For several years, streaming platforms have been working frantically, and to minimal avail, to create the next “Game of Thrones.” Apple TV+ has taken a big swing at that pinata with “Foundation,” its eye-popping new adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s influential science-fiction book series, long considered unfilmable.
But filmed it, they sure have. In its three available episodes, “Foundation” unfurls a story spanning generations and vast interstellar distances. The series, created by David S. Goyer and Josh Friedman, is sweeping in its scope and setting: a far future in which humanity has colonized the galaxy and where trillions of citizens are ruled by an authoritarian Galactic Empire.
Jared Harris (“Mad Men,” “Chernobyl”) plays Hari Seldon, a dissident mathematician whose calculations suggest the Empire faces imminent collapse that will throw humankind into an age of darkness. You know you’re into some deep sci-fi when one of its heroes is the dissident mathematician.
Seldon’s writings become a PR crisis for the Empire and its trinity of cloned rulers, who appear as child dictator-in-training Brother Dawn (Cooper Carter), adult monarch Brother Day (Lee Pace) and aging emperor emeritus Brother Dusk (Terrence Mann).
The Empire arrests and exiles Seldon and his brilliant young protege, Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell), to a remote planet to start building the Foundation, a repository of accumulated knowledge that will hasten humanity’s recovery from the looming disaster.
Setting aside whether the “Game of Thrones” phenomenon is actually reproducible, “Foundation,” with its lofty premise and ambitious execution, bets untold production dollars that it can dazzle enough senses to lure a mass audience into its vividly rendered fantasy universe.
You may recall, however, that “Game of Thrones” did not lead off with spectacular battles and visual effects; it took a couple of seasons to find its audience and, correspondingly, its eleventy-billion-dollar budget.
By necessity, early “GoT” occupied itself with intricate world-building and character development, so by the time it unleashed the CGI dragons and ice zombies and whatnot, the world felt lived-in and the characters’ actions followed internal logic (give or take season eight).
Apparently lacking similar constraints, “Foundation” delivers some of the most lavish visuals ever presented on television. In the first episode alone, we visit numerous alien worlds complete with majestic moonscapes and extraterrestrial fauna and watch a terrorist attack kill more bystanders than every Michael Bay movie combined.
The tradeoff is creaky editing, dense and unfocused plotting and characters who feel paper-thin, even by sci-fi standards, or shoehorned in to add romance and diversity. Its hurried pace keeps the audience at a remove. Only through expository dialogue do we learn Gaal, eventually our point-of-view protagonist, grew up as a genius on a planet where knowledge was verboten, a part of the hero’s journey that should have been shown more than told.
Instead, we get spaceship melodrama and boilerplate speechmaking about humanity’s survival, the folly of trading liberty for security, science versus fanaticism, etc. Space-faring series such as “Battlestar Galactica” and “The Expanse” planted deeper emotional stakes with fractions of “Foundation’s” apparent resources.
So the viewer’s mind drifts into narrative black holes. Such as: when a title informs us that it’s “35 years earlier,” what does that actually mean in a galaxy with thousands of inhabited planets? Does everybody use Earth’s calendar despite orbiting different stars?
Also, if the Empire is so threatened by Seldon’s theories reaching a wide audience, why televise his trial? And would it really require genius-level math to predict the decline of an empire, when human history already basically disproves the sustainability of imperialism?
Presumably, a lot of this is clearer in Asimov’s allegedly unfilmable text, which I’m resisting the temptation to say should have remained unfilmed. I have a lot more patience for preposterous science fiction than I’m probably letting on, and even more patience for Lee Pace, whose chiseled visage practically screams, “Cast me as a deranged space emperor.”
So I’m kind of rooting for “Foundation” to become the next ... something, even if that feels like the wrong emotional relationship to form with a great-looking Apple product that, hopefully, will get better as the software updates.