Review of Foundation, season 1
Goyer, David S. and Josh Friedman, creators. Foundation. Season 1, Apple TV+, 2021.
When it was announced that Asimov’s famously un-filmable Foundation would finally be turned into a television series, online sf forums filled with excitement but also with fears over seeing another “inspired by” blend in the vein of Alex Proyas’s infamous I, Robot. Now that the first season has concluded, it is clear that, while Goyer and Friedman’s Foundation is in many respects closer to the original, it does not attempt a scene-by-scene adaptation of Asimov’s work, nor does it go for a condensed but rather faithful adaptation such as Villeneuve’s Dune. There are major changes, criticized by many (see e.g. Bricken), but in spite of its issues, the TV adaptation seems to retain some of the spirit of the original.
Much of the appeal of Asimov’s original is in the sense of witnessing vast sweeps of history. Some of this comes from Asimov modeling the fall of the Galactic Empire on Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–89), and the TV version certainly injects elements of the Roman Empire into the storytelling. Overall, though, at the core of Asimov’s original were the notions that the ebb and flow of historical forces always surpass the individual, and that scientific calculation of the course of human history—through the fictional science of psychohistory—allows for the engineering of the course of future history. In Asimov’s work, the Foundation begins developing into a new Galactic Empire through stages that mirror the historical developments of the United States from the times of first European settlers to the early twentieth century. Along the way, this evokes undertones of Frederick Jackson Turner’s “Frontier Thesis,” and the metaphorical exile from a corrupt old empire turns into an analogy of revitalizing American expansionism and Manifest Destiny (see Käkelä 2016 for extensive discussion of these themes).
Goyer’s TV adaptation retains the central situation of the story: Psychohistory has revealed that the center of human civilization, the Galactic Empire, is headed toward a collapse—and the mathematician Hari Seldon’s scientific Foundation is placed on the distant planet of Terminus. In Asimov’s original, the plot was mostly on an intellectual level, even if the characters themselves often reflected the space cowboy traits of pulp sf. The TV version, on the other hand, brings the action to the physical plane, even as it goes for a more inclusive outlook with its casting (see Kaye) and updates several key characters, such as Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey) and Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell), into black women. In addition to the goal of making Asimov’s galaxy full of people more diverse, his dialogue-heavy approach was deliberately exchanged for heightened action and emotional appeal by the showrunners (Jackson).
As a result, the TV version’s dynamic of storytelling evokes blockbuster action up to the point where Leah Harvey’s Salvor Hardin considers the book-version Hardin’s slogan “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent” an “old man’s doctrine,” and approaches the situation with action hero one-liners such as “I want to see what violence we can muster.” While viewing violence as a valid solution reflects the showrunners’ background in superhero franchises and sf action, it does also seem to subvert Asimov’s fundamentally non-violent message of letting the greater rationality prevail instead of physical force. The implications of this change certainly warrant further critical attention: The show seems to consider Asimov’s antiviolence a naïve ideal of shaping history from behind the scenes without having to become emotionally invested in it yourself—perhaps implausible in the post-9/11 world. There is potential for sociocultural, racial and gender commentary, but it could be explored further if this extends beyond giving the black female protagonist the active, traditionally white, masculine power of the action hero—and if the show goes beyond rehearsing the stock Hollywood formula: violence equals emotion.
Finally seeing Asimov’s series on screen is part of the appeal with the adaptation, and it does look gorgeous. Significant attention has gone to the visual aspects of the TV show, and the details are full of small references to the sf megatext. The added storylines that deal with the Galactic Empire also reflect a variety of motifs in more contemporary works of sf (themselves influenced by Asimov’s original). For example, the Star Bridge space elevator—the crown jewel of the Galactic Empire’s technological prowess—borrows profusely from Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. In both, the massive piece of infrastructure is similarly destroyed, up to the spectacular image of its falling cable wrapping around the planet—even if in the adaptation its function is to provide a pointed 9/11 moment to the story. In visual details, there are also more subtle cues such as Salvor Hardin’s ground car, reminiscent of Luke’s at the beginning of Star Wars, and the arid desert of Terminus that evokes images of Tatooine and similar science-fictional desert planetscapes. The addition of mystical/religious elements also seems to hark back to motifs such as the Force in Star Wars and messianic elements in Dune. The representation of the Empire itself, on the other hand, takes visual cues from illustrations in pulp magazines, creates a sort of comic book version of the Roman Empire, and mashes these together with echoes of totalitarian monumentalism—all filtered through the stylizing lens of Apple’s futurism-style seen in their product design.
The visuality of the show certainly works to signal the massive scope of the original, but in addition to its attitude to violence, the first season of the TV adaptation breaks away from Asimov’s version through its emphasis on individual agency. Asimov himself did contradict his premise that characters would only be instruments of the larger Plan and historical movements as he created characters that were sort of Carlylean Great Man versions of pulp heroes. However, in the adaptation, Hari Seldon even directly says that the “entire galaxy [is] pivoting around the actions of an individual.” In Asimov’s version, a more overt focus on the individual only arose when he started to retroactively connect his Robot series to the Foundation universe in novels such as Foundation’s Edge (1982), Foundation and Earth (1986), Prelude to Foundation (1988), and Forward the Foundation (1993). Right from the start, the TV adaptation draws on all of these, and privileges individual genius as the source of action. Turning Gaal Dornick from a minor character in Asimov’s original into a central protagonist is the most obvious element of this change. Even Seldon acknowledges her “sort of intuitive processing ability that puts [her] ahead of the math.” Dramatizing Gaal’s ability to “feel the future” commits the adaptation to the agency of exceptional individuals far beyond the original. In so doing, it also seems to suppress Asimov’s reliance on scientific understanding as the basis for action, and instead tilts towards an approach that seems to reflect the 21st-century self-help culture of discovering your inner strength.
While committing to individual agency from the start, the TV version shifts the original’s treatment of violence and politics also on the level of society. For example, Asimov’s original revels in the masterful, but essentially nonviolent, manipulation by which the Foundation solves its first crisis during which the surrounding “barbarian kingdoms” of Anacreon and others threaten to annex Terminus. Asimov’s original rather gleefully narrates how the Foundation weaponizes its techno-scientific knowledge and psychological understanding to manufacture a religion by which to control their less-educated neighbors. The TV series, on the other hand, bypasses these kinds of exploitations. Instead of resolving their first crisis by tricking the “barbarians” into submission, the Foundation first engages in violent combat but ultimately survives by taking their neighbors seriously and offering them a more equal role in the Foundation’s future. It seems that the cunning manipulations are present only on an individual level through various battles of wills, not in the larger societal impact of the Foundation.
Manipulation as a method of governance has not entirely disappeared from the adaptation, but it is now used by the old Galactic Empire and works to highlight its unviability. This is most clearly present in the storyline invented for the TV adaptation where the Empire is headed by clones of the original emperor. Effectively, this manipulation is a workaround for the emperor’s mortality, but it becomes a metaphorical dramatization for the Empire’s stagnation where literally the same (cloned) white man stays perpetually in power. Relegating ethically more questionable elements of utilitarianism to the falling empire, the TV series rather neatly bypasses many of the most glaring ethical issues of Asimov’s original by not letting the ‘good guys’ use devious means to attain their goals. Modernized attitudes are visible even in the Anacreonians who scold the Foundationers for calling them “barbarians, just a convenient slur for anyone not like you.” Through these kinds of meta-level comments on Asimov’s original, the TV series distances itself from the original’s dated colonialist infantilization of subjugated nations. This change also begins to deconstruct the way Asimov meshed his references to Gibbon’s history of Rome with the imagery of American expansionism and later policies of civilizational imperialism.
Still, even this change does not come without its problems. While the series makes a conscious effort to transfer Asimov’s WWII and Cold War metaphors to the present, portraying the Anacreonians through stereotypical post-9/11 representations of Middle Eastern terrorists complicates the TV series’ mission of inclusion. Dramatically, making Anacreon an Afghanistan analogy of sorts does allow for a plotline where the series can then present a rectification of the dynamic of recent decades in real-world history—by admitting the ostracized nations to a level playing field and engaging with them in actual cooperation. Nevertheless, even there the TV series still implies that the Western world-associated Foundation is needed to enable the agency of other nations on the world stage.
As the TV adaptation draws on all of Asimov’s Foundation universe, it also creates links similar to his 1980s retcon to his Robot stories. Although Apple apparently does not have rights to Asimov’s Robot stories, the character of Demerzel (Laura Birn), the 10.000-year-old robot assisting the emperors, is set up as similarly significant for the upcoming seasons. In Asimov’s connected Robot-Foundation universe, Demerzel was of course a disguise for his most famous robot character, R. Daneel Olivaw, who had become by the end of Foundation and Earth a primus motor of sorts for the whole retconned storyline. The TV show certainly shows a similar desire to connect everything, but it remains to be seen how much of this storyline the showrunners will retain.
Overall, already the first season makes it clear that the series is aiming to become something that stands on its own, apart from Asimov’s original stories. This is most apparent in the way the TV adaptation has begun to steer away from Asimov’s more cynical instrumentalism and utilitarian conception of history. Instead of recreating the original’s exploitation of people with less access to knowledge, endless chains of master-subject relationships and precarious balances of terror, the TV version seems to be aiming toward societies with more lasting and egalitarian stability. In a sense, though, Asimov’s original tension between determinism and free will has not disappeared; it has merely shifted, complicated by the increased focus on emotion, to a tension between mystical individual intuition and communal scientific work in building a better future. Apple has renewed the show for season 2, and Goyer has talked about going for at least 8 seasons. Time will tell how the upcoming seasons address the emerging, new tension between mysticism and science, but it will also be interesting to see if the fundamental optimism about humankind’s ability to set aside old animosities in the first season will be darkened by the currently looming shade of a new cold war in the real world.
Bricken, Bob. “They Said Foundation Couldn’t Be Filmed, and It Still Hasn’t Been,”
Gizmondo, 23 Sep. 2021, https://gizmodo.com/they-said-foundation-couldnt-be-filmed-and-it-still-ha-1847731204. Accessed 30 March 2022.
Carlyle, Thomas. 1841. On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History. Teddington: Echo Library, 2007.
Jackson, Matthew. “How Do You Make a Millennia-Spanning Tale ‘Emotional’? Foundation Producer David Goyer Explains in New Clip,” Syfy Wire, 21 Sep. 2021, https://www.syfy.com/syfy-wire/foundation-behind-the-scenes-video-greatest-science-fiction. Accessed 30 March 2022.
Kaye, Don. “Foundation: Why Isaac Asimov’s Estate Approved Modernizing the Sci-Fi Classic,” Den of Geek, 24 Sep. 2021, https://www.denofgeek.com/tv/foundation-isaac-asimov-estate-approves-apple-tv-series/. Accessed 30 March 2022.
Käkelä, Jari. The Cowboy Politics of an Enlightened Future: History, Expansionism and Guardianship in Asimov’s Science Fiction, University of Helsinki, 2016, URL: http://urn.fi/URN:ISBN:978-951-51-2405-0
Jari Käkelä is a PhD in English Philology (2016) and currently works as a lecturer at the University of Helsinki. He has published articles in Extrapolation and Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, among others. His previous research has focused extensively on Isaac Asimov’s work, and his more recent research includes looking at authors such as Kim Stanley Robinson and Sarah Pinsker through the continuum of the Golden Age.