Thoughts on the Foundation adaptation from Apple TV, embedded herein. I’ll warn you now that that there’s a few spoilers ahead.
The Foundation series is a sequence of ten books by Isaac Asimov and eventually others, about the collapse of a galaxy-spanning Empire and the resulting Interregnum. It was a titanic edifice of written science fiction for about half a century and was massively influential; the Empires of Star Wars and Traveller likely would not exist without Foundation.
I read the original trilogy as a kid and afterwards read all the prequels, sequels and associated works. Nowadays Asimov is seen as a troubling figure, not generally for his literary work (there are exceptions) but for his intensely creepy and predatory personal behavior. But Foundation was a cornerstone of my childhood reading. And remember: it’s okay to like problematic things, but important to understand why and how they are problematic, and the context in which they were created.
Anyway, the original trilogy is pretty clearly the best of the bunch, written from 1942-1953. A lot of the ideas hold up pretty well even today, the execution not so much. The later prequels and sequels are arguably better written, but they abandon the Big Idea that got people interested in the first place. With the ultimate fate of the galaxy mathematically preordained, Asimov felt he was stuck, unable to see that there could be human drama and unpredicted nuance in his deterministic arc of history. So he wrote prequels instead, or broke psychohistory in various ways for the sequels. The seeds of this appear in what is generally agreed to be the best part of the whole thing, “the Mule,” which is the second half of Foundation and Empire. Here Asimov gives us the series’ best characters and best narrative, but was still unable to see that drama can exist despite plot, or that a great deal can go on in the nooks and crannies of a fixed and suspenseless history.
The entertainment industry has flirted with adapting Foundation for decades, but the core trilogy is essentially unadaptable as written. All three books are fix-ups, and only Second Foundation was written with a single storyline in mind. The characters are wooden and although some are nevertheless memorable, all of them vanish after a single story, at most two. The setting is Gibbon’s Rome as seen through the curious lens of Mid-Century America spread across the Milky Way. There are no aliens in this Galactic Empire — an artifact of John W. Campbell’s editorial whim that all such be portrayed as fundamentally inferior to humans — by which he meant white human males. Asimov, knowing this for what it was, refused therefore to use aliens, while nevertheless continuing to submit to Campbell out of personal loyalty and because Campbell’s Astounding was simply the best and most prestigious market in the 1940s.
Rather than adapt Foundation as the world’s dullest stage play, showrunner David Goyer and his team have elected to focus, at least at first, on “The Psychohistorians,” the first part of the book version of the first volume, added in 1951 when it was published as a fix-up. He adds “Brother Day,” a weird Emperor-figure played by Lee Pace, casts Jared Harris (an inspired choice) as his Hari Seldon, and gender-swaps the short story’s remaining important characters, mathematician Gaal Dornick and the real power behind the throne, First Minister Eto Demerzel. Young Lou Llobell captures the innocence of Gaal quite well, from what we can see in the trailer, while Demerzel, as played by Laura Birn, seems luminous and enigmatic, which is as it should be, considering who Demerzel really is.
I don’t yet know how many episodes we’ll get, or how far into the books this first season will go, but looking at the cast list, we’ll get into “The Encyclopedists”, but maybe not further than “The Mayors”. The visuals are striking and seem to strangely fit better than you’d think — parts of the trailer are clearly visualizations of Seldon’s predictions, unless the season is going to takes us as far as Foundation and Empire, which would surprise me, as The Mule ought to give us a good chunk of episodes.
So color me curious enough to consider resubscribing to Apple TV for this thing, even though they make unsubscribing a pain in the patoot unless you’re already embedded in the Apple ecosystem. Also, last I checked, their web player was a slice of ass, but hopefully it’s better now.