Foundationally Dull

The long-awaited adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s epic project feels like it will go on forever

For the many centuries that I’ve been alive, people have said that Isaac Asimov’s ‘Foundation’ series was “unfilmable.” Well, they filmed it. Apparently, all you needed was pretentious voiceover, inexplicable flashbacks, long, dull sex scenes, and a visual palette so dark it makes ‘Aliens’ look like ‘The Sound of Music.’ Off we go, into the infinite Foundation forever.

When Asimov wrote the initial stories that became his ‘Foundation’ books in the 1940s, moon rockets and international space stations were barely dreams. He introduced the concept of an infinitely populated universe rife with space politics, not to mention tension between humanity and artificial intelligence. Without Asimov, we wouldn’t have Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, ‘The Expanse,’ Blade Runner, or Terminator. He literally laid the foundation for much of modern science fiction.

But the Foundation books were also mostly ideas, some of them quite abstract, inscrutable, and even boring. It was, after all, a series revolving around the concept of a secret Space Encylopedia that would encompass all human knowledge, something that Douglas Adams had a lot of fun with decades later. The books provoked thought, but they lacked action, romance, and human drama, all necessary elements for movies and TV.

David S. Goyer, who’s making the ‘Foundation’ series, understands all that as well. So he’s added action, romance, and human drama. But he’s also the screenwriter behind the Dark Knight trilogy and Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, so that action, romance, and human drama tinges very dark, with lots of speechifying. Asimov’s books contained very few female characters, and didn’t mention race or gender at all. Those simply weren’t the concerns of the pocket-protector-wearing early IBM employees who comprised Asimov’s core audience.

Goyer’s two main characters, on the other hand, are both non-binary people of color who have vaguely British accents. It’s 2021, and that’s entertainment. But they deliver performances that are so affectless and uninspired, it’s hard to imagine they’ll connect hard with any audience, at any time.

The early stages of the Foundation TV series go like this: A professor of “psychohistory” named Hari Seldon, who Jared Harris plays reliably, does a complicated math equation that predicts the fall of a 12,000-year-old empire that rules the Milky Way. The ruling class doesn’t like that, so they exile Seldon and his followers to an outer rim planet, where they will build a shrine to all human knowledge (The ‘Foundation’), in case their predictions of collapse turn out to be true. This will make society easier to rebuild.

Meanwhile, a young person named Gaal, a math genius who lives on a planet that has turned into Waterworld because of science denial, joins Seldon after winning some sort of intergalactic contest. Gaal, as far as I can tell, is our main character, because she appears in a lot of scenes where she counts prime numbers.

Goyer has added certain elements to ‘Foundation’ that will attempt to stretch Asimov’s philosophy lectures about the limits of power and the vitality of human knowledge into a series. One is the concept of a “Starbridge,” which extends many miles up into the sky away from the Empire’s home planet of Trantor. This exists so terrorists can destroy it, setting the plot into motion.

More importantly, he’s settled on “Imperial Cloning” as a concept. A triumvirate of rulers lord over the Empire, but they’re all different-aged clones of the same guy, named Cleon, which is better, I guess, than naming him Cletus. The cloning conceit will allow some sort of character continuity if the series ends up spanning hundreds or thousands of years, as Goyer is ominously hinting. Lee Pace, best known to our eyes as “Ronan The Accuser” from the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie, plays the main Cleon, called “Brother Day” in the series. He gives a magnetic and wicked performance, the most scene-chewing imperial villain since Joaquin Phoenix’s Commodus in Gladiator. The resemblance is no accident, and Pace is the pounding bad-guy heart of the show.

I also enjoyed the gender-fluid but female-presenting android advisor to the Empire, played by Laura Birn, who makes an offhand comment that she’ll “be here forever,” offering up the possibility of a multi-season arc. But most of the rest of the characters are so bland, so uninspiring, and so unfun, that the first two episodes feel like a chore whenever Pace, or Terrance Mann, playing the older clone emperor, leave the stage.

Goyer has compared the epic scope of ‘Foundation’ to ‘Game of Thrones’ or ‘Battlestar Galactica.’ But even two episodes into ‘Game Of Thrones,’ though they were still building the world, there’d already been plenty of wit, action, sex, intrigue, and terrific cliffhangers. Battlestar was hardly fun in its early episodes, but still really tense and exciting. Foundation, on the other hand, is a forced, utterly humorless march into sci-fi history. There’s some action, but it happens dronily, and in slow motion, attached to no one or nothing in particular. Apple has given Goyer a huge budget, but the overhead shots of ships moving through the galaxy are more like something that Mel Brooks parodied in Spaceballs than something that inspires wonder.

Goyer has said that, in order to properly spread Asimov’s vision throughout the universe, he’s going to need eight seasons, spanning 80 episodes. After what we’ve seen so far, and given where Game of Thrones and Battlestar Galactica (as well as most other shows) landed by the end, that feels less like a promise and more like a threat.

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

3 thoughts on “Foundationally Dull

  • October 1, 2021 at 9:46 pm

    Oof. I had no idea the guy responsible for this did the DCU superhero movies. That’s about as far from Asimov as you can get. Even more charitably speaking I can’t imagine someone looking at the guy who wrote Dark City and saying, oh yeah, this is the guy we need to tell a story about nerds gone wild that spans several centuries. Hard pass.

  • November 16, 2021 at 4:02 pm

    Wow, are we even watching the same series? I found it engrossing and always interesting. I find your disconnect fascinating and perhaps more revealing as to your own bias as to the shows merit.

  • November 27, 2021 at 12:20 pm

    Having read the books in the 1960’s; listened to the BBC radio version in the 1970’s and played the tape version of the BBC production to my teenagers while driving from London to Pisa and back, I was equally disappointed by Apple’s attempt. First two episodes were an effort to watch and although the special effects were spectacular they are not especially relevant to the story (nor was the sex). I know I am getting on in years but where are young actors taught to enunciate their words – lots of mumbling which was still unintelligible at high volume. No problem with Harris. I may try it further (unlike my wife) but I must forget that it bears any relation to the Asimov trilogy. Whilst many viewers will love it or hate it, I suspect that many will be bored.


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