TV Show ReviewsJosh Reviews Foundation Season One

Josh Reviews Foundation Season One

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series is one of my all-time favorite novel series.  I love those books with all my heart.  They’re masterful novels; incredibly original and filled to overflowing with innovative and compelling ideas.  I have been dreaming for years that they would some day be adapted into a TV show or movie series.  In a post-Game of Thrones world, the time seemed perfect for this vast, complicated series of books to be adapted as a prestige multi-season TV show, and I was thrilled when it was announced that Foundation was in the works as a TV series for Apple TV+.

Sadly, the result is quite a mixed bag for me.  I think that, if I’d never read Asimov’s novels, I’d really love this Foundation show!  The series has a lot going for it.  It is staggeringly impressive visually, with incredible designs and jaw-dropping visual effects.  The cast is fantastic, with several true stand-outs among the ensemble.  And the series is filled with all sorts of wild ideas and narrative boldness.

Unfortunately, the series has deviated much farther from Mr. Asimov’s novels than I’d hoped, and in many cases the show seems to be exactly the opposite of the characteristics that made the Foundation novels so unique and interesting!

It’s 2021, and after seeing so many faithful and incredible adaptations — from the Harry Potter films to Game of Thrones to the entire MCU film and TV franchise — I don’t think it’s too much to hope and expect that when a high-profile novel (or series of novels) is adapted for a TV show or movie, the makers of the adaptation will strive to be faithful to the source material.

Now, at the same time, I understand and embrace that adaptations have to be allowed to adjust the source material to fit the new medium.  (An exact word-for-word adaptation rarely works.  Zack Snyder’s Watchmen film and Robert Rodriguez’s two Sin City movies are great examples of hyper-faithful adaptations that would up feeling a little off because they weren’t sufficiently massaged to better fit the beats and tones of a movie, as opposed to a comic book page.)

Additionally, Foundation is a difficult series of novels to adapt.  The books were heavy on plot but very light on character development; so I can understand that an adaptation would need to flesh out the characters, adding backstory and layers to the characters that were absent in the original books.  There are places where the TV show does this very well.  I loved the development of Gaal Dornick’s backstory and the world and culture/religion she came from.  I loved the real estate in the show devoted to exploring the story of the rulers of the Galactic empire.  The books are told almost exclusively from the point of view of Hari Seldon and his fellow Foundationers.  But it’s a great idea to flesh out the “villains” of the piece, and I loved the very cool idea that the emperors of the Galactic Empire at the time of the show were three clones of the earlier Emperor (mentioned in backstory in the novels) Cleon, each at a different age in life (called “dawn” “day” and “dusk”), who constantly replace one another as they age.  That’s a cool idea that contains a wealth of story possibilities that the show has a lot of fun exploring.  It’s also a clever work-around for the next challenge of adapting the novels:

The books — particularly the early ones — are basically extended vignettes that jump around in decades, with very few recurring characters.  Each new story jumps ahead in years and introduces new characters and situations.  This is the opposite of the structure of most TV shows!  Having the clone Cleons is a clever way to keep bringing back the same three actors in the role even as the show moves forward in time (and the series and actors have a lot of fun showing the same actors playing subtly different versions of their characters as each version of Cleon ages into the next).

The books contain very little action and what little action they contain mostly happens off-screen.  The books are basically people talking about things.  Obviously a TV adaptation would have to tweak that, and I have no problem adding some action/adventure elements into the series, which the TV show did.  There’s some thrilling and intense action on the show.

The books are mostly focused on male characters.  I’m delighted the series gender-swapped several characters, centering the story particularly on two strong and fierce female characters: Lou Llobell plays Gaal Dornick, a young protege of the great scientist and founder of the Foundation Hari Seldon, and Leah Harvey plays Salvor Hardin, a young warrior woman growing up among the scientists of the Foundation 35 years later.  I adored both of the actors cast in these roles!  Both women are very charismatic and powerful, capturing my attention and hooking me into their storylines.  By the way, I also love that both of these actors are women of color, another excellent way of modernizing an older story.

So far so good, right?  The problem is that for every change the creators of the show made that I liked, they made several that boggled my mind.  Let’s start with some of the big ones.

Foundation is, at its core, a story about science.  It’s all about the triumph of science and mathematics, and how smart people who worked hard and used those tools were able to defeat the forces of darkness and barbarism and save the galaxy and all of human civilization.  The Foundation novels are a science-fiction series written by a brilliant man with an excellent knowledge of scientific concepts; all of the science-fiction elements in Mr. Asimov’s novels are deeply grounded in realistic science.  And so it drove me absolutely bonkers that so much of what happened in the Foundation TV show seemed driven by magic and fate.  Salvor Hardin has mystical visions that drive her actions and yet are never explained.  She seems to have some mystical connection to the Seldon Vault on Terminus that is never explained.  (In the books, the Vault is a grounded, easily-explained thing: it’s a room in which pre-recorded holograms of Hari Seldon are played back at determined times, based on the science of Seldon’s predictions.  In the show it’s some weird magical thing with bizarre powers to which Hardin is somehow mystically connected.  Ugh.)

The key made-up piece of fiction in the science of the Foundation novels was the idea of psychohistory; the idea that using math, Seldon and the Foundationers who followed him could predict the future by analyzing the actions of huge groups of people.  Predicting the action of one person was impossible; but predicting the actions of the population of an entire world could be possible.  That’s a made-up idea, of course, but every story point in the book that flows from that one conceit is carefully structured to be consistent with that central concept.  And yet the series, on the other hand, seems to totally ignore that idea.  Almost everything that happens in the show seems driven by the unpredictable actions of individuals, especially Gaal Dornick and Salvor Hardin but also people like Seldon’s son Raych.  Seldon actually says out loud to Raych something to the effect of: the fate of all the universe hinges on what you do now!  UGH, NO!!  That is the opposite of what Foundation is all about!!

While I loved the series’ solution to allowing the same actors to play the different versions of Emperor Cleon across the decades, I rolled my eyes at the other changes the show made to allow Gaal and Salvor to be able to continue on into the second season.  They have Gaal go into hibernation for decades in order to make a pointless trip back to her homeworld.  (Gaal knows her family’s primitive home was wiped out.  She herself predicted that using her science!  So it’s silly that she’d go there.  And she goes with zero plan for surviving on her own; she only makes it because of the crazy coincidence (and ugh this show relies way too much on crazy coincidences, again in complete opposition to what the books were all about) of encountering Salvor.  Salvor, meanwhile, for no reason that I could understand, leaves everyone she’d ever known on Terminus, including the love of her life, to hibernate for decades in order to find Gaal, someone she’d never met and had no reason to care about.  (And don’t get me started on the show’s decision to make Gaal and Salvor be related.  I hate this type of “small universe” syndrome — like Darth Vader having built C-3PO!!)

I was intrigued that the show decided to incorporate the character of Eto Demerzel, the right hand of Emperor Cleon.  Demerzel is a character in the later Foundation novels, but from his established history from the books it makes sense that he’d be around during this time period.  So I thought it was super-cool that they brought Demerzel into this story!!  But I absolutely hated what they did with this character.  First of all, here was an example where I didn’t love the gender-swap.  I’d dreamed that if Demerzel was in this Foundation TV series, that they’d one day adapt Asimov’s robot novels in which this character was involved; but while the gender-swap doesn’t dramatically affect Demerzel’s story here, it would significantly change how that character would fit into those other stories.  So that was a bummer.  But much more problematically was how the character was used.  (SPOILERS here for decades old books.  Seriously, while the show spoils this plot twist immediately, if you haven’t seen the show or read the novels and don’t want to be spoiled on key plot twists in the books, stop reading and c’mon back for the next paragraph.  Still here?  OK, first off, it’s critical to Demerzel’s story in the books that no one knows his true nature, so I didn’t like the choice to have Cleon know in the show.  Far more problematically, though, was the show’s depiction of Demerzel’s committing murder at Cleon’s orders.  What is the most central and famous elements of all of Isaac Asimov’s science fiction???  It’s the three laws of robotics!!!  The first of which is that a robot cannot harm a human being.  Period, end of story.  While several of Asimov’s stories did depict fascinating ways in which that central law could be sidestepped or bent, to have Demerzel straight up murder someone flies right in the face of the very core ideas of Asimov’s fiction.  It pissed me off so much.)

What else did I like about the show?  Visually, it looks like a billion dollars.  It’s cool to see sci-fi on TV brought to life on such a scale.  We truly are in a new world in terms of what is possible on TV.  The outer-space visual effects are terrific.  I love the design of all the different space-ships, especially the massive Imperial ships.  I really dug all of the costumes and the way the different cultures from different planets each have their own distinct identity and style.

Jared Harris (Mad Men) is perfectly cast as Hari Seldon.  Mr. Harris is able to beautifully portray Seldon’s brilliance and nobility, and the charisma that leads others to follow him.  Also perfectly cast: Lee Pace (The Hobbit trilogy, Guardians of the Galaxy), who is fantastic as the “Brother Day” version of Emperor Cleon.  He’s all smarm and entitlement, and he’s a delicious villain, albeit one with many different layers.  Terrence Mann is just as good as Brother Dusk; he’s a wonderful foil for Mr. Pace’s Day.  I was delighted to see Clarke Peters (The Wire, Treme) as Salvor Hardin’s father; Mr. Peters’ warmth and intelligence is a blessing to see in any project, and he’s great in his supporting role here.  Alfred Enoch (who played Dean Thomas in the Harry Potter films, all grown up now!) is terrific and charismatic as Hari Seldon’s son Raych.  I wish he had more to do in the show.  (Raych is a fun character in the later Foundation novels.  I was excited they incorporated him into the show, but bummed that this Raych so little resembles his literary counterpart.  Where is his famous mustache???  And I wish the way he was used in the show wasn’t so dumb.  The whole plot to kill Hari was so silly and overblown.)  Kubbra Sait is very memorable as the Huntress Phara Keaen, who attacks the Foundationers on Terminus.  What a fierce performance!  I also quite liked Daniel MacPherson as the trader Hugo, Salvor’s boyfriend.  Like Raych, though, I wish this character had more of consequence to do on the show.

Did anyone else notice how much the show borrowed from Dune?  The first episode in specific seemed entirely modeled after Dune.  A young character leaves their watery world behind, to go on a spaceship for the first time.  That spaceship folds space (they even used that “folds space” expression from Dune to describe hyperspace travel!) and takes the character to the important new planet that will change their life forever.  Come on, this is Foundation, one of the pillars of original science fiction!!  We don’t need to borrow story elements from other famous science fiction stories!

Again and again it felt to me like the show had all the ingredients for success but somehow fumbled things.  I was delighted that the amazing Battlestar Galactica composer Bear McCreary composed the music for the show!  But I found the music to be less than memorable.  The opening credits sequence was particularly forgettable, with generic imagery and a generic theme.  (I watched the opening every week, hoping the theme would grow on me.  But I can’t for the life of me remember anything of the show’s music, even just a few weeks after finishing watching it.)

I’m bummed that this wound up being a disappointment for me.  With Isaac Asimov’s amazing novels as the source material, this show should have been spectacular.  Oh well.

Click here to purchase my “Maclunkey” Star Wars/Highlander mash-up t-shirt!

Please support by clicking through one of our Amazon links the next time you need to shop!  As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.  That means I’ll receive a small percentage from any product you purchase from Amazon within 24 hours after clicking through.  Thank you!