'Foundation' Wants to Be 'Game of Thrones' in Space and Almost Takes the Crown Created by David S. Goyer and Josh Friedman
Starring Jared Harris, Lee Pace, Lou Llobell, Leah Harvey, Laura Birn, Terrence Mann, Cassian Bilton
Published Oct 29, 2021In the wake left by Game of Thrones, all the big streaming services seem to be on the hunt for the next big fantasy epic. Amazon Prime is all in on adaptations of The Wheel of Time and The Lord of the Rings, Netflix has fully committed to The Witcher with promising results, and HBO is doubling down on what already worked with a slew of Game of Thrones prequels and peripheral in-universe ventures. Curiously, however, Apple TV+ has skewed in a different direction, choosing to hedge their bets on sci-fi over fantasy, with a slate of programming that includes Ronald D. Moore's For All Mankind, Steven Spielberg's Amazing Stories, and Foundation.
Set in the waning days of a future Galactic Empire, mathematician Hari Seldon (Jared Harris) has developed and perfected "psychohistory": a cutting-edge branch of mathematical sociology that can predict the future of large populations. Seldon's dire projections detail the coming fall of the Empire and a Dark Age that will last 30,000 years, spanning the entire breadth of the Milky Way galaxy. Immediately branded a heretic and threatened with execution, Seldon manages to convince the Empire and its triumvirate leadership of genetic clone Emperors (Lee Pace, Terrence Mann, Cassian Bilton) to allow the creation of the Foundation: a distant colony to be established in the galaxy's Outer Reaches on the planet Terminus, in the interests of preserving and maintaining humanity's knowledge should Seldon's prophesied collapse eventually happen.
The series then follows Seldon's journey across the galaxy alongside self-taught protégée and formerly religious ex-pat Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell), plus Warden of Terminus Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey), who has a strange connection to the planet's mysterious Vault. We also witness the beginnings of the Empire's downfall, as the Emperors desperately struggle to maintain power and relevance through outright violence and shadow diplomacy, overseen by their seemingly benevolent aid, Eto Demerzel (Laura Birn), one of the last surviving androids from the ancient Robot Wars.
With Amazon putting an end to The Expanse (easily the best sci-fi series of the last decade) after its soon-to-air sixth season, fans of world-hopping, star-filled space operas that aren't part of well-worn properties like Star Trek or Star Wars will need a new home, and Apple are banking on Foundation to fill that starry void. Given that the original source material for the series comes from a collection of stories published by sci-fi pioneer Isaac Asimov during the '40s and '50s, there are definitely some liberties to be taken in adapting the story for screen.
Developed by David S. Goyer and Josh Friedman, Foundation goes big right out of the gate. In the series pilot, we follow Dornick as she travels from her repressive home world of Synnax to the galactic capital of Trantor, a gigantic planet-wide city that's almost certainly the precursor to George Lucas's vision of Coruscant. Here, she's welcomed by Seldon in the grand halls of Trantor's university before they immediately run afoul of the Cleon Emperors — brothers Dawn, Dusk, and Day — identical clones of different ages, who sit on immense golden thrones in an opulent palace, cutting Romanic figures in blue tunics as they govern by universal decree. In one of the show's most nailbiting moments, the orbital "Starbridge," Trantor's towering space elevator, is brought down swiftly by a terrorist attack from feuding Outer Reach kingdoms (all foretold by Seldon's psychohistory, of course), which falls back down to the surface, wrapping a trail of destruction around the planet and killing hundreds of millions of innocent civilians. With such a strong narrative start, solid performances, and impeccable special effects and production design, the episode looks expensive as hell and primes the viewer for a series that brings to life a fully-realized galactic scope with ample helpings of sci-fi spectacle.
Unfortunately, things get shaky soon after. One of the primary issues with Asimov's original material concerns format and delivery. Published as individual short stories and then collected together as novels, the Foundation series mostly featured characters sitting around talking, rehashing plot points and extraneous world-building elements, while most of the real action occurred off-page, only to be revealed through tedious exposition. Of course, this does not good TV make, so Goyer and company have wisely injected new plot lines and characters to pump up the story.
Where the story falters, however, is in the setting of Terminus and the establishment of the titular Foundation. The story necessitates considerable time jumps for several reasons, so the show's writers have concocted several plot contrivances to make this seem plausible within the story, while also keeping their primary cast of actors on retainer for an entire season. Motivations change on a whim and characters charge headfirst into scenarios that are clearly traps in waiting because, well, the plot demands it.
Additionally, the main crutch of using something like psychohistory as a driving theme evaporates narrative tension. After all, if things were always destined to fall apart, then what can our characters do to prevent it? This results in some clunky dialogue exchanges and evocations of faith and destiny that don't necessarily ring true in the moment.
Relative newcomers Loubell and Harvey both give admirable — albeit awkward — performances as Dornick and Hardin, respectively, with the former using a strangely misplaced New Zealand accent for some reason and the latter often resorting to intense over-acting to sell the smallest of emotional beats. Meanwhile, ideas of destiny, deception and determinism motivate the various political plot lines on Trantor, as the Cleon Emperors wrestle with time and legacy, brooding on their position as paradoxically more and less than fully human. Episodes focus on religious rites of passages, questions of the soul and the efficacy of power wielded across the stars, with captivating performances from Pace and Birn that make for the show's most compelling moments.
While it's clear that Foundation wants to be Game of Thrones in space, it has work to do before it's able to take that crown. There's fascinating world-building going on and the show's production design is second to none. If Foundation can successfully overcome the hurdle of telling Asimov's original story across what accounts to thousands of years of in-universe history, then it might just become the epic it so desperately wants to be. (Apple)