After months of waiting, Foundation episodes 1 and 2 finally dropped on Apple TV+. Friday evening we sat down as a family to watch, minus my daughter, who we packed off to bed. Having read the books (albeit years ago), I was already hesitant about the effort to turn what I’ve always assumed to be an unfilmable series into a production spanning as much as 8 seasons. So far, my suspicions are holding up, and after two episodes the show has failed to grab me.
But first, why do I (and many others) think Foundation is unfilmable, at least in its original form? The original books weren’t particularly long (averaging about 70k words each), which is less than the first Harry Potter book. Where Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone spanned a single academic year, Foundation and its two original sequels spanned centuries. The story arcs are little more than vignettes (they were originally written and published as short stories) separated by decades and centuries, loosely connected by the themes of politics, psychology and extrapolative history. The original is also a product of its day; where women are largely omitted from the text or relegated to domestic insignificance, diversity as we would understand it is absent, and romantic relationships are likewise conspicuously non-existent.
To make Foundation filmable in the context of a modern television production, all those aspects must be addressed. Changing the original text is always problematic (i.e. Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings), but doubly so when the original gives you so little to work with, and what’s added creates more problems than it solves.
I’ll try to omit spoilers, but I won’t lie, a lot has changed. Characters have been rewritten, renamed, and gender-flipped. Plot points have been altered, moved, omitted and a great many threads have been added that left me feeling more confused than entertained.
Admittedly, most material added was sourced from the Prelude to Foundation, which Asimov started writing forty years after the original trilogy was published. Those are different books, in both tone and scope, and I’m yet to be convinced if the mashup — which was intended to flesh out the backstory — works in creating a cohesive narrative unit.
Structural changes aside, this production sets a very different tone to the original, and it’s clear the showrunner has prioritised different means to tell the story than Asimov once did. Where Asimov was a writer of hard sci-fi — Apple’s Foundation feels more like fantasy and space-opera, where science and high technology feel more like magic and is used as a plot device.
Yes, it pays frequent lip service to the ‘math’ vs individual human agency, but much of the meat is left off the table. Admittedly, dialogues about Hari Seldon’s statistical-based future-historical modelled probably wouldn’t make good television. Another key difference is the handling of Seldon, or more precisely his followers, who are depicted more like a cult blindly following a messiah who barely understands his message. Taking science on faith is an interesting trope, but I always got the sense from the books that Asimov, as an atheist living in a country dominated by religiosity, meant the Foundation to be different things. Still, I like the tension it’s created in the show.
And Foundation is all about tension, and that’s good — tension and conflict are what drives the story. But in Apple’s Foundation, the tension is less about science and politics, as it is about the personal and familial.
Yes, like Game of Thrones, and the reimagined Battlestar Galactic before it, this production of Foundation is a soap opera distinguished by its setting, scope, and with a little less sex than you get on an HBO and Netflix show. There’s a far greater emphasis on personal and romantic relationships, sexual tension, and family dynamics, which Asimov himself admitted was not his forte as a writer and a man who “didn't know anything about girls”. So, with this dynamic missing from the original, it’s been added by the show’s writers to make it more palatable to modern viewers.
The changes confused me, and I’ve read the books. My sons were completely bewildered, and I can’t help but think the production is currently unapproachable to both those who have read the books and those who have not. The old and new material just isn’t cohesive, and the story threads and character arcs just aren’t well interwoven and feel forced. It is early days, and similar criticism defined the first few episodes of Game of Thrones, to which many reviewers are already drawing parallels. But where GoT’s sins were that of omission (and a living author who’s lost interest and control of his franchise), Foundation’s sin is bolting so many moving parts it no longer resembles what it once was.
To end on a positive note, what I can’t fault is the production itself. Visually, Foundation is spectacular — the sets, costumes, diversity, visual effects, all serve to create a very convincing picture of a galactic empire simultaneous at the pinnacle of human achievement, yet stagnating under centuries of unchanging authoritarian rule. It’s also very well cast and acted, with solid performances from Lou Llobell, Lee Pace, Jared Harris, and Terrence Mann to name the standouts that most captured my interest.
Foundation shows promise, despite its obvious flaws. The scope of the story is vast, but it already feels like it could collapse under all the weight added to the fragile bones of the original. And don’t get me wrong, these are things the writers needed to add, but for old readers and newcomers to Asimov’s universe, I just don’t think it’s been done well enough to sustain the rumoured 80-show run that’s planned.
I’ll persist with a few more episodes, and hopefully, I’m proved wrong.