Take one series of sci-fi books by the king of the genre Isaac Asimov. Add writer David S Goyer (known for Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy and Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel), a galaxy full of money and king of television Jared Harris to star in it … and you have Foundation, a major new release from Apple TV+.
An interstellar empire is ruled by three men – or possibly only one, depending on how you account for the fact that they are all clones of the original emperor Cleon, decanted at various ages. There’s a boy/young man (Brother Dawn, played by Cooper Carter and later Cassian Bilton), a middle-aged Brother Day (Lee Pace) and an older Brother Dusk (Terrance Mann), who live on planet Trantor and have kept the galactic peace for generations but become, as you might suspect, un peu smug and complacent in the process. They eat a lot of roast peacock.
Galactic genius Hari Seldon (Harris) puts a metaphorical bomb under them by announcing that his expertise in psychohistory (the practice of working out the future mathematically, like the high heid yins in Loki, who clearly didn’t tell him it’s more trouble than it’s worth) has shown that the empire will fall and plunge the galaxy into 30,000 years of chaos. If they listen to him, Seldon reckons this can be reduced to 1,000 years. For this relief he receives a death sentence rather than thanks. As does Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell), the mathematical supergenius he has recruited to help him and whom the emperors hoped in vain would disprove his theories.
Before they can be executed, however, a less metaphorical bomb goes off, which destroys Trantor’s starbridge, kills millions and causes the show’s ponderous pace to pick up slightly. Soon, Seldon has permission to set up the Foundation at the edge of the galaxy: a repository of all knowledge designed to withstand the coming interplanetary convulsions. It will also help rebuild the empire within the single millennium as promised, rather than let everyone suffer through 30 of the buggers. Off they go, and the second episode follows them on their ship while the emperors back home try to work out who set the bomb and why.
It all looks great (even if some of the costumes are a touch too blouson-y for anyone who remembers the 80s). Every penny of the budget is up on screen. But like many so many heavyweight adaptations, Foundation is definitely not light on its feet. It takes itself very seriously indeed and evidently feels that it has Much To Say at all times. Which it undoubtedly does: about the corrupting nature of power, the inevitability of imperial decay (a favourite subject of Asimov after he read Gibbons’ History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire), and humanity’s unwillingness to face unpalatable truths even in order to mitigate them.
However, the constant showcasing of this fact has a rather deadening effect. Everyone is earnest and burdened. Everyone stands for all things at all times. Happiness is fleeting. There is no smiling in the future (though there are some terrible voiceovers and some decidedly ropey acting at points). This is especially true by the end of episode two, with its unexpected twist.
As a new sci-fi show, it would be fine. As a big-budget, flagship production for Apple it looks like a fine opportunity wasted.