In 1966, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy was voted the best science fiction series of all time at the Hugo Awards. Other series have certainly surpassed it since then, although it’s still considered the work that codified the genre. Despite its fame, because the series is an epic on a galactic level told over the course of 500 years or so, with dozens of characters, conflicts, and stories, no one’s figured out how to bring Foundation into live-action. Apple TV+’s new Foundation series hasn’t figured it out either.
Foundation the TV series is not Foundation the book series. There are a few bones of the original story in there, sure, including the premise. Mathematician/psychologist Hari Seldon (Jared Harris) creates the field of psychohistory, in which the future can be pathetically predicted—not for individuals, but humanity in general—and has discovered the horrifying truth that the 12,000-year-old Galactic Empire is going to fall, beginning a new dark age that will last 30,000 years. It can’t be stopped, but it can be reduced to a mere millennium by creating a repository of human knowledge to become the foundation of a new civilization. It’s an astoundingly great premise that could never be served in a movie, and a TV adaptation was never going to be easy. The first Foundation book alone is made up of five separate novellas that have no characters in common, and take place over 150 years. Very, very few of those characters are developed because we spend so little time with them. They’re not the story—the Foundation is, and how it develops over time.
TV audiences would, understandably, have a hard time getting invested in a show where the entire cast and conflict changes every episode. Showrunner David S. Goyer—writer of about a billion DC superhero movies—limits Foundation’s first season to the first two-fifths of the original novel and ties them together in a somewhat forced way. Goyer’s idea to have Lee Pace play an eternally cloned Emperor Cleon is a clever way to give the series a (basically) consistent antagonist. Changing characters’ genders and ethnicities is a must for modern times—there were virtually no female characters in Asimov’s early books—and, of course, it doesn’t affect the story in the slightest. And he begins the show with a bit of sci-fi spectacle that will absolutely hook audiences into rooting for Hari’s grand plan to succeed.
Here’s the catch: Making a 10-episode season out of about 100 pages of text is an act of lunacy on par with turning The Hobbit into three movies. So much needs to be added to fill out these episodes, which feel so much longer than the hour they generally run. Some of these additions are incredibly welcome. Hari’s protégé Gaal Dornick and Salvor Hardin (in two terrific performances from Lou Llobell and Leah Harvey, respectively) get extensive and badly needed backstories to expand their characters. Emperor Cleon, who barely figures in the first book, not only has his own major storyline but is technically three people: Brother Day (Pace), the younger Brother Dawn (Cassian Bilton), and the senior Brother Dusk (Terrence Mann).
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Most of these additions are invented out of whole cloth, having nothing to do with the story of the Foundation. Honestly, after most of the second episode, the show and the books are pretty much unrecognizable. Even if you’re coming in without having read a page of Asimov, you’ll still notice the drawn-out plots that go nowhere, the padding, and the weird choices the show has the characters make to keep the plot from moving forward. Cheap, nonsensical melodrama fills the series (somehow, Seldin’s plan stops suddenly working because two people get in a relationship, so he has to break them up). Then there’s the show’s terror that people might not make certain connections, so it shows something, has the character comment on it to themself, and then maybe throws in a flashback to someone saying something relevant even if it was said three minutes prior. The show also wants to have pew-pew laser battles and ship fights and spacewalk mishaps and junk, none of which offer anything you haven’t seen before, and are usually used to just run out the clock anyway.
I can’t complain about how it feels like—despite the fact that psychohistory shouldn’t also be able to predict individual actions—Hari’s plan relies exclusively on individual people, because that’s a problem with the Foundation books, too. But it’s compounded in the show because Hari needs to have somehow predicted a survivor of a gunfight and their ability to stop a bomb from going off at the last second. It’s hard to care about a plan when nothing ever appears to be going according to it. The second and bigger problem is all the generic sci-fi action is directly counter to what made the Foundation series so beloved—a celebration of knowledge, history, science, and human connection, and the hope of a new galactic civilization rising from it all.
Foundation doesn’t want to be Foundation. It wants to be the heady, thoughtful, revelatory first season of Westworld, so it pontificates about politics and religion and souls, but it doesn’t have the depth to say anything important. The TV series also wants to be Game of Thrones with its political maneuvering (most of which is invented wholesale for the show), but once Hari Seldon’s spaceship takes off, those imperial politics have virtually nothing to do with the Foundation. It also wants to be a sci-fi action show. It’s so busy trying to be all of these things that it doesn’t have the time to be Foundation. For people who don’t know or care about the source material, the result is extremely pretty but not particularly compelling sci-fi. For people who know or are fans of Isaac Asimov and his work, I feel compelled to warn you that if you watch the show you will see a scene so enraging that you will tear your TV in two with your bare hands; then you’ll realize how utterly unnecessary the scene was, and tear it into four.
Goyer’s Foundation isn’t Asimov’s Foundation. It’s not an adaptation, and it’s so different that calling it “inspired by the works of Isaac Asimov” still feels like a stretch. Maybe it truly is impossible to bring this seminal work of science fiction into another medium, but other shows could still do a hell of a lot better job than this.
The first two episodes of Foundation just began streaming on Apple TV+. Single episodes will drop weekly thereafter.
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It is quite well known that Asimov wrote Foundation as a sort of scifi meditation of The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. And it is a story about BIG ideas more than character interactions or action. So it is “unfilmable” not just because of the epic scope, but because all the action or character drama we’d expect from a scifi TV show simply doesn’t really exist in the text. It is hard for me to imagine any TV writer not realizing this fundamental problem, that the story is not about individuals at all.
Indeed the whole idea of psychohistory is that individual moments involving specific humans don’t matter in the long run. The events will develop within a certain time frame whether some of those events will be done by person A in ten years or person B in 15 years, in the long run, future history WILL play out as predicted overall. Perhaps one of the more dramatic developments of the whole series is when the Mule comes along with a nearly statistically impossible genetic mutation allowing him to impact people’s minds, a power that would not have been factored into the pyschohistory modeling, and so he represents a true agent of chaos and unpredictability. That is more or less the only individual of great importance and even then his dramatic importance is only revelant once we've established how individual contributions from everyone else don't amount to much. If they start the whole series with him, that would at least be more dramatic on an individual character level, but it also would be kind of odd out of context of hours upon hours of info dumping to get to the point where his appearance is is truly meaningful.