Review: Foundation Episode 4

Well, we are still on chapter 2 but given they want a multi-series show out of three thin books, that is maybe not a surprise. What is becoming clear is what this show is. It is a show set in the Foundation “universe” if we can imagine such a thing if Asimov’s patchwork of fix-em-up novels and later career sequels/prequels had actually been an act of epic fantasy style worldbuilding. I think that helps answer a question Cora raised in her review of Episode 3:

“Therefore, I wonder why the screenplay is falling over its own feet to tell us how very special Salvor Hardin is. It seems as if every second line in the Terminus scenes is “She’s different”, “She’s special” and the like. For Salvor is the only one who can approach the Time Vault without succumbing to nosebleeds and fainting spells. And once, as a child, she even claimed that the Vault was calling to her. In the series, Salvor is special the way Gaal was/is special, even though neither of them was special in the books. Book Salvor and Book Gaal are very intelligent and shrewd people, but special they’re not.”

Episode 4 gives some of this away but I’ll add a fold for spoilers.

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Review: Foundation Episode 3

A shorter episode this week but one that takes its time and fits in two stories: one on Trantor and one on Terminus, both set about 20 years after the last episode. The events at the end of Episode 2 are not touched on, even at a point in the dialogue where Hari Seldon’s death is relevant. For those keeping track, I note that IMDB credits actor Lou Llobell (who plays Gaal Dornick) as having a voice role in this episode, which I believe confirms that she is the narrator?

The first 15-20 minutes is set on Trantor and follows the Clone Emperor Brother Dusk in the closing days of his life. Because everybody has aged, actor Terrence Mann has to play Brother Dusk and play Brother Day (last episode played by Lee Pace), whereas Brother Dawn is now an adult. I really like this idea, which has shades of Ann Leckie’s Radch trilogy but also touches on elements from Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire.

I really enjoyed this initial segment. Aside from being thoughtful and visually rich, it conveys well the idea of the serial-Cleons as distinct characters as well as phases of the same character. Look what science fiction can do! There’s no protracted discussion about the nature or ethics of cloning (…or galactic Empires but I’ll get to that) but we get an interesting and character-led engagement with ideas of self, ageing and legacy.

I think it is also an excellent defence of this project as a whole. None of this is in Asimov’s books but it is a set of rich science-fictional ideas applied to create an engaging story. It even emulates to a degree the ancestry of Foundation as short fiction. The quarter-hour story of Brother Dusk’s last days isn’t quite a short story structurally as it relies too much on prior events and as a set-up for later events, but it is also self-contained in other ways.

Nice, but I’m mindful of how badly a series with promising elements can run off the rails. I wonder if I should have waited until a whole season had dropped before reviewing? We will see.

I do need to talk about Demerzel though, so avoid spoilers from here.

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Review: Foundation Episode 2

Episode 1 took the short and thin Asimov story ‘The Psychohistorians’ and expanded it into a minor epic but the bones of the story were there. However, even at that rate of expansion, Asimov’s Foundation novels are not going to be sufficient material to sustain an epic miniseries, never mind several seasons.

Which takes us to episode 2 where we discover how the showrunners intend to fabricate a Game of Thrones from Asimov’s entertaining but thin material. I also learn the very obvious clue I was looking for and didn’t spot in episode 1 and from here on in we get actual, genuine spoilers…

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Review: Foundation Episode 1 (Apple TV)

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.

Lodestar 2021 Review: Legendborn by Tracy Deonn

We have a lot more reading time this year in the Hugo Awards than usual and I’ve found I’ve made some dents into categories I don’t normally get to. My biggest problem with longer fiction is that my reading time for novels is now almost exclusively when I’m exercising which means audiobooks. I’ve recently launched myself into reading Seanann McGuire’s October Daye series but that’s a post for a different day. The other foray has been into fiction for a younger audience in the other not-a-Hugo aka the Lodestar Award.

First book in that arena is Legendborn, a YA urban fantasy Arthurian romance and that’s a very nice cocktail of sub-genres. Chaste love triangles? It’s a Young Adult cliche, it’s how urban fantasy spawned paranormal romance but it is nothing new to the legend of King Arthur. The classic Matter of Britain is such a rich vein that Legendborn feels so natural a fit to its premise that I feel like it must have been done a thousand times before but I can’t think of any examples. It cleverly fills an empty niche and if it had done only that then Tracy Deonn would deserve plaudits if only for spotting an unfilled spot.

Clever sub-genre choices though aren’t what makes a book worthy of a not-quite-a-Hugo-but-yeah-really-it-is-a-Hugo-c’mon and the test is not picking a clever premise but doing clever things with the premise and I’m genuinely impressed with how Deonn works with the idea and then pulls out layers and layers while still delivering on the demands of the sub-sub-genre.

Bree Matthews is a bright student who gains acceptance to an “early college” placement at a notable college in a Southern US state. Her academic success though has been marred by tragedy — shortly after being accepted to the college, her mother died in a car accident. She now finds herself as a sixteen-year-old, in the quasi-adult world of university still grieving and with unresolved issues around her last argument with her mother.

On her face night, things get weirder when she encounters magical creatures and a clique of students who appear to have magical powers…

So if you want the magical school setting and the urban fantasy masquerade and all that stuff, Legendborn delivers from training montages to magical competitions and handsome but troubled young men. We quickly learn that (gasp) the legend of King Arthur is a cover story for a history of a secret war between magical initiates and invading demons. A historic secret society at the college is actually a front for an international society of descendants from King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Each family of descendants of the knights have a chosen representative with the capability of gaining special powers matched to the lineage.

Clever stuff but…

Bree is Black and the secret society has all the baggage that you might imagine of a clique of wealthy families connected to a historic institution in America’s south. Legendborn isn’t a subversion of the standard tropes of its multiple genres but it does allow the plot and the character to dig into the history and assumptions of its own settings.

The mystery of her mother’s death drives Bree into involvement with the so-called ‘legend born but also leads her into looking into the history of her own family. There she learns not just about some of the deeper secrets of the secret society she has become embroiled in but also a different history and a different model of magic.

There are some really nice touches here and while I don’t want to give too many spoilers there are some subtle choices in the world-building. For example, in the Arthurian set-up, which is presented initially as the magical world in which Bree is initiated, magic is based on lineages and bloodlines. Inheritance and family are key aspects of having power. Later, as Bree taps into a different world of magic, family is still important but it is transmitted via oral tradition from grandmothers to granddaughters. The comparison and contrast between the idea of magic (and hence power) as a family legacy is very well done but it is subtle and woven into the more conventional narrative.

The novel is part of a series and the over-arching plot isn’t complete by the end but as a stand alone novel, it works and there is a good (and revealing) climax that shifts events and character relationships into a new state.

No big plot surprises but an excellent example of how to take what superficially looks like a by-the-numbers plot and do engaging things with it.

Review: The Tomorrow War (Amazon)

This “Amazon Exclusive” sci-fi action movie is not un-entertaining but rather than just being a big daft derivative movie with people shooting aliens it keeps feeling like it is on the verge of having an interesting idea. It is also an oddly disjointed film with distinct phases were it feels like somebody decided to make a very different movie.

The first act is the most interesting. Chris Pratt is implausibly a military veteran who is a scientist except he is a school teacher. He has a lovely wife (Betty Gilpin) and a precocious daughter who loves science. Their lives and the lives of everybody on the planet is interrupted when a big glowy space-time portal erupts in the middle of the world cup final (a nice touch) and out from it come time travelling soldiers from the future.

The soldiers bring a warning: in the near future Earth will be invaded and will lose a war against an alien menace. The situation is so dire that humanity of the future need to draft soldiers from the present to fight the aliens in the future. Now, that doesn’t make a heap of sense as a way of using time travel to win a war but go with it because the film does do something with this reverse-Terminator plot.

Not just anybody can be drafted or rather the people who get drafted are really just anybody. For time-travel plot paradox reasons, the eligible draftees are people who, based on future records, would have died in between now and the future war. The up shot of that is a clever subversion of military science fiction tropes. The barely trained invasion force are just a bunch of very everyday people of all ages and sizes in mix of uniforms and civilian clothes who get zapped into the future and dropped into a war zone in future Miami fighting aliens called White Spikes (which given how much that name sounds like White Stripes, you’d think they’d use Seven Nation Army as music but they didn’t).

I really liked this sequence because the set up is so obviously weird that it screams that everything is some sort of shenanigans and maybe the future war isn’t what it seems to be.

Except – spoilers…there isn’t a big twist about how its all some sort of weird plot. There is a twist about who gets to command Chris Pratt’s character and it is a decent one but not unsurprising. I shan’t reveal it.

After the big fight in Miami, the film shifts into a different gear and the whole idea of this kind of rag-tag army of suburban mums and office workers sort of gets forgotten. I’d like to have followed that idea. It’s also weird that Pratt often looks oddly like Tom Cruise rather than the less chiselled version of Pratt which would have fit the film’s theme better.

The aliens are just the zerg-rush tentacled killing machine style of creature that overwhelm bases etc etc. It’s a nice design but they add to the seen-it-all-before aspect of the film.

The other aspect of the draft premise is that the present draftees serve for seven days before being zapped back to the past. Chris Pratt survives his brief period in the future but returns home knowing that humanity is doomed. Can he save the future? Of course he can and the film shifts into a different gear as he, his estranged Dad and a guy he met when he was drafted go off to find the secret of the aliens because nobody else has thought to do that this whole time despite everything and the whole resources of the Earth being focused on winning a war against the aliens.

There are some good actions sequences and some touching moments. The plot makes no sense and sadly the original ideas are ones that the film itself doesn’t appreciate.

Loki doesn’t finish exactly (episode 6)

I’ll start with a minor spoiler, which I’m not hiding because it’s information people like to know before jumping into a series. Episode 6 doesn’t resolve the plot and is a set-up for season 2. I’d assumed Loki was a limited series but apparently not.

This episode sort of gets to an end point but not one that really resolves anything. There are revelations (some a bit info-dumpy) but it isn’t a finale as such. Entertaining but not as sparkly as the previous episodes. More detailed spoilers…

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