(Foundation premiers today on the Apple TV+ streaming service. All ten episodes of the first season were made available for screening.)
When director Alex Proyas’s (very) loose adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s classic “Robot” short stories, I,Robot, was released in theaters, I snarkily reviewed it by saying “Any resemblance to the works of Isaac Asimov is strictly coincidental.” But actually, adapting Asimov is hard. Proyas took some concepts from the author’s stories and tried to mold them into an action film, but it was a mix that did not gel well. Asimov’s stories more often play with concepts rather than being plot heavy affairs. Finding a way to bring them to life outside of prose can be difficult given the demands of the television and film mediums.
Which brings us to Apple TV+’s Foundation, an adaptation of Asimov’s sprawling, multi-volume tale of the decline and fall of a Galactic Empire and the academics who huddled on a small planet on the edge of the galaxy, preserving the knowledge needed to rebuild civilization. It is a series that Hollywood has been pursuing for an adaptation since the 1980s. Periodic announcements would proclaim a new studio and/or creative team were going to take a wack at it, time would pass and then another announcement with a whole new studio and/or creative team would be announced. Wash, rinse, repeat.
That is until writer/producer David Goyer convinced the folks at Apple TV+ that he cracked somehow has cracked the code of Asimov’s sprawling story. Goyer has a long history with adapting genre material – Some good (Blade, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy) and some not so good (Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Superman V Batman: Dawn Of Justice) – so it is understandable if one were to approach the ten episodes of the show’s first season wondering which Goyer one was going to get.
The show opens, without a doubt, by capturing the grandeur of a great empire at its height, with just a hint of griminess around the edges to let you now it is teetering, ready to topple. The design work in realizing the capitol world of Trantor, the water-covered planet one character originates from and a myriad of the other worlds and technologies we see is some of the most imaginative seen in some time. Although the Empire is entirely made up of humans – for some reason Asimov never introduced alien races into his stories – the show clearly delineates a number of different cultures and religions that make up the worlds of the Empire.
Mathematician Hari Seldon (Jared Harris) has seen in the coming fall of the Galactic Empire thanks to his development of a new field of math that he has developed called psychohistory. Needless to say, Emperor Cleon (Lee Pace) is not eager to have the public hear of Seldon’s theories, but Seldon, along with his new protege Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell), convince him to allow Seldon to establish a small research outpost where the knowledge of the galaxy would be collected, stored and then used to shrink the time it would take civilization to recover from the fall of the Empire from 30,000 years down to a single millennium.
But is Foundation a good adaptation of the source material? That all depends on what you are looking for.
If you are an Asimov purist, there are definitely some things you are going to balk at. A couple of characters from the source material meet markedly different fates than what the author laid out for them in prose. And as the first season unfolds, these changes compound moving the series further away from the source material text with each new episode. Ultimately, we see the broad strokes of Asimov’s story in the series, but the more intricate brushstrokes of his writings become vastly different here under Goyer’s adaptation.
And this gets to the heart of the issues trying to adapt something with such literary roots. The original Foundation stories span over 500 years, more, if you factor in some of Asimov’s other works that he incorporated into the Foundation universe as time went by. Goyer and company are only covering material found in the initial book of the series, which was composed of five novellas stretching across about a century and half’s worth of time. Even then, they have only gotten through roughly half that first book. That’s not a lot of story to stretch out across ten hours of television. Goyer and his writing team expand that with new characters and relationships.
Even then, that still means that there is a time jump at one point in the season. And since some connective tissue needs to be established to connect those two time periods, Goyer finds ways to carry some characters over that space. One method – having the Emperor Cleon be a series of perfect clones of the original Emperor thought to serve as a way for the Empire to maintain a certain continuity – is an idea that works well. The clones represent not the preserving of the Empire as intended, but its stagnation. It also allows us a character with a long view of galactic history. Another piece of connective tissue – the Emperor’s confident and major domo Demerzel (Laura Birn) may have a name familiar to readers of the Foundation books, but the character here behaves in ways much different.
Now it should be noted that none of this really done badly. And many of these changes are necessary for an adaptation of the material to work as a continuing television series. And Goyer has found success with a bit of a space-bound Game Of Thrones style story interpreted out of Asimov’s stories rather than slavishly adapting his writings chapter and verse. And while many, myself included, may decide that this is another case where “Any semblance to the original source material is strictly coincidental,” it doesn’t mean that Foundation doesn’t succeed on its own merits by playing fast and loose with its inspiration.