A novel series that was the foundation for my exploration of science fiction surpasses the wildest dreams I could have imagined.
What They Say:
Gaal Dornick leaves her life at Synnax behind when the galaxy’s greatest mathematician, Hari Seldon, invites her to Trantor.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Coming of age as a teenager in the early 80s with a father that grew up at that age in the early 50s, I was surrounded by decades of science fiction novels all my young life. I had become a huge fan of science fiction with Star Wars in 1977 and it didn’t take long for me to get into science fiction novels, mostly age-appropriate, over the next few years. I was a voracious reader as a kid and I burned through a ton of Asimov at that point, partially because they aren’t “hard” science fiction like many authors are today, and it lead me to works from Heinlein, Bradbury, and of course, Frank Herbert whose Dune works had the greatest impact on me in so many ways. So many of these works have either had weirdly stunted adaptations over the years that often just used the title and a sliver of concept or they never made it past development hell.
Now, we live in an age of an embarrassment of riches.
With this series, Dune, the Wheel of Time, a whole new Lord of the Rings work, The Expanse, and so many other projects faithfully adapting these complex and complicated works while also providing necessary updates for the times that many of them really do need, it’s hard to believe. And this is after seeing my comic book childhood come to life and the way the past decade has reinvigorated my Star Wars side as well. As a kid that grew up geeky in the 80s with all the fandom interests out there, it’s just ridiculous as we move through this golden age of it. And that’s just a bit of the table setting I have to do before really talking about the show.
As an anecdote, writer/showrunner David S. Goyer said at one point, perhaps jokingly, that when they were selling the Apple folks on the show, they said they had eight seasons worth of material to cover for it. Which is definitely amusing because the opening episode is really the only place where we significantly spend time with the Empire itself and all this big and weighty things. The series is working from the same kind of adaptation structure as The Expanse and Wheel of Time in that they’re taking from the different works for what happens at any given time, but they’re framing it as a story being told by someone far in the future. Someone that as a child went to learn about all the stars and planets out there, from Trantor to Star’s End, but never heard of Terminus. But now knows the names of Salvor Hardin, Harbor Mallow, and The Mule. It’s the perfect framing as it allows the story to move forward across different periods of time, to build yet reinvent itself, and show, at its core, how humanity navigates a thousand years of darkness.
For that is what Hari Seldon (Jared Harris) has announced will happen, according to his work on the field of psychohistory at Streeling University. It’s there that he’s unlocked the mathematical way to predict the movement of large numbers of people. Not individuals, but much larger groups. The galaxy is made up of eight trillion people within the Empire and though that he’s seen that after twelve thousand years, the Empire will fall in five hundred years. And give way to thirty thousand years of darkness. But he’s found a way to shortcut some of this, down to a thousand, by creating a Foundation that will preserve knowledge and help people claw back from the darkness. And not just knowledge, as he says, but the story of the people that have come before. It’s a role that Harris is able to sell beautifully.
The series is working at a point where everything is about to change, though the movements of individuals do not matter. The big picture movements are what’s happening and while a terrorist act by a couple of people alters the capital world of Trantor irrevocably, it’s something that would have happened because of pressures that exist within the management of an Empire like this. And part of that, as Seldon talks about while being arrested for being a false prophet and spreading hearsay, is that the past four hundred years have seen a change in how the Empire is run due to the use of cloned Emperors (Terrence Mann, Lee Pace, Cooper Carter) that operate at three-at-a-time. It’s an interesting change and one of those things that Seldon gets to point to as a reason for the decay – the lack of change, the sameness of rule, and the lack of true progress that comes from it. I won’t say it’s a change I’m wholesale in favor of, but it’s one that works and one that, long-term, doesn’t really impact anything as a novel fan.
Our central character focus for the opening episode is as it should be, though it takes a little time. Telling the story of the Empire, Trantor, and Seldon himself is Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell), a young woman from the world of Synnax where she’s basically an outcast just like Seldon because of her knowledge and innate talent toward mathematics. She’s able to understand what Seldon is doing when she gets there, having been the only one to pass the challenge he put out to solve a particular mathematical puzzle. But Seldon has brought her in at this pivotal point where her life is going to be unlike anything she imagined. I really loved seeing Synnax as an algae farming world and the beautiful waterworld design to it, which in turn plays to her wonder at seeing Trantor and its massive space elevator and the hundred layers that are on top of the planet’s surface. She’s still reserved as the kind of mathematician she is, but also because of her time as an outcast, one that would have ended with her jailed and killed on Synnax for the hearsay of it all from the ruling religious cast. Another example of how the outer rim worlds are sinking into darkness already.
Foundation spends its time wll here and I know we’ll have more scenes of the fall of the Empire and dealing with the Emperors. And there will be time ahead for Seldon, though the character will be much like what Jared Harris’s character on The Expanse is like in that it becomes a very small but legendary role. There is a real grandness to his performance here, even again while keeping it small and personal at the right times such as when he’s with Gaal after they’re first arrested. The problem with adapting Foundation is similar to what Dune faces in that so much of this has been stolen elsewhere. Trantor and Coruscant from Star Wars are cut from the same cloth but there really are differences here in how it’s presented, and that makes a huge difference. Particularly within the section that the Emperor lives, and how everything is managed. It’s so incredibly detailed that you do quickly realize just how much of a passion project this is and that it had to be gotten right because, quite honestly, I think this is the only chance we’ll ever get to see Foundation brought to life. It’s a work that is a “foundation” for modern science fiction, but like many of those they seem to lose their relevance as the works and creators they inspire take things so much further in the decades to come. This allows it to not only exist alongside those other works, but towers above them already and says, “You can be so much more.”
As some errata, there are a couple of stray thoughts that are with me during this. I have zero issue with any of the gender changes because the source material was written for a different audience in a different time and if you’ve seen the Deep Space Nine episode with Sisko as a writer in this time, that’s a wonderful shortcut to explaining the pressures that writers were under outside of what they wanted to do. The original serialized stories were very male-heavy for a white male audience at the time and this update does exactly what is necessary not just for the sake of diversity but for the sake of realism and honesty as to what humanity would look like across thousands of worlds and climates and other changes. There are some really neat minor elements here with how bodies are changed and altered that makes you want to know more.
Science fiction at its best provides a reflection of things for the time it exists in, sometimes aspirational, sometimes condemning. There’s the period where Seldon talks about the state of the Empire and the long periods of time ahead and so much of it to me felt like it could be an expression of the coming climate change catastrophes we face. I do not know if Asimov was being reflective of anything in his original work in the context of the time it was written, but the best of science fiction is the material that can be interpreted to the time that it’s made and for its audience to interpret and these ideas percolated in my head a lot when viewing the galaxy and its coming fall as our world and the issues we face in climate.
There were a couple of areas that really made me stupidly happy. I loved getting a brief bit of time with Lors Avakim (Porschat Madani) and while Terrance Mann gives me what I imagined Cleo of the novels to look like, Lee Pace puts in a magnificent subdued but powerful presentation as the middle Emperor who teaches the youngest while receiving shared lived experience from the elder. I swear I almost teared up when they introduced Raych into the show, as if I recall he was a character solely from the prequel novels that Brinn, Bedford, and others were involved in. That they may be tapping into those works as well just delighted me. But one of the best moments was seeing the capitalized noun “Spacers” and actually getting to see one, all these thousands of years after they were first introduced in a whole other series in a vastly different way. These are the touches that again bring me to viewing this as a real passion project.
Those who’ve followed my review over the past twenty-three years of doing them on the Internet know that it’s a rare show where I’m anywhere near this effusive about a first episode. I’m generally more of a wait and see kind of person because I understand how frontloaded these things can be and also that, in a general sense, the first episode is a pilot episode and you see changes after that. With a straight-to-series order like this and for most streaming productions, the opening episode has to set the tone, scope, and scale of the entire run. Foundation is one of THE classics out there that has long needed a proper adaptation, one that takes all that works and blends it with what’s needed to move not just between mediums but between eighty years of culture, science, and understanding. Asimov’s brilliance is never in doubt and the man grew and changed considering over the course of his life and in his fiction and non-fiction works. With this adaptation, I can only imagine him being thrilled beyond words at seeing it take shape and I’m excited to see what the future holds for the end of empire.
Streamed By: Apple TV+