In episode eight of the Apple TV series Foundation, which wrapped up its first season before break, there’s an extended battle scene where hero Salvor Hardin has to run down a spaceship hallway really fast to draw the fire of a floating AI laser rifle left there by, uh, somebody, so that her frenemy the Grand Huntress of Anacreon can shoot the thing with an actual medieval longbow made from the wood of a magic tree.
Did I mention that this is all happening on a ghost ship? A ghost ship that’s really important for some reason even though it isn’t mentioned once in the first 70% of the show’s runtime? Oh, and what about the fact that our heroic rifle-bait Salvor somehow has the magical power to read minds and predict the outcome of coin tosses? How are those two things even related? Why are they in the script at all?
Questions like these, sadly, remain far too common throughout Foundation’s first ten episode run. I say sadly because I really wanted to like the show, and I did enjoy significant parts of it, including the first two episodes that I reviewed when they premiered. But ultimately the series as a whole fell into the trap of trying to be too many things to too many people, and as a result it vacillates so wildly between threads that it effectively doesn’t go anywhere at all.
Watching the later episodes of season one, I couldn’t shake the sense that at some point a team of relatively good writers had gotten together and worked out a few dozen great ideas for where to take their latest project, and then, instead of picking one, decided to just do all of them and hope for the best.
The result is a bewildering labyrinth of a season that constantly leaves the viewer with just enough time to get invested in what’s going on before whisking them away to something completely unrelated, often centuries or light years distant. It’s frustrating, not only because it’s confusing, but because any one of the plots would be compelling if given a few episodes to breathe.
Even worse, several of the threads could have been easily connected. A subplot about a terrorist cell plotting attacks against the Galactic Empire, for example, could have been the gripping continuation of a mid-season arc about a tritheist religion that opposes the empire on spiritual grounds. Instead, the religious conflict vanishes after two episodes, never to be mentioned again, and the terrorists subsequently appear out of nowhere with seemingly no motivation whatsoever. Why Foundation, a story originally about intricate plans executed over the course of centuries, is so bad at playing the long game I genuinely do not know.
I wouldn’t describe myself as an Asimov purist, and I’ve honestly never particularly enjoyed the book Foundation, but what I did respect about the novel was how clever it was. The Salvor Hardin of the books was famous for saying “violence is the last refuge of the incompetent,” and like some trickster god he solved all of his problems with clever diplomacy and well placed words. Asimov’s Foundation was more a book of logic puzzles than of battles, a story of words and schemes and scientists dreaming up the future on the scale of millennia. Even if it’s often fun watching TV Salvor Hardin jump between starships and dodge rail guns, I’m ultimately sad that the pacifist has been lost, that Apple TV’s drive to make the next Game of Thrones left no room for the sociopolitical chess game that defined the original Foundation.
Particularly ridiculous is the way that some entire scenes, like the moment when a certain young emperor does battle with a weirdly inefficient stadium-sized sewer drain, seem to serve no purpose whatsoever other than using up some of the extra cash in the show’s evidently too-large CGI budget. In that way Foundation ultimately suffers from the same flaw as the Galactic Empire: hubris. Its creators trusted that a great cast, an acknowledged classic of the sci-fi genre for source material, and enough money to throw at the problem would cover all ills. Like Bellerophon riding to Olympus, the show tried to do too much, and ultimately collapsed under its own weight.
Bizarrely, For All Mankind, one of Apple TV’s other flagship sci-fi shows, feels more true to the spirit of Foundation than Foundation does, despite having no actual connection to Asimov. In that show personal, human stories do take center stage, and the clever decade skips between seasons, combined with a directorial willingness to reinvent the story regularly, made the passage of time feel tangible in a way that Foundation’s stasis pods and cloning couldn’t achieve.
To tell a story as grand as For All Mankind, as grand as Foundation, you need lovable, complicated, imperfect characters to hold it to earth. You need to see history from the eyes of someone mortal enough to feel its weight. I just hope that Foundation, which has already been renewed for a second season, learns that lesson soon.