Everything about Foundation, the series adaptation of Isaac Asimov's novel cycle of the same name, screams 'scale.' The architecture, the machines, even the swimming pools; there is something deeply vertiginous about the way the show has been shot. The cinematography constantly reminds the audience of the genre we are deep-diving into: the opulent, slow-burning space opera (showrunner David S Goyer has said that he saw Foundation as a story that needed to be told across at least 80 hours). This is not necessarily a bad thing, particularly in a TV pilot, because it is the hook that will keep bringing you back for dozens of hours.
Accordingly, the screenplay sets the 'large-scale' aspect of the story in motion right from the word go. The first episode begins with a voiceover from Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell, who grows in stature as this series progresses), an everyman character, a mathematics prodigy on her way to work with Hari Seldon (Jared Harris, assured as ever), the most famous and divisive mathematician in the galaxy. "When I was a child at the edge of the galaxy, I heard stories about a man who could predict the future. But the story remained dark to me until many years later. Until it became my story. Until it became the only story."
The future-prediction part of the story has to do with 'psychohistory,' the science developed by Seldon that can give you the probability of events happening at the interplanetary level. Essentially, psychohistory increases in accuracy as one increases the number of people whose actions are being evaluated " so while it is not always useful in finding out individual futures, the math is devastatingly accurate when it comes to predicting the rise and fall of entire civilizations. As Seldon remarks pithily, "It's not a theory, it's the future of mankind expressed in numbers."
Seldon predicts that the 12,000 year-old Galactic Empire will fall in another 500 years. Predictably, the hypothesis is met with fear, mistrust, and disbelief, not least from the Emperor, Brother Day (a majestic Lee Pace) who rules atop his throne at the centre of the galaxy, at Trantor, the capital. Seldon and his followers are exiled to the faraway planet of Terminus, where they set up the 'Foundation,' essentially the most important library project of all time, wherein only the most invaluable parts of civilization are stored for future generations, for those who will survive the impending collapse of the Empire.
With such a wide-ranging, ambitious premise (Goyer pitched the show as a "1,000-year chess game between Hari Seldon and the Empire"), it is sometimes easy to get caught up in the minutiae (how does the "shrouding" technology used to imprison people work? Who exactly is Raych Seldon, Hari's supposed grandson?), and lose sight of the larger picture. Foundation, however, is impressive in its commitment to the long game. Remember how The Wire deconstructed an entire city's political and social systems by tackling them piecemeal, one at a time? That is what Foundation wants to do with the space opera, I feel, and the casting of Clarke Peters from The Wire (he plays a Foundation man involved in running simulations with Gaal) feels like a hint in that direction.
There are superb sequences littered throughout the first two hour-long episodes. Brother Day, talking to Seldon, reveals that the boy and the old man by the Emperor's side are actually genetic clones of the Emperor, referred to as Brother Dawn and Brother Dusk for obvious reasons. "Don't you see the value of a younger intellect who shares your interests?" Brother Day asks Seldon with a smirk. Lee Pace really is excellent in this scene. His villainous turn as Ronan the Kree in the Marvel Cinematic Universe feels like a minor entry now, compared to this performance.
In a touching scene, we see a conversation about the collapse of civilizations, followed by the elderly Brother Dusk (Terrence Mann) injuring himself on a step-ladder. The frailty of all human flesh and the frailty of 12,000-year-old Empires are captured in a single frame.
As heavily dialogue-based as Foundation (both the novel cycle and the show) is, the screenwriters have done a fantastic job at non-expository modes of plot progression.
Like with most science fiction stories, there are also unmistakable echoes of present-day socio-political scenarios. The Empire lashing out against Seldon and the psychohistorians may remind you of the way several world governments went into denial about the extent and the seriousness of the COVID-19 outbreak, in those early months of 2020. Gaal Dornick lecturing the Foundation elders about the importance of diversity in archival work and policymaking is, well, an all-too-familiar conversation in 2021, in both governmental and corporate spheres.
On the whole, Foundation is a beautifully shot, well-thought-out piece of science fiction, unspooling itself at a languid pace. Those who like their space operas action-heavy and irony-laden (like say, Guardians of the Galaxy or Thor: Ragnarok) may find the unhurried pace a bit challenging to get used to, the first two episodes in particular. But I would advise you to stick to the show, for the payoff is spectacular, and worth every second of your time. This is science fiction at its cerebral best, the kind that never loses sight of the humanity amidst the math.
Foundation is streaming on Apple TV+.