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‘Foundation’ Finally Exists. But Is It Any Good?

Apple TV+ has brought Isaac Asimov’s signature story to the screen, which is an impressive feat for a property once considered unfilmable

Apple TV+/Ringer illustration

If there’s a single straight-to-series order that best embodies the excesses of the streaming wars, it’s Apple saying, “Fuck it, we’re filming Foundation.” That’s (mostly) not a knock on the series, the first two hour-long episodes of which premiered on Apple TV+ on Friday. It’s a nod to the audacity of doing it at all, given the string of Foundation false starts that preceded it, the narrative hurdles that hobbled the earlier attempts, and the scope and expense required to make the series as sweeping as its source text demands.

Was it worth it? Well, it depends. If you’re a Foundation fan who was hoping the series would someday reach the screen in a fashion that wouldn’t terribly besmirch the books, yes. If you’re a sci-fi fan in search of a spectacle that looks like it cost a billion bucks, by all means. If you’re an Apple TV+ executive banking on Foundation being Apple’s answer to [insert storied and expensive IP here], that’s a good deal more in doubt. Then again, the typical TV viewer doesn’t decide whether to sample a series based on whether a tech giant with infinite funds will recoup its costs. For most who are wondering whether to watch, here’s the headline: Foundation turned out to be a better series than anyone could have expected from the sixth (at least) attempt to tell Isaac Asimov’s signature story on-screen. But it does bear some noticeable stretch marks from the necessary reshaping it took to structure the story in a way that was fit for TV.

Almost seven years ago, I wrote about a previous attempt to adapt Foundation in an article titled “Can the Cowriter of ‘Interstellar’ Pull Off Isaac Asimov’s Unfilmable ‘Foundation’ for HBO?” Not for the first time, I bow to Betteridge’s law (which ranks right up there with the First Law of Robotics). The answer to that question didn’t take a psychohistorian to foresee: As I wrote in 2014, “No one should be shocked if the series returns to development hell.” And no one was, when Jonathan Nolan went on to make Westworld and Foundation went back to the drawing board.

The Foundation that finally worked was revealed more than four years ago, and its finished form has all the trappings of prestige science fiction. This Foundation features Jared Harris, which is always a strong start; fans of Fringe and The Expanse will recognize the rabble-rousers he played on those shows, though here he’s psychohistorian Hari Seldon, whose goal is to save humanity from its own self-destructive destiny. The series’ score is by Bear McCreary, which means it sounds something like your favorite sci-fi/fantasy show. And it’s written and run by David S. Goyer, who previously penned Dark City, Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight. There’s plenty of pedigree here, all of it assembled as a scaffold for the landmark, influential epic that dates back almost 80 years to its genesis as a series of short stories published in the heyday of “hard” sci-fi.

Those stories were collected in an early 1950s trilogy that for decades represented the sum of Foundation; in 1966, Foundation won a one-time-only Hugo Award for Best All-Time Series, toppling The Lord of the Rings (speaking of adaptations that look like they cost a billion bucks). In the ’80s, Asimov added two sequels and two prequels, which connected Foundation to his other works of far-future human history. After his death, other authors tacked on another trilogy and associated stories. All of which means that there will be an Asimov-verse waiting in the wings whenever we’ve all digested the Dahl-verse.

That’s assuming, of course, that Foundation finds a streaming audience, which isn’t as inevitable as a Galactic Empire’s fall. Foundation is the saga of Seldon, a guy who’s great at math. He uses his skill at predicting the paths of mass populations to discover that the galaxy-spanning Empire, which has stood for thousands of years, is secretly circling the drain like Rome after Marcus Aurelius. Collapse is inevitable, Seldon concludes, but the 30,000 years of chaos that will follow the Empire’s fragmentation could be trimmed to a single millennium if he and his followers form a Foundation on remote planet Terminus to shepherd the species through its coming crises.

The bones of the books stay intact on TV, but Goyer took considerable liberties in fleshing them out, in mostly smart ways. As I noted in 2014, Asimov slammed his own original series when he returned to Foundation later in life, lamenting that the entirety of the first trilogy “consisted of thoughts and of conversation” without action or suspense (a hazard, perhaps, of making one’s hero a math professor/soothsayer). He adjusted that balance in subsequent books, and Goyer does the same here; it’s hardly Starship Troopers, but new-school Foundation has its fair share of shootouts, explosions, and violent deaths, though those sequences can’t compete with the set pieces of some of the sci-fi franchises that Foundation inspired. There are times when I wish Foundation would just own its uncommercial, nerdy nature, though there’s a reason why it tries to strike a balance between the books and more kinetic TV.

Goyer isn’t the first would-be Foundation adaptor to feel a deep affinity for the franchise, but in addition to being blessed with a big budget and a more favorable format than those who tried making a movie, he may be more clear-eyed than some of his predecessors about the books’ flaws and idiosyncrasies. “The books were light on emotion, they were more about ideas and philosophy,” Goyer said in one of many interviews about the perilous process of adapting the books. “But I think when people watch these shows, what hooks them are the emotion and the characters.” It’s a tension that the season never fully resolves, though there’s fun to be found outside of some stultifying stretches that stem from padding a fraction of the first Foundation book into a 10-hour season.

Goyer could have taken that conflict between concepts and characters as a sign that adapting Foundation wasn’t the best bet. Instead, he decided to rework or create characters in hopes of eliciting emotions that weren’t present in the text. The adaptation modernizes and diversifies the book’s mostly male characters: Seldon’s disciple Gaal Dornick and Terminus’s mayor Salvor Hardin, both men in the books, are played by female and nonbinary actors, respectively (Lou Llobell and Leah Harvey), and male-presenting android Demerzel, who arrives much earlier in the TV version than in the book, is played poignantly by Laura Birn.

In an intriguing tweak, Goyer also reimagines the book’s bland Emperors as a tripartite genetic dynasty, in which clones of Cleon I cycle through their roles as ascendant ruler, reigning ruler, and Emperor emeritus. The dynamic among the “brothers” (and between the clones and Demerzel) as they wrestle with their roles and legacies makes for some of the series’ most compelling interpersonal material, thanks in large part to Lee Pace’s appropriately imperious performance as the middle monarch. By using Pace and his fellow Cleon clones to personify the Empire—“Empire” is how they’re always addressed—Goyer puts a human face (or three) on what would otherwise be an abstract entity too vast and remote to feel for.

On the page, Foundation is an anthology in which characters come and go as decades and centuries sweep by. Goyer, it seems, has reframed Foundation as a more strictly serialized story, in which suspended animation and really long commutes can keep characters in play for far longer than a single lifespan. The silver lining of the source text taking the long view is that tampering with old characters and plot points should ruffle fewer feathers. Fans of Foundation are more attached to ideas.

However one feels about Foundation’s feels, the series looks phenomenal, and I’m not even talking about the part where Pace, in Joe MacMillan–esque messiah mode, saunters through the desert shirtless. Goyer has said the series’ “ample” budget was bigger on an hourly basis than “some of the movies I’ve done,” and he’s probably not talking about The Invisible or The Unborn. By bouncing from city-planet Trantor to windswept Terminus with side trips to other planets and some escapades in space, Foundation sends postcards from every variety of futuristic locale. From vast open spaces that recall the (literally) otherworldly landscapes of Dune or HBO Max’s Raised by Wolves to glittering cityscapes and Hubble-esque starfields, I’ve never seen a small-screen galaxy look so good. Apple’s For All Mankind may be one of the medium’s most visually convincing sci-fi series, but Foundation makes FAM’s focus on our single, paltry planet and its lonely little moon seem positively small.

That narrower focus allows FAM to flourish on a human level, a challenge for Foundation, whose premise is predicated on downplaying individual actions. As one of Asimov’s mouthpieces said in Foundation, “Even Seldon’s advanced psychology was limited. It could not handle too many independent variables. He couldn’t work with individuals over any length of time; any more than you could apply kinetic theory of gases to single molecules. He worked with mobs, populations of whole planets.” That may work for math professors, but it’s tough to do on TV.

FAM is a relationship show, and much as it sometimes tries to be, Foundation isn’t that. In his personal life, Asimov was a lecher, but the Foundation trilogy keeps things purely platonic; there’s no time to dwell on dating when you’re thinking in thousands of years. The TV Foundation is full of sex scenes, but its romances seem rushed, inessential, and tacked on, probably because they are rushed, inessential, and tacked on. Long-distance relationships are onerous enough without one partner being cryogenically frozen for centuries.

A few of the familial relationships have more meat to them, but if the series is passionate about anything, it’s the uplifting clarity of science and math, the latter of which it depicts as mesmerizing swirls that don’t remind me much of Algebra 2. One scene starring Gaal is a literal math montage that’s as sensual as anything that happens in bed. In a letter sent to the press along with screeners for the first season, Goyer says he’s “definitely a fan of all things science” and notes that he tried to communicate a message of “hope in the human spirit and hope in mankind’s capacity for ingenuity.” (Not unlike the similarly optimistic For All Mankind.) At times, though, it’s a little tough to swallow Seldon’s crusade in light of recent, real-life events—are we sure he’s not a scammer or insurgent spinning fatalistic fake news? The Foundation’s mission hits differently when one is reading persuasive essays about America’s coming collapse or living through a pandemic exacerbated by science denial. Sometimes the series riffs on those parallels, as with one water planet where massive flooding still hasn’t sold the survivors on the facts of climate change.

On occasion, Foundation uncorks a clunker of a line: I rewound one voice-over several times to parse the pronouncement that “these realms are the purview of faith. And faith is a sword forged in the fires of the infinite.” But for all its lore and time jumps, which dwarf those of Goyer’s FlashForward, Foundation isn’t confusing to follow. The settings, the stakes, and the characters are clearly laid out, and viewers will always know what’s happening. They just may not always care.

Fresh off the Emmy accolades for Apple’s second-best sitcom, the arrival of Foundation is both a flex and a heat check. As my colleague Alison Herman noted in a Foundation subtweet this week, the streamers that have snapped up the rights to sci-fi/fantasy series in a subscription-seeking arms race may have drawn the wrong lesson from the one they’re all trying to chase. Game of Thrones was once believed to be unfilmable too, but its fantasy world was grounded in relatable relationships familiar to TV viewers. The same can’t be said for Foundation.

Thus, Foundation falters in some of the ways that one would expect it to. But it’s beaten expectations by coming out at all. Goyer has repeatedly voiced his intention for the series to run 80 episodes, perhaps hoping that, like Seldon, he can steer the fate of the series by predicting it aloud. The source material could support eight seasons, and I would watch them. But my math is too rusty to tell whether the population of this planet will be with me or whether the suits who gave Goyer the green light to take on this quest will let him see it through.