Foundation Soars to the Screen on Apple TV

A legendary intergalactic adventure penned by Asimov inspires a new streaming series

A legendary intergalactic adventure penned by Asimov inspires a new streaming series

To say that Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series has been difficult to adapt seems like the understatement of a Galactic Empire. The five interrelated short stories that were published between 1942 and 1951, then added to in the ’80s and ’90s, analyzes the progression of civilization using history as precedent. Its impact on science fiction is indisputable. But bringing it to the screen? A near impossible task.

“There’s good reason why it’s proved so difficult for so long,” says Jared Harris, who portrays Hari Seldon, a mathematician predicting the collapse of the Empire. “The books are essentially philosophical musings on the future and the nature of society. And the challenge of that is how to adapt something that’s true to those, Asimov’s interests and making it dramatic and entertaining.”

The story brought to the screen by Dark Knight trilogy writer David S. Goyer begins with Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell), a brilliant young mathematician, travelling to meet Seldon after winning a competition to join his “psychohistory” project. But once Dornick arrives, Seldon announces he is about to get arrested for his predictions in an Empire that does not encourage critical thinking: themes that ring as true today as they did 80 years ago. “What you can learn from watching this season of Foundation is how hard it is for people who have entrenched differences to be brought together and realize that they have a common purpose, how power resists any effort to change and how difficult it is for men of science to be acknowledged, to be recognized and to be heard,” says Harris.

Specifically, Seldon has discovered, in his study of how large populations behave, that the Empire is headed for an inevitable fall, plunging humanity into a 30,000-year Dark Age; but Seldon believes they can cut that down to 1,000 years—if they act now.

Seldon’s theses are most bothersome to Brother Day, emperor of the galaxy (played by Halt and Catch Fire‘s Lee Pace), who along with his cloned siblings Brother Dawn and Brother Dusk rules what is left of the natural world. Pace sees his character not as the antagonist, but as someone offering a different perspective. “The Cleons receive Hari Seldon’s math. He says the Empire is going to fall. Each of these men believe this. But are you ever two minds about something? That’s what’s happening inside the Cleons. The emperor very much resists the idea. He thinks, ‘What do you think we do all day, but solve the problems that you’ve brought to our feet?’ But [his younger sibling] hears something different. He believes that the Empire is doomed and he needs to start improvising. That discovery of individuality, that birth of his sentience is what I find most interesting to play in the character.”

In taking on Asimov’s text, Goyer contacted the writer’s estate to make sure that the changes he planned to make were to their liking, from the gender flip of Gaal Dornick, who in the books is a man, to the updated message it was going to convey. “The books were written in the late ’40s, early ’50s, as a commentary on what was happening then,” says Goyer. “Seventy years removed from when Asimov was writing the books, this has to be a commentary on what’s happening now. It has to reflect a post-9/11 world. It has to reflect a world where climate change is impinging upon us. I said to the Asimov estate, ‘These are things that we’re going to be referencing metaphorically in the series. Are you all right with that?’ And fortunately, they were.”

There are, however, no shortcuts to conveying these messages. Goyer, who became familiar with the books in his teens, but didn’t feel like he properly understood the material until he was in his 40s and a father, pitched the epic journey of these characters as an eight-season series. “In a way, it’s a 1,000-year chess game between Hari Seldon and the Empire, and all of the characters in that 1,000-year journey in between are the pawns,” says Goyer, before teasing: “Some of those pawns will become kings and queens.”

Because Foundation has never been adapted for a visual medium, Goyer experienced none of the pressure that he had previously felt, bringing various comic book heroes to the screen. “People had an idea of what Blade, Batman and Superman would look like. There were none of those expectations with Foundation,” he says. “I also knew that I was adapting Foundation for an audience that had never read the books. We were hoping to bring in and broaden the audience.”

What Goyer hopes viewers will take from the series is what Asimov was hoping to say with his books. “Humanity and history are cyclical, and we can look to the past and use history to help us solve the problems in the present,” says Goyer. “I have a reputation for adapting dark properties and I told Apple that now that I was a father, that I wanted to do something different with this project. I wanted to communicate a message of hope. That was before the pandemic, and I think that that message is needed even more so now.”

Foundation streams Fridays on Apple TV+