Friday, September 24, 2021

Foundation, on Apple TV+

Individuals have free will, so they can’t be predicted. However, the course of societies and civilizations can be projected with astonishing mathematical accuracy. Such is the contention of mathematician Hari Seldon, who pioneered the study and application of Psychohistory in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels. Seldon calculates the Galactic Empire will fall in roughly 500 years, but that is not a message the authorities want to hear. However, his followers believe they can drastically shorten the coming dark age if they implement his grand plan in showrunner David S. Goyer’s first season of Foundation, which premieres today on Apple TV+.

Young genius Gaal Dornick journeys from a backwater planet to the seat of the Empire on Trantor, at the invitation of the great Hari Seldon, unaware of his status as a dissident pariah (she was a man in the book, but whatever). Much to her surprise, Dornick is soon arrested along with Seldon, but the Imperial inquisition will offer him a deal, just like he expected. The Psychohistorians will be allowed to assemble their great encyclopedia of human knowledge, but they must do so in exile, on the most remote planet of the known universe: Terminus.

This tracks pretty closely with “The Psychohistorians,” the first part of the original
Foundation novel (you can hear William Shatner’s LP reading here), but as soon as the Foundation settlers leave on their journey, Goyer and co-writer Josh Freidman drastically depart from Asimov. In fact, it often feels like they were trying to adapt Dune instead, even though they lacked the rights.

Much of Apple’s
Foundation is devoted to the courtly intrigue surrounding the genetic clones of Emperor Cleon the 1st. The Foundation books only had two Cleons (appearing in the prequels) and the first was no great shakes, but in this re-envisioning, the Empire is up to its 13th Cleon, known as “Brother Day” who shares the throne with “Brother Dusk,” an older clone who can offer the wisdom of his experience, and “Brother Dawn,” a younger clone that will be groomed to succeed him. (These characters are original to the series, but the succession of clones over centuries is sort of reminiscent of the Duncan Idaho clones in God Emperor of Dune.)

Eventually, Brother Day will be drawn into an intrigue involving a powerful religious order that somewhat resembles the Bene Gesserit (without the overt powers). As they rule over Trantor, the Genetic Emperor[s] will have the wise counsel of Demerzel, who survived an ancient war against robots (sort of like
Dune’s Butlerian Jihad). Meanwhile, Salvor Hardin (also gender-switched) oversees the security of Terminus. It is a role she is uniquely suited to, since she is largely immune to the disorienting field that surrounds the mysterious “the Vault,” a “big dumb object,” in the science fiction tradition of 2001’s obelisk that never registered on any of their planetary surveys.

Some of Goyer & Friedman’s tweaks are not bad. Frankly, characters were never Asimov’s strongest suit—big ideas were. However, they add elements of mysticism that are really not compatible with the scientifically trained Asimov or his intellectually and his historically driven series (Edward Gibbons and Arnold Toynbee were sources of inspiration). However, the gravest sin involves Demerzel, who represents another gender-switched character: R. Daneel Olivaw, the link between Asimov’s
Foundation and I, Robot series. The problem is not the gender reversal—it is that we see her violate Asimov’s celebrated “Three Laws of Robotics,” early and often. Don’t dismiss this complaint as “toxic fandom.” It cuts to the heart of Asimov’s unified vision and will enormously complicate any future effort to incorporate elements of the I, Robot books and stories into Apple’s Foundation series.

Yet, rather unexpectedly, the series also delivers some solidly entertaining space opera, especially in episodes six and seven, which were both directed by Jennifer Phang (her film
Advantageous deserved wider acclaim, but since then she has done a great deal of high-profile episodic work). Furthermore, even the most hardcore Asimov loyalist would admit Jared Harris is perfect for Seldon. After Chernobyl and the first season of The Terror, he could very well be the King of the Mini’s,” for our era.

Plus, Lou Llobell and Leah Harvey are both quite strong as Dornick and Hardin, respectively. The latter also has decent romantic and action chemistry with Daniel MacPherson, playing the Han Solo-ish trader Hugo Crest (perhaps so named because the original novel won a Hugo). Seldon’s stepson Raych certainly fared better in the books than in this series, but Alfred Enoch still brings an impressive intensity to the character.

Unfortunately, Lee Pace’s shirtless preening (like Sting in Lynch’s
Dune) as Brother Day is distractingly annoying and the Imperial overlord is just profoundly out of place in this stage of the Foundation timeline. Likewise, Cassian Bilton (who awkwardly resembles Timothee Chalamet) quickly grows wearisome as the sulky teenaged Brother Dawn. By far, Terrence Mann is the most effective of the “Genetic Empire” trio portraying Brother Dusk, but they just hit the wrong scenery-chewing notes, in what is arguably the most-idea driven franchise in science fiction history.

The visual effects look great on-screen, especially the awe-inspiring wonder of the Trantor capitol. That is in fact an important sensation to capture, but the rest of Asimov’s narrative really doesn’t need flash and dazzle. What made the books so hard to adapt in the past were not the necessary visual effects, but the epochal span of time they encompass.

Foundation will definitely leave those who take science fiction seriously as a genre with mixed feelings. We can admire the ambition and it will probably inspire deep dives into Asimov (how much do you wish the BBC hadn’t purged the tapes of Caves of Steel, starring Peter Cushing and coincidentally featuring R. Daneel Olivaw?). However, this series would have been much more successful if it adapted Foundation more and Dune less. Too often, it comes across as an ever-eager imitation of Frank Herbert’s world. It is slickly watchable, so we would recommend it to sf neophytes who are unfamiliar with either Asimov or Herbert, but more advanced genre fans will be disappointed when Foundation starts streaming today (9/24) on Apple TV+.