Intelligent and imaginative, Foundation could be TV’s next great sci-fi saga

Apple TV+ has bravely adapted Isaac Asimov’s literature for the small screen in Foundation. It’s a big story—but according to Anthony O’Connor, most of this ambitious show works brilliantly, and will thrill fans of smart genre TV.

The ‘smartest guy in the room’ trope has long been a fixture of fiction. You know the one; brainy bloke has all the answers and is just waiting for the rest of the dunderheads to catch up. Think Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Gregory House, Doctor Who, Hannibal Lector, and so on. One you may not be as familiar with, however, is Hari Seldon, the big-brained chap who provides the core of Isaac Asimov’s long respected, but never previously adapted, sci-fi series Foundation.

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Well, the adaptation has finally arrived, in the form of Apple TV+’s beautifully-presented feast for the eyes. And while it may not consistently hit the lofty heights of Asimov’s original work, it certainly makes  compulsive science fiction telly.

There are, appropriately enough, a few pillars to Foundation. First, the aforementioned Hari Seldon (Jared Harris). Hari is a genius mathematician, quite literally the smartest man in almost any room you could imagine, who practises a form of science called ‘psychohistory’. Hari has predicted the inevitable and imminent end of the Galactic Empire—the wide expanse of humanity spread across multiple worlds—which has naturally proven rather unpopular with the folks who run the whole caper.

There’s Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell), a young woman with an almost supernatural gift for mathematics, quite possibly the smartest person in the known galaxy. This fact is made even more impressive when you realise she comes from Synnax, a water world that has regressed into religious extremism, where science is banned and fear of rising sea levels considered heretical. Gaal manages to impress Hari so much that he brings her to the “eye of the empire” Trantor, but that’s just the beginning of her story.

And, of course, there’s the boss man himself, Cleon (Lee Pace), Emperor of the Galactic Empire and, it’s fair to say, not the biggest fan of Hari’s grim predictions. Cleon is actually one of three active clones—Brother Dawn (Cassian Bilton), Brother Day (Pace) and Brother Dusk (Terrence Mann)—who form a genetic dynasty taken from the DNA of the original Cleon. This millenia-long rule has, in recent times, begun to stagnate, and Hari’s predictions of rebellion, terrorism and the eventual collapse of the autocracy begin to ring horribly true.

Hoping to tamp down support for Hari, but not outright martyr him and make his influence all the stronger, Cleon essentially exiles Seldon, Gaal, and his supporters to the backwater planet of Terminus. And from there, well, let’s just say the plot thickens and then some.

Foundation is a big story. It spans worlds, time, an entire galaxy, and revealing too much of the plot would be doing this impressively ambitious show a great disservice. It comes to us from a somewhat unlikely source; David S. Goyer, the dreamweaver who once brought us the staggeringly inept Blade: Trinity and more recently the relentlessly adequate Terminator: Dark Fate.

If you think he’s a strange choice of showrunner for this complex, nuanced yarn then you’re not wrong—however this is easily Goyer’s best work. Together with Josh Friedman, Goyer delivers an intelligent, engaging, epic tale with dizzying concepts and superior world building. The societies feel lived in, the political machinations and power dynamics are fascinating and the unbridled spectacle of this sumptuous, gorgeous show feels like the first legitimate competitor to Game of Thrones in terms of sheer scope.

It’s not all perfect, mind you. Asimov purists are likely to be just as pissed off as they were with Alex Proyas’s take on I, Robot, because major liberties have been taken with the source material for good and ill. The gender-flipping of some characters, and casting people of colour in major roles is a good change, ensuring this view of future humanity isn’t a tofu-hued sausage fest. The addition of a few moments of melodrama, and some inexplicable character decisions towards the end of the first season, however, are a little less ideal.

Acting across the board is superb, with Jared Harris providing a typically strong turn and Lee Pace bringing a lot of layers to his imperious clone-lord. Leah Harvey is also excellent as Salvor Hardin, a brilliant misfit on Terminus. However, it’s Lou Llobell who impresses the most, managing to hold a great deal of the dramatic heft on her shoulders and doing so convincingly.

Smart sci-fi TV shows are rare. Frankly, we’re lucky to have one or two on the go at most, so it’s pleasing that as The Expanse prepares to launch its sixth and final season, Foundation is just getting started.

At times it’s imperfect, certainly, and not all of the choices work. But overall Foundation is an exciting, imaginative and intelligent space opera with a lot to offer anyone in the mood for some immersive science fiction.