Review: 'Foundation' Brings Isaac Asimov's Seminal Sci-Fi Classic to the Screen

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday September 24, 2021

Leah Harvey in 'Foundation'
Leah Harvey in 'Foundation'  (Source:Apple TV+)

Bearers of uncomfortable tidings often don't fare well when the ears their warnings fall upon are overprivileged, imperiously entitled, and more prone to arrogance than to a respect for the facts. That sadly constant fact of human hierarchies, among things, makes the David S. Goyer-produced small-screen adaption of Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" novels feel particularly timely.

As in the novels, mathematician Hari Seldon (Jared Harris,
"Mad Men," "Chernobyl") has developed a sophisticated (and, to all but a few, unintelligible) statistical model for predicting trends and behaviors among large populations. Seldon calls this model "Psychohistory," and his equations predict the fall of the galactic empire he and trillions of others live in — a catastrophe that will, his work predicts, be followed by a new dark age lasting around 30 millennia. (The series is set at least 12,000 years in the future, and possible a lot longer, so such time scales are not entirely beyond the grasp of the characters.)

One of the few people in the universe who can make sense of Seldon's work is a young woman named Gaal (Lou Llobell), a brilliant theorist who has the misfortune of living on a planet run by fundamentalists whose response to climate change and rising sea levels is to sacrifice their scientists to a god they believe will save them if only their faith is strong enough (and their planet's libraries and universities are shut down). Gaal dares to enter a contest to solve an intractable mathematical problem, and before you can say "Make the Galaxy Great Again," Gaal is on her way to Trantor, the capitol world of the empire. She envisions a glorious career; what she arrives to is the news that she, as an associated of Seldon, is about to be tried to sedition, thanks to Seldon's predictions.

The emperors — there are three of them, all clones of an original who lived centuries earlier — are not of a single mind as to how to deal with Seldon, but "Brother Day" (out actor Lee Pace), the most equal of the triumvirate, determines to exile Seldon and his followers to the distant world Terminus, a galactic backwater where they can't cause too much trouble and where Seldon can proceed with his plan to create a "Foundation" — a kind of seed bank of civilization, designed to reconstitute human knowledge after the coming fall and shorten the duration of the coming dark age.

Seldon's most dire predictions start coming true in short order, with terrorist acts threatening the empire's seat of power, influential religions throwing up demagogues to challenge the emperors, and the planet Anacreon — hastily and unjustly punished by the empire for a terrorist act — spawning a dangerous movement intent on exacting revenge and hastening the empire's collapse. Trantor, along with the Foundation and Seldon's devoted followers (in some ways, worshipers), are directly in the path of the vengeful Anacreons; those dark ages might be here sooner, and last a lot longer, than Seldon had hoped.

Luckily, Terminus has an "outlier" among its population: Planetary Warden Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey), who possesses unique talents and competencies. At her right hand is another formidable person, her lover Hugo (Daniel McPerson), a cargo ship captain with a certain amount of galactic street cred. If anyone can brave the vengeful Anacreons and their complex plan for revenge, it's these two.

The series starts out somewhat slowly, and it can be hard to look beyond what feels like a rehash of our own post-9/11 national history. To be sure, the real world sometimes seems to put the "psycho" in "psychohistory," and the series can strike a denizen of our times as being a little quaint and simplistic. But as the series gathers steam and its mysteries deepen, "Foundation" becomes an intense thrill ride that's carried along by suspenseful character arcs.

This isn't "Dune," despite the textured socio-political narrative (and mediaeval-inspired design work), and nor is is "Star Wars," though there are moments of battle (mostly taking place planetside). If anything, this series feels akin to "The Expanse," which is a testament to how well the bones of Asimov's tale have aged and how well the producers have updated the series (with now-familiar gender swaps and other tweaks that feel de rigeur for this sort of adaptation).

Don't expect these ten episodes to offer a swift retelling of the entire original trilogy (let alone the several books that came along after the trilogy had established itself as sci-fi canon). Along with the beautiful production design and big-budget world-building, the producers have decided to operate across multiple seasons. Pace yourself: The story, like the galaxy, is huge — though the series' focus on its main characters makes it feel intimate.

"Foundation" streams on Apple TV+ starting September 24.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.