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The first thing you need to know about Foundation, the latest sci-fi series hitting Apple TV+ starting today, is that it’s big. Too big, even. Positively sprawling. Sci-fi TV fans are used to epic stories, to be sure, but Foundation spans galaxies and generations, featuring worlds populated by billions each with their own traditions and power struggles. It’s, ultimately, the tale of what happens when civilization sees its own demise coming, and what it decides to do about it. If our fates are inevitable, do we cling to what little we have before the end? Or do we make sacrifices for the greater good?
These big ideas are part and parcel of the Golden Age science fiction stories of old, which tracks given that Foundation is based on Isaac Asimov’s incredibly dense series of novels, tomes on philosophical future concepts that read more like anthropology than space opera. In adapting the series, David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight) and Josh Friedman (Terminator: Dark Fate) take these broader concepts and their abstracted characters and streamline them into a story about mankind’s raging against the dying of the light.
The results are similarly huge in scope and opaque to all but the most intellectually-minded of viewers, which can make for head-scratching viewing in the early stretch. But as Foundation progresses along its first season (the first of a projected 80-episode saga), you can see glimmers of the rich thematic material it wishes to mine, and the eye-opening budget it took to accomplish it.
[See also: Dune | How We Made the Epic Sci-Fi Channel Miniseries by Ben Falk]
Building the Foundation Universe
In the first two episodes released to Apple TV+ this weekend, Goyer and Friedman make clear the setting, more than the characters, is the star. In the opening minutes, we’re swept to a batch of different locations across decades to touch on the show’s primary staging areas. There’s Trantor, the heart of the Galactic Imperium, where the Empire is ruled by the handsome but tyrannical fist of Brother Day (Lee Pace), the latest in a series of cloned replicas of the First Emperor of the Imperium; he’s shadowed by his older self, Brother Dusk (Terrence Mann) and younger self, Brother Dawn (Cassian Bilton). There’s Terminus, a far-flung world on the Outer Reach where colonists decades in the future muse about the origins of a mysterious floating obelisk (known as the Vault) and the secrets it may hold.
Then there’s Synnax, the puritanical home of Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell), the closest thing the series has to a pure protagonist. She’s a young upstart mathematician who finds herself plucked from her spiritually-minded culture to shadow Hari Seldon (Jared Harris), an acclaimed theorist who specializes in psychohistory — the study of the trajectory of populations over time. He’s brilliant, but controversial, chiefly because his projections claim the Imperium will collapse in the next 500 years. Tasked with either proving him wrong or, despairingly, proving him right, Gaal finds herself in the middle of an initiative that seeks to ensure humanity’s survival and recovery from the oncoming catastrophe… after a millennia-long Dark Ages, of course.
It’s about as warm and approachable as you’d expect a heady sci-fi saga about math to be; characters exist chiefly as mouthpieces for the respective philosophies in conflict, performed with all the heady gravitas that befits such larger-than-life questions.
Sparing No Expense (or Expanse)
And yet, especially upon rewatch, these first two episodes of Foundation show glimmers of something great. For starters, it’s gorgeous: Apple spares no expense in its genre fare (See, For All Mankind), and Foundation’s universe is rendered with all the high-quality care of a grand feature film. The production design is incredible, bridging the gulf between the grittier, modular realism of something like The Martian or The Expanse with the organic, fantastical feel of the Golden Age books from which the series takes its inspiration. Interstellar jump ships look like mobile mass relays from Mass Effect, with organic webbing peeling over occupants to keep them asleep for the journey.
The eye-catching costumes imbue characters and civilizations with remarkable detail that’s merely implied by the show’s sparse, lyrical dialogue. (Take Brother Day’s ostentatious, cobalt-blue armor plating mixed with regal dress; he’s ostentatious but still wants to project power.) Even the grittier Terminus hums with the grounded frontier vibes of a space Western, practical clothing mixed with more stylized hoods and clean, sleek-looking space rifles. Then there’s the score by Battlestar Galactica veteran Bear McCreary, who turns in sweeping, operatic work befitting the sheer size of the project.
But for all the money and flash Apple has thrown at the series, it’s admittedly difficult at first blush to connect to the story that’s unfolding. Foundation, by its very concept, eschews our natural instincts for seeking out personal stories; as Dr. Seldon mentions in his trial before the Imperium in Episode 1, psychohistory is concerned chiefly with the aggregate movements of humanity in the future, and can’t contend with the actions and fates of individuals. So too does Foundation struggle in the early goes to get us to connect to its many characters past their striking costumes and well-lit features.
[See also: Star Wars | The Gospel According to The Mandalorian by Ruben van Wingerden]
It’s certainly not the fault of the actors, who turn in game performances that certainly understand the assignment. As Dr. Seldon, Harris (a genre vet by this point) conveys his heretical thoughts with a twinkle in his eye and a grave sense of certainty. He’s become a cult figure to many through his intellectual rebellion against the Imperium’s stagnancy, and Harris shows both the inspiration and limitations that status affords him.
The various incarnations of the Emperor are also particularly striking, especially Pace and Mann: the former is haughty, sadistic, and arrogant, while Mann’s Brother Dusk watches events with the weariness of having lived through it himself (and growing frustrated at his own failing body). Llobell’s Gaal is a relatable protagonist, if a bit of a blank slate so far. She’s innately curious and a wonderful entry point into this world, but gets little to do besides observe. (She’s also gender and race-swapped from the original books, admirably diversifying a universe that should feel sprawling, but in Asimov’s original felt almost exclusively the domain of white men.)
Other characters, like Alfred Enoch’s Raych Seldon (Hari’s adoptive son and protegee, and eventual lover of Gaal), struggle for focus, though, and the sheer number of supporting characters makes it hard to build a clear sense of the ensemble — especially when they’re given so little to differentiate themselves. Characters may occasionally smirk, but no one really feels like they’re having a boatload of fun yet.
Big Budgets, Big Ideas
That may be purposeful, though, considering the apocalyptic subject matter Foundation is built upon. Asimov based his initial writings on the fall of the Roman Empire, but Goyer and Friedman’s updating leaves plenty of room for subtext on our current struggle against climate change (or, rather, our inaction towards it). Sub out Seldon’s psychohistory predictions for rising sea levels, and the analogy becomes clear — Seldon sees humanity surviving the calamity only through great sacrifice and rebirth, adaptation to the new normal. When those in power hear of this, they take it as a personal affront to their supremacy and do their best to cast it out and mark it as heresy.
More than that, Foundation is a series about the dangers of stagnation, and what happens when the status quo is allowed to fester for far too long. The Emperors themselves are a relay race of identical leaders, all with the same genetics, predispositions, and ideas passed down to each other over and over again — the three become an erstwhile family unit, with Dawn the wide-eyed child absorbing the force of Day and the wisdom of Dusk. (There’s also something of a babysitter in Laura Bern’s imperious robot Eto Demerzel, who also acts as the Imperium’s primary enforcer.)
Their dynamic is a nifty metaphor for the ways elites keep themselves in power, unwilling to share their riches or do anything to sacrifice their entrenched supremacy. Even Eto, an AI holdover from the long-past Robot Wars, is one of the sole remaining robots in existence; she must hide her nature from all but the various incarnations of the Emperor.
Yet the collapse of the Empire is heralded in its very first episode, as the sprawling skyhook connecting Trantor to an orbital docking platform occupied by millions of people is destroyed in a suicide bombing. It’s an astonishing, horrific scene, as starship-sized elevators tumble through the atmosphere, people are pulled out of shattered windows into space, and the severed stalk whips its way around the planet “like a garrotte.” Foundation doesn’t look to be an action-heavy show like many of its kin, but when it gets the opportunity to show off its effects budget, it does so with awe-inspiring bigness.
And, as we’ve seen in tragically recent history, with such events comes blame, revenge, violence. Entire worlds are razed, people hanged, regardless of their culpability. Truth, in the Imperium, matters less than showing strength to their followers. It’s a haunting testament to humanity’s discomfort with uncertainty, and the horrible lengths we’ll go to assuage it.
But what of the scrappy underdogs of the Foundation, who’ve been exiled to Terminus to start their “Encyclopedia Galactica” — a theoretical tome of wisdom for the new age of humanity to start afresh from? Admittedly, these first two episodes give us little to work with, having to do the heavy lifting of establishing the world before playing around in it. Episode 1 (titled ‘The Emperor’s Peace’) takes its time to establish Gaal, Hari, and the theory around which all the series will rest.
In Episode 2 (‘Preparing to Live’), they’re in a long-haul spaceship, taking the years-long journey to Terminus as they struggle to establish new centers of interpersonal gravity for themselves. Discussions abound on the intricacies of their project: What do they save? When should they have children? What nuggets of knowledge do they prioritize, especially for sprawling humanity with thousands of different modes of thought?
[See also: Mass Effect | Overlord, Autism, and Perspective on My Brother by Dylan Stolte]
It’s also here that Foundation starts to dabble with its ideas of individual unpredictability flying in the face of mathematical surety. Yes, broadly, Seldon’s prophecy is sure to come to pass. But there are… pieces missing from the puzzle. Enough to paint a different picture? “Maybe. I don’t know,” Gaal admits. Even Seldon’s own memory is faulty, as he misremembers the circumstances by which he met Raych. “Apparently I’m better at predicting the future than I am remembering the past.” There are two battles of mythmaking at play in Foundation — one for the elites in power maintaining their own legends, one for the holier than thou iconoclasts determined to prove themselves right.
With such vivid, intriguing ideas at play, it’s doubly disappointing that Foundation still feels more like an intellectual exercise than a gripping drama of its own. Characters monologue about these notions to each other, to crowds, to the audience via narration — it’d be nice to do a little more showing. They’ve certainly got the budget for it.
Is It Worth It?
“If we filter out human relationships, what are we trying to save?”, Gaal protests in episode two. One hopes that Foundation gives those relationships greater purchase as it progresses, so audiences can find something concrete to hold onto among a universe as challenging to understand as its ideas.
But having seen a few episodes ahead, these first two episodes struggle with the heavy lifting of its worldbuilding; there’s not a lot of time to dig into character dynamics if you’re busy pointing out this world and that backstory. Once the Foundation actually arrives at Terminus for their mission, and the space Western auspices of its prologue become more front and center (and we learn more about Leah Harvey’s mysterious sentinel Salvor Hardin, whom we only see briefly), it’s entirely possible the flowers that Goyer and Friedman have planted will start to bloom. And if the show gets the 80-episode order it’s hoping for, there’s potential for one of the biggest sci-fi stories ever committed to television.
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Clint Worthington is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Spool, as well as a Senior Writer for Consequence of Sound. He’s also the host of the podcasts More of a Comment, Really…, and Travolta/Cage (with cohost Nathan Rabin). You can find other bylines at Vulture, IndieWire, RogerEbert.com, StarTrek.com, The Takeout, and others. He lives in Chicago with his wife, his cat, and far too many Criterions.