over an hour.
The first season of the Apple TV+ sci-fi series is divided into three main prongs. We kick off with series narrator and young adult genius Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell) — it’s pronounced Gayle. The character is one of a few who’ve been gender-flipped from Asimov‘s books. Gaal comes from the planet Synnax that has been flooded due to global warming, sending the remnants to the dark ages essentially. This has caused the leftovers to turn on science and immerse themselves in faith. They kill anyone who seeks knowledge and education. A dystopian version of near-future Earth basically. So naturally, when Gaal solves a mathematical equation, her parents bid goodbye and send her off to Trantor — the centre of the Galactic Empire — to save her from certain death.
Not that death is far away on Trantor. Gaal arrives in the Empire’s capital on the invitation of the galaxy’s greatest mathematician Hari Seldon (Jared Harris) — it’s pronounced Harry — who has predicted the fall of the Galactic Empire in five centuries. Seldon uses the field of psychohistory, a term coined by Asimov that combines history, sociology, and statistics. Today, it’s approximate to big data. Naturally, Seldon’s prediction enrages the Empire that has been ruled by the clones of one man, Cleon the First, for over 12,000 years. They see fit to put Hari and Gaal — who confirms Hari’s predictions — on trial for high treason. The punishment is death but after Gaal warns this will accelerate the Empire’s downfall, it’s downgraded to exile at the edge of the galaxy.
That planet is known as Terminus, where Hari plans for them to establish a Foundation that would consolidate all human knowledge, in order to see out a dark age that will last a thousand years. Foundation’s Terminus prong brings in a bunch of new characters, chief of which is the planet’s warden Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey) — another gender-flipped character. Salvor is called “special” by her parents, and believes she’s special for a connection she has to a giant floating vault on Terminus. Her job brings her into conflict with Phara Khan (Kubbra Sait), the Grand Huntress of nearby warring planet Anacreon that has a grudge against the Empire. Phara is an all-new character, and Sait — of Sacred Games fame — has a sizeable role on Foundation.
Speaking of the Empire, the Apple TV+ series’ third prong is devoted to it. At any point, three differently-aged Cleon clones — the youngest Brother Dawn (Cooper Carter/ Cassian Bilton), the middle ruler Brother Day (Lee Pace), and the eldest Brother Dusk (Terrence Mann) — exist. They are advised by Demerzel (Laura Birn), an android that cannot disobey the Empire’s orders. As with Phara, this is all a Goyer creation. Day and Dawn get the most extensive storylines on Foundation season 1. Both revolve around soul and individuality, which also encompasses Demerzel’s arc. While one of them actually lives forever, the other propagates the theory they live forever. It’s a curse for both, Foundation points out, as neither can have a life of their own. It’s all very lonely at the top.
While some portions are genuinely affecting, others turn out to be just moving the plot along. The events are tragic but they aren’t conveyed in the best possible manner. This is also the case for Foundation’s two female protagonists: Gaal and Salvor. Not only do both swerve dangerously close to being Mary Sues, but they also feel under-explored as human beings. They are just not interesting characters. Gaal is further undone by her role as the narrator. Foundation hands her philosophical lines that turn her into a mouthpiece for the show. To paraphrase a famous line from the books (that is also in Foundation), narration is the last refuge of the incompetent. Foundation needed to try harder to communicate all of it through scenes, not talk to the audience. It’s off-putting.
Foundation also tries to pack in too many big events per episode. I can’t say or even allude to these events — spoilers! — but it feels like a call for attention. Despite that, as Asimov said in his foreword, I kept waiting for something to happen, and nothing ever did. And like Star Trek: Discovery and others, Foundation has a habit of spouting scientific mumbo-jumbo that I could never follow. Its suits and spaceships also feel like a cross between Discovery and The Expanse. Maybe like the latter, which started poorly but then got better, Foundation can find its footing in later seasons. It’s certainly got the ingredients, and it’s on the right track with its character-based approach.
While some Foundation fans might consider the Apple TV+ series sacrilege for the wholesale changes and additions, it was necessary and the right move. Foundation isn’t based on the books, I’d argue, it’s inspired by them. In other words, Foundation merely serves as a — excuse me — foundation for the TV show. I just wish its foundation, the first season, had a better idea of what it wanted to be.
Foundation releases September 24 on Apple TV+ with the first two episodes. New episodes will debut weekly thereafter for the next eight weeks.