Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke once ruled that all sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. At the heart of “Foundation”, the Apple TV + series based on the novels of Isaac Asimov, is a similar idea: all sufficiently advanced mathematics is indistinguishable from prophecy.
But in this ambitious and drunken epic, this intriguing idea often gets lost in space. Like Trantor, the imperial capital of “Foundation” whose surface is buried under man-made layers, the core of the story ends up being enveloped in levels after levels of machines.
The instigating figure remains the same as in the saga Asimov began filming in the 1940s: Hari Seldon (Jared Harris), a “psychohistorian” who claims to be able to predict the future by calculating data on mass populations. (He’s the Nate Silver of space.) When his calculations determine that the ruling empire will collapse, the bearer of bad news and his followers are exiled to a planet in the dusty cheap seats of the galaxy, where they are working on a grand plan to shape the destiny of mankind and shorten the era of chaos to come.
In an age when “following the science” has become a political statement, “Foundation” can play as a not too subtle commentary. Hari’s protege Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell) comes from a world whose leaders condemn scientists as heretics and refuse to acknowledge the rising oceans. And Harris plays the visionary with the rectitude of a doomed prophet reminiscent of his turn as a Soviet scientist at Chernobyl.
This echoes the Atomic Age belief in Asimov’s books in the power of reason over superstition. But “Foundation” showrunner David S. Goyer is also willing to deviate from the source material. The Asimov Galaxy was largely a boys’ club, for example, so “Foundation” redefines key roles with women, including Gaal – as close to a central figure as the series, though it’s put on the sidelines in the middle of the season – and Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey), a leader of the Foundation’s remote colony.
Elsewhere, the series adds or mixes story elements to create the kind of baroque storylines viewers are used to, like “Game of Thrones.” The role of the emperor is enlarged, to be precise, it is tripled. In the empire’s “genetic dynasty”, Emperor Cleon (conveniently an anagram for “clone”) has been reproduced for centuries as three people: the younger brother Dawn, the middle-aged brother Day, and the elderly brother. Dusk.
With each generation the oldest member of this living Sphinx riddle is ceremonially (and deadly) retired, a new baby emperor is unhooked from the cloning vat, Dawn is promoted from day to day to dusk. . (I told you there would be math.)
Lee Pace, sheathed in electric blue gladiator armor, plays a succession of Brother Days. His height as a villain in the morning risks the ridiculous – say, when a subordinate has blown up like Mr. Creosote in “Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life” – but it energizes an often stilted production.
In a way, the genetic dynasty and the Foundation are two solutions to the same dilemma: how to achieve ambitions that take longer to achieve than a human lifespan? For Cléon, the answer is to live in series. For Hari, it’s about crafting a plan that will survive him, in part by creating an almost Messianic myth around him. (Dealing with mortality is also the project of religion, yet another common thread in the series.)
But it is also the challenge of the “Foundation” itself. Its premise and Asimov’s plan suggest a story that must unfold over centuries, mixing up the cast members, focusing more on larger systems of society than on individuals. Serial television, on the other hand, relies on audiences connected to specific characters over the long term.
The cloning device is a way to preserve characters through the ages; there are also more spoiler tricks. Other changes made by Goyer serve to translate Asimov’s talking idea novels into a spectacle of explosions and special effects.
For example, much of the 10-episode first season gets bogged down in a long history of terrorism and revenge that makes Salvor an action hero. The thriller sequences – involving an enemy straight out of the school of Klingon-Dothraki warrior society – most closely resemble what viewers expect from a sci-fi epic. And I found myself ignoring them more and more as the “foundation” lasted.
The images are certainly striking. There are spaceships with interiors like art installations; alien worlds with beringed and lunar skyscapes; and a sort of mysterious giant rhombus that floats near Foundation camp like a menacing piñata, promising to open up and spread twists and turns and dei ex machina.
But there are things that cannot be digitized: a surprise, a real laugh, the breath of a creative life. Underneath the shooter and CGI, there’s a much weirder show struggling to come out, about stats and space popes, decadent clone emperors, and millennial robots.
Okay, there’s only one robot, but “Foundation” makes it count. As the unwavering helper of a long line of emperors, Demerzel (the name will be ring a bell For fans of Asimov), Finnish actress Laura Birn delivers an eccentric performance that is both disconcertingly mechanically and the most vulnerable in the series.
This and some of the weirder inventions of “Foundation” stylistically reminded me of “Raised by Wolves” from last year’s HBO Max drama of obsessive android motherly love. It wasn’t the best show of 2020, but he was so committed to his passion, so ready to open a vein and bleed strange robot milk, that I was captivated even by its worst moments.
“Foundation” is more cohesive than “Wolves”, but less magnetic due to its concessions to sci-fi expectations. It could have been better, if only, like the followers of Hari Seldon, he had faith in the plan.