The first few episodes of the new Apple TV+ series “Foundation” are a mesmerizing prologue. Sprawling, shimmering, and meditative, they set into motion a centuries-spanning tale of individuals from divergent walks of life, all trying to master their own fate.
There’s the mathematician Hari Seldon (Jared Harris), whose complex behavioral models may hold the key to understanding the future. There are the leaders on the ruling capital city-planet Trantor, governing an empire of trillions as a triad, made from the same genetic material as their single ancestor — through various incarnations they are represented as Dawn (played at different ages by Cooper Carter and Cassian Bilton), Day (Lee Pace), and Dusk (Terrence Mann). There’s the would-be Seldon protege Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell), who forsakes the pious, orthodox ways of her home planet for a life spent in pursuit of science. And on a distant world, there’s Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey), introduced as a legend in the making, though her history isn’t yet written.
All of these ideas are introduced in tantalizing fashion. Jumping around in a near-abstract disregard for chronology, “Foundation” flowers as the same kind of collected-works reality that characterizes the wide-reaching Isaac Asimov book series the show draws from. It’s thrilling to see a show embrace that approach to source material so dense, creating a kind of anthology in miniature. In that early going, showrunner David S. Goyer and co-writer/co-creator Josh Friedman create a sense that these plotlines are all of a piece, but not beholden to each other. Piecing together the scale and implications of events in each fragment of the whole is, in this case, a satisfying way to be dropped into a universe of vibrant detail, even in the more barren landscapes at the outer reaches of the empire.
In some sense, it’s an introduction that’s too good to be true. Maybe it’s possible that no series-length adaptation of a beloved, totemic work of science fiction, itself a series of doorstop installments with its own far-reaching lore, was ever going to keep itself pinned to the heady contemplations and minute parsing that give these early episodes their distinct feel. Seldon’s prognostications bring warnings of warfare, collapse, and ruin for the imperial civilization. The “Foundation” of the series’ title doesn’t refer to the stronghold of Trantor, but a theoretical self-contained society, where Seldon and his acolytes can preserve all the cherished elements of their world while the one they’ve left behind crumbles light years away.
So before long, there are gun battles and mutinous plots and fledgling rebellions, the kind of developments you expect from something labeled a “saga,” regardless of what genre it embraces. What “Foundation” becomes is something more recognizable to fans of franchises already familiar with dense convoluted webs of tribal alliances and space jargon meant to shrink the universe. On some level, that’s likely by design, given that the longterm survival of the series is built on attracting the kind of invested (and sometimes rabid) audience that has followed the handful of shows, film trilogies, and impending remakes you could easily rattle off.
But the value of “Foundation” (and what occasionally gives it a leg up on some of those other dormant fictional universes) is that it salvages the potential from those opening hours, even if it doesn’t always capitalize on it. It’s a show that effectively has multiple spinoffs generating inside itself at any given time. There’s no need for a separate series or even a bottle episode to jump across centuries to find some long-dead character operating in their prime. Those avenues are open, casually traced to fit the need of looking at some thematic connection or galactic precedent.
A major part of this freedom is understandably budgetary. There’s the obvious grandeur and detailed realization of Trantor, a triumph of spectacle all by itself. The gradual progression from new set to new ship to new planet to new representation of space-folding travel demonstrates just how many moving parts “Foundation” is juggling. The show is at its best when it matches the specificity of its character work with the frequent opulence of its set design. (Even the most minimalist of rooms on the grounds of the imperial palace have a certain lavishness to them, if only in the sheer amount of space it can imply.)
Maybe unavoidably, some shagginess comes with that splendor. It’s not that “Foundation” is burdened by its elaborate visual flourishes, hopping between a capital touched by art-deco influences and ship designs of all functioning geometrical shapes. It’s that the writing of “Foundation” — particularly in its middle episodes — can sometimes feel caught between matching that same sense of scope while also being accessible. In trying to connect to the literary origins of the story, the voiceovers that open nearly every episode end up straining for the kind of profound insights that are usually present when the camera simply turns to what is already there. To open a series like “Foundation” does, with minimal overt guidance through this prism of galactic history, only makes the season’s later, more telegraphed turns feel like a return to expectations.
And there’s always the genre danger that trying too hard to remove all phrases and idioms that come from modern-day, well, Earth could render every conversation unintelligible. But for a show with so much attention to detail elsewhere, it’s surprising how casual its approach is to the “Looks like meat’s back on the menu, boys!” paradox. (Of note: We’re shown plenty of ripples caused by religious movements specific to this universe, but when one character says, “Oh geez!” it’s hard not to wonder about the existence of some unmentioned Space Jesus.) As “Foundation” pulls back to reveal worlds and peoples beyond those seen on Trantor, and the fights become more physical than ideological, there’s a relative flattening that sees less of that valuable specificity.
Still, the cast, filled with seasoned veterans and commanding newcomers, largely renders those quibbles moot. As various versions of Empire Day, Pace becomes the ideal embodiment of a faux-magnanimous, entitled autocrat whose steely exterior rarely betrays his internal misgivings. He dispenses judgment, while burnishing the idea those decisions carry the weight of innate wisdom. Pace’s ability to wield phrases from “starbridge” to “mausoleum of calculus” with his own particular gravitas becomes a key special effect all its own. That projected assuredness makes a nice contrast with Gail and Salvor, two characters who have the potential of generation-defining skills, but come by their own sense of confidence along a decidedly different path. Llobell and Harvey each carry those respective journeys of discovery, ably handling long stretches where these potential leaders of tomorrow are left to find out answers all on their own.
Through it all, Seldon remains a focal point, haunting individuals who never met him and molding the trajectories of those that have. Harris brings an easy charm to the role, as a beloved professor whose fame stretches far across his chosen campus. The project that Seldon’s plan leads to (and all the resultant threads that spin out from pivotal moments and decisions along the way) becomes a fun bit of meta-commentary for “Foundation.” What is building a brand new civilization if not “world-building” in the strictest sense? Seldon effectively assembles his own fledgling cast, becoming a showrunner with the highest stakes imaginable. He aims for trust from his collaborators, which “Foundation” at least attempts to show him earning.
There are times when Seldon’s revolutionary theories function as a MathGuffin, even despite the early discussions of unsolved theoretical problems and the merits of different numeral systems. Still, it’s the most compelling idea both in the world of the series and in “Foundation” itself, partly because it most feels like it exists outside the genre feedback loop that the titanic influence of Asimov’s work helped to generate in the first place. Even if the central premise of the series hadn’t tipped its hand, this was always going to be a show rooted in questions of free will, autonomy, and collective obligation, that ripple throughout the author’s vast bibliography.
When “Foundation” draws on that core, and manages to make discussions of those questions more intuitive than didactic, it’s invigorating to see so many component parts work in tandem. Seldon’s stated aim isn’t to make a new world in his image, but to be humanity’s informational and institutional bulwark against an empire in decline. It’s not to create a replica, but to take elements worth saving and use them as the core for something singular and lasting. “Foundation” sometimes falls short of that same lofty ambition, but there’s more than enough here to make it a universe well worth occupying beyond this initial season-long glimpse.
“Foundation” premiered its first two episodes Friday, September 24 on Apple TV+. New episodes will be released weekly.