Foundation: Season One: A mixed bag, but generally good

Foundation: Season One on Apple TV+Foundation: Season One on Apple TV+

Foundation: Season One on Apple TV+In my first review of Apple TV’s Foundation series, written after the first two shows, I said it wasn’t “great” TV (at least not yet) but ranged consistently between good and very good. Having just finished all ten episodes of season one, I’d broaden that range from “occasionally annoying to occasionally great.” In other words, it’s a mixed bag, which I suppose shouldn’t be much of a surprise for a series that mostly follows three plot strands, has multi-decade time jumps, and is itself based on a series of loosely connected short stories that were later retconned into a larger universal narrative. I’ll send you to my earlier review for the plot summation. Here, I’ll assume you know the basic plot. I will look at the three narrative strands separately, then consider the series as a whole. Some spoilers for various episodes to follow.

The Empire

This plot line, involving the decadent crumbling Galactic Empire centered on Trantor and ruled by the triumvirate of Cleon clones — Brothers Dawn, Day, and Dusk — is by far the strongest of the storylines and is worth the price of admission alone. Which is more than a little ironic as its characters and main concepts/events don’t appear in the source material at all (this is definitely an “inspired by” rather than an “adapted from” series; if you’re looking for slavish adherence to Isaac Asimov’s stories, this is not your show). The characters are compelling in their various individual roles but also in their relationships to one another, and they become even more compelling as those roles and relationships shift due to events and revelations (and time jumps), particularly in the latter third of the season. It also doesn’t hurt that Lee Pace and Terrence Mann turn in consistently fantastic performances. The showrunners also do a fantastic job in this section of meshing the stunningly awesome (in the true sense of the word) scope, grandness, and power of the Empire with the intimacy of human interaction and introspection. At one point we might be presented a vividly rendered scene of planetary destruction or find ourselves captivated by wide shots of a pair of planets — one an arid landscape and another an inundated world of water; at another point we might zoom in on a face wracked by desolation due to a tragic loss or an equally tragic epiphany about oneself.

That range of scales is wonderfully encapsulated in the finale when Brother Day, in one of the series’ most icily chilling moments, tells a captured revolutionary that the Empire has tracked down her entire family — not just parents, but all the descendants “branching out” from her great-great-grandparents, including her “first and second cousins, removed or otherwise.” 700+ people, he tells her, before continuing:

Then we located all your friends and lovers, past and present. First boy you kissed. The young woman you gave your virginity to. Your teachers and co-workers … We located their parents and siblings … anyone in your extended orbit … The sum total of lives you’ve made a meaningful mark on. In short, the people who would remember you after you’re gone.

All of them, he says, have a “particle beam targeting their brain stems” and can be killed with his signal. And you think this is just a threat — that he’ll end with a “unless you …”and then of course she will do what he wants and sure, she’ll die, but he isn’t going to kill 1500 people just to, and then he waves his hand, and says, “There. All gone.” And you stare at the screen thinking, “holy shit.” Nary a moment’s thought, a quiver in his voice, any sense of rue. The power and indifference and cruelty of the Empire all in that little 30 second moment. And then, just a few minutes later, we’re brought down to a much more human level as we watch him crying while he lays to rest the body of someone, perhaps the only one, he ever cared about. Just a great pair of scenes. The writing, the visuals, the acting are all at the top of the game in the Empire scenes, with hardly a weak scene amongst any of the ten episodes. By the end, you’ve been awed and shocked and even moved, each multiple times, and you can’t wait to see where this all goes in season two.

Terminus

Though it has its moments, this storyline is less successful for a variety of reasons. While the Empire storyline is rich with complex characterization and big ideas (the power of religion, how one’s identity forms, etc.), “Terminus” is a more prosaic action plot with psycho villains and gun battles and explosions. Which is fine, as it acts as a nice counterbalance to some of Empire’s more introspective or grand concept aspects, but unfortunately, the plotting includes a number of contrivances and holes, some of them absolutely glaring. The acting also takes a step down, unfortunately including the main character Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey), though some of it is excellent (particularly Hardin’s father, who adds a needed sense of emotionality, and her lover Hugu [Daniel MacPherson] who adds a welcome bit of humor).

Character-wise, I have issues with the “specialness” of Salvor Hardin. I’m just not generally a fan of characters doing things because they’re “special,” and it doesn’t help that Hardin’s “specialness” gets remarked on by so many people so overtly. This holds true in the other section as well with Gaal Dornick, and while I think I get where they’re going with this (Second Foundation), I think this way of getting there detracts from both plot and character.

I feel similarly about shifting Hari Seldon from a pre-recorded hologram to an AI that can respond in real time, allowing him to take a more direct role than I’d prefer in events. It also adds some distracting questions: why does everyone automatically believe what he says about past events? Why has nobody else used this uploading of consciousness technology? All these questions get in the way of simply enjoying the storyline.

While this segment has some good scenes across the season, overall it’s marred by pacing issues, plot holes, and generally weaker characters/acting.

Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobel) /Hari Seldon (Jared Harris)

This is the weakest of the three threads. Gaal’s character is, again, “special” as opposed to just being smart, which diminishes her somewhat. And her character is often reacting, usually to the men around her: her father’s anger over her “heresy,” Seldon’s mentorship, her love for Rayche (which never rang true to me). And then once we’re off the transport ship, her whole storyline feels extraneous to the rest of the narrative, the moments we return to her feeling shoehorned in. I’m assuming this will change in season two, but if this is mostly prologue, it feels as if it needed to be executed better. The actor does a fine job, and shines in the moments she’s given something to do, as when she, as another book/film might put it, “sciences the shit” out of a situation she’s stuck in. But she’s too often given too little to work with. As for Seldon, I mentioned my issues with his self on Terminus. Here he comes off a little too cruel perhaps, though I like the complexity of his character, the idea of benevolent manipulation as he sees it. And Harris plays the role wonderfully, giving Pace a run for his money as to which acting job shines the most in the series.

The season

I mentioned in my first review that the show is worth watching if only for the visuals, and after ten episodes I absolutely stand by that. Foundation has by far the best production value I’ve ever seen on TV, and, I’d argue, it rivals some feature films. It’s a stunningly beautiful work of art (having watched the first three episodes of Wheel of Time, another supposedly very expensive show, I can say Foundation leaves the other in the dust visually).

As much of an up and down ride as Foundation is, when it’s on, which is nearly all the time in the Empire scenes and a decent amount of time in the others, it’s fantastic television. Exploring large-scale ideas, offering up complex characters and character relationships via strong writing and actors nailing their roles, and taking a visual medium to its absolute zenith. It’s uneven, for sure, across all its elements save the visual: character, plot, even acting to a lesser extent. But even the weaker segments have their captivating scenes, their striking visuals. It’s not the original Asimov story faithfully done, and it’s not always hitting on all cylinders, and in fact, in some ways, the other Apple TV+ sci-fi show, Invasion, is more consistently good. but there really isn’t anything else like Foundation on TV, making it an easy recommendation.


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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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