Review: The math of ‘Foundation’ is wrong, Entertainment News
Science fiction writer Arthur Clarke once stated that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. At the core of “Foundation”, the Apple TV + series based on the novels by Isaac Asimov, is a similar idea: that any sufficiently advanced math is indistinguishable from prophecy.
But in this ambitious, overcrowded epic, this fascinating idea is often lost in space. Like Trantor, the imperial capital in “Foundation”, the surface of which is buried under man-made layers, the core of the story is enveloped by machine levels.
The inciting figure remains the same as in the saga Asimov began in the 1940s: Hari Seldon (Jared Harris), a “psychohistorian” who claims to be able to predict the future by calculating data on mass populations. (He’s the Nate Silver of space.) When his calculations show the ruling empire is about to collapse, the bad news bearer and followers are relegated to a planet in the dusty, cheap seats of the galaxy planning a grand to shape the fate of humanity and shorten the coming era of chaos.
At a time when “Follow the Science” has become a political statement, “Foundation” can play like a not-too-subtle commentary. Hari’s protégé, Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell), comes from a world whose leaders condemn scientists as heretics and refuse to recognize the rise of the oceans. And Harris plays the visionary with a doomed righteousness reminiscent of his role as a Soviet scientist in “Chernobyl”.
This reflects the belief in the Asimov books in the power of reason over superstition in the atomic age. But “Foundation” showrunner David Goyer is also prepared to deviate from the original material. Asimov’s Galaxie, for example, was largely a boys’ club, so “Foundation” is recasting key roles with women, including Gaal – as close to a central figure as the series, despite being at the side in the middle of the season – and Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey ), a leader of the Foundation’s remote colony.
Elsewhere, the series adds or mixes story elements to create the kind of baroque intrigue that Game of Thrones viewers are used to. The role of the emperor is expanded, more precisely tripled. In the “genetic dynasty” of the empire, Emperor Cleon (practically an anagram for “clone”) has been replicated in three people for centuries: the young brother Dawn, the middle-aged brother Day, and the older brother Dawn.
In each generation, the oldest member of this living Sphinx riddle is ceremonially (and fatally) retired, a fresh imperial baby is uncorked from the clone vat, Dawn is promoted to Day and Day to Dusk. (I told you there would be math.)
Lee Pace, wrapped in electric blue gladiator armor, plays a series of Brother Days. His matinee villain hauteur risks ridicule – say, when a subordinate like Creosote explodes in “Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life” – but it powers an often stilted production.
In a sense, the genetic dynasty and the foundation are two solutions to the same dilemma: how do you achieve ambitions that take longer than a human lifetime to achieve? For Cleon, the answer is to live serially. For Hari, it is to devise a plan that will survive him, in part by creating a quasi-messianic myth around him. (Dealing with mortality is also the project of religion, another storyline in the series.)
But that’s also the challenge of “Foundation” itself. Its premise and Asimov’s blueprint suggest a story that must develop over centuries, turning actors on and off, and focusing more on larger social systems than individuals. Serial television, on the other hand, relies on audiences to bond with certain characters in the long run.
The clone device is a way to keep characters over time. there are also more spoiling devices. Other changes Goyer makes are to translate Asimov’s chatty novels of ideas into a play of explosions and special effects.
For example, much of the first 10-episode season sinks into an extended history of terrorism and revenge that makes Salvor an action hero. The thriller sequences – with an enemy straight from the school of the Klingon Dothraki Warrior Society – resemble most of what viewers would expect from a science fiction epic. And I found that the longer “Foundation” lasted, the more I faded it out.
The pictures are definitely captivating. There are spaceships with interiors like art installations; strange worlds with ringed and mossy sky landscapes; and some kind of mysterious giant diamond that hovers like an ominous piñata near the Foundation’s warehouse, promising to pop open and spill plot twists and dei ex machina.
But there are things that cannot be digitized: a surprise, a real laugh, a touch of creative life. Aside from gunfights and computer-generated imagery, there’s a much stranger show struggling to get out, about statistics and space popes, decadent clone emperors, and robots that are millennia old.
OK, there is only one robot, but Foundation makes them count. As the immortal assistant to a long line of emperors, Demerzel (the name will ring a bell for die-hard Asimov fans), Finnish actress Laura Birn gives an eccentric performance that is both disturbingly mechanical and the most vulnerable person on the series.
These and some of the stranger inventions of “Foundation” reminded me stylistically of “Raised by Wolves” from last year, the HBO Max drama of obsessive android mother love. It was hardly the best show of 2020, but she was so committed to her passion, so ready to cut a vein and bleed weird robotic milk, that I was amazed by even her worst moments.
“Foundation” is more consistent than “Wolves” but less appealing because of its concessions to science fiction expectations. It could have been better if it only believed in the plan like Hari Seldon’s pupil.