Before we get to the meat of the post, I’d like to point you to my latest article over at Galactic Journey, where I review the first episode of the classic West German science fiction TV series Raumpatrouille Orion, which debuted in September 1966, only nine days after Star Trek. I will be reviewing the remaining episodes of Raumpatrouille Orion as well, so stay tuned.
Getting to do episode by episode reviews of Orion, while pretending to be a viewer in 1966 who’s never seen the show before, is something something I’ve been looking forward a long time now.
By contrast, the adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s classic Foundation series was something I was less looking forward to than dreading. Now you have to know that Asimov’s work in general and Foundation in particular were very, very important to me as a budding teenaged science fiction fan. They blew my mind and were my favourite books at the time. So a bad adaptation of Foundation would hurt me in a way that e.g. the shitty Earthsea adaption of the 2000s or the terrible Sci-Fi Channel Dune miniseries didn’t.
And I had good reason to fear that Foundation would be terrible, because Asimov adaptations have traditionally always been terrible and Foundation is probably the most difficult of his works to adapt. If you want to adapt Asimov, an Elijah Bailey/R. Daneel Olivaw police procedural would be the way to go (and in fact I’m surprised that no one ever made one) or maybe Powell, Donovan and Calvin: Robot Trouble Shooters, starring David Tennant as Mike Donovan, Adrian Lester as Gregory Powell and Cate Blanchett as Susan Calvin. Hey, I can dream, can I?
But Foundation? Yes, my 16-year-old self would have killed for a Foundation TV show and indeed she is the reason I watched and reviewed it, because she would not forgive me. But my 48-year-old self says, “Ahem, better leave that one alone and film something that’s easier to adapt and also more suited to modern sensibilities.” Because Foundation is less a novel or several, but a series of interconnected short stories from the 1940s, which span a period of 500 years and have no continuing characters except for Hari Seldon’s wisdom dispensing hologram (and Daneel, if you want to include him). Worse, the characters that make up the cast of the individual stories are rather underdeveloped and not particularly memorable. Also, the first five stories, which make up the first book, are a little dull, heavy on the talking and low on action. All the really exciting stuff, which will leave you at the edge of your seat with your jaw dropping open, happens in books 2 and 3. So in short, Foundation is extremely difficult to adapt, probably impossible, if you take Hollywood’s insistence that their audiences are stupid into account.
But no one wants my opinion and so, after decades of trying, Apple has finally adapted Foundation series for its streaming service. This was another reason for caution, because though Apple’s streaming service throws a whole lot of money at “prestige” shows, hardly anybody really seems to watch those or care – except for that one weird sitcom starring the “Shame, Shame” woman from Game of Thrones and a guy in a track suit, which has won every Emmy in existence this year. As for their other shows, the most popular one seems to be For All Mankind, a US-aggrandizing space race alternate history which I have zero interest in. There’s also a post-apocalyptic show starring Jason Momoa as a badass blind fighter which sounds great in theory, but which no one seems to watch in practice, and something called The Morning Show which starrs Jennifer Aniston and is advertised all over the place. Those ads make me actively angry, because apparently advertisers believe that just because I’m a woman, I will be interested in a workplace show starring Jennifer Aniston. Advertise Foundation to me or the Jason Momoa show or even For All Mankind, cause I might actually watch those. I will never watch a workplace show starring Jennifer Aniston.
Early reviews for Foundation were also not exactly encouraging either. Leaving aside the nonsense ones from mainstream reviewers who neither like nor get SF and probably should be watching that Jennifer Aniston show, the reviews by critics who actually like SF were mixed. Those who have not read the books generally seemed to like it. Those who have read the books were a lot more divided. Some seemed to like it, some say it’s not as terrible as they had feared and some disliked it such as Steve Davidson of Amazing Stories and Rob Bricken of io9, whose review probably has my favourite headline of them all: “They Said Foundation Couldn’t Be Filmed and It Still Hasn’t Been.”
I expected to find myself agreeing with Steve Davidson or Rob Bricken, who disliked it, but instead I found myself in agreement with Camestros Felapton and Ben Lindbergh of The Ringer, who was positively surprised that Foundation was not as terrible as he had feared.
However, “not as terrible as I feared” does not necessarily mean “good”. So let’s see how “The Emperor’s Peace”, the first episode of Foundation, holds up.
Warning: Spoilers beyond this point!
“The Emperor’s Peace” follows the plot of “The Psychohistorians”, the first story in the first Foundation book, which was specifically written as an introduction for the publication of the book version in 1951. Now “The Psychohistorians” is short, only thirty pages in the 1983 Panther Books paperback edition that I have. It follows Gaal Dornick, a math prodigy from the backwater planet of Synnax, who arrives in the Imperial capital of Trantor to work with star mathematician and creator of the science of psychohistory Hari Seldon. Gaal wanders around Trantor a bit to take in the sights, meets a random traveller named Jerril who turns out to be a spy and winds up getting embroiled in the conflict between Seldon and the authorities of the Galactic Empire, who find his gloom and doom predictions disruptive. When Gaal Dornick refuses to refute Seldon’s theories, Seldon and Dornick are put on trial for sedition and exiled to the planet Terminus at the furthest edge of the empire, something that Seldon reveals he had planned all along.
All this actually happens in the first episode of Foundation, which is a good sign. And yes, Jerril the Imperial spy (played by League of Gentlemen‘s Reese Shearsmith) is also in the original story, as is Gaal’s lawyer Lors Avakim, now gender-swapped and portrayed by German-Iranian actress Proschat Madani (German viewers will remember her from Der letzte Bulle and lots of other TV appearances). Nor is Proschat Madani the only German castmember. Samir Fuchs, who plays the prosecutor at Hari Seldon’s and Gaal Dornick’s trial, is also German. Those two actors had me bothered, because I knew I recognised them from somewhere, but didn’t know from where and never even thought to consider German TV. The end credits also reveal that parts of Foundation were filmed in Germany (the Imperial library and the bit where Gaal and Jerril walk in the garden) and that the show was supported by German film grants. Now I think that German film grants should support German and EU productions (and try being a German filmmaker who wants to make an SF show with a fraction of Foundation‘s budget) and not Hollywood productions. On the other hand, at least this once a German film grant (and therefore my taxes) has supported the production of something I actually watch.
However, because “The Psychohistorians” is so very short and also not particularly thrilling, the writers filled up the rest of the one hour and ten minute long episode (at least ten minutes too long IMO) with all sorts of the stuff that is not in the story. Some of this works, some of it doesn’t.
In “The Psychohistorians”, Gaal Dornick is a cypher. We learn literally nothing about them except that they are a math prodicy from the planet Synnax and that they use he/him pronouns. In the TV show, Gaal Dornick is a young woman of colour, played by British actress Lou Llobell. I fully support this (and most of the other) gender swaps, because a) Gaal Dornick’s gender had zero impact on their role in the story, and b) there are exactly two female characters in the first Foundation book, both minor and both appearing only in the last story in the book, “The Big and the Little” a.k.a. “The Merchant Princes”. However, an all-male universe may have been acceptable in Astounding in the 1940s (and it was eye-rolly even back then), but not in the 21st century, so some characters are now female. As for people complaining that Foundation‘s universe is racially and culturally diverse, shut the fuck up. In the Galactic Empire novel The Currents of Space, set a few thousand years before Foundation, Asimov explicitly writes that the majority of the inhabitants of the Galactic Empire are mixed race and various shades of brown. Extremely light-skinned or extremely dark-skinned people are the exception. Oh yes, and Asimov wrote this in 1952, so honestly, just shut up.
Gaal’s homeplanet Synnax is now not just a backwater, but a waterlogged world ruled by religious fundamentalists who hate science and technology and tend to execute scientists and mathematicians as heretics. As backstories go, this one is really cliched and Gaal’s anxiety about her homeworld, her religion, etc… also takes up way too much screentime, but I’ll accept it, if only because I know that the “evil religious fundamentalists persecute scientists” plotline would have had John W. Campbell wetting his pants in joy.
The episode spends a lot of time following Gaal around first Synnax, then aboard a jump ship, then onto the spaceport/space elevator of Trantor and finally around Trantor. Occasionally, the show succumbs to 2001 syndrome and is a little too in love with its visuals and lingers longer than is strictly necessary. However, the visuals are absolutely gorgeous, so I’ll happily forgive them. Gaal’s homeworld of Synnax looks like the sort of obscure rim world from the Star Wars universe, where the Mandalorian and Baby Grogu might put in a pitstop. The spaceships look pleasantly reminiscent of Chris Foss, whose artwork adorned the covers of the Panther editions in which I first read those stories. The design of the Imperial capital of Trantor, meanwhile, goes for a gorgeous totalitarian Art Deco look, i.e. the variant of Art Deco favoured by early 20th century dictatorships, complete with murals, giant statues of the Emperor, etc… Considering that the Foundation stories originate in the 1940s, i.e. during the heyday of totalitarian Art Deco, this seems oddly appropriate.
That said, though my 16-year-old-self dreamed of getting to see Trantor (preferably, I would have moved there right away), my 48-year-old self was not nearly as thrilled to see Trantor, gorgeous as it is, than I would have thought. But then, I and everybody else of my generation already had our “Oh my God, it’s Trantor and it looks even more amazing than I thought” moment, when we got our first glimpse of Coruscant (which is Trantor by another name) in the Star Wars prequels in the late 1990s. By comparison, the real Trantor looks gorgeous (though I no longer want to move there, just visit), but the novelty is gone.
Jared Harris does not really match my mental image of Hari Seldon, but turns out to be perfect in the role, probably because “Professor who delivers infodumps and makes them sound interesting” is a role that Harris is really good at, also see Chernobyl. And indeed, he gets to give a fine primer of psychohistory, what it can and cannot do, during his trial. Harris also projects the exact right mixture of weariness, earnest concern and arrogance. This Hari Seldon is one hologram you’ll believe when he shows up to dispense cryptic advice.
One change from the books is that Seldon’s adopted son Raych, who dies in Forward the Foundation, is still alive in the series. However, since this Raych (played by British actor Alfred Enoch) is extremely handsome – a fact that is not lost on Gaal either – I have zero issues with this. No Dors Venabili, unfortunately, but then she might be a bit difficult to explain.
The most baffling change from the books is the role of the Galactic Emperor Cleon. Now the Galactic Emperor plays as much of a role in the first Foundation book as the US-president plays in a random episode of NCIS or Law and Order: SVU, namely none. Emperor Cleon is purely background detail and never even appears on stage. One of his successors does – in “The Dead Hand” a.k.a. “The General” – but that does not happen until the second book.
So what does Foundation do? It not only give the Galactic Emperor a big role, but also hires not one but three actors (Terrence Mann, Lee Pace and Cooper Carter) to play him. Because in the TV version of Foundation, Cleon isn’t just one person who will eventually be succeeded by his son or daughter, but a triumvirate of clones of different ages named Brother Dusk (an elderly man played by Terrance Mann), Brother Day (a man in the prime of his life played by Lee Pace) and Brother Dawn (a child played by Cooper Carter). Apparently, the original Cleon cloned himself several centuries ago and Cleon clones have been ruling the Empire ever since. When Brother Dawn grows up, he will eventually become Brother Day and then Brother Dusk. None of this ever happens in the book. If anything, it seems to be borrowed from Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy with its multi-bodied Emperor. Not that I wouldn’t love to see an Imperial Radch TV series, but the clone Emperors simply don’t fit into the Foundation universe IMO. I suspect when you’ve got Lee Pace, currently the go-to actor for ever so slightly unhinged galactic tyrants, you want to use him as much as possible. And since the emperors are all clones, Pace can simply reappear in future episodes set decades or even centuries down the timeline. However, Pace could also simply reappear as his own grandson. Members of aristocratic dynasties often resemble their ancestors – see the Habsburgs and their very notable facial characteristics, which were likely due to inbreeding.
The episode also spends almost as much time on the antics of the three Imperial clones as on the adventures of Hari Seldon and Gaal Dornick, even though IMO we don’t need to see the Emperors at all. And what do the Imperial Three do? Well, Brother Day shoots an uppity painter and sprays blood all over a spectacular mural, they eat roast peacock together, impart some lessons in governance to Brother Dawn and then receive two delegations from the rim worlds of Anacreon and Thesbis (those who’ve read the books will recognise the names as two of the future four kingdoms) to resolve a conflict. For reasons best known to themselves, the people of Anacreon dress up as tree trunks, while everybod from Thesbis looks like an extra from a Janelle Monaé video.
The whole Anacreon and Thesbis subplot is not in the book – the four kingdoms don’t appear until the second story. I suspect the reason they included it is to introduce the four kingdoms as a location and to hint at the fact that the Empire is already falling apart at this point in its history. Also, terrorists from Anacreon and Thesbis provide the episodes sole action sequence, namely a spectacular terrorist attack on Trantor’s spaceport/space elevator, which leaves the space elevator destroyed and millions dead. Now Trantor does not have a space elevator in the books – space elevators not yet being a thing in the 1940s and 1950s. But honestly, that’s one change I don’t mind at all, because it looks cool and also provides an impressive mass destruction sequence. I suspect it will also resonate with US audiences less than three weeks after the US remembered the twentieth anniversary of September 11, 2001.
The chief aide/adviser of the Emperors Three is Demerzel, played by Finnish actress Laura Birn. Now Demerzel is actually in the books, namely in the 1980s/1990s prequels Prelude to Foundation and Forward the Foundation, billed as Eto Demerzel. Like Gaal Dornick and Salvor Hardin for that matter, Eto Demerzel is male in the books and female in the show. Unlike Gaal and Salvor, however, this is one gender-swap that I do mind. Because you see, the character known as Eto Demerzel in the Foundation prequels is massively important in the Asimov universe. Because Eto Demerzel is one of the many aliases of R. Daneel Olivaw, robot extraordinaire and self-appointed guardian of humanity. Daneel gets a lot more description – and yes, personality – than Gaal Dornick or Salvor Hardin ever do. And while Laura Birch looks suitably robotic, I have serious issues with R. Daneel Olivaw being portrayed by a woman. Gender-swap the bloody Emperors Three before you gender-swap Daneel.
The terrorist attack spooks the Emperors Three and Daneel and they wonder whether there isn’t something to Hari Seldon’s dire predictions of the impending collapse of the Empire after all (Daneel, being Daneel, already is convinced anyway). And so they decide to exile Seldon and most of his followers (except for those who will be left behind to form the Second Foundation) to Terminus, a planet on the far edge of the Empire, which of course was Seldon’s plan all along. Terminus is where the prime Foundation will compile the Encyclopaedia Galactica, be a haven to preserve technology, science and learning and eventually become the nucleus of the new Empire.
One last baffling decision on the part of the producers is to open and close “The Emperor’s Peace” with a scene set on Terminus (played, as usual for forsaken backwater planets, by Iceland) in approx. 35 Foundation Era, where a bunch of kids try to get as close as they can to the Time Vault, where Hari Seldon will put in his first holographic appearance soon, before they are repealed by its forcefield. One of the kids gets too close and collapses and is rescued by a young black woman who introduces herself as Salvor Hardin (played by none-binary British actor Leah Harvey). Readers of the book will of course recognise the name, though this Salvor is quite different from their book counterpart. For starters, Salvor Hardin is male in the books, though as with Gaal Dornick, there really is no reason why Salvor couldn’t be a black woman or a black non-binary person instead. Salvor Hardin in the books is also Mayor of Terminus (and therefore the defacto ruler of the Foundation). This Salvor is someone who patrols the perimeter of Terminus City with a landspeeder and a rifle and who also happens to be the only person who can approach the Time Vault.
There is no real reason for the Terminus sequences to be in the first episode at all. Yes, Foundation tends to jump around in time, but this is an unnecessary time jump. I suspect the idea is to introduce Terminus, the Time Vault and Salvor to the audience, but again this is not necessary at this point. Save Salvor and the Time Vault for when they’re needed.
There’s also a voice over narration, spoken by a female voice, which namechecks a lot of locations and characters that will become important later on – Salvor Hardin, Hober Mallow (I hope he will get to remain male, because I want to see him engaging in nude sunbathing and cigar smoking with male friends), The Mule (Peter Dinklage, please, cause he would be absolutely perfect), Star’s End. I’m not sure who the narrator is, though I suspect it’s either Bayta or Arkady Darrell. As for the purpose of that voice-over, I suspect the idea is to reassure viewers, “Yes, we’ve read the books and we get them. Please bear with us.”
The basic premise of Foundation – the Galactic Empire will collapse, ushering in a Dark Age lasting 30000 years, unless we follow Hari Seldon’s plan, which will shorten that Dark Age to a mere 1000 years – is still one of our genre’s broadest and most mind-blowing canvasses. Asimov borrowed the idea – and several of the plots from The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, a favourite source of story ideas among early and mid 20th century SFF writers. Of course, we now know that the idea of the Middle Ages as “the Dark Ages” is faulty and based on Enlightenment era prejudices. However, it still makes for a compelling narrative.
Foundation‘s take on the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is viewed through the lens of WWII and Cold War anxieties about the role of the US in the world, something which became a lot more notable to me, when I reread the first four stories for the Retro Hugos recently. Also – and this must be said – psychohistory (which is actually portrayed as a branch of the social sciences in the books, whereas it’s a math discipline in the series) is complete and utter nonsense. It does not work, never did and never will. It’s pure fiction.
But nonsense or not, Foundation‘s core narrative of the decline and eventually destruction of a once mighty civilisation and the small group of enlightened people who fight to stave off the dark ages is still incredibly powerful, especially when read at the right age. It’s a story that speaks to smart teenagers who are beginning to see that there is so much wrong with the world that could be fixed, only that no one listens to them, and who fear that things will get worse instead of better, because the signs of decay and decline are there, if you look for them. There is a reason that the series has influenced countless people, people as disparate as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs, Paul Krugman and Osama Bin Laden, though they all took different lessons from it, some of them very harmful indeed.
The WWII and Cold War anxieties that influenced Asimov no longer apply nor does the late 1980s lens through which I interpreted those stories. But the great thing about Foundation is that you can apply the basic story of impending doom and collapse, unless the smart chosen ones do something about it, to any age.
Two of the main concerns of our age are climate change and the covid pandemic, both of which also have an “enlightened scientists versus reactionary politicians who just won’t listen” conflict baked in. So it’s kind of obvious that Foundation will be viewed through those lenses by younger viewers who are only encountering the story now for the first time. That said, I hoped that the show would let viewers draw their own parallels and conclusions and not turn Foundation into an obvious covid and/or climate change analogue, even though that’s very seductive.
Luckily, they did not do a covid analogue, probably because the series was already in production, when the pandemic hit. And indeed, it would be unsuitable, because the complete and utter failure of all the mathetical models to predict the pandemic (usually involving horror scenarios with countless people dead and ill) only shows that no, psychohistory doesn’t work, not even on a very limited scale.
However, there is a shoehorned in line where Gaal says something that the superstitious people on her planet refused to listen to the scientists who said that there sea levels were rising which is actively painful. Because while Foundation can be interpreted as a climate change parable. it doesn’t really work, because the main message of Foundation is “Science, technology and math can solve everything.” Or, as Hari Seldon says to Raych, “Everything is going to be all right. We’ll find a solution.” This is a hopeful message, but it’s not the message peddled by groups like Fridays for Future (who staged a giant “climate strike” on the day the first episode dropped) or Extinction Rebellion, who are highly technophobic and see regression and not technological progress as the solution to climate change.
Fridays for Future or Extinction Rebellion did not exist in the 1980s, when I first read Foundation. Nonetheless, I recognise their message, because the technophobic and regressive environmentalism was just as virulent in the 1980s as today, even if the main concerns (acid rain, forest die-back, the ozone hole, nuclear disasters) were different. Then as now, this strain of environmentalism was particularly strong in schools and universities and among the Green Party. Being a rather argumentative teenager, who talked back and asked questions, as well as someone whose father worked in the environmental industry and who therefore knew a thing or two, I often got into arguments and fights with those people. I also was bullied for defending my Dad and the waste disposal company he worked for at the time. I don’t want to go into details, except that these experiences left me with a high appreciation for the engineers and scientist who actually work to solve environmental issues and an intense dislike for the Green Party and groups like Greenpeace who have no solutions, only proclamations of doom and admonitions to change our wicked ways. And when my teen self first read Foundation, I immediately identified the technophobic and regressive strain of environmentalism as a threat and potential source of decline.
So you can see why I was angry at Gaal’s line about rising sea levels, because while Foundation could be viewed as a climate change parable, Hari Seldon would not be protesting with Fridays for Future or Extinction Rebellion nor would he vote Green. Instead, he’s hang out at events like the renewable energy meet-up I attended two weeks ago, where the people who are actually looking for solutions and implementing them are. And believe me, you don’t see stereotypical eco-activists there nor does anybody there vote Green. Instead, it’s farmers, engineers, craftsmen and small business owners who largely vote conservative.
To get back to Foundation, I was pleasantly surprised that the first episode actually stuck to the book and that at least some of the added subplots made sense. So I’m cautiously optimistic for the rest of the series.
Because we’re apparently all couch potatoes who have nothing better to do with our lives than consume a lot of streaming video, Apple dropped the first two episodes all at once. I will review the second episode, though I’m not sure if I’ll do episode by episode reviews, because this stuff takes up a lot of time.
Also, don’t expect commentary on the German general election from me tomorrow, because it’s very likely there will be none. I have rarely dreaded a general election so much as this one, because there are no good choices here, there is a very high chance that things will get worse for me personally, no matter who wins (As a single, self-employed woman without children and with retirement savings, I’m the enemy for all of them), and all three would-be chancellors are varying levels of incompetent and just plain terrible. Not to mention that this was most toxic election campaign in decades with disgusting hastags trending on Twitter almost every single day. This was truly an election to vote for the lesser evil and hope that the worse evil won’t come to pass. I don’t even want to think about it and I certainly don’t want to talk about it.