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Foundation Review: Apple's Sci-Fi Series Guns for Game of Thrones in Space

This could be the hit Apple TV+ is waiting for

Keith Phipps

Isaac Asimov would have had an astoundingly prolific writing career even if he never published a word of science fiction. A man of many interests, Asimov wrote books devoted to popular science, Shakespeare, the Bible, history, and seemingly every other topic that caught his interest, including an autobiography that stretched to three volumes. But it's science fiction for which he's best known, particularly his stories of human-like robots that shaped the way the world understood artificial intelligence before it even had a name, and his Foundation books, stories of a far-off future where an empire's decline and fall threatens to throw the universe into chaos and only the work of a scientific genius stands on guard against the ruin.

They're stories that match Asimov's free-ranging interest in, well, everything, making heroes of a group of "Encylopedists" who work to compile the sum of human knowledge in an Encyclopedia Galactica. Asimov's Foundation books used the broadest possible canvas -- nothing less than the whole universe -- to tell a story of how knowledge could triumph over ignorance. Specifically, it made a central figure of a scientist named Hari Seldon, a pioneer of "psychohistory," a science whose ability to predict the behavior of large populaces doubled as a kind of prophecy. With the Foundation, the society built by the Encyclopedists, Seldon sought not to avoid but shorten a coming dark age, a story that plays out in both the original three novels published in the early 1950s and in sequels and prequels written years later.

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Daunting in scope alone, this heady material has long been ensconced in the science fiction canon but understandably proven difficult to adapt. Foundation, an ambitious new series for Apple TV+, seems determined to make both the scope and the headiness work in its favor. Created by David S. Goyer and Josh Friedman, with Goyer serving as showrunner, Foundation only loosely draws on Asimov's source material for its plot but leans heavily on its themes and concepts while adding the action and sensuality for which Asimov's novels never have much use. (It's hard to build a show around stories of sexless space math.)

It plays very much like the work of 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. 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.

Leah Harvey, Foundation

Leah Harvey, Foundation

Apple TV+

It benefits from strong casting from the start, however. Jared Harris stars as Seldon, a man of tremendous intellect with an ego to match. He finds an intellectual companion in Gaal (Lou Llobell), a prodigy from a far-off world that views science with fervent doubt who comes to Seldon's attention after she solves a seemingly impossible math problem. Their partnership doesn't last long, however. The Galactic Empire views Seldon with tremendous suspicion and has plenty of reasons to fear change. Ruled by a succession of clones who coexist beside one another as a triumvirate at various stage of life -- the aged Brother Dusk (Terrence Mann), the adult Brother Day (Lee Pace), and the young Brother Dawn (played most significantly in his teenage years in later episodes by Cassian Bilton) -- it attempts to impose order with an iron will and a commitment to tradition. It would view Seldon as a threat even if he didn't predict an impending fall. To minimize Seldon's influence and avoid making a martyr of him, they exile him and his followers to the far reaches of a barren world known as Terminus.

That's part of the story told by these early episodes. The other part takes place over thirty years later on Terminus, where a mysterious diamond-shaped object floating just off the ground keeps those who approach it from growing too close and the colony's savvy warden Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey) tries to maintain order when a group of hostile outsiders threaten Terminus' well being. But wait. There's more, including the last surviving intelligent robot -- the centuries old Eto (Laura Birn) who's sworn allegiance to the Empire and whose known every incarnation of its emperors -- terrorism, and internecine religious conflicts. It's kept grounded, particularly after the exposition-heavy early episodes, by some compelling performances. Llobell and Harvey emerge as promising newcomers playing young women with the weight of civilization itself on their shoulders, and Harris and Pace (the latter bringing a long tradition of actors making meals out of playing pitiless despots into the future) playing a complicated game in which it's not clear who holds the upper hand at any given moment.

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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. (The production is based in Limerick, Ireland, but also worked in the Canary Islands.) Whether it will inspire the same level of devotion or develop its characters as deeply as Game of Thrones remains to be seen, but it's worth noting that that series also played the long game and expected viewers to keep up with what they were watching in all its intricate details. By the end of the eight episodes provided for review, Foundation has very much started to reward the effort and developed a habit of ending episodes with breathless cliffhangers that practically dare viewers to stop watching. Television history, if not psychohistory, suggests a show like that could have a long future.

TV Guide rating: 3.5/5

Foundation premieres Friday, Sept. 24 on Apple TV+