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Apple TV+'s Foundation is like a beautiful sci-fi screensaver

  • "The experience of watching Foundation, the new big-budget science-fiction adaptation premiering (Sept. 24) on Apple TV+, is pretty close to the frictionless pleasure of leaning back and leaving your Apple TV on screensaver mode," says Kathryn VanArendonk of the Isaac Asimov adaptation created by David S. Goyer and Josh Friedman. "It is stunning to look at — arresting, even. It’s a colorful kaleidoscope of alien planets and jewel-tone costumes sliding quickly from one time, one planet, to somewhere totally different (but just as sumptuous). And yes, sure, there’s a story. There are characters. 'Things' definitely do 'happen.' But Isaac Asimov’s original novel is usually described as 'unfilmable' because it’s primarily focused on individual action as a necessary, but not especially interesting, conduit for the thing it actually cares about: sweeping social collapse and reconstruction. Foundation the series tries to resist that, to fight its source text’s structure by creating characters and almost defiantly plunking them down in those beautiful galactic spaces. It is possible to watch Foundation for those characters, and to care about what happens to them...It works, a bit. As the evil emperor, Lee Pace makes an excellent figurehead. He plays it so utterly straight, just seething cold fury in a goofy, bright-blue breastplate-chin-guard thing, and it’s not hard to buy Brother Day’s stern emptiness. Likewise, Jared Harris leans into the wise enigmatic visionary thing, and because he’s Jared Harris, no one will be surprised when things don’t turn out all that well for Hari Seldon. In individual scenes, characters like Dornick and Hardin work, too. Briefly, you get looped into their motivations, the people they have crushes on, the goals they’re striving for. But Foundation, by design, does not let you stay in those scenes for long. Stories glide across decades too quickly. Characters get shuttled off into stasis pods and hang out at the edges of the universe, apparently lost forever, until inevitably it turns out they are just fine, actually: How are you? And what’s happened in the last 40 years?"


    • It's thrilling watching Foundation embrace a dense trilogy: "The first few episodes of the new Apple TV+ series Foundation are a mesmerizing prologue," says Steve Greene. "Sprawling, shimmering, and meditative, they set into motion a centuries-spanning tale of individuals from divergent walks of life, all trying to master their own fate. There’s the mathematician Hari Seldon (Jared Harris), whose complex behavioral models may hold the key to understanding the future. There are the leaders on the ruling capital city-planet Trantor, governing an empire of trillions as a triad, made from the same genetic material as their single ancestor — through various incarnations they are represented as Dawn (played at different ages by Cooper Carter and Cassian Bilton), Day (Lee Pace), and Dusk (Terrence Mann). There’s the would-be Seldon protege Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell), who forsakes the pious, orthodox ways of her home planet for a life spent in pursuit of science. And on a distant world, there’s Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey), introduced as a legend in the making, though her history isn’t yet written. All of these ideas are introduced in tantalizing fashion. Jumping around in a near-abstract disregard for chronology, Foundation flowers as the same kind of collected-works reality that characterizes the wide-reaching Isaac Asimov book series the show draws from. It’s thrilling to see a show embrace that approach to source material so dense, creating a kind of anthology in miniature. In that early going, showrunner David S. Goyer and co-writer/co-creator Josh Friedman create a sense that these plotlines are all of a piece, but not beholden to each other. Piecing together the scale and implications of events in each fragment of the whole is, in this case, a satisfying way to be dropped into a universe of vibrant detail, even in the more barren landscapes at the outer reaches of the empire."
    • Foundation the TV series is not Foundation the book series: "Despite its fame, because the series is an epic on a galactic level told over the course of 500 years or so, with dozens of characters, conflicts, and stories, no one’s figured out how to bring Foundation into live-action," says Rob Bricken. "Apple TV+’s new Foundation series hasn’t figured it out either. Foundation the TV series is not Foundation the book series. There are a few bones of the original story in there, sure, including the premise. Mathematician/psychologist Hari Seldon (Jared Harris) creates the field of psychohistory, in which the future can be pathetically predicted—not for individuals, but humanity in general—and has discovered the horrifying truth that the 12,000-year-old Galactic Empire is going to fall, beginning a new dark age that will last 30,000 years. It can’t be stopped, but it can be reduced to a mere millennium by creating a repository of human knowledge to become the foundation of a new civilization. It’s an astoundingly great premise that could never be served in a movie, and a TV adaptation was never going to be easy. The first Foundation book alone is made up of five separate novellas that have no characters in common, and take place over 150 years. Very, very few of those characters are developed because we spend so little time with them. They’re not the story—the Foundation is, and how it develops over time."
    • Foundation is the latest sci-fi series that isn't friendly to newbies: "Foundation patches together a dizzying number of characters, ideas and threads of backstory from throughout Asimov’s books, plus plenty of new additions from executive producer and showrunner David S. Goyer (Batman Begins), to create a frustratingly convoluted opening hour," says Judy Berman. "Along with Hari introducing the still-disoriented Gaal to the magical world of psychohistory, we find the Cleon triad sniffing out traitors from rogue worlds after a terrorist bombing kills millions. Then there are the flash-forwards to Terminus decades in the future, where we meet an entirely different cast of characters led by the young warden Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey) and where an ominous monolith of unknown origin hangs in the sky surrounded by a forcefield that immobilizes anyone who approaches the object. (Does a show even qualify as a genre epic anymore if there aren’t multiple timelines introduced in the very first episode?) This would be a lot of information for Asimov newcomers to process even if the scripts weren’t also dense with tidbits of exposition, worldbuilding and high-level concepts both scientific and philosophical. Like most recent genre adaptations—Y: The Last Man, The Witcher, Shadow and BoneFoundation greets existing fans of the franchise with a smorgasbord of familiar characters and settings. That’s nice for a cohort of viewers that’s sure to be outspoken with its feedback, but it does a disservice to anyone who’s unwilling to do hours of homework just to follow the plot of a TV show. In the aftermath of Game of Thrones (which had a remarkably focused pilot), and especially since Disney+ introduced its Marvel and Star Wars series, TV’s genre adaptations have felt more like supplemental material than like standalone narratives."
    • Foundation is stunning to look at, but ultimately cold and sterile: "Despite the cast and crew’s best efforts — and what appears to be an unlimited budget, even by Apple’s lavish standards — this Foundation remains an assemblage of concepts in search of a compelling TV show," says Alan Sepinwall, adding: "Part of the problem comes from the basic premise Asimov introduced circa World War II. While psycho-history can predict human behavior on a macro scale, it’s not particularly useful with the micro. So Gaal, Salvor, and other Foundation members are operating in something of an information vacuum, unsure of exactly what they should be doing, and why. This sense of people fumbling around in the darkness hamstrings a lot of the attempts at character development, and various romantic entanglements — Gaal with Hari’s other top student, Rayche (Alfred Enoch), or Salvor with Han Solo-ish trader Hugo (Daniel MacPherson) — feel obligatory. Pace and Mann are both very good in their various bits of entitlement and thunderous rage, even as the two actors essentially keep swapping roles as the years pass. But Pace deserves better than having to elevate yet another underwritten part in an expensive genre production (see also Guardians of the Galaxy) where he wears impressive robes."
    • It's hard not to notice how expensive Foundation looks: "If you've ever wondered where all that iPhone money went, just watch Foundation," says Adam Rosenberg. "First impressions may not be everything, but they do matter. This new Apple TV+ series, a reimaging of an Isaac Asimov classic, makes a pretty simple and straightforward one: Holy cats, this show is expensive. It's not even just the eye-popping visual effects, though they're plenty impressive too. Every scene is beautifully staged, lit, and shot. Costumes and props are immaculately designed. This show is polished. It's not TV and it's also not HBO, but Foundation's very existence seems to embody the spirit of the reigning cable network's most memorable and effective marketing slogan. Apple tried to crack it first with a star-studded cast in The Morning Show, which premiered alongside Apple TV+. This new attempt leans more on visual razzle dazzle and an epic scope to set up what turns out to be a riveting story. That should sound familiar to the HBO squad: Foundation is space Game of Thrones."
    • Foundation is a beautiful mess: "The show doesn’t immediately drown you in world building as it launches into its prime directive preamble (the sea of sci-fi lingo and canonical mumbo jumbo comes later)," says Brandon Katz. "Yet the premiere, 'The Emperor’s Peace,' is downloading a lot of information to the viewer in a bloated 68-minute debut. Over the eight episodes provided to critics it unfurls a millennia worth of story. But unfortunately, that story is dropped on us like an overstuffed trash bag down a garbage chute. Foundation, with its galactic empire, fantastical worlds, and lightyear-spanning politics, is meant to be thought-provoking, awe-inspiring, and inspirational. A divide in class, generation, and distance at a scale heretofore unknown; a revolution against inter-planetary tyranny. Various cultures and societies clashing, collaborating, and continuing cyclical patterns for eons. Yet the show’s starry-eyed ambitions are dulled by its execution. Its scattered focus stalls momentum by introducing and discarding characters like a wad of receipts found in your back pocket after a night on the town."
    • Foundation is a sharp remix of Isaac Asimov that is at its best when it feels original: “Foundation isn’t TV’s first stab at adapting a dense, beloved book series to the screen, and it won’t be the last," says Caroline Framke. "But in taking on Isaac Asimov’s seminal works of science fiction, the new Apple TV Plus drama does, at least, do something rather unusual for adaptations. Instead of doing its best to faithfully recreate its source material’s most iconic characters and storylines, David S. Goyer’s Foundation uses Asimov’s texts as inspiration for a markedly different version (and one that, it must be said, uses Apple’s significant budget to frequently dazzling effect). Remixing Asimov’s characters, settings and themes into something more timely and fitting for television versus the page, this iteration of Foundation thrives most when becoming something all its own."
    • Foundation is dazzling to look at and confusing to follow: "The 10-episode first season looks appropriately epic but struggles to tame a centuries-spanning, complex plot that feels lost in space -- dazzling to look at and confounding to follow," says Brian Lowry. "The sweeping nature of the narrative has invited comparisons to other adaptations of literary epics, among them Dune and Game of Thrones. Yet Foundation, for better and mostly worse, feels very much like its own unique challenge, and doesn't in this form conjure the sort of characters that the latter did to draw viewers, providing a rickety foundation in terms of becoming invested in this elaborate fantasy world."
    • Foundation may be compelling to Asimov and sci-fans, but not casual fans: "Was (the adaptation) worth it? Well, it depends," says Ben Lindbergh. "If you’re a Foundation fan who was hoping the series would someday reach the screen in a fashion that wouldn’t terribly besmirch the books, yes. If you’re a sci-fi fan in search of a spectacle that looks like it cost a billion bucks, by all means. If you’re an Apple TV+ executive banking on Foundation being Apple’s answer to [insert storied and expensive IP here], that’s a good deal more in doubt. Then again, the typical TV viewer doesn’t decide whether to sample a series based on whether a tech giant with infinite funds will recoup its costs. For most who are wondering whether to watch, here’s the headline: Foundation turned out to be a better series than anyone could have expected from the sixth (at least) attempt to tell Isaac Asimov’s signature story on-screen. But it does bear some noticeable stretch marks from the necessary reshaping it took to structure the story in a way that was fit for TV."
    • Foundation was supposed to be tedious, but not this dull: "The blending of location cinematography, ambitious sets and computer-augmented imagery in Foundation is pause-your-TV-to-contemplate-the-visuals gorgeous, possibly as well mounted a space opera as I’ve seen on TV," says Daniel Fienberg. "It’s at least as fulfillingly epic and expensive as the genre can get on the small screen, keeping in mind that something like the Battlestar Galactica remake achieved much of its visceral impact from how it worked around its budgetary limitations. Foundation has no evident limitations of any kind, yet no real visceral impact for the most part, because it’s almost stultifyingly dull, especially in its middle episodes. Perhaps the most amusing aspect of the Foundation tedium is that, given its source material, the show is supposed to be dry and wonky. Asimov based the various Foundation novels and stories conceptually around Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Especially in the early going, those stories are mostly a series of conversations about economics, sociology and predictions about the future through a branch of mathematic called psychohistory, all stretching over decades. Were that the level on which the small-screen Foundation is tedious, fans would probably be giddy, and plenty of neophytes would just seek out a more action-driven science-fiction franchise."
    • Foundation feels too cold and alienating, making it hard for viewers to connect with any characters: "Its world-building is dense and often incomprehensible, with characters rattling off names of warring planets, history, and schmience without stopping to let any of it sink in," says Chancellor Agard. "I lost track of the number of times I had to rewind a scene to figure out what the hell was going on. Sure, there's something commendable about Foundation refusing to hold the audience's hand and essentially throwing them into deep space without a tether (no one loves repetitive exposition dumps), but the series takes that inclination too far and ends up feeling rather cold and alienating — and no number of time jumps, undercooked romances, or pricey special effects will fix that. Ultimately, it's pretty hard to care about what's happening, which, honestly, shouldn't be the case because the show's central problem — will humanity take the necessary steps to prevent a looming calamity? — is pretty relatable, given our real-world issue of climate change. By keeping the audience at arm's length, Foundation also makes it that much harder to connect with any of the characters, despite some solid performances from the entire cast."
    • Foundation takes itself very seriously and feels that it has Much To Say at all times: "Which it undoubtedly does: about the corrupting nature of power, the inevitability of imperial decay (a favourite subject of Asimov after he read Gibbons’ History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire), and humanity’s unwillingness to face unpalatable truths even in order to mitigate them," says Lucy Mangan. "However, the constant showcasing of this fact has a rather deadening effect. Everyone is earnest and burdened. Everyone stands for all things at all times. Happiness is fleeting. There is no smiling in the future (though there are some terrible voiceovers and some decidedly ropey acting at points). This is especially true by the end of episode two, with its unexpected twist. As a new sci-fi show, it would be fine. As a big-budget, flagship production for Apple it looks like a fine opportunity wasted."
    • Something about this very expensive project got away from its creators, but there’s a lot to like here: "It’s a strong cast throughout (including Clarke Peters of The Wire and Alfred Enoch of How to Get Away with Murder) and unlike so much science fiction, Black people and other people of color fully exist in this galaxy," says Nina Metz. "It’s thrilling to see to Black women anchor the narrative (even if Gaal disappears for long stretches) but they also bear the disproportionate burden of saving everyone. It’s complicated (especially when you think about how this plays out in real-world activist circles) and I wish the show had found a way to consider what that means. Then again, racism doesn’t exist in the narrative, even if tensions between other planetary ethnicities do. Despite a deep bench of acting talent (including Lee Pace, who heads up the trio of clone brother emperors) the writing itself lets them down time and again. Not one line of dialogue grabbed my ear as clever or memorable. Very few distinct personalities pop out. Characters are introduced only to be killed an episode or three later, but they’re rarely developed enough for it to matter. Visually the show is indistinct, although there’s a lot of really great outerwear courtesy of the costume design team known simply as Kurt & Bart; I’m a big fan of the Warden’s motocross-inspired gear. You’re left to admire the things that work in this 10-episode season and squint at so much that doesn’t."
    • Foundation works because of Jared Harris: "The main hurdle for the new series is buy-in," says Miles Surrey. "For Foundation to really click, Hari Seldon needs to pop off the screen—he is, after all, trying to convince an entire galaxy and its egomaniac emperor of their imminent doom using mathematical concepts that barely anyone understands. Thankfully, they have the right man for the task—someone who has a commanding presence over a room, even when discussing the driest possible subject matter. That would be Jared Harris, an actor who just a couple of years ago delivered a riveting monologue in the finale of HBO’s acclaimed miniseries Chernobyl in which his character explained how a nuclear reactor works with a bunch of red and blue placards in a courtroom."
    • If you can handle the million different houses of Game of Thrones you can handle Foundation: "There's a lot to enjoy in Foundation," says Richard Trenholm. "It looks great, for a start, with obvious thought put into differentiating itself from the familiar conventions of the sci-fi genre. The space travel, for example, is lengthy and dangerous and looks very different from the whooshing stars of Star Wars and Star Trek. Foundation is also pleasingly more colorful than most post-Thrones sci-fi -- well, compared with the monochromatic gray 'n' beige Dune, anyway. From its glitter-bomb opening titles to bold stripes of color across decor and costumes, to elegant starships framing glittering worlds, to atmospheric glowing lighting in every scene, Foundation is frequently a treat to look at."
    • Foundation plays like the work of Isaac Asimov as filtered through the last couple of decades of prestige TV and, ultimately, that ends up working out pretty well: "Foundation does come with a fairly steep learning curve, however," says Keith Phipps. "The opening episodes unfold across a whole generation of future history while introducing a galaxy's worth of cultures and concepts and setting the stage for season-spanning storylines. It's a lot to take in, the sort of show in which it's easy to imagine Martin Starr's Party Down character, an aspiring screenwriter who boasted of specializing in 'hard sci-fi,' working on. But there's a softer side to it, too, one that focuses on the characters living in the Foundation universe and not just the ideas they embody. By the middle of this first season it feels like Foundation has figured out how to balance those two sides. It benefits from strong casting from the start, however...It's also an amazing-looking show filled with images seemingly pulled from the front covers of classic science fiction novels and elaborate bits of world building of the sort that wouldn't be possible without a great deal of imagination. And, it should be added, a great deal of money. Apple has clearly gone all-in on Foundation. It's analogous in scope and production values to Game of Thrones, taking place in multiple distinct locations that look like fully realized worlds."
    • Foundation benefits from Asimov's influence on so much sci-fi: "Good acting, realistic special effects and coherent storytelling go a long way in science fiction," says Carla Meyer. "If any of these elements goes missing, disbelief quickly takes over. Foundation, a 10-episode Apple TV+ series based on Isaac Asimov’s books, nails these essentials so well that it’s not until midway through the series that you realize nothing is actually happening. Before that, we’re caught up in a story that’s easy to follow, because it reflects other sci-fi shows and movies and, to a degree, present-day real life. Premiering with two episodes on Friday, Sept. 24, this series created by Batman Begins screenwriter David S. Goyer is the first adaptation of Asimov’s Foundation series — which he began in 1942 — to reach the screen, after other attempts failed to materialize. But Asimov’s influence permeates so much of the larger sci-fi screen canon — most notably Star Wars — that much of the series seems familiar, in ways that comfort rather than frustrate."
    • Foundation is a smashing success in storytelling: "This series respects Asimov's sweeping visionary ideas without lapsing into slavish reverence and over-pontification," says Jennifer Oullette. "That said, how much you like Goyer's vision might depend on how much of a stickler you are about remaining faithful to the source material." She adds: "In short, this is a terrific first ten episodes—Goyer envisions some 80 episodes, should Apple TV+ give him the chance—with no maddening cliffhanger. The finale resolves several plot lines and sets up a few others, leaving viewers both satisfied and eager for more. I think Asimov himself would be pleased with Foundation, particularly since his daughter Robyn is an executive producer on the series and signed off on Goyer's vision."
    • Foundation co-creator David S. Goyer wanted diversity behind and in front of the camera to reflect today's world: The majority of his writers' room was made of women and minorities, as well as writers of different sexualities: “I was conscious of the fact that there were a lot of people that were underrepresented in a lot of these sort of seminal works,” he explains. “I knew that I wanted this show to break through not just the hardcore fans, but to everyone — the people that haven’t read the books, the people that aren’t fans of science fiction. So that was the first decision I made.” Goyer adds: “I just said, ‘I want us to get into it and debate, and I want the show to reflect the audience of today."
    • Goyer consulted the Asimov estate as he made changes for his TV adaptation: “Whenever I’m adapting something, I read it again or watch it again, and I try to write down what I think the core ideas are, the essential ingredients,” he says. “In this case, because Asimov wasn’t alive, I was talking to his estate, to his daughter, and I said, I want to make sure that I’ve identified the core ingredients that make Foundation, Foundation. Fortunately, they said, yeah, we feel like you’ve zeroed in on the most important elements. And because we’re adapting it now, over 70 years after Asimov first wrote it—you know, it was a metaphorical story back in the post-World War II environment—some of the events, some of the things that we’re interrogating, we’re going to have to change because we’re speaking to an audience of today and not an audience post-World War II.” The first big, important change: diversifying the characters. “Because there are virtually no female characters in the first book, I said to the Asimov estate, ‘How would you how would you feel if we gender-flipped a couple of the characters?’ And they said, ‘We love it. We think Asimov himself would have completely embraced that,’” Goyer says.
    • Why Jared Harris was the first choice to star in Foundation: Harris' Hari Seldon is a tricky part to write and even trickier to act because he's a mercurial and remote mastermind, seen mostly through others’ eyes. “By his very nature, Hari has to remain elusive,” says Goyer, calling him the story's “emotional and intellectual glue.” Harris was also able to make Hari feel like a real person. For his part, Harris says he looks for projects where the writing is good, and where the creative team is open to collaboration. “I always ask that question of the person when I’m talking to them, in the early stages of whether I’m going to come on board or not,” he says. “What kind of a relationship do they want with the actor?” Harris describes the way he works with writers and directors as “developing how you’re going to arrive at where they want their story to arrive at.” “You’re not changing the story,” says Harris. “But you might be coming up with different routes in.”

    TOPICS: Foundation, Apple TV+, David S. Goyer, Isaac Asimov, Jared Harris, Josh Friedman