The first episode of Foundation opens with sweeping shots of a solar system, some planets and then down to one of the surfaces where we see some little critters scurrying across a barren landscape. A voice-over of a young girl tells how she dreamed of other planets when she was young and how her mother would tell her their names. She even mentions a ‘Galactic Empire’. We then see a speeder cruising across the landscape and some young children sneaking out of their homes to explore. Sounds like some galaxy far, far away. That comparison quickly falls apart when one of the kids utters ‘shit’ and another offers to show her tit for a dare. Star Wars, this is not.
Apple has found some success with the big-name stars of The Morning Show and the unexpected buzz of Ted Lasso, but Foundation is the first show where they seem to be going for a big Game of Thrones-style hit. To be honest, they haven’t made it easy for themselves.
Rather than buying up the rights to an easy property or book series, they’ve gone for the Foundation series of books authored by none other than Isaac Asimov, one of the most influential sci-fi authors of all time. The Foundation books were first published in 1954 and span thousands of years. They’ve influenced many works of sci-fi from Star Wars to Dune. Not an easy task for showrunner David S. Goyer to adapt.
I should say up front that I haven’t read the books but I have read summaries so while I can’t speak to the spirit of the text I am aware of most of the similarities and divergences from the books. Does this show fully honour the books? I couldn’t tell you that. Is it a good show? Let’s see.
Foundation is set 50,000 years into the future and centres around mathematician Hari Seldon (Jared Harris), creator of ‘psychohistory’, a theory that makes large scale predictions about civilisations using maths, history and sociology. Hari has brought attention to himself and his followers by predicting the fall of the ruling Galactic Empire and 30,000 years of ‘darkness’. This does not go down well with the rulers of said empire, Brothers Dawn (Cassian Bilton), Day (Lee Pace) and Dusk (Terrence Mann) - clones of Cleon The First, 30 years apart in age, who succeed each other as they grow older and are re-born as each subsequent one dies. They’re the same person. It’s the purest form of dictatorship. Yes, it’s all as weird as it sounds.
Hari is joined by a prodigy, the aforementioned voiceover, Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell) a resident of a very simple, highly religious planet who seems to be the only other person in the universe to understand the theory in its base form. Together they are to be called before the ruling Brothers, a fact Hari reveals to Gaal immediately on meeting. This is not the first time it seems Hari knows the larger plan before it happens.
We also follow a storyline 35 years in the future that focuses on Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey), who is a warden on a planet called Terminus (the home of those critters and rebellious teens) and someone who, from our initial voiceover by Gaal, also seems destined to become a big name in this millennia-spanning tale.
Those of you who have read the books will note two significant additions to the plot - that of the cloned rulers and that of an android ‘lady in waiting’. Cloning wasn’t fully thought of in real life until after the first book was published and Asimov didn’t go into robotics until later in his writing. What’s incredible is that the two main additions are the elements that work the best.
The android Demerzel is obviously incorporating several of Asimov’s subsequent writings on robotics. Actor Laura Birn plays the role perfectly, with exquisite poise and politeness that is ever so slightly unnerving, her face displaying the tiniest hints at possible humanity beneath. You’re never quite sure of her true allegiances which makes her endlessly watchable.
As for the cloned leaders, it’s a fascinating representation of consolidating power over many generations not just within a family but within the same person. The clones get ‘poured out’ every 30 years which is roughly the age gap between the three actors meaning that in theory, they could be part of the story for thousands of years and all 8 of the planned seasons.
Pace is hugely authoritarian but believably so, quietly bottling his rage through many scenes before letting it out in often the most brutal of ways, most notably in episode two (look out for Pace’s penchant for dramatic hand gestures). Mann plays a more considered clone who has been worn down with age but is no less prone to anger. They both play off each other well and you buy the idea that they are, due to the very specific way their life is laid out for them, essentially the same person. Together they rule over countless planets and trillions of people. They’ve done so for years and have succeeded by building a rich teaming society that is supported and worked brutally by the working classes who in some cases literally live and work under the surface. It’s all topped off by a huge ‘sky bridge’, (a tower going up into space from the ground) which is definitely the largest symbol of male insecurity ever committed to film. Hari’s theory kicks off a difficult period of unrest for the Brothers, one they find increasingly more difficult to deal with.
While plotlines involving the clones seem likely to last several seasons and so are easier to talk about without spoilers, the same can’t be said for Gaal Dornick, Salvor Hardin, Hari Seldon and the rest of his followers. After standing trial early in episode 1, the quest of avoiding - or at least minimising - the dark ages of humans seems clear for them. While it seems obvious that thread will weave through the entire series, how it does that looks set to surprise and a big ending to episode 2 sets out some intentions in this respect. That, along with a lot of setup that needs to be done in the first 2 episodes, makes it clear why Apple is premiering with them both on week one. You will be gasping for more when the credits roll after the second hour.
Harris is predictably great, bringing a twinkly mischievousness to his slightly pompous and very self-involved scientist. Newcomers Llobell and Harvey are also very good with Llobell in particular going toe to toe with Harris in some scenes other actors would struggle with.
What’s been clear since the first trailer is the quality of production design and special effects. Vast halls and buildings (some real, some CGI) are counterbalanced with open landscapes and dramatic skylines. The colour palettes for each location are beautifully considered and along with great hair, makeup and some truly stunning costume design they really immerse you in the show. Even the title sequence is a thing of beauty. On top of this runs a huge, sweeping score from Bear McGreary that includes a wonderful central theme.
Foundation is a show with big ideas that are often moving forward. But that isn’t to say it doesn’t get distracted along the way. A messy mid-season episode signals the start of a plotline that seems to be going somewhere but just takes longer than it should to get there.
Additionally, supporting characters are sometimes a little underwritten. Hugo - Salvor Hardin’s spunky, gun-totting space cowboy boyfriend - is a prime example. Actor Daniel MacPherson does his best and is clearly having fun but we’ve seen this character a hundred times before. The very minimal back story we’re given and lines such as ’It’s not love if it doesn’t hurt’ don’t do him any favours.
Along with some characters’ frustrating insistence to talk in riddles rather than simply explain things does highlight how the show is treading a fine line between grand epic and silly space opera. Luckily, come season’s end, we’re still firmly in the former.
Above all this minutia of character drama and plot twists (of which there are some nice whiplash turns) is the overall theme of science and humanity. Math is very much ‘The Force’ in this Empire - revered by some, feared by others, but always the most powerful skill. There are obvious parallels to today’s climate deniers and anti-vaxers and how science is often viewed as an opinion rather than fact. These just reinforce how universal and timeless these conflicts are and will continue to be as well as how great Asimov’s work was.
The resolve and hope of humanity is a huge part of the show. We see several levels of society and the brutal difference and hardships between each. We see the effects of colonialism and the eradication of history. One scene spends several minutes on preserving diversity and whether using a Base 10, 12 or 27 numbering system will mean forgetting certain civilisations that are built on them. These are big questions relevant today and while not answered, it’s fascinating to see them posed on a big budget TV show.
This is a big swing for all involved. It’s also very much not an easy swing. While the visuals are stunning and would rival a blockbuster movie, the plot is complex and has lots of ideas bubbling under the surface. Ideas that are not easily answered with a space battle or a laser sword fight. In fact, that’s often the last thing on people’s minds.
However, complex ideas and interesting characters are what is often sorely missing from big sci-fi epics. Foundation has a real chance to wade into some murky territories of the human condition and our place within the galaxy and though it can sometimes get a bit side tracked, the show displays a strong intent to do that.
This isn’t easy, popcorn sci-fi and some people might be tempted to not stick with it due the need to really pay attention (it often feels like the writers have a Thesaurus to hand for dialogue). That being said, I hope people do because then they will find something fascinating and ultimately, rewarding.
Triple blessings to you all.
This review originally appeared on Screen Times.