Foundation review: An ambitious, expensive, and uneven adaptation of a sci-fi classic
Foundation (TV series)
Everyone is looking for the next Game of Thrones, a big adaptation that'll become an award-winning global phenomenon. Netflix is tossing a lot of coin at The Witcher franchise; Amazon is placing bets on The Wheel of Time and its Lord of the Rings series; HBO has multiple Game of Thrones spin-offs in the works. Today, Apple TV+ shoots for the stars with Foundation, its most ambitious show to date. Unfortunately, after watching the entire 10-episode first season, I'm not totally convinced this will be the One.
Based on Isaac Asimov's classic book series of the name — which served as a major inspiration for George Lucas' Star Wars — Foundation is a century-spanning science-fiction epic about how a civilization reacts in the face of a nigh-apocalyptic event.
Set in a distant future where humans have expanded so far beyond Earth that everyone has forgotten that's where humanity comes from, the show starts with Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell), a math prodigy journeying to Trantor, the heart of the Galactic Empire, to work with mathematician Dr. Hari Seldon (Jared Harris). Your typical Great Man/aspiring philosopher king, Seldon specializes in the field of psychohistory, which means he can use mathematics to predict the fall of the Empire and thus civilization, because once the former happens, humanity will be plunged into a new dark ages for many millennia. That is, unless everyone heeds Seldon's warnings and takes action to prevent the coming catastrophe. (Yes, your allegory senses should be tingling.)
Of course, this makes Seldon a threat to the ruling class, the Cleon Genetic Dynasty, which has sustained itself for many years through cloning. Nevertheless, Seldon and Gaal lead a group people who trust science to an isolated planet called Terminus in order to build a foundation of knowledge so that humanity has a starting place when the post-collapse darkness ends. The time-jumping first season essentially chronicles the first of several crises Seldon predicts in the march toward the Imperium's self-destruction.
What showrunner David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight), who co-created the series with Josh Friedman (TNT's Snowpiercer), and company have crafted in this first volume is very impressive, at least superficially so. From the gorgeous landscape shots that scream "WE SHOT ON LOCATION!" to the explosive space and land battles, it's clear no expense was spared in bringing Asimov's tale to life. But money can't buy a good story. The fantastic world you create, especially one as foreign as this one, must be welcoming, and Foundation's isn't.
Its world-building is dense and often incomprehensible, with characters rattling off names of warring planets, history, and schmience without stopping to let any of it sink in. I lost track of the number of times I had to rewind a scene to figure out what the hell was going on. Sure, there's something commendable about Foundation refusing to hold the audience's hand and essentially throwing them into deep space without a tether (no one loves repetitive exposition dumps), but the series takes that inclination too far and ends up feeling rather cold and alienating — and no number of time jumps, undercooked romances, or pricey special effects will fix that. Ultimately, it's pretty hard to care about what's happening, which, honestly, shouldn't be the case because the show's central problem — will humanity take the necessary steps to prevent a looming calamity? — is pretty relatable, given our real-world issue of climate change.
By keeping the audience at arm's length, Foundation also makes it that much harder to connect with any of the characters, despite some solid performances from the entire cast. Harris brings a humanizing warmth and vulnerability to Seldon. The actor has excellent chemistry with newcomer Llobell, who is initially constrained by the premiere's script, which calls on her to be timid and reactionary. Thankfully, Llobell gets to stretch as the season progresses, and it's a thrill to watch her challenge her peers in a meeting about what knowledge should be preserved, or math her way through a disorienting predicament.
Both Llobell and Leah Harvey, who plays Terminus warden Salvor Hardin, bring some lightness to their heavy Chosen One-ness. (Without giving anything away, it's worth noting that while Asimov's century-spanning novels don't follow the same characters throughout, the show has taken some clever liberties in this regard, which is for the best should Apple TV+ order a second season.)
Foundation has several genuinely shocking plot twists; however, the thing that surprised me the most was how invested I became in the Cleon Genetic Dynasty's family drama, which definitely puts the Habsburgs' to shame. The Imperium is ruled by clones of the first Emperor Cleon, and at any given time there are three versions of Cleon in the palace: Brother Dawn (Cassian Bilton), the youngest one whose job is to watch and learn; Brother Day (Lee Pace), the middle-aged Cleon who rules; and Brother Dusk (Terrence Mann), the eldest.
This curious political unit raises interesting questions about individuality and if progress is possible without fundamental change, and it's the main source of fun in the show. The brothers' competitive, contemptuous relationship is fueled by a campy and playful turn by Pace, but the Halt and Catch Fire alum grounds his performance enough as not to give whiplash when things inevitably turn serious. Similarly, Laura Birn's Demerzel, the royal advisor, is given an unexpectedly moving arc as the story progresses.
Alas, the rest of the series lacks the spark of the royal court drama and often feels like a slog. While things get much more entertaining in the back half of the season, you may not want to trudge through Foundation's own dark period to get there. C+
Foundation's first two episodes premiere Friday, Sept. 24, on AppleTV+, with new installments released weekly thereafter.