The Inverse Review

Foundation is a staggering achievement of sci-fi television

Apple’s brainy new epic isn’t just Game of Thrones with math. It’s something bigger.

Foundation is a lot. The new series from Apple TV+ is an ambitious multi-generational sci-fi epic adapting some of the most famous science fiction books ever written by one of the most problematic and influential authors of all time and spanning material from books and stories that were published between 1941 and 1993. What could go wrong?

Foundation could have easily been a disaster. Miraculously, it’s not. Not only does the series avoid most of the pitfalls of its source material, but it also manages to be faithful to what made Isaac Asimov’s complicated novels so great. As unwieldy adaptions of sci-fi books go, Foundation is a staggering achievement. If you’re even remotely interested in science fiction, here’s why watching this new series is so different, and also, so essential.

What is Foundation?

Gaal (Lou Llobell) and Hari Seldon (Jared Harris) present the evidence. Apple

In the far-future world of Foundation, a mathematician named Hari Seldon (Jared Harris) has devised a scientific idea called “psychohistory” which claims to predict massive events in the future, though has trouble predicting the actions of individuals. Using something called his “Prime Radiant,” Seldon claims the math and history mojo of psychohistory foretells a massive dark age that will destroy a mostly peaceful galactic empire. Seldon is just a numbers guy, so he can’t prevent the coming darkness, but he claims that if the space government gives him some funding, he can set up a “Foundation” of academics and smarty-pants folks who, in the long run, can shorten the dark times from thirty thousand years to only a thousand.

True to the spirit of Asimov’s original stories and novels, the heroes of Foundation are fighting for a future most of them will never see. Intergenerational thinking is the name of the game in Foundation. Thankfully, if you have a hard time keeping track of massive time-jumps, the TV series will hold your hand, but only a tiny bit.

Intergenerational thinking is the name of the game in Foundation.

Early in the first two episodes, it’s made clear that very few people can even interpret the complex math of Seldon’s Prime Radiant. Other than Seldon’s young apprentice, Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell) the idea that psychohistory predicts future history in mathematical terms is treated as heretical mumbo jumbo by the ruling class — a series of cloned emperors (Lee Pace, Terrence Mann, Cassian Bilton, et al.) who are all genetic copies originating from a long-dead original emperor named Cleon I.

You could say the conflict of the show comes down to the interests of Seldon and his Foundation cronies — including Gaal and Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey) — versus the various cloned Cleons: Brother Dawn, Brother Day, and Brother Dusk. Showrunner and creator David S. Goyer has described the story as “a 1000-year chess game between Hari Seldon and the Empire.”

This is accurate. But it doesn’t describe what makes the show good.

Foundation’s characters make the books better

Gaal leaves her home planet.Apple

Other than feeling like Dune: The TV Series, or Game of Thrones PLUS MATH, what makes Foundation compelling is that, despite being riddled with conflict, the show is about how to realistically and patiently make life better. In the universe of Foundation, all dogma is bad, but that doesn’t mean science will always set you free. At least, not right away. In fact, through the journeys of Gaal and Salvor, the series presents two sides of the way dogmas can create stagnation.

Early on, Gaal emigrates from her home planet of Synnax, a place where owning books and getting into science results in persecution and death. In the company of Seldon, Gaal finds a new home, but Foundation is too smart to just leave it at that. Seldon has his own flaws and his equations are incomplete. The chances that his math will decide the fate of the galaxy are higher than they’re not, but the chances he’s totally wrong aren’t zero either.

All dogma is bad, but that doesn’t mean science will always set you free.

After several decades on Terminus — a remote planet where the fledgling Foundation is trying to get its academic act together — de facto leader Warden Salvor Hardin faces the opposite problem of Gaal. She’s been around science and books her whole life, raised by thinkers who believed in forwarding the Seldon Plan. But her intuition and natural “luck” prove to be perhaps more important in saving the day than the philosophizing of the people who raised her. For Salvor, facing the dogma of faux science is nearly as frightening as the dogma of actual religion. The difference is, the society based on math (the Foundation) is more willing to change their mind than religious zealots.

In the various Foundation books and stories, Gaal and Salvor were men. Here, the audience can rest assured that this new take on Foundation is decidedly not from the drawers of the crusty old-school white boys club. While this shouldn’t be surprising in 2021, if you were to flip through even one of the later Asimov prequels — like Prelude to Foundation — for the most part, you wouldn’t find non-male roles as strong as these two. Unlike the much-buzzed adaptation of Dune — in which one role was gender-flippedFoundation is so unburdened by its origins that a third pivotal figure, the mysterious Eto Demerzel, is also now a woman.

Previously a male character with various aliases in the Asimov world, this version of Demerzel looms larger than they did in the books and is played wonderfully by Larua Brin. These characters aren’t in-your-face like in Battlestar Galactica or The Expanse, nor are they science-quippy like Tilly in Star Trek: Discovery and everyone on Doctor Who. Instead, there’s a naturalistic, almost novelistic approach to the characters in Foundation, with just enough changed to make them even better.

Why Foundation is groundbreaking sci-fi

Lee Pace and Jared Harris in Foundation.Apple

The timespan of Foundation could cover at least 1,000 years, but the show has cleverly figured out ways to have some familiar faces appear throughout the centuries. Although Emperor Cleon I does originate from Asimov’s Galactic Empire books, the idea that he cloned himself to create a genetic dynasty is unique to the TV series. This means the Cleonic dynasty is the best throughline of the whole show. And the middle monarch, Brother Day (Lee Pace), is perhaps the most terrifying and compelling thing about Foundation overall. Depending on which incarnation of him we’re dealing with, Pace’s “Empire” is either wise, cruel, desperate, mercurial, or a combination of all of those things.

“We can investigate what it means to be a human.”

Rarely has science fiction television attempted to tell the story of an interstellar government through the actions of one character. In most sci-fi TV, galactic emperors are silly and slightly unbelievable. But Foundation conflates politics with persona in a way you’d never see with a ruler like Palpatine in Star Wars. Throughout the series, people don’t refer to the Cleons as “Emperor.” Instead, they call each of them “Empire,” as though the government was a character in the show, because, basically, that’s exactly what you’re supposed to think about.

Lee Pace tells Inverse he believes the power of the story was “that you can take what is happening on Earth, and remove all your triggers and the twisted knot of American politics... and abstract those concepts in a way that we can investigate what it means to be a human.”

Dr. Asimov in 1970.Mondadori Portfolio/Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images

You won’t find on-the-nose analogies to present-day politics in Foundation, but that doesn’t mean the vast sweep of this future history — and real history — isn’t relevant. According to historian Alec Nevala-Lee, as Asimov watched the Nazi advance in 1941, “deep down, he wanted to believe that psychohistory meant Hitler’s defeat was inevitable, but at the rate the war was going, he feared he could expect nothing less than an early death.” It’s a haunting notion — while fearing persecution from the Nazis for the simple fact that he was Jewish, Asimov tried to take solace in a science fiction theory he invented.

Obviously, Asimov didn’t die in the ‘40s, but that doesn’t prove psychohistory is real, even if science fiction made one science fiction writer — and countless readers — feel better. As the themes of the stories point out, the relative truth of Asimov’s (and Seldon's) predictive brand of hope is a mixed bag. As a TV series, Foundation isn’t trying to present an optimistic vision of the future, but instead, a plausible one. It’s trying to make us think harder about how history works, and what time really means.

Still, as creator David S. Goyer pointed out, the aim of the show is also to provide “a sliver of light at the end of the journey.” Foundation isn’t a feel-good sci-fi show, but it’s not a dark and brooding one either. In between the fall of the Galactic Empire and the renaissance that rises from the ashes, is a nuanced, epic, and unforgettable science fiction tale. After all, life is what happens while psychohistorians are busy making other plans.

Foundation premieres September 24 on Apple TV+.