As a fan of the classic sci-fi series by Isaac Asimov, I was pretty excited about FOUNDATION appearing as a screen adaptation on Apple TV. The result didn’t quite live up to the anticipation. I fully expected the original material–which was complex and difficult to adapt–to be interpreted, but the new material didn’t really add all that much that didn’t feel fairly generic, particularly in terms of the kind of powerful ideas that made Asimov’s series so great.
In the books, a vast empire spans the known galaxy. But one man, Hari Seldon, through his understanding of a new science called psychohistory, believes the empire is in decline, further predicting the a subsequent dark ages would last thirty thousand years. He is allowed to establish a scientific outpost on a remote planet called Terminus, where he hopes to store the galaxy’s knowledge and shorten the dark ages to only a thousand years. It’s brilliant stuff, based on the idea that vast populations can be analyzed to see the trajectory of history, and that individuals can influence but not change the outcome. The Empire is doomed; soon, Foundation will be alone in a barbaric age and must fend for itself to save civilization. The books episodically jump through time with different characters to show the Foundation encountering and overcoming various crises threatening to disrupt Seldon’s plan.
The Apple TV series follows the same basic premise, though with some significant changes, enough to make this an “inspired by” rather than a straight adaptation. We spend a lot of time with Cleon, the emperor, as he struggles with the political implications of Seldon’s theory and growing dissension inside and outside the palace. We also follow Seldon’s followers on Terminus as they struggle to survive and navigate disaffected planets around them. And so on. With ten episodes interpreting something like a hundred pages of source material, plenty of original storytelling was involved. Some of it is interesting, but a lot of it doesn’t seem to go anywhere and feels generic to the point of being filler, particularly in the second half. Probably the biggest issue I had was with the subverting of the basic premise. We get two characters who are linked and have special abilities ranging from super intelligence to clairvoyance, and they appear to be key to achieving Seldon’s plan in an almost “chosen one” formula sense, though the whole idea of a single aberrant individual disrupting psychohistoric predictions was considered not critical but instead a major threat to it in the novels. Then after all sorts of crazy stuff where the actions of a single individual change everything, here’s Seldon saying, yeah, this was my plan all along. Wait, what?
There is a lot to like here. The world building is pretty terrific, producing a richly textured future galactic civilization. The cast is great, particularly the great Jared Harris as Seldon, and very diverse (though oddly no east Asians). The perpetuation of the Cleonic dynasty had some good ideas, and the derelict battleship was pretty cool. The story tying them together, however, felt random and occasionally empty to me, however, and when it was presented as all tying together as Seldon’s plan, I didn’t quite buy it. This is the challenge of telling individual stories in an overall story that is primarily about ideas.