2021 for all its faults, is offering fans of classic science fiction two (potential) treats: a new movie version of Dune and a TV adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. It’s interesting that of these two highly influential stories that with first you can make a good guess about what specific scenes will appear and in the second I’ve no idea what we will be getting.
Towards the end of episode 1 of Foundation, Hari Seldon’s science of psychohistory is explained as being able to predict the flow of history but not individual actions. Fans of Asimov’s Foundation books find ourselves in the same position. We know the shape of the century-spanning plot, what Terminus will become, what will happen to the Empire, how Seldon’s plans go awry (and why and because of whom) and how they get back on track. At the same time, it was obvious from the start that a Foundation dramatisation was going to have to do more than flesh out Asimov’s characters. In the second half of the second book in the trilogy when The Mule (name-checked at the start of Episode 1) is where Asimov’s Foundation shifts gear into something more easily adapted for a TV show. Getting there is going to require new characters, motivations and plot twists over the top of Asimov’s original short stories.
Episode 1 unapologetically launches into the process with some new characters with old names. We first meet (briefly) Salvor Hardin on Terminus in a flash-forward from the main events of the episode and I assume Episode 2 she will be the main character — although I assume that aside from the gender change, she’s not intended to be particularly like the character from Asimov’s “The Encyclopedists”.
A lot more time (and background) is devoted to Gaal Dornick. As with the character from the story “The Psychohistorians”, Dornick is a mathematician recruited by the famed Dr Hari Seldon to work with him on Trantor on his theory of psychohistory. For the episode, Dornick is from a watery planet with a highly religious culture that eschews (and later we learn, persecutes) science and scientists. To work with Seldon, Dornick has not only left her family and home but has cut ties with her religion and culture. I’m not sure why they picked this particular back story as it largely undermines the dilemmas Dornick is faced with (e.g. fleeing Trantor and returning home is also a potential death sentence).
In a choice that I cannot but applaud, the show has really ramped up the space-opera visuals, to give everything a strong fantastical look. Some of the spaceships have a definite Foss look to them, and there’s a definite concern about visual style. To add to the space opera, we also have the Galactic Emperors intervening directly in the events. A triumvirate of clones known as Brother Dusk (an ageing emperor), Brother Day (in mid-life) and Brother Dawn (a boy), who maintain the imperial office in a continuous rule.
And, well, we know the score. Seldon predicts the empire will collapse, that is seen as seditious, maybe they’ll kill him, and after some alarming things happen…they decide to exile his project to the remote planet of Terminus where it won’t do any harm if it is nonsense and where it might be useful if it isn’t.
It’s a slow episode but with a decent cast and dialogue that avoids being terrible. Jared Harris is a plausible Hari Seldon, Lee Pace is almost type-cast as the calculating Brother Day clone of the Emperor. Lou Llobell does a decent job as Gaal Dornick but I felt like the writers were confused about who the character should be.
Looking at the listings at IMDB, many of the actors in episode 1 will be recurring characters throughout the series. That’s going to be interesting but I suspect it also points to the show taking its time to get through the next two chapters of the first novel in the trilogy.
Thematically, I thought episode 1 was oddly faithful to the general Asimovian approach. I say ‘oddly’ because the addition of the whole anti-science religion of Synnax felt off to me but also fitting in with Asimov’s glorification of the rational over superstition. Laying it all on a bit too thick perhaps when the writers had a chance to take a bit more of a critical eye to Asimov’s technocratic dreams.
Anyway, overall, nice cast, mainly clever choices, big space opera visuals and long episodes. I will be watching more. I wonder what happens next? Sadly, no robots not even a hint of a one secretly controlling everything after wandering off from a different set of books.