One of the most anticipated science fiction shows, for me anyway, is Foundation, the upcoming Apple TV Plus series based on the books by Isaac Asimov. During the company’s WWDC keynote last Monday, we got a look at the first trailer, starring Jared Harris.
If you’ve never heard of Foundation, a search of any sci-fi “best of” list will find it near the top. It’s a staple of the genre, one I’ve read multiple times. The covers by artist Michael Whelan were so influential I have three signed prints of them hanging in my office. They, and the books, opened my mind to what’s possible in fiction and writing in general, and in no small part inspired me to write sci-fi myself.
These books are legendary, fascinating and — as written — would make really, really boring television.
Don’t get me wrong, I love them. But there are lots of reasons they’ve never made it to the big or small screen in the nearly 80 years since the short stories that made up the basis of the series were first published. Consider that Dune, another classic of the genre (and in some ways a counterpoint to the Foundation series), came out almost 15 years after the first Foundation novel, and has already had two made-for-TV miniseries (2000’s Dune and 2003’s Children of Dune) and one film (with another on the way).
Here’s why the Foundation books have had trouble enticing filmmakers, and why I’m still optimistic.
(Mild-ish spoilers to follow, if you’ve never read the books.)
What is Foundation?
The Foundation series could be accurately retitled “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Galactic Empire,” after Edward Gibbon’s multivolume history of the end of the Roman Empire, which was one of Asimov’s main influences. The sprawling empire in the books has existed for thousands of years and covers millions of planets. It’s about to collapse, leading to 30,000 years of darkness. Using the predictive mathematical power of “psychohistory,” developed by a character named Hari Seldon, a small group of people aim to reduce that to a “mere” 1,000 years.
The original trilogy of books is really five short stories and four novellas. Three decades later, Asimov added two sequels, and after that, two prequels.
It’s hard to overstate Foundation’s influence. Huge parts of Star Wars, the aforementioned Dune, plus countless other fictional and nonfictional people have been directly inspired by Asimov’s incredible series.
It’s got spaceships, robots, galaxy-wide conflicts and the fates of hundreds of billions of people hanging in the balance. What’s not to like?
There are two main problems when it comes to adapting this series, or even just the first book, for a film or television series. Many smart people have been trying for decades.
The first, and most obvious, is the sheer scale of the thing. The first book alone covers nearly 200 years. If you stick with just the written content from the series, it spans nearly 600 years.
In book form, this works fine. The ideas and setting are so compelling, what amounts to a series of short/short-ish stories with different characters is still very interesting. It’s one of the reasons the series is still popular.
However, TV is a very different medium than books. With few exceptions, what viewers want in a TV show is characters. Good, bad, doesn’t really matter as long as they’re compelling. By its very nature, Foundation precludes having characters an audience can really latch onto. This is the second main problem.
In what amounts to a series of interconnected stories, there aren’t many opportunities for deep character explorations, character growth, or, to be honest, characters. This is the pinnacle of old-school hard sci-fi. Characters are, for the most part, just there to further the plot or explain an idea. Many are nothing more than names, their stilted dialogue only conveying information. Even Hari Seldon, the only character to appear in some form in multiple stories, dies early in the first book and doesn’t even have an elaborate death scene. He does, however, have the two prequels to flesh out his backstory. The time jumps are so substantial, nearly every character dies “off screen” and is never mentioned again.
To put it another way, there isn’t much in the way of emotion in Foundation. It’s about things. Again, this isn’t a criticism. They’re brilliant for what they are, but they’re books, and by the nature of what they are, converting them to TV is going to be seriously difficult. The very thing that makes them interesting is going to be next to impossible to translate to screen.
A lesser issue, though certainly related to the difficulty, is the wide avoidance of action or direct conflict. “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent,” one character says. The problem is, violence makes for great TV. Some form is essentially required in big-budget sci-fi shows. Huge space battles, inherent in the premise of the books, are promised then largely avoided. Remember Battle of the Bastards in Game of Thrones? One of the most epic battle scenes ever put on TV? Now imagine if that had been talked about for six seasons, built up by plot and hype for years, and then right before it begins Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton meet up in a tavern and sign a trade treaty, roll credits. That is Foundation.
One thing is clear from the trailer, Apple is throwing a lot of money at this thing. It looks absolutely gorgeous in the teaser clip. It’s clear they’re taking it seriously. That kind of money helps, for sure, but it by no means guarantees quality. The eighth season of Game of Thrones involved a lot of money too, but look what happened there.
After decades of different directors and studios trying to make something out of Foundation, the production company Skydance is backing David S. Goyer as producer and showrunner. Skydance has some solid sci-fi credits, like Star Trek Beyond, and some iffy sci-fi credits, like Star Trek Into Darkness. Skydance is basically just the money, though. Goyer is writing and running, and he seems to know his way around a story: He wrote or co-wrote Dark City, Blade and Batman Begins, as well as many other… well, let’s just say not overly outstanding movies.
(Some mild spoilery extrapolations below.)
Diving into IMDb credits, we can make a few assumptions. Jared Harris as Hari Seldon will be excellent. He’s fantastic in everything, and if you haven’t watched the Expanse, you must. He’s signed on for all 10 episodes of the first season, which is a solid sign they’re not making the entirety of the first book. Not when multiple other actors are also in all 10 episodes.
Then there’s Finnish actress Laura Birn as Demerzel. It’s a bit in the weeds, but Eto Demerzel is actually a pseudonym used by R. Daneel Olivaw, a robot from Asimov’s Robot series (the books; no relation to the movie). This is notable because this character wasn’t in the original trilogy, only the prequels, giving a hint about what will be covered in the show. It’s also a potentially handy device for Goyer and the other creators to have an essentially immortal character that audiences can identify across multiple seasons. That is, if this series goes for several seasons and covers more of the hundreds of years described in the books.
Lou Llobell in the role of Gaal is a welcome hint that this production will be a more diverse depiction of the future than the books suggested — though whether the TV version of Gaal will get a more expanded story arc than the literary iteration of the character remains to be seen.
So how will this all work? As a huge fan of the books, I hate to say… I hope the series just uses the books as a basis for setting and ideas and then runs with it. More like HBO’s Watchmen series. Because otherwise, it’s going to be really boring. That, to me, would be the worst case scenario. “As long as it’s not boring” is my main wish. The trailer certainly looks promising, but it’s possible to cut any movie or show into a trailer that looks fun.
If it’s good, and there’s a second season, that almost certainly means the Mule — a key character — will come into play, which could make for very interesting television.
New movie calendar for 2020 and 2021 following coronavirus delays