Foundation review: Science fiction has hardly ever looked this good

Adapted from Isaac Asimov's classic creation, this Apple TV+ series makes some huge changes – for better and for worse.

Leah Harvey in Foundation on Apple TV+.
3.0 out of 5 star rating

In the early 1950s the renowned science fiction author Isaac Asimov published the Foundation series, a collection of short stories that would go on to become his most famous, most influential work. Put simply, said stories are based around the idea of psychohistory, a fictional science which can apparently predict the future.

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Its inventor, a genius called Hari Seldon, uses psychohistory to forecast that the galactic empire he is living under will crumble within 300 years – prompting him to put in motion plans to grow a new one from a ‘foundation’ of scientists. In the years since publication, the books have influenced everything from Star Wars to Dune to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. And yet it doesn’t take a genius to predict why it’s taken so long for the story to be adapted for screen.

Told across hundreds of years, Foundation is structured like a series of snapshots, with each short story focusing on a different period of galactic history and featuring a different cast of characters. It’s a story too vast and episodic for film, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a natural fit for television either. TV drama tends to be built around characters who change, relationships which develop, and neither of these were particularly Asimov’s concern. In Foundation the main character is society itself – how it develops over the course of history, how it changes from one political system to another. Fascinating on page, potentially too dry for screen.

David S Goyer and Josh Friedman, co-creators of Foundation’s first ever TV adaptation (premiering today on Apple TV+), have got around this issue by probably doing the only thing you can possibly do: fleshing out the book and its characters to such an extent that it practically becomes a different story.

The character of Gaal Dornick, for example, is a thinly written mathematician whose perilous trip to Trantor – the empire’s capital planet – takes up the opening 37 pages of the first book. In the show, Dornick (played by the relatively unknown Lou Llobell) has been fleshed out as a young woman who is torn between the oppressive anti-intellectual religion of her home planet and winning a competition to work with Hari Seldon (Jared Harris) on psychohistory. There is also a hint that she is special in some way, although it’s unclear how.

The first half of the opening episode is dedicated to establishing all these newly expanded characters, whether they be Llobell’s Dornick, Harris’ Seldon, the emperor Cleon (played by Lee Pace, best known as Ronin from Guardians of the Galaxy) or Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey), the protagonist of another story set in the future on Terminus, the planet that will one day play host to Seldon’s new society. These early set-up scenes – spread thin between various characters, planets and timelines – are too dramatically inert and fragmented to prove instantly grabbing. But they do eventually build to a convincing whole.

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The key (as is often the case in any project) is Jared Harris, who anchors the show with an authoritative sense of gravitas. It’s at the point when Dornick finally meets him – where Seldon tells her about the frightening predictions of psychohistory, and reveals that they will soon be arrested by the state and put on trial – that Foundation finds its momentum.

Here, facing charges of treason for saying that the empire will fall, Seldon must defend his theory in court, and Dornick must decide whether to betray him or die. It’s these scenes that capture some of the dramatically engaging and intellectually stimulating spirit of the source material, while also offering enough new elements to make the show feel genuinely fresh and exciting. Episode one, for instance, closes with an entirely original set-piece that is as visually lavish as it is utterly enormous.

And this is another thing about Foundation: it looks gorgeous, like the cover of a pulp 1950s science fiction novel. Whereas so much of modern sci-fi prioritises drab and washed-out realism (for instance, the forthcoming Dune, which clothes most of its characters in boring black), Foundation has chosen to embrace the bright and opulent.

Characters dress in reds, golds and blues. The vibrant city planet of Trantor – the version in the books an obvious influence on Star Wars’ Coruscant – is only accessible by an elevator called the Star Bridge, which stretches for thousands upon thousands of miles into space. Science fiction on TV has hardly ever looked this good.

Episode two explores territory hardly mentioned in the book at all: Seldon and Dornick’s journey, along with thousands of others who make up the Foundation, from Trantor to Terminus. Again, there’s an interesting difference in the material here.

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Cooper Carter, Lee Pace and Terrence Mann in Foundation

Asimov’s books dealt primarily with the macro, meaning that the day-to-day life of the Foundation, and the little people who lived within it, would often get lost in the gargantuan tides of history. The TV show, meanwhile, has the chance to concentrate on smaller relationships and details. How did people feel about travelling to the other side of the galaxy, based on the outlandish theory of one man? What was their plan for food, settlements, population growth?

It’s an interesting approach, although some of these micro stories are stronger than others. The romance between Dornick and Seldon’s assistant Raych (Alfred Enoch), for instance, is not hugely engaging. Raych’s creeping doubts about the prophetic abilities of Seldon’s psychohistory, however, are.

As it stands, with only two episodes available to review, it’s too early to predict whether Foundation will live up to the towering influence of Asimov’s books. But there’s more than enough here to leave us intrigued by what the future holds.

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Foundation is now streaming on AppleTV+, with new episodes released on Fridays. For more, check out our dedicated Sci-Fi page or our full TV Guide.