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This weekend we’re watching: The new adaptation of Asimov’s masterpiece, Foundation

Lou Llobell as Gaal Dornick in ‘Foundation’, courtesy of Apple TV+

‘Foundation’, one of the most influential pieces of sci-fi literature, has finally been adapted for the screen. The opulent series is epic and accessible, but lacks the intellect of the books on which it is based.

In 1998, having already spent $1.5-million, New Line Cinema abandoned its attempt at a film adaption of Foundation, the most celebrated novel series written by Isaac Asimov, one of the pioneers of science fiction. They went on to tackle Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings instead, figuring that the fantasy tome would be easier, and they were right.

If you take on Foundation you are either impressively bold or very, very rich. There is little need to clarify which description is more apt of Apple TV+, which has produced a 10-episode series with the hope of seven more seasons still to come. The first two episodes debuted on 24 September, with the third released on 1 October and the rest coming weekly throughout October and November.

Adapting beloved literature for the screen is often tricky, because even though you have a following from day one, if you don’t do a book justice, fans of the source material could turn on you suddenly and drag your name through the dirt. The challenges of adapting Foundation go beyond that.

First, there’s the scope of it – the events of the books span an entire galaxy over millennia, in a fictional, futuristic universe with extensive lore. Condensing a saga of this magnitude into hour-long episodes is not easy.

There’s also the problem of continuity. Asimov wrote the Foundation books over decades, and while they’re all based in the same universe and upon the same overarching premise, the plotlines of each story don’t interact much.

Finally, there’s the intellectual gravitas of the writing. Asimov wrote hard science fiction, which is characterised by scientific accuracy and rigorous logic. He was concerned with physics, ethics and the existential consequences of their interplay. Such subjects are difficult to broach in an accessible way on-screen.

The reason Apple dared to accept all the obstacles of Foundation is the weight and attention that came with the title. There is big money to be made in adaptations of famous authors, and few namedrops could make as big a splash as Isaac Asimov. Showrunner David S Goyer circumvents these obstacles by making risky and drastic changes to the source material, with mixed results.

Apple has written in original details to showcase and exaggerate Asimov’s world-building, and spared no expense creating spectacular sets. The early hours of the series are devoted to inspiring awe. There are myriad colourful planetscapes, vast, bold and magnificent. Frigid white wastelands, subterranean city-planets, and floating villages on water-worlds. Even throwaway shots frequently feature dual sunsets, tremendous hovering moons, planetary rings or aurora dancing in the sky.

Led by a powerful cast of accomplished actors like Lee Pace and Jared Harris, as well as promising newcomers like Lou Llobell and Leah Harvey, the show takes a more personal, character-driven approach than the books did. This is usually a must for long-running television series, which bank on an audience’s emotional investment, but shrinks the cosmic scale of space opera closer to gossip.

For all the fabricated backstories, gender swaps and new character arcs, it is still a little difficult to root for the characters because the show takes itself so seriously and has almost no time for humour or joy. Characters from separate books, whose stories occurred in different time periods, are shown interchangeably, so it’s occasionally difficult to follow things, and they’re also sometimes killed off recklessly, just as we’re getting to know them.

The most basic elements of the plot remain the same – a renowned mathematician, Professor Hari Seldon (played by Harris) has developed a complex new field of psychology and science known as psychohistory, which equates all possible eventualities in large societies to mathematical probabilities, allowing for the prediction of large-scale events. In his research he has discovered the impending decline of the human empire that rules the galaxy, so he and his prodigy, Gaal, set about creating an Encyclopedia Galactica – essentially a Noah’s Ark of information. His intention is to soften the fall of the empire and create a repository of knowledge so that “the coming generations will have something to build upon – a foundation”.

Jared Harris as Hari Seldon in Foundation, courtesy of Apple TV+
Lou Llobell as Gaal Dornick and Jared Harris as Hari Seldon in Foundation, courtesy of Apple TV+

The concept of psychohistory is an extreme potentiality of the Law of Large Numbers. In statistics, the larger a data set, the more accurately it can be used to predict future events. As we have collected more data, humans have become better at predicting things, so theoretically, with the right maths and data sets made of trillions of people, it would be possible to predict events affected by an enormous number of variables.

Rather than delve into the gritty logistics of probability theory, as the books did, the show treats psychohistory almost like a superpower, comparable to Peter Parker’s precognitive “spidey sense”. Hard sci-fi writers tend to disparage the use of flimsy science as a veil for the supernatural. Asimov might have been mortified at the prospect of psychohistory being reduced to science fantasy. “The most advanced math is like a sixth sense,” narrates Gaal.

Gaal is another significant departure from the books. Asimov’s Gaal was a fairly minor character – an accomplished academic man with very little personality or backstory. In the show, Gaal is the protagonist as well as the narrator. Played by Llou Llobell, who was born to a Zimbabwean mother, South Africans might find her accent familiar, but it’s supposed to be exotic, characteristic of a pious water-world called Synnax.

Almost none of Gaal’s story is from Asimov’s writing. She’s given a romantic arc to provide some eye candy and her homeworld is rewritten as superstitious to create a tension between faith and science. Gaal also narrates the show, allowing us to witness the impressive universe through her naïve eyes, and acting as a point of empathy.

Her narration shrinks the grand scale of the story, making it easier to follow, but it also babies the audience and breaks the illusion of complexity. Her musings, intended to be sapient and mysterious, are like a comedian unnecessarily explaining a joke – it actually detracts from the potency of the rest of the show.

The writing in the show cultivates engagement with familiar sociopolitical issues, but only superficially. It might be more accurate to say that it cultivates drama. The writers have added a whole host of plot points and details that touch on issues such as abortion, the prisoner’s dilemma, and cultural relativism.

Chief among these issues is the politicising of climate change. Hari Seldon is likened to the scientists who are cautioning governments on the severity of the climate crisis. The antagonist of the film can be likened to powerful climate-denying politicians – a tyrannical cloned Emperor (another big departure from the books) whose imperative is cultural and political conservation.

In this analogy, Gaal, a young woman of colour, is positioned as the emerging hero. “On Synnax no one wanted to hear that our seas were rising,” she says. “I thought if I could make people listen, that I could save them.” The analogy is not perfect because while the climate crisis hinges on collective reculturing, the fall of the galactic empire rests on just a few special people.

Lee Pace as Emperor Day in ‘Foundation’, courtesy of Apple TV+
From left: Cooper Carter, Lee Pace and Terrence Mann as Emperor Day in ‘Foundation’, courtesy of Apple TV+
Lou Llobell as Gaal Dornick in ‘Foundation’, courtesy of Apple TV+

“Chosen one” stories are effective because they conflate the grand scale with the personal – the fate of an entire galaxy is dependent on the behaviour of one person, which could be drastically affected by events as relatively insignificant as a love affair or a tummy bug.

Asimov was not that into “chosen ones”, nor was he particularly interested in warfare, but both are tried and tested TV staples which are essential to the rebranding of Foundation in the show. In place of the erudite contemplation that immortalised Asimov’s work, Apple provides embellished space battles and lots of big booms.

It would never be possible to comprehensively do justice to a work so iconic and seminal as Foundation in a different medium, and in that sense it was destined for failure. Unlike its original written form, a visual adaptation requires an immense budget to capture scale and spectacle. A big budget requires a huge audience, and to achieve that you have to sacrifice much of what makes Asimov’s writing so brilliant – its uncompromising rationality, dense science and lore. You have to make it less niche, and reshape it into a genre more recognisable and unthreatening for a larger viewership

2021 has also been waiting on the release of the remake of one of the few pieces of sci-fi literature with as much clout as FoundationDune, which has been postponed several times, chasing a bigger release that could account for the money spent on its stellar cast and otherworldly CGI.

To say that a space opera is far-fetched is to miss the point, but to say that its science is weak or juvenile is to cut it to the core, for much of the thrill of science fiction is its believability. Apple’s opulent adaptation of Foundation is accessible and dazzling, but its comparative immaturity to the source material may leave hard science fiction fans disappointed. The series is best conceptualised and enjoyed as a light TV-curated spinoff that exists loosely within the framework of Asimov’s books. DM/ML

Foundation is available on Apple TV+.
You can contact This Weekend We’re Watching via [email protected]

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  • Another in-depth, intelligent and insightful review.
    Thank you Tevya.
    It’s unfortunate, but not unexpected, that translating the Foundation series from print to film would lose a lot of Asimov’s intent.
    Might still be worth a viewing though if the filmmakers have managed to suspend reality in a believable and engaging way.