As the long-awaited adaptation of Isaac Asmiov’s iconic series, Foundation, a new science fiction series from Apple TV+, took on massive responsibilities: respect the expansive and iconic source material; impress longtime fans of novels; and somehow take an epic series and condense it into digestible television. Published first as a collection of short stories before eventually growing into a seven-book series, Foundation is as sprawling as the vast universe it explores. David S. Goyer, one of those longtime Asimov fans himself, knew the risks he was taking by attempting such a project. After a four-year journey through a pandemic-stilted production, Goyer, along with Robyn Asimov (who serves as an executive producer), has brought Foundation to life on a breathtaking scale.
With vibrant costuming and stunning visual effects, Foundation is a gorgeous and entrancing series. Following multiple timelines and taking place on various planets and spaceships, each of the many settings is impeccably designed. Somewhat predictably for the genre, class and wealth are important themes in Foundation and decadent, unique costumes act as clear indicators of a character’s status.
It all begins with a math problem, a young woman, and a deep desire for more from life than the status quo. Gaal Dornick (newcomer Lou Llobell) lives on a planet where education and academia are strictly forbidden. Although this is only her second role to date, Llobell is one of Foundation’s strongest performers. Gaal is an engaging character whose emotions make her an easy protagonist to root for. Despite religious leaders’ harsh control of her planet, Gaal possesses an innate understanding of math and secretly enters a math contest. Figuring out a mathematical proof that had gone unsolved for hundreds of years, Gaal wins passage to Trantor, the central hub of the Empire which governs her universe. Here, she finally meets Hari Seldon (Jared Harris), a psychohistorian who uses math and science to predict the future.
A heretic to some, a prophet to others, Seldon is the catalyst for an ideological revolution against an Empire that’s reigned over 12,000 years. He pleads with the Empire to heed his warnings: societal collapse and 30,000 years of darkness are inevitable, and he’s done the math to prove it. Faced with the decision to kill the only man brave enough to speak against the Empire—martyring him and potentially further inspiring his followers—the Empire decides to exile Seldon and his believers to the far outer reaches of their infinitely large universe in order to preserve their own power. Terminus, a cold and rocky planet with little natural resources to offer, then becomes the location for the Foundation’s first colony.
The Empire is led by Cleon, a monarch existing in three genetically identical versions of himself at once: Brother Dawn (Cassian Bilton), Brother Day (Lee Pace), and Brother Dusk (Terrence Mann). As each Cleon ages, they all progress through these three phases. When a Brother Dusk becomes too old, another Brother Dawn is born, so on and so forth for centuries. At the time our story begins, Cleon the 12th sits on the throne of Brother Day, the most powerful of the three roles. Pace is also the most engaging of the three actors, offering a cold and unwavering performance. Rage and boredom bubble beneath a deep-rooted arrogance that comes with Brother Day’s unquestioned power, and as such, Pace is a looming figure in the series, successfully terrifying those who dare protest him.
In a marked change from the novels, both Gaal Dornick and Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey) are reworked as female characters. Both characters lead their respective timelines, set 35 years apart. Gaal and Salvor, although separated by this period of time, are both firm believers of Seldon’s plan and represent the new future of humanity. No longer will genetic clones of the same white man lead all corners of the universe—no, now that fate rests solidly in the hands of two women of color.
However impressive it is, Foundation’s visual beauty also gilds a dense and occasionally confusing story. Because it makes so many jumps in time, it’s difficult to discern what will be important to the story moving forward and what merely feels important now. Throughout the seven episodes watched for this review, details about characters, religions, planets are all intriguing enough but are scattered and sometimes hard to track. Storylines are dropped for episodes at a time, only to be resumed after backtracking. Goyer does an admirable job trying to incorporate as much as he can into the show, but at times it seems Foundation is simply too large a story for this medium, despite the 10-episode series averaging around 55 minutes per episode.
As with many science fiction tales, Foundation centers on hope and humanity’s ceaseless fight to survive. Faced with a mathematically proven demise, Seldon’s believers are still trying anything they can to ensure the success of future generations. Even as Foundation stumbles throughout its execution, it still maintains a grip on the unconditional hope of its characters. But with an inconsistent timeline and innumerable technicalities, this epic series may take more than mathematical prophecies to grip viewers into watching week to week.
The first two episodes of Foundation premiere Friday, September 24th on Apple TV+. The following eight episodes will be released weekly.
Kristen Reid is a writer, covering television for Paste Magazine, Vulture, and Film School Rejects. She’s been known to spend too much time rewatching her favorite sitcoms, yelling at her friends to watch more TV, and falling in love with fictional characters. You can follow her on Twitter @kreidd for late-night thoughts on whatever she’s bingeing now.
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