Humanity left Earth behind and spread across the stars. For centuries, it has been in the grip of the Empire, ruled by the unchanging clones of Cleon I. When visionary mathematician Hari Seldon predicts its downfall, will Cleon II support his vision of a scientific Ark or dismiss his heretical notions of cultural apocalypse?
Foundation is AppleTV’s foray into the world of classic science fiction, taking on a giant of the genre that has generally been considered unfilmable. Where Dune paints fantasy tropes on a space opera background, Asimov’s Foundation is a series of histories spread over centuries that focus more on maths and philosophy than characters (or so I understand: I haven’t read the books).
Watching the sumptuous AppleTV production, it didn’t take me long to deduce that it’s inspired by the novel rather than a particularly faithful adaptation. Asimov’s text is predictably white and male (I don’t care if it was written in the ’40s; dream a little bigger darling). The dramatisation genderflips characters to give us female protagonists and makes them primarily women of colour in a reassuringly diverse universe. Add in gorgeously rendered settings and seamless visual effects, and it was all lining up well as far as I was concerned.
In the first episode, young mathematician Gaal Dornick is summoned to the Imperial capital of Trantor to meet Hari Seldon – only to find herself arrested with him when the Emperor hears of Seldon’s apocalyptic predictions. We glimpse the breadth and strength of the Empire; and get an early sign that Cleon’s control is not as absolute as he’d like when terrorists assault the capital. It’s a great bit of scene-setting – I commented wryly afterwards that it does more world-building in half an episode than the entirety of Villeneuve’s Dune (which I’ll be writing about in a few days).
I found lots to be curious about – but the rule of the first half of Foundation is not to get attached. The second episode leaps ahead a couple of years; the third picks up both twenty-some years earlier and thirty-odd years later. The time jumps may be true to the source material, but they made it harder and harder to stay engaged.
By episode four, I was mostly still watching to humour my partner, who was enjoying it a lot more than me. I might have persevered regardless – solid visuals and good acting paper over a lot of cracks and The Expanse doesn’t restart until next month – but if you’d asked me whether I was enjoying it? Not really. And I resented it. I wanted to like Foundation. I really like the cast; the characters and the conceit are interesting. But the lack of continuity and scattershot approach to narrative made the first half of the season fall flat for me.
Part of my problem with Foundation is that I find Hari Seldon insufferable; and I’m wired to reject even benevolent patriarchal smuggery. While I’m happy to see the Empire fall (and I’m enjoying the ways it is fracturing), I also want Seldon proven wrong. I don’t particularly enjoy prophecies unless they’re being subverted; I particularly dislike charismatic leaders who helicopter in to preach at key moments.
But having completed the season this weekend, I’m glad I stuck with it. This is television that makes very few allowances up front, possibly trading on an assumption of binge-watching to take its sweet time laying groundwork. When the season finally settles into two key plots – the Foundation’s first crisis; and the increasing cracks in the Imperial facade – it gives its characters much-needed room to breathe and produces some intriguing storylines. I never did warm to the first generation of the Foundation, but I loved Gaal Dornick and Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey is now my fancast for Touraine, should we be blessed with a series of The Unbroken) and – inevitably – I couldn’t resist the eternal Emperor, Cleon II.
I also enjoyed that the show sets up two dominant white males who believe they know what’s best and who ruthlessly try to control the narrative, then introduces plots to undermine them. In one of my favourite episodes (marred at the time by its final scene, partially recovered by its narrative pay-off at season’s end), Cleon is challenged by an ambitious, charismatic priestess. Determined to thwart her, he is instead provoked into considering his own humanity. The erosion of his certainty and the increasing conflict between the three generations of the clone made for my favourite plot of the season: is the Empire so doomed that the tripartite Emperor will turn against himself? When other plotlines dragged, it was the personal drama of Cleon II – interwoven with political implications – that kept me engaged.
As far as I know, this is all new material developed for the show. So were the aspects of Gaal and Salvor’s stories that I enjoyed most, not least the ways in which they challenge Hari Seldon’s vision: Gaal rejecting his manipulation and Salvor begging her people to think for themselves. The bonus – although possibly unintentional – homage to Event Horizon was unexpected and hilarious (no, I couldn’t take the Invictus seriously), even if I didn’t feel it worked its character arcs hard enough to earn its outcome.
I suspect it’s safe to say that those who have read and loved the books are likely to be outraged by what David S Goyer has done to them – not least the jettisoning of Asimov’s theme of solving problems without violence (which I too would have liked to have seen). For all its dalliance with questions of fate, personal agency and souls, this feels like muscular, 21st century space opera rather than the more intellectual science fiction I understand Asimov wrote.
As someone new to it all, I feel that Foundation got off to a shaky start, but developed into a show that works on its own terms (even if the Foundation itself is often the least interesting thing on screen). I’m fascinated by Demerzel; I grieve for Cleon in spite of myself (he’s a monster, don’t doubt it), and I relished Gaal’s determination and Salvor’s commitment. Besides, it’s beautiful. I will cheerfully return for a second helping.