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Foundation review: Apple's ambitious Isaac Asimov adaptation requires a doctorate to follow along

Foundation review: The year's biggest science-fiction show, out on Apple TV+, is an overambitious and often overwhelming hodgepodge of ideas. 
Foundation review: Jared Harris and Loe Llobell in a still from the new Apple TV+ show.
Updated on Sep 24, 2021 09:28 AM IST

FoundationCreators: David S Goyer, Josh FriedmanCast: Jared Harris, Lou Llobell, Lee Pace, Leah Harvey, Kubbra Sait

Blessed with the budget it deserves, Apple’s sprawling adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s seminal science-fiction saga Foundation is a story of Biblical proportions that might be too dense for lesser mortals to follow. Spanning a millennium and juggling at least half-a-dozen narratives at any given moment, Foundation is suitably epic to behold, but has the emotional intensity of a lecture on particle physics.

It tries its best to dumb things down, though. For starters, it’s essentially told through the perspective of Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell), a character who has received the now-customary gender-swap treatment in pop-culture re-imaginings. Now pronounced ‘Gayle’, she is a teenage prodigy from the fringe planet of Synnax, who accepts an invitation from the celebrated psychohistorian Dr Hari Seldon (Jared Harris) to visit Trantor, the capital.

Watch the Foundation trailer here:

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But moments after coming face-to-face with her idol, she is told that her being summoned was an elaborate rouse. Dr Seldon has crunched the numbers and learned that the entire galaxy is on the verge of collapse and will soon plunge into 30,000-year dark age. Unsurprisingly, it’s a discovery that hasn’t gone down too well with the ruling elite. He isn’t as much worried about having predicted the future as he is that people believe he has. And they don’t like what he has to say. Trantor will fall, he tells Gaal gravely, and so will the dynastic rulers at its helm.

In a way, Dr Seldon is the ultimate voice of dissent. And like most tyrants made insecure by the power that they wield, the Emperor of the Galaxy puts him to trial, and tries to coerce Gaal — the only other person capable of understanding Dr Seldon’s theories — to refute his findings.

But Dr Seldon has a trick or two up his sleeve. He tells the Emperor that the impending dark age can be shortened, and he has a plan. He will put together a team of exiles whose only job will be to compile all recorded data to give future humans a leg-up, as and when they need to hasten the evolution process. The team will be sent to the remote planet Terminus, where they will carry out the mission, which would continue for centuries after everyone involved in its inception, including Dr Seldon himself, has died.

Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell) in a still from Foundation.

After a couple of episodes devoted to setting the table, Foundation branches out in such a dramatic fashion that you’ll need all your faculties in place (and possibly a doctorate) to follow along. Gaal is sent on a solo mission, Dr Seldon pops up now and then through holograms, but most of the action is set on Terminus, where a future leader grapples with the responsibility they’ve been given.

Salvor Hardin has also been given a gender (and race) swap. Played by the non-binary actor Leah Harvey, Salvor is the only one who can physically approach a monolith installed by Dr Seldon that will automatically reveal itself when the colony experiences its ‘first crisis’. As fans of the novels can probably tell by now, creators David S Goyer and Josh Friedman have taken certain artistic liberties in adapting the admittedly daunting source material.

But perhaps the biggest change they’ve introduced to the story is the inclusion of three galactic overlords, Brothers Dawn, Day and Dusk — described by one character, quite aptly, as the ‘reverberations of a dead man’s ego’. The ‘brothers’ are essentially clones of the first emperor, but at three different stages in life. It’s like how some old restaurants claim to use decades-old oil in their preparations by transferring a small amount to the next day’s batch.

Brothers Dawn, Day and Dusk in a still from Foundation.

The brothers are incapable of feeling basic human emotions such as insecurity and under-confidence; that is, until Dr Seldon enters their orbit. Brother Day (Lee Pace), who is perhaps the most prominently-projected of the three, recognises that Dr Seldon has the potential to become a messiah-like figure to the masses, and isn’t the charlatan that Brother Dusk believes him to be. But the most fascinating story in this section of the show is about Brother Dawn, who, ironically, has a crisis of faith in the empire that his own forefathers have helped establish.

The five Indians who have Apple TV+ subscriptions would be pleased to learn that not only does Kubbra Sait have a rather meaty role as the leader of a rebel faction, but that her henchman of sorts is played by none other than Pravessh Rana. Yes, him of the viral ‘biggini shoot’ clip. It’s a sign of the end times that more people would have probably seen that video, and the reality show that inspired it, than will ever watch Foundation in our country.

It might sound like it is geared towards a niche audience, but Foundation has inspired other science-fiction stories that have become seminal in their own right; everything from Dune to Star Wars owes a huge debt to Asimov’s vision, and the evergreen anxieties that he attempted to unpack. And as overtly political as it is, if you think about it, it’ll appeal to audiences across party lines, particularly in India. To some, it’ll be takedown of right wing, but to others — and this is an equally valid reading — it’ll play as a condemnation of dynastic empires.

Also read: Blade Runner 2049 movie review: Like The Dark Knight, one of the greatest sequels ever made. 5 stars

Brother Day was right when he said, rather menacingly, that art is politics’ sweeter tongue. Dr Seldon might be a man of science, but his grand plan to preserve the future of humanity is no less than a work of art. It's quite the opposite with Foundation, an artistic endeavour conducted clinically.

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