Review: FOUNDATION Reinterprets a Sci-Fi Classic for the Modern Day
This is not your grandfather's science-fiction series.
The ten-episode inaugural season is set to premiere globally on Friday, September 24 on Apple TV+ with the first two episodes, followed by one new episode weekly, every Friday through November 19.
In August 1941, Isaac Asimov, then 21 and already a published short-story writer, says he came up with the plot for a new story about "the fall of the Galactic Empire and the return of feudalism" on his way to a meeting with John Campbell, editor of Astounding Magazine. That led to a series of stories that Asimov wrote and Campbell edited and published, which were eventually collected together into a trilogy of books published to little notice in the early 1950s, and then published again to much wider acclaim and growing popularity in the early 1960s.
In September 1972, new friends recommended the Foundation trilogy to me, and I quickly gravitated to the books, which were available in my school's library. They were easy to read and served as a gateway to science fiction for me. I especially enjoyed the clever ideas and the neat twists that Asimov offered, which always seemed extremely logical to me.
In the 1980s, Asimov, then in his 60s, expanded the series, eventually completing two sequels and two prequels before he died in 1992. I read those books as well, which were much longer novels and showcased Asimov's growth as a writer over the years, with great interest and much enjoyment at the time.
The latest development on an adaption of the books began in June 2017, with David S. Goyer and Josh Friedman set to serve as creators and showrunners. Friedman (Spielberg's War of the Worlds, TV's Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles) departed the series in April 2019.
Goyer carried on as sole showrunner. Based on his career over the past 30 years, writing, directing and producing mostly genre fare, including such notable titles as Dark City (1998), Blade (1998) and, more recently, Man of Steel and two television series, Constantine and Da Vinci's Demons, it's reasonable to assume that Goyer knows Asimov's Foundation series well, yet also has his own ideas about how to present the show in the modern day.
Asimov himself noted the limitations of the Foundation trilogy when he was preparing to expand the series. Re-reading his own stories, he acknowledged: "I read it with mounting uneasiness. I kept waiting for something to happen, and nothing ever did. All three volumes, all the nearly quarter of a million words, consisted of thoughts and of conversations. No action. No physical suspense. What was all the fuss about, then? Why did everyone want more of that stuff?"
The writer found his own way into the appeal of the original stories and David Goyer, the adapter, has found his own way into telling the story, drawing upon Asimov, certainly, but also upon his own tastes and inclinations, which are what makes the series such an inviting, constantly surprising, and utterly fascinating show to watch.
In my own case, I hadn't read a word of the original stories in the many years that had passed, so as events transpired over the 10 episodes, I found myself often nodding at the fanservice of clever references to the source material, as well as admiring the great diversity of the cast, the increased thicket of cultural and religious influences that are utilized in the production design and the narrative, and the bending of time and space that are hallmarks of the 10 episodes so far.
To call the series "unpredictable" is definitely in its favor, because it keeps the viewer off-balance. Just when I thought I knew where the series was going, it turned back upon itself or jabbed instead of duking.
After I watched the first two episodes, which loosely establish the timeframe for the episodes that follow, I went back to Asimov's first Foundation novel and read it again. It's a quick read and very much a product of its young author and the period in which it was written, for good and for bad: nearly all characters are male, nearly all are only briskly portrayed, nearly everything is in service to the tidy conclusions that Asimov had in mind.
Goyer and his writers are much more ambitious, creating characters who make sense in their actions, propelled by cultural differences and by class divisions. Some stretches do not work at all, to my mind; perhaps they cut too close to the bone in their modern depiction of terrorist activity, for example, and in the nasty actions of certain characters, which appear to have been included just to hammer home the same nail time and time again.
The overall reach of the series, however, is enjoyable to see and to experience. I had the benefit of being able to binge the series in advance, but I think the first two episodes set things up well. The pace is more deliberate, and it allows for Lou Llobell as Gaal Dornick to establish herself as a winning character and one of two emotional hearts of the series. (The other is Leah Harvey as Salvor Hardin, who is briefly introduced in the first episode; her role becomes much more significant later in the series. Both actors are compelling to watch; new, intelligent action heroes are always welcome.)
Gaal Dornick hails from a planet that does not believe in science. She arrives upon Trantor, the crowded city-planet that is the capital of the Galactic Empire, where she has been invited to join the well-known scientist Hari Seldon (Jared Harris), a pioneer in psychohistory, which allows mathematicians to predict the future, based upon the activity of billions of people.
Hari has boldly made it known that the all-mighty Galactic Empire is bound to fall into a period of dark ages that will last 30,000 years. Hari, though, thinks he knows how to shorten the period until a new empire arises, perhaps to as little as 1,000 years. Naturally, the present Emperor (Lee Pace) is none too happy about Hari.
This is the premise of Asimov's original series as well, which Goyer and his time have expanded and broken down into episodic television that, at times, feels a bit too familiar -- many, many film and television writers read and loved Asimov's original series, and been inspired to create their own versions -- yet the team manages to conjure up their own vision for what might happen, without resorting to commonplace comfort food of extreme violence and/or nudity.
To be sure, the series does feature violences, sometimes quite brutal, and occasional romance and lovemaking, but those activities are woven into the stories as just one element, not the end-all. The main thrust of the characters is fixed on thinking their way out of the challenges they face, and deducing how to do so in the most logical manner possible.
The series begins with a raft of fantastic settings and many characters whose names eluded me. Very soon, however, I stopped thinking about what Asimov had written many years and found myself caught up in the refashioned, reinterpreted stories that were told, as the narrative gained momentum, driving toward its own, inevitable conclusion.