Foundation created by David S. Goyer & Josh Friedman
What you need to know first about Apple TV’s Foundation is that it is stunningly gorgeous to look at. Seriously. Gorgeous. Do not watch it on your phone. Do not, if you can avoid it, watch it on your laptop. This deserves, no, it cries out for, as large a TV with as good a screen as you can see it on. Honestly, if Apple released it to a theater I’d happily watch it there. Too many TV shows seem to forget or not care that TV is a visual medium, whether due to expense or lack of necessity or other reasons. Take away sitcoms, cop shows, and medical shows, which, with very few exceptions, rarely even try to mine the cinematic potential of television, and we’re left with very little in the way of visual delight on TV. Foundation doesn’t just mine the medium, it hits the motherlode. Not just eye-candy spectacle, but rich splendor. Now, does that make it necessarily great or must-watch TV? No. But if it were mediocre TV, I’d still recommend watching it just to, well, watch it. Luckily, Foundation is far better than mediocre, though it is not great.
The second thing to know about the series is this isn’t by any stretch a slavish adaptation of Foundation. “Inspired by” rather than “adapted from” is certainly a better description, as the show’s creators have made a slew of changes, both minor and major. Some of those are both necessary and even inevitable. While it has never been true that there are “no women” in Isaac Asimov’s books, they’re certainly a rare sighting (and also rarely well written), especially in the early books, as holds true for really any non-white, non-male, non-cis groups. So the showrunners have moved the story into the modern era by greatly diversifying the cast in welcome and much-needed fashion. They’ve also made the (I’d call quite smart) decision to consolidate the several emperors that rule over the book’s centuries-long timespan into a triumvirate of clones (Day, Dawn, Dusk) from a single emperor, allowing the same actors to play those roles throughout the series. To similar effect, while the original tale is a series of linked stories/novellas told chronologically with large time jumps in between, the showrunners have decided to tell some of the stories concurrently, allowing the show to introduce characters from the start who wouldn’t have shown up for a season or two (or more) given the pace of the TV series. How one reacts to such changes, big and small, is probably dependent on how beholden you are to the original work. Personally, as much as I enjoyed Asimov’s series even while recognizing its flaws (as did he when he returned to it in later years), I’m a fan of the vast majority of the changes made here.
In terms of plot, basically the millennia-old galactic empire, though seemingly still in its prime, is actually beginning its long slow decay (Asimov often referred to Foundation as a sort of Fall of the Roman Empire in space), though only one man, Hari Seldon, is able to see that reality. Seldon can do so because he is the galaxy’s best psychohistorian, a science that uses arcane math to predict the behavior of large populations. His equations tell him the Empire is failing, and he tells, well, everyone else. As you might imagine, that doesn’t go over well with the Empire’s current rulers. Arrested and put on trial, Seldon announces that his math predicts tens of thousands of years of barbarism before the next empire rises, but his group (the “foundation”) is meant to shorten that to a mere thousand years by creating an Encyclopedia Galactica, a repository of human knowledge so future humans won’t have to rebuild from scratch. What happens next is the focus of Foundation.
The cast is mostly strong across the board. Lee Pace is fantastic as Brother Day, horrifyingly funny and terrifyingly charming as the “middle-aged” Emperor clone, while Terrence Mann’s Brother Dusk, the elder clone, is nearly as good. Meanwhile, it’s hard to do better than Jared Harris (Hari Seldon) when one wants dignified passion tinged with sorrow. Laura Birn is perfectly icily mechanical as a court insider, and both Lou Llobell as Gaal Dornick (Seldon’s math protégé) and Alfred Enoch as Raych (Seldon’s adopted son and closest aide) add welcome youth and passion, both also bringing some past trauma. Because the first two shows introduce so many characters, settings, and times, viewers will probably struggle at first to connect with the characters — this is particularly true of Leah Harvey’s Salvor Hardin, who gets little screen time — but given the acting chops and the amount of time we’ll eventually be spending with them, my guess is that won’t be a continuing issue.
While the time jumps may be off-putting to some in the audience, I thought they were handled smoothly and deftly, leaving me feeling always grounded in both where and when I was. And even at the risk of some momentary confusion, I think this decision to move back and forth in time was a good choice in order to bring forward some characters and storylines we’d otherwise have to wait a long time for.
Pacing can be slow, but that’s not the same as tedious (though I won’t be surprised to see that word tossed at the show). The show takes its time, and I was always fine with that. I certainly never felt as if the show bogged down or was padding out its hour-plus with unnecessary scenes or slow pans.
Only two shows in, it’s impossible to say how Foundation will end up. As noted, it’s not yet “great” TV, but it ranges consistently between good and very good throughout those two episodes. Ambitious as it is, it still might achieve greatness, or it might end up a hot mess. But even if it turns out to be the latter, for its utter beauty, I’d still call it a major achievement. I’m certainly looking forward to looking at the rest.