Apple TV+'s 'Foundation' Is a Shaky Start for a Millennium-Long Story (Review)

The Foundation Season 1 finale premiered on Friday, leaving fans with more questions than ever about where this sci-fi epic is heading. The series is based on the Foundation novels by Isaac Asimov, though now we know it is based more loosely on them than we previously believed. Fair warning: there are spoilers for both the show and the books ahead.

Foundation was not shy about taking creative liberties compared to its source material, and in many ways that seemed like the best course. Asimov's books were like an outline for a great idea – or perhaps several great ideas, none of which were fleshed out to their full potential. In its first few episodes, the TV adaptation seemed to crystalize many of these ideas while adding in more pathos and worldbuilding than ever before, but towards the end of the season, a deluge of new mysteries may have left the show as confused as its predecessor.

Asimov's first Foundation book was more or less a series of vignettes about a secret society dedicated to mitigating the loss of technology and culture during the fall of a great galactic empire, jumping ahead decades at a time to show the slow progression of this work over centuries. Naturally, TV creators David Goyer and Josh Friedman wanted to stretch that material out and make it more palatable to mainstream audiences, so Season 1 only covers the first of these time skips.

The series certainly does not overstay its welcome in these time settings, and it's interesting to see how the TV writers build on the descriptions left by Asimov. However, they do not share the author's sense of congruity regarding technology and economics. One of the first major changes we see is that the Foundation's founder, Hari Seldon (Jared Harris), arranges his own murder, then escapes into at least two computerized versions of his own consciousness. For the entire first season, the other characters don't seem to understand or recognize this technology, which means that Seldon must have developed it himself in private.

It's never explained how Seldon immortalized himself as a computer, or why no one else has done it before. It's not clear what is preventing this AI Seldon from staying in constant contact with his Foundation and enacting his own plans. In the books, Seldon appeared to the Foundation periodically as a pre-recorded hologram to check in on the progress of his projections, but the AI version in the show now has the ability to react to their actions in real-time.

It's also not clear if the Seldon AI is a violation of the empire's moratorium on "robots," which is obviously not as strict here as it was in the books. In the adjacent plot about the Cleon dynasty, we learn that the emperor himself has a secret android companion guiding him through multiple lifetimes. In some ways, this is a promising change since Asimov later connected his Foundation series to his Robot series, but in other ways, it just creates more contradictions that the writers don't seem intent on answering any time soon.

However, Seldon, Cleon (Lee Pace) and the other characters all fall to the background in favor of Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell) and Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey), who take center stage for this season. I loved the additional screentime for Gaal compared to the books, and the way Salvor was changed from a politician to a "warden" on a still-hostile world. I also appreciated seeing both of these characters reimagined as women of color, adding some much-needed diversity to Asimov's rendition.

What I didn't appreciate quite as much was the abundance of time dilating events that allowed both of these characters to live for decades into the enactment of Seldon's plan. The Foundation series is characterized by mortality – characters in the books live brief lives where they must struggle against the tides of entropy and social momentum to maintain the Foundation's dream, and having a few heroes live for centuries seems to blunt the impact of those self-contained vignettes. It also raises questions about lifespans in the empire which, again, the writers do not seem intent upon answering.

It seems likely that Gaal and Salvor were kept alive at the end of Season 1 to found the Second Foundation, which becomes instrumental later in Asimov's books. This makes some sense and I like the idea, if not the execution. The revelation puts me off with how the telepathic powers developed by the Second Foundation are a result of a genetic quirk, rather than intense mathematical discipline bordering on the esoteric. However, I am trying to reserve judgment on these decisions since a second season has been greenlit. Perhaps they will explain further.

The area where I think Foundation will suffer the most, in the long run, is in comparisons to other sci-fi franchises. Asimov's books were groundbreaking in their day, and they were the inspiration behind works like Dune, Star Wars and all that followed. Those successors filled in the gaps that Asimov left, but now the TV show seems to be filling its gaps in turn with many of those same tropes and ideas in a recursive loop.

Unlike the books, Foundation the TV show now has to compete with the Dune movie, the Star Wars megalith and the upcoming Hyperion adaptation just to name a few, and it has clearly borrowed concepts from each of them. The difference is that Foundation's time dilation does not seem as thoroughly calculated as Hyperion's so far, and the implications of a living god-emperor do not seem as well thought out as those in Dune, and so on. These kinds of problems, combined with some of the inconsistencies noted above will not serve it well with either hardcore sci-fi fans or general audiences.

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All in all, it seems like the Foundation TV series already missed its best chance at success: the anthology route. The series could have dedicated an episode, or two, or three – or even a full season to each of the vignettes in Asimov's books. The important thing would have been to leave each character firmly planted in their own time setting and move on, compartmentalizing their story within the broader arc of the Foundation's work. While this might have turned A-list stars like Pace away from the project, it would have better preserved the spirit of the series.

Nonetheless, Foundation Season 1 was a cosmic thrill ride that I was happy to take, and other critics and viewers seem to have enjoyed it even more than me. The entire season is streaming now on Apple TV+, and Apple has renewed the series for another season, which should go into production soon.