Foundation premieres with two episodes on Friday, Sept. 24. Below is a spoiler-free review.
If you told an ’80s sci-fi fan that 2021 would not only see an epic TV show based on Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books, but it would come out just a month before we got a good Dune adaptation, you’d blow their mind. Apple TV+’s adaptation of Foundation, however, is in many ways even more ambitious than Dune. While the latter is more of a space opera adventure with a clear protagonist, Foundation is a truly grand series with dozens of characters in as many planets, with a story spanning decades (if not centuries). If Apple was aiming to find the next big show to match Game of Thrones, they’ve succeeded. This is a true visual marvel, with production design that rivals any big-budget blockbuster, a fantastic cast that manages to sell the complex subjects handled with grounded performances, and a story that may take a while to become clear, but in just its first two episodes, it’s already a must-see.
Foundation is set in a far-off future where the known galaxy is ruled by the mighty Galactic Empire, which is led by three clones of the same emperor. Though the Empire shows no sign of stopping their expansion, one scientist, Hari Seldon (Jared Harris), developed a science that allows him to calculate the probability of mass events and says the Empire is actually on the verge of an unavoidable collapse, and that collapse will give way to a 30,000 years-long dark age. Though the Empire isn’t happy about this, Seldon offers a solution to preserve all human knowledge into an Encyclopedia Galactica that would allow future generations to rebuild civilization and reduce the dark age to a single millennium.
In terms of scope, it’s hard to beat what Foundation is trying to do, even if its first two episodes make it hard to grasp how it will go about it within the TV medium. From the very first scene, we are thrown into a fully formed and lived-in galaxy with distinct worlds, each with a different texture and feel. Basically, it’s not as if they just slapped a different climate on each of them and called it a day. The production design is absolutely striking, with the lavish costumes of the Empire, the unique designs of the spaceships, and the different architectural styles for the different planets (Star Wars fans may want to pay extra attention to the world of Tranton, the city-planet that bears a resemblance to Coruscant). If The Mandalorian and Game of Thrones helped blur the lines between what looks good on TV and what looks good on film, Foundation shatters that distinction.
Asimov may have created a fascinating future history, but he didn’t exactly write the most memorable of characters, and women were basically non-existent in the first book. Foundation tries to make the story work on serialized TV by placing a bigger focus on the characters compared to the plot. Creators David S. Goyer and Josh Friedman slow down the story significantly, taking the time to make us care about the characters, their motivations, and their predicaments. The two-part premiere tries to juggle too many things and threatens to appear inaccessible at times, but there are still glimpses of a show that balances grounded human stories and grander ideas about science, politics, and free will.
This approach to the characters and the themes is best exemplified in the character of Gaal Dornick, who is gender-flipped in the show. Lou Llobell gives the best performance in an already stacked cast, selling the character’s enthusiasm and devotion to the Foundation, and the pain of coming from a planet that wants to kill her for daring to choose knowledge and science over blind faith, trying to save her people from rising tides rather than letting them drown.
Another big change made from the book is the addition of clones, a concept that was foreign to Asimov when his first book was published, as the DNA structure hadn’t even been discovered at that point. The idea of three clone emperors, Brother Day (Lee Pace), Brother Dusk (Terrence Mann), and Brother Dawn (Cassian Bilton), is arguably the most fascinating addition to the show, which helps it stand out from the rest of the sci-fi landscape. Though the first two episodes don’t dive too deeply into the ramifications of Psychohistory and what it means for free will, it still explores those ideas via the emperors. Unlike, say, the clones in Clone Wars, the emperors all have different ages and literally grow up seeing exactly what they will become, so they rebel against it. Each of the three men is desperate to prove they are different from their brothers and all those who came before, but struggle with seeing that they may not be different at all.
Foundation could easily have become an overwhelming mess of confusing concepts and names, but it finds the right balance between visual spectacle, epic plots, and human drama. Though the first two episodes suffer a bit from having to do many things at once, the premiere shows a lot of promise as the next must-see TV event.
The first two episodes of Foundation successfully balance grand and complex ideas, a big ensemble cast, and a huge world with emotional and grounded human stories, all while delivering visual spectacle and capturing the scope and intrigue of Isaac Asimov’s classic.