First serialised during the Second World War, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels still stand as some of the most influential sci-fi books ever written. Generations of writers and filmmakers were inspired; Frank Herbert famously wrote Dune as a response; whole branches of social science were studied in its name, and when Elon Musk decided to shoot a Tesla into space in 2018 there was only one book he wanted to lock in the glovebox.
Now finally adapted into a 10-part series on Apple TV+ after decades of stalled film attempts, Foundation arrives looking like a late guest at its own party – the grandaddy of grownup sci-fi now shoved into a corner by a dozen younger, fresher imitators. It’s a cruel irony that Denis Villeneuve’s colossal Dune adaptation hits cinemas at practically the same time, but even without the comparisons to bigger and better things Foundation still feels like less than it deserves.
Somewhere on a distant, desolate planet, a humble algae farmer named Gaal Dornick (British newbie Lou Llobell) leaves home to find her fortune in the bright lights of the universe’s capital – a citadel ruled by family of cruel galactic Ceasars headed up by Emperor Day (Lee Pace, Guardians Of The Galaxy). Arriving just as a terrorist plot unsettles the seat of power, Gaal is drawn into the fold of rebel academic Hari Seldon (Jared Harris, Chernobyl, The Crown) – a sort of Obi-Wan guru who wields dangerous theories of mathematical sociology instead of The Force.
Seldon has predicted the crumbling of Day’s galactic empire and has lured Gaal to his side for her kick-ass maths skills, hoping he can convince her to join him on a quest to set up a “foundation” of knowledge at the edge of space – a living library of human civilisation that will help future generations rebuild from the inevitable wreckage.
Written at a time when real empires were colliding, Asimov’s novel asked a lot of new and important questions about what makes a civilisation civil. Refocusing the story to give more screen-time to the power-family ruling the universe, Showrunner David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight, Man Of Steel) does his best to dial up the sci-fi soapiness, hinting at a bigger, broader dynamic that will hopefully smooth out over later seasons. Goyer’s love for the books shines through (and the first season is as much an editing job as a straight adaptation), but the addition of so many obvious plays for the Game Of Thrones crowd leaves us with a solid, serious sci-fi saga riddled with distractions.
Lacking wit or self-awareness, Goyer’s robot future is every bit as cold as you’d expect from a space adventure that’s actually all about algebra. Grand in ambition but rarely in size, it all looks slightly too small-scale even with Apple’s CG budget to play with: the costumes too clean, the makeup too contemporary, the lighting too strong to ever suck you completely into another world.
It doesn’t help that the acting is all over the place. All the show’s weight and worth comes from Harris, a vintage actor who humanises every scene he’s in and who manages to make Pace look even more ridiculous when he starts chewing the scenery as the show’s panto villain. Leah Harvey, Laura Birn and Llobell all do a much better job somewhere between the two extremes, but the tone never stops feeling slightly clumsy.
Ultimately, it’s hard to imagine who the series is really meant for. If you’re a fan of the books you’ll be thrilled to see them finally brought to the screen but you’ll likely spend most of the time niggled by all the changes. And if you’ve never heard of Foundation you’ll probably be surprised by how dry it all feels – a diet space-age Game Of Thrones with less blood and a lot more maths.
Foundation is available to stream on Apple TV+ now