Now that fall 2021 is officially Dune season for space geeks all around the globe, I think it is a great moment to discuss the sci-fi genre as a whole, in literature, TV and cinema alike. I’ve read many articles online that give massive credit (and rightfully so) to the author behind the Dune universe, Frank Hebert, for being one of the most influential authors of science fiction material in the 1960s. The interesting similarities between earlier sci-fi and space opera masterpieces, like Star Wars and Blade Runner, and Dune are undeniable. It’s almost fair to say that George Lucas might want to consider sending a check to Hebert’s estate once in a while. Let’s not forget, other great minds came before him, with more ‘subtle’ work.
There is one other author from the same era that contributed to the golden era of sci-fi novelization and, unfortunately, is massively underrated. That man is Russian author Isaac Asimov. I’ve referred to Asimov’s work when I first reviewed the first season of Raised by Wolves on HBO Max. This is a storyteller that wrote his first books in the 1950s, way before Dune was even first published in 1965. In my honest opinion, Asimov is perhaps even more so a father of contemporary science fiction than Herbert is.
In 2021, it is now Apple’s turn to propose an ambitious production based on his most beloved works: The Foundation novels. Created and adapted to the screen by Josh Friedman and David S. Goyer (the guys behind Terminator: Dark Fate), the entire first season is now available for streaming on Apple TV+, Foundation is a brilliant and visually stunning show that all fans of both Frank Hebert and George Lucas alike need to discover. Once again, shows of this magnitude are the proof that we are witnessing a new golden age of television, where TV series are as visually compelling (sometimes even more) than movies on the big screen. Does the show deliver on its promise? Well, I know yes, for most of it…but maybe not the masterpiece we expected.
The premise of Foundation is quite interesting and difficult to adapt for entertainment purposes. It is directly based on Asimov novels, where pure mathematics if understood correctly, can sometimes predict the rise and fall of entire civilizations in the future.
In many many years, mankind fled Earth to explore other galaxies and discovered the ability to fold time and space to travel to the speed of light. Having realized that AI posed an imminent threat to humans (classic Asimov), all robots and AI entities were automatically banned, so only a few still remain, hidden in a society like Replicants in the Blade Runner universe. In order to preserve the peace among all the habitable planets, the Imperium was born under the first Emperor Cleon the 1st. In order to maintain his rule, the first Emperor decided to continue his lineage century after century by cloning younger versions of himself to grow to become Emperors after him (Lee Pace, Terrence Mann and Cassian Bilton at different stages of their life). Although many systems in the galaxy follow the rule of the Imperium, two distinct communities, the Anacreons and the Thespis, are at war and do not operate under the rule of the Emperor. Many centuries passed, until a brilliant mathematician by the name of Hari Seldon (excellent Jared Harris), and his protégé Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell) announced a troubling prophecy through complex equations and algorithms: the Empire will fall in about 500 years, leaving mankind and its resources in complete ruin.
Urging the Emperor and the city to listen to reason and act before the Empire is completely destroyed, Seldon is able to convince him to exile both him and his followers to a distant lifeless planet called Terminus. During their trip and once at their destination, they will start archiving the knowledge behind the progress of humanity into a hidden facility called: The Foundation. A few years later, the facility on Terminus is operating under the supervision of a local ‘sheriff’, Warden Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey) and the rest of the colonists composed of scientists and engineers. Hoping that they will be able to save enough information before it is too late, the Foundation on Terminus is humanity’s only hope to rebuild after the great conflicts that will lead to the end of civilization.
The first cinematic element that jumps right at your face upon first viewing is the SPECTACULAR visual effects (partly executed in my home city of Montreal in fact). You will marvel at the beauty and complexity of the architecture of Trantor, the capital of the Empire were more than 3 trillion citizens live and pled allegiance to the Imperium. The other planets and the vastness of space have a significant depth that is noticeable in too few sci-fi productions, making all the images pop. Once again, Foundation proves that TV is an elegant and capable media to carry such a heavy story set in a brand new universe.
Secondly, the narrative premise based on Asimov’s work is quite good! Rare are contemporary productions that base the wonders of sci-fi fantasy, space travel and future prediction on pure mathematics, which brings a small layer of realism and complexity to the story. In other words, even if we are thousands of years into the future, we easily wonder if this would be a possible outcome for humanity once we leave Earth…if we do (lol). Interesting touch: the cultural and spiritual beliefs on some of the worlds reflect the current religious divides between countries today on Earth, making religion a subject of tension…sometimes events conflict with the Imperium. Is an eternal Emperor cloning himself generation after generation is the ultimate God figure, let’s just say people have a different opinion on it.
Of course, beyond the visuals and an interesting narrative premise, the show isn’t quite perfect just yet. It is pretty clear that Apple had high hopes for this show, for it to maybe become what Game of Thrones was to HBO. After one season, I’m afraid there is still so major work to do! After 10 episodes, we’re left confused and partly satisfied.
After the first 2 very compelling episodes, where a lot happens to set the stage for the exodus of the Foundation colonists, the rest of the show takes its time…maybe a little too much. After which, three storylines will be established for the rest of the season: the journey of Salvor Hardin with the Foundation on Terminus, Gaal Dornick’s journey under the guidance and supervision of Hari Seldon and the rule of the Cleons on Trantor. Although some storylines are profound and are able to keep us captivated, some lack gravitas and stagnate (I’m looking at you, Gaal). In other words, for the entire middle part of the season, the story drags its feet too much and we can lose interest in some of the individual journeys and their relevance in the whole scheme of things. We get some answers only very late in the game, in the second act of the last episode.
My personal favourite portion of the show was, hands down, Lee Pace’s Cleon and his brothers, as well their AI servant Demerzel (Laura Birn, fascinating character). What is so fascinating about them is that we are not totally sure if we should love or hate them. They are depicted as tyrants, but we witness them in their everyday lives trying to get by as politicians, which makes them incredibly relatable. Some of the clones seem to have a good heart, while others like to play Mussolini. Hari Seldon predicts the fall of the Empire under their reign, and we can understand why, observing their aggressive nature. Delicious villains, we want to see more of them if there’s a season 2, the series is worth it just for them.
The entire first season is now available on Apple TV+ for you to watch. If you found yourself really entertained by shows like Raised by Wolves, the new Dune by Denis Villeneuve or even The Mandalorian for that matter, Foundation might very well be your next stop. It has all the key ingredients of contemporary science fiction to make this story both complex and marvelling enough for us in 2021, as this is a good adaptation of the source material, with what they chose to adapt at least.
I wouldn’t call this show a masterpiece nor an instantaneous success yet, but the pillars of this foundation (pun intended) have the potential for more seasons. Let’s hope Apple will go in that direction…considering that the whole arc of the book series takes place over a full millennium!