Foundation is one of the Apple’s tent-pole tv series and, frankly, the only reason I thought it might be worth the free trial. I’d heard good things about For All Mankind and Ted Lasso, but nothing caught my attention like Foundation when the project was first announced. Pretty strange, considering I’ve only read the first of Isaac Asimov’s novels – once – and that was 30-odd years ago. Anyway, I have now watched the first four episodes of the tv series, cursing the fact I’ll have to pay in order to see the last six. (Because I will pay, goddammit.) Here’s why…
I am just about smart enough to realise how unutterably ignorant I am. I can recognise big concepts, sure. My finger can graze the surface, my mind can conceive of the depths, but I can only see so far. I will never be a philosopher or a physicist. It sounds like deprecation but trust me, it feels like a gift when it comes to exploring this kind of art because I can get swept up in the visionary grandeur of it all, peer into the darkness with awe and fool myself – just for a moment – that I have been made wiser in the process. It is a fine illusion, and one that the show-runners play with to great effect.
I’ll dig into that a bit as we go on, but first I’m going to take a paragraph to give a brief outline of the world and plot for any newbies out there. If this is something with which you’re well-versed, you might want to skip ahead.
The imaginative pearl at the heart of this oyster is ‘psychohistory’ – the esoteric mathematics that, in the world of Hari Seldon, allows its creator to predict, accurately, the behaviour of large populations over great swathes of time. With this, he ascertains that the Galactic Empire – which has reigned for some 12,000 years – will fall within the next 500, leaving humanity to endure a vast age of darkness. This is more than a political irritation to the Empire; it threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophecy—one which must not be allowed to happen.
The subject of how faithfully the story is adapted is one I will leave to reviewers with far greater background knowledge, so please don’t come at me with anything that’s *wrong. I can only respond to what’s in front of me, and what I saw was captivating. This is space opera on the grandest of scales, playing for the highest of stakes, yet it remains entirely relevant, entirely recognisable, and essentially human at heart.
It seems ludicrous that such a big story could rest on the shoulders of so few, but the key cast is small enough that it could almost be staged as a play. Indeed, there is something quite Shakespearian in the set-up, caught as we are between ultimate power and the inarguable prophecy of doom. The Emperor Cleon himself is a fascinating character, comprised of three cloned beings: the young Dawn (Cassian Bilton), the adult Day (Lee Pace) and old man Dusk (Terence Mann), sitting on a triple throne yet divided against each other even as they seek continuity. Hari Seldon (Jared Harris) forms another small group with his protégé Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell) and Rayche, (Alfred Enoch) Seldon’s adopted son. Other characters come and go but the drama in these early episodes revolves almost exclusively around this sextet, the strictures that imprison them, and the means by which they try to break free.
Seldon’s prison is of his own devising, of course: the labyrinth of predestination. Harris plays him as a reluctant yet stubborn messiah figure, speaking truth to power. They will try to silence him, probably kill him, but he sees only one path. The fall is inevitable; it is how we rise again that matters. To that end, he proposes to create a vast archive of human knowledge as a ‘foundation’ for the next phase of humanity to build upon – a hack that will dramatically reduce their suffering. Rayche is a harder man to parse. He is trapped by love, envy and fear. He has spent his life serving Seldon, resentful yet awestruck by him. In Gaal though, he sees an alternative: a normal human life free of his father’s shadow. Gaal Dornick is drawn in by Seldon, though. She is his match intellectually – one of the few people who can fully comprehend the mathematics of psychohistory – yet she is kept on the back foot, never quite allowed to learn all Hari Seldon might teach. She loves Rayche, without question, yet we sense she would follow wherever Hari leads.
This is the larger trap: the cult of personality, of pseudoscience and near religiosity. The illusion of the greater truth, just over the horizon, is a powerful one—particularly when tied in to the age-old conundrum of free will versus predestination. What could be more compelling? The complexity of Seldon’s mathematics and the span of time required to prove its veracity are such that it becomes a matter of faith for his adherents – who are just as ignorant, just as inspired, just as fallible as your truly in the face of it all. However, we – the viewers – are invited to watch as Galactic history plays out. We will see what none of the characters can ever see: how it all turns out.
The seeds of doubt are baked right into the premise. Psychohistory can only predict how large numbers of people will act; it is probabilistic to a degree previously unimagined, but fallible. On the micro-scale, where individual humans are effectively quantum particles, anything is possible. Quite the quandary. If the future is written, does foreknowledge abdicate us of responsibility? If not, can humanity look beyond its short-term desires to better guide its destiny? Would we dare to dream Hari Seldon is right in his predictions and solutions, or would it better if he’s wrong? These questions and many others are posed by the series, and they kind of leave me **gasping for air.
Part of me regrets, almost resents the fact that the film and television industry keeps mining the talents of the ***past in preference to the talents of the present. It’s all about product recognition, I guess, but as a consumer I find it frustrating. We have The Expanse at least. Still, there’s a shedload of amazing SF properties out there that have never even come close to production. Sigh. Let’s put a positive spin on it, shall we? The technology underpinning the film industry has only recently advanced enough (and become concurrently cheap enough) to do proper justice to the scope, world-building and depth that written space operas provide, so here’s hoping we see a ruck-ton more of them, and soon. If half of them are half as spectacular, half as impressive, and half as thought-provoking as Foundation, we could well find ourselves at the dawn of a new space age.
Long may it last.
Viewing experience: 4/5
(To be revisited once I’ve seen the whole series.)
* I presume there have been gender and racial reassignments, given how very white and male the classics of SF tended towards, and I would guess that some of the plotting has been rejigged with foreknowledge of the 10 or so books in the series. I find that I do not care very much as to what is ‘true’, only what works within the confines of the show. This is the way.
** By the way, if this kind of thing appeals but AppleTV+ does not, then may I recommend Devs to you instead? It’s a near-future tech-thriller, created by Alex Garland, that touches on some similar concepts – though it is executed very differently. Top notch stuff, and my absolute pick of 2020. At time of writing, it is available to watch on the BBC iPlayer.
*** In defence of Foundation, at least this one hasn’t been filmed before – unlike Dune, say, which is getting it’s second film now, having already snagged two mini-series with a third on its way. (Aw, man. This sounds like I’m ragging on Dune, but I’m not. I love it. Can’t wait to see it at the IMAX in a couple of weeks.)
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