'Foundation' first season sets the stage for TV's most cerebral space opera

Lee Pace and Jared Harris play characters who are polar opposites in every conceivable way. — Picture courtesy of Apple
Lee Pace and Jared Harris play characters who are polar opposites in every conceivable way. — Picture courtesy of Apple

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KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 25 — David Goyer has probably been asked too many times if he felt any trepidation about adapting Isaac Asimov's Foundation series for TV.

That's what I gathered when he answered that question at a media roundtable by simply saying: “The show is not the books.”

It's not that Goyer is not a fan of the originals, certainly not. “I count myself as one of those fans who reveres the books.”

His intent is to reach beyond those fans. “Something like this has to be able to work for a very, very broad audience.”

Finding the audience

After watching the entire season, I would say that in a way Goyer has succeeded.

Foundation won't be for everyone.

Asimov himself, Goyer said, knew that whoever tried to adapt the Foundation series would have to take liberties.

It's the nature of the books themselves; they were not written as linear, straightforward narratives.

Foundation started off as a series of compiled short stories that Asimov soon added on to with more books.

Yet, the heart of the narrative has not changed ― and that is Hari Seldon, played by Jared Harris, the genius mathematician whose pronouncements were treated not as statements derived from earnest calculations but fallible prophecies and dangerous heresy.

The fear and rejection of science; is it not a mirror of not just our current times, but of history?

That is the conceit and intrigue of Foundation, the TV show. As the Roman Empire rejected any perceived threats whether they were in the guise of so-called prophets, so did the three-headed emperor of the Galaxy.

Three-headed as in a curious trinity, created not by Asimov, but by Goyer for this show.

Goyer said that the emperors in the Foundation series were just names that came and went, never truly fleshed out.

In the TV show, there is only one emperor... in three bodies. One emperor who decided to live forever by cloning himself multiple times so that at any one time there would be three - Brother Dawn, Brother Day, and Brother Dusk. One young, one in his prime, and another waiting out the years until his coming end.

A curious and twisted trinity that brings an unexpected dimension to Foundation: humanity.

The Emperor(s) have no clothes

Lee Pace, who plays Brother Day or the Emperor in his prime, said that it was important to him that his character feels human.

“I very much think about the character, like an actor. Approaching roles, different actors, approaching roles. I believe that he, you know, in the course of this first season discovers his humanity.”

“I think he is fulfilling the office of a God, but he's not a God. Right. He's not a God. And I think he learns that,” said Pace.

The concept of this odd trinity ruling the Empire could easily come across as ludicrous but it is obvious that Pace did the work.

Of all the three personages that form the ruling trio, Pace's Brother Day easily stands out and by the end of the show it is not Harris' mathematician-turned-world-saviour you feel the most empathy for, but Pace's emperor.

How lonely can it be having no real companion allowed to get close to you, but yourself, even if they are cloned versions of you? Foundation answers those questions with Pace proving a skillful narrator.

“I think one of the pleasures of Foundation is going to be watching the emperor suffer,” Pace said, laughing.

Twisting narratives

Though Pace's tortured emperor is perhaps the best reason to keep watching the show, it's not that the other players aren't watchable.

Jared Harris is almost too believable in his role as the crotchety mathematician who would just like to get on with saving the world, thanks.

Yet there lies both frustration and the show's weakest point ― Seldon wants the emperor, wants everyone, really, to believe in his pronouncements that if something isn't done 30,000 years of darkness would come after the death of the Empire.

There is Gall Dornick (Lou Llobell), his apprentice and unwitting protége who believes in his predictions and yet, like us, is often left in the dark at crucial moments.

This often-used trope of keeping grand reveals for later just to keep narratives going can be useful sometimes but in Foundation is tiresome. Dornick is rightfully angry at Seldon, her mentor, whom she at first idolises but then is livid for not being told crucial things and given very little agency.

Dornick's character does exist in the books but in the TV version is gender bent into a woman, something that will not affect the narrative but will probably ruffle a few fan feathers.

Because Foundation just loves its contrasts, Leah Harvey plays Salvor Hardin, also originally a man in the books but here is a woman of action, not of maths, unlike Llobell's Gall.

The math prodigy versus the battle-worn protector ― not roles often given to women in sci-fi are welcome but sometimes the contrasts between the characters, not to mention the non-linear format of the episodes, with flashbacks and time skips can mean watching the show can get a little confusing.

Harvey's Hardin provides the few ass-kicking moments in the show with guns and hand-to-hand combat galore but at times the non-symmetry of Hardin's life on the new outpost Terminus and the various threads of the other character's narratives can make watching the show slightly challenging.

Foundation is not a show to binge. It is easier to go an episode at a time, thinking on certain bits and hoping they make more sense when you watch the next episode.

If you think of the first season as an opener, the start of an overarching grand adventure, Foundation will be easier to stomach. As it is, though, brilliant casting and great acting aside, it would have been nice to have moments of levity to temper the show's over-serious nature.

Is Foundation worth a watch? I would say yes, with caveats. Watch if you're intrigued by the questions Asimov's works have pondered and want to see some attempts at thinking them over in a TV show, avoid if you like your sci-fi fast-paced with aliens and blasters.

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