Foundation review: it starts out big, lavish, and a little boring
EverEver since Game of Thrones, every network seems to want something similar: an expensive genre epic that they can point to as our big thing. This is especially true in the world of streaming. Netflix has The Witcher, Amazon is spending an unseemly amount on Lord of the Rings, and Apple has Foundation, a sci-fi series based on the classic Isaac Asimov novels that kicks off with two episodes on September 24th. (New episodes will debut weekly on Apple TV Plus after that.)
In many ways, Foundation fits that tentpole epic formula quite well. It’s a story about the downfall of a galactic empire, with lots of political intrigue to follow. It’s also a lavish production, with incredible special effects and gorgeous production design. You can tell it’s expensive in every frame. Apple clearly has big plans for it; showrunner David S. Goyer recently said that he’s plotted out eight seasons already. But it’s also a pretty weird story, one where you’ll spend more time seeing people doing calculations than anything resembling action.
Ahead of the premiere, Verge editors Chaim Gartenberg and Andrew Webster were able to watch the first two episodes to determine just how interesting a space epic about math can really be.
Andrew: It’s not easy to sum up what Foundation is about, but I’ll try. To start, the main “character” isn’t actually a person, but rather a kind of math. At the center of Foundation’s story is something called psychohistory, which is a way of using mathematics to analyze the behaviors of large populations. In this world, that means you can whip out a calculator to predict the future in broad strokes, which is exactly what a man named Hari Seldon (Jared Harris) does. As the universe’s foremost expert on psychohistory, he reveals that the Galactic Empire, run by a constant succession of clones (each of which is played by a menacing Lee Pace), is approaching its downfall, which will be followed by thousands of years of barbarism.
The emperor doesn’t like that, so Hari and his followers — including fellow numbers whiz Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell), who won a galaxy-wide math competition just to meet Hari — are exiled to a cold, mostly barren planet at the far reaches of the known universe. There they plan to set up the titular Foundation, with the goal of creating a repository of knowledge that might otherwise be lost during the long, dark period of galactic decline. The first two episodes primarily follow Hari’s initial prediction and exile, along with a terrorist attack on the capital planet Trantor, which seems to signal this period of decline that he predicted.
It’s a lot to squeeze into two-ish hours, and for me it felt like I was getting one long history lesson. The show never really stopped to give me time to care about any of the characters. Fittingly, for a show about math, it was often cold and sterile. Seldon, in particular, feels very detached from the very people he’s trying to save. It doesn’t help that there’s just so much math talk in the show. People say things like “math doesn’t take sides” and “people lie, numbers don’t” with a straight face, and Gaal is constantly reciting prime numbers in order to relax. At one point, when the Foundation is discussing which parts of various cultures they need to preserve, Gaal goes on a long diatribe about base 10. It’s like being back in high school.
What did you think, Chaim?
Chaim: I’ve got similar mixed feelings about the start of Foundation. The choice of a more traditional TV series feels like an odd one for the series, given the anthology nature of the source material. (Each “book” is a series of short stories that breaks up the thousand-year scope of the story.)
Instead, Foundation seems to — at least for now — be taking a far more leisurely approach to its adaptation, expanding on the fall of the Empire instead of jumping ahead along the timeline. It’s possible that events will accelerate over the course of the show. There’s a flash-forward early on that indicates that we’ll be seeing more of the story at some point.
Foundation, the book, tells readers that the Galactic Empire will fall and that the encyclopedia will eventually be written. Foundation, the show, is intent on showing every step of that process — and like Andrew said, arguing over an encyclopedia is not overly interesting fodder for a TV show.
I do love the sheer size and scope of the show, though: the visual effects look stunning, with massive space elevators and uniquely designed ships that help the series stand out from contemporaries like Star Wars, Star Trek, or The Expanse.
Andrew: I definitely agree that the show looks incredible. But more than just being aesthetically pleasing, the visuals contribute to the worldbuilding. This really does look and feel like a society that’s composed of many, many different alien cultures, and one that’s been around for a very long time. You can see it in the elaborate costumes — half of the characters look like they just stepped out of the Met Gala — and some of the strange tech. One of my favorite elements is a kind of living painting that needs to be constantly touched up by a skilled craftsman; the emperor even uses it to show off just how advanced his culture is when people come to visit from off-world. It’s a universe that feels real and lived-in.
The problem is, after two episodes, I just don’t care much about anyone in that world. Pace’s emperor is extremely fun to watch, a methodically cutthroat dictator who seems to tower over everyone around him while decked out in blue superhero armor. But no one else has really grabbed me, particularly Seldon and his slightly removed nature.
Chaim: 100 percent agreed on Pace, who is absolutely perfect dancing between callousness and charisma as Brother Day. The other pieces of the imperial triumvirate don’t quite measure up, but I like the concept in theory, if not 100 percent in practice.
But I think part of my bigger issue with the show is Seldon and psychohistory as a whole. It’s sort of like the kid at the playground who decides that his power is “always winning”; the very nature of the books (and therefore, the show) is that Seldon is always correct. He always has a plan; if he loses, that was the plan. And even if things go completely off the rails, well, there was a backup plan that he foresaw, too.
The Foundation loves to harp on math, which the show hangs onto as the ultimate form of logic and order. It’s a big part of Gaal’s backstory, how she gave up on what seems to be the Empire’s primary dogmatic religion to learn math instead. But Foundation’s math is so esoteric that it’s effectively just sorcery of its own. It’s so complex that no one else on the show can even understand the swirls of dots that make up Seldon’s “Prime Radian” calculator; it’s so advanced that only Seldon and Gaal are the only ones smart enough to comprehend its intricacies.
It’s no wonder that so many people want to kill him, honestly.
I’m curious what you’d want to get out of the rest of the show — more of Gaal, Hari, and Raych (Alfred Enoch) building the Foundation on Trantor? A deeper dive into imperial politics with the emperors and the crumbling of empire? A jump forward in time? It feels like there are a lot of ways the rest of the season (or seasons) could go.
Andrew: Just give me some interesting characters! I’d love to see some of the more normal members of the Foundation as they set up a new life on a harsh alien world (we get a slight hint of that in episode 2), as well as how the downfall impacts people on any of the myriad planets that are part of the empire, especially those far-removed from the capital’s decadence. There’s a lot of space, both figuratively and literally, to explore here. The show just needs a little warmth to balance out the evil dictators and intergalactic mathletes.