First look UK TV review: Foundation
Ivan Radford | On 24, Sep 2021
Episodes 1 and 2 premiere on Friday 24th September, then arrive weekly.
Game of Thrones. The Witcher. The Lord of the Rings. You’re not really a streaming service until you have a sci-fi or fantasy franchise on your books. While Apple TV+ launched with See, a gritty epic set in an alternate future, it’s only now that it’s bringing out the big genre guns: an adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. The seminal novels have long been considered unfilmable, thanks to their expansive scope and defiantly abstract subject matter – the compilation of a really big encyclopaedia.
This repository of knowledge is the brainchild of Hari Seldon (Jared Harris), a mathematician who is the founder of psychohistory, a special branch of theoretical statistics that essential predicts what will happen in the future – an idea that’s at once wonderfully far-fetched and absurdly plausible in an algorithm-driven technological age. The problem? His sums calculate that the Galactic Empire will collapse and enter a new Dark Age lasting for several millennia. His solution? The Foundation, a library of of the things that humankind has learned, so that at least coming out of the Dark Age, they won’t have to be rediscovered all over again.
If that sounds dry, you’re not wrong, and the books’ challenging nature are compounded by their structure of several separate stories set across hundreds of years. The one recurring character? The universe’s most ambitious dictionary.
But Foundation the TV series makes it clear from the off that it’s not doing things by the book. Showrunner David S Goyer zooms in on the first novel, chronicling gradually the tensions and conflicts that arise from Hari’s initial prediction and proposition – but he also introduces the antagonist of human nature in the form of an emperor who has cloned himself so that he can live on in power forever. There’s the young, wary Brother Dawn (Cooper Carter), the older, wiser, calmer Brother Dusk (Terrence Mann) and the megalomaniacal, egotistical Brother Day (Lee Pace).
It’s a smart move because it allows the show to retain the themes of civilisation, the common good, the value of history and the power of science – while also letting us enjoy watching Lee Pace swagger about as some kind of space king. There really is something for everybody here.
There are more superficial pleasures on offer too, thanks to Apple’s expansive budget, which is put to excellent use in building a world that’s visually stunning. From the costumes and make-up to the languages and architecture, it’s a gorgeous amalgam of cultures and identities that makes the city feel alive and lived-in, even with the gleaming futurism on display. There’s proper scale to the spectacle, from a jaw-dropping space elevator to a mesmerising moving mosaic that undulates and swirls.
That rich realisation also extends to the characters, which get far more substance than on the page. Swapping genders and adding backstories, the scripts give ample room for Lou Llobell and Leah Harvey to impress as Gaal Dornick and Salvor Hardin, Hari’s sidekicks and, eventually, his successors, and they breathe some human life into the hope that’s at the heart of their academic mission – even though emotions themselves seem in direct conflict with the impartial number-crunching that steers, if not dictates, their actions.
The dialogue occasionally veers into lofty territory – “people lie, numbers don’t” is just one of many clunky highlights – but it’s delivered with sincerity by the cast, whether its Jared Harris ranging from mercurial to kindly or Lou Llobell delivering a passionate diatribe on the the way that choosing or not choosing a certain numerical system can have wider moral and sociological consequences.
But the star attraction here is undoubtedly Lee Pace, who is magnificently arrogant and magnetically ruthless as an emperor who is primarily concerned with furthering his own legacy rather than preserving wider civilisation. He moves between smirking disdain and cool determination with an unblinking stare that only emphasises his haughty height and lavish blue robes. One standout scene in which he carves up a roast peacock is worth tuning in for alone, as he regales his younger self on the precise cooking methods used by the chefs. Then, just as things threaten to lurch into a laboured allegory, he pauses. “Not every moment is a teaching opportunity.” If Foundation can bear that in mind throughout this first season, it has a lot of potential to add to something unique. Political plotting, big philosophical questions, unexpected twists and Lee Pace roasting a peacock. What’s not to like?
Foundation is available on Apple TV+, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription, with a seven-day free trial. For more information on Apple TV+ and how to get it, click here.