Creators: Josh Friedman, David S. Goyer
Stars: Lou Llobell, Jared Harris, Lee Pace
It is the far future. The galaxy is ruled by a triumvirate of clones of the first Emperor, collectively known as Empire. They are brothers of different ages, the youngest Dawn, the middle Day, and the oldest Dusk. Whenever one dies, he becomes Darkness, and a new Dawn is born, moving the previous Dawn to Day, and Day to Dusk. And so, the generations of genetically perfect clones go on for centuries, ruling the trillions of human lives that make up the galaxy with an iron hand.
Onto this galactic stage comes the mathematical genius Hari Seldon. This professor of mathematical probability has developed a theory called psychohistory, which he can use to divine the course of the galactic future. And what he sees isn’t encouraging: a millennia-long period of war and destruction ending in the fall of the galactic civilization and the start of a new dark age.
The Mathematics of Free Will
Foundation is based on Isaac Asimov’s classic science fiction novels of the same name. They were written as a series of short stories published between 1942 and 1950; it was later collected into a trilogy of books in the early 50s. In it, we follow the fate of the galactic civilization and the creation of the Foundation, a repository of humanity’s lore and knowledge, to be saved through the coming dark age.
A central theme in the Foundation trilogy is the theory that once a population has gained knowledge of its predicted behavior, it becomes unpredictable. That is, once you’re told what you are going to do in the future, the chances are that you’ll do your best to avoid it. And of course, given the scale of the galaxy, with its population in the trillions spread out over thousands of worlds, knowing that civilization will one day fall only speeds up the process.
An Epic Scale
Adapting Isaac Asimov’s epic science fiction novels into a series must have been a daunting project. I have not read the books myself, even though I have always been an avid science fiction fan. Foundation always seemed like Dune (which I have read) in that way. Everyone knew about it and could probably name a few characters, but few had spent reading the books.
The first thing I noticed watching Foundation was the sheer scale of things and the fantastic art direction. There is a sense of the vastness of the galaxy. Seemingly endless horizons have ringed planets and moons towering above them. Massive spaceships travel between the stars. The seat of the Galactic Empire and its triumvirate of rulers is a city-covered planet above which towers a gigantic elevator to space called the Star Bridge.
The cast is quite large, and it can be unclear at first to keep track of everyone. Cloning and generational jumps don’t help much either, so it’s essential to pay attention.
A Great Cast of Characters
The series begins with the young mathematical genius Gaal Dornick (played by Lou Llobell) traveling away from her flooded homeworld and religiously fanatic people to study under Professor Hari Seldon (played by Jared Harris). They are soon arrested by Empire (played by Lee Pace, Terrence Mann, and Cooper Carter) for anti-Empire propaganda and dangerous predictions.
The story shifts its perspective between the Foundation project on the far-off planet Terminus and the intrigues at the Empire’s palace. There is a fair bit of scenery-chewing, especially from the triumvirate of cloned emperors ruling the galaxy. But gradually, we see more to the all-powerful clones than meets the eye: human frailty and the questions of mortality and the soul. Especially one episode stands out as emotionally moving, where we witness the “life cycle” of the Empire: As brother Dusk becomes frail and dies, Brother Dawn becomes Brother Day, and Brother Day becomes the new Brother Dusk. And a new Brother Dawn is “decanted” from the cloning vats. And overseeing it all is the immortal android handmaiden Demerzel (played by Laura Birn).
After a terrorist attack makes Empire wonder if there is more to Seldon’s prediction than meets the eye, he sends the professor and his new protégé to a distant planet to start their work. Their mission: to establish the Foundation, a repository, and vault of humanity’s knowledge.
Of course, not everything goes as planned. The story then jumps 35 years into the future where intrigues and conflicts, both at the Foundation project and in the core of the Empire, are raging. A generation of Empires has passed, sending the previous Brother Dusk to oblivion, making a place for a new Brother Day (now played by Cassian Bilton). The Foundation is protected by the young warden Salvor Hardin (played by Leah Harvey). Her strange powers are seemingly tied to the mysterious floating artifact of unknown origin outside the Foundation colony.
The end is coming, and there is a sense of dread throughout as Seldon’s predictions manifest around the galaxy.
A Difficult Adaptation
Executive producers David S. Goyer and Josh Friedman, and Skydance Television must have thought long and hard to attempt to adapt Asimov’s novels before signing on to the project in 2017. The books are complicated, tackling several big ideas around sociological and psychological themes that would be hard to put onto the screen.
This might put off some fans of the book, especially those expecting a direct as a possible retelling. Despite this, Foundation delivers a vast and epic science fiction drama. I was impressed by the sense of scale and wonder, the massive cast of characters, and the unfolding mystery. I especially liked Jared Harris, Lee Pace (despite the sometimes overly enthusiastic scenery-chewing), and Terrence Mann in their various roles.
And if rumors are to be believed, this season will be the first of eight, for a complete and massive 80-hours screen adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s epic sci-fi masterpiece.
Foundation premiers on Apple TV+ on the 24th of September with its first two episodes. After that, episodes will air weekly.