The first two episodes of 'Foundation' are fascinating but choppy, offering an unclear vision of what's to come.
- Jared Harris and Lee Pace are great as usual
- The show's massive budget is on display, impressively so
- It's hard to know where this show is going, which is rare in prestige dramas
- It's hard to know if this show knows where it's going, which is sadly not at all rare in prestige dramas
- The choppy pacing in both episodes implies a lack of storytelling confidence
- The episode-two cliffhanger is more baffling than shocking
Apple TV Plus has been marked by a number of massively expensive shows, all aimed at grabbing some amount of remaining small-screen prestige. The streaming service was unveiled in the fall of 2019 with alternate-reality science-fiction programming in the form of For All Mankind, an Aaron Sorkin-esque drama with A-Listers in an inside-baseball media setting with The Morning Show, and of course, their biggest success of all, the brilliant fish-out-of-water comedy Ted Lasso. But Apple TV+ hasn’t quite found its equivalent to the worldwide phenomenon of Game of Thrones, an enormously expensive genre show with a sprawling cast, unique settings, explicit situations, and a compelling hook to draw in audiences. It’s been years in development, but Apple has to be hoping that Foundation is that equivalent.
Based on the novels by revered science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov, Foundation grapples with a premise that’s rooted well enough in the real world: what if society was going to crumble and could only be rebuilt gradually? Here, a famous and divisive mathematician, Hari Seldon (Jared Harris), has built out a mathematical model that essentially states the entirety of humanity will lay in ruins in just a few hundred years, and the best-case scenario has the remaining vestiges of mankind rebuilding in a thousand years instead of thirty thousand years, if they're lucky.
Apple TV Plus continues to mix and match how it handles the release of its shows, which mostly, but not entirely, stick to a week-by-week release strategy. Foundation, however, will have its first two episodes, “The Emperor’s Peace” and “Preparing to Live”, release on the same day, after which the next eight installments will arrive once a week. It’s an interesting choice, seeing as each episode — credited to the show’s two co-creators, David S. Goyer and Josh Friedman, though the latter left the project before the first season wrapped production — seems to serve as a pilot episode of its own. The first episode's conclusion offers a Battlestar Galactica-esque path forward for our heroes, but the second episode ends by recalling Game of Thrones in its first major death, but...well, let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Our protagonist is Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobel), a young woman living on a planet near the Outer Reach of the galaxy. Despite her extremely modest upbringing, Gaal is extraordinarily intelligent, having won a mathematical contest whose grand prize is sending the winner to the planet Trantor to meet with Seldon at his office in the Imperial Library, a massive educational mecca.
Gaal is understandably nervous, arriving above the planet Trantor before descending to the surface on a massive Star Bridge that connects the planet to its space station. It’s all a lot to take in, even when she’s chatting with a seemingly friendly stranger (Reece Shearsmith) about what it’s like on Trantor. Once on the surface, Gaal meets up with Hari’s son Raych (Alfred Enoch, who may be most recognizable to some as Dean Thomas from the Harry Potter films), who introduces her to the enigmatic Hari. Gaal is initially awed at the famous mathematician, before he reveals that his predictive theorems have told him that they’re going to be arrested by the leaders of Trantor, he for the impact of his theorems and she for the suspicious behavior of being incredibly smart while coming from a lower-class planet.
And we might as well talk about those Trantor leaders, since they are also playing a key role in Foundation. (It is worth noting here that I’ll be approaching each episode with the freshest possible eyes — I’m aware of Asimov’s Foundation series of novels, but have never read them. A brief Internet search tells me these leaders are new creations for the show.) There are three of them: Brothers Dawn, Day, and Dusk, played respectively by Cassian Bilton, Lee Pace, and Terrence Mann. This trio is named in a way to imply not only their age, but that they are essentially the same person at different times of life, enabled by cloning technology. Considering that life for them is pretty much golden, they (primarily Day and Dusk) are displeased by Seldon’s concerns and how those concerns are spreading. When first we meet Day, with Pace in a resplendent costume that recalls his role in the cult drama The Fall, it’s as he coldly and cruelly orders the death of a muralist who’s worked for him for decades, simply for having read Seldon’s theorem. Later on, the three Brothers are met by two leaders of famously warring factions from the Outer Reach of the galaxy, in the hopes of maintaining peace, a scene that has bloody ramifications.
Though Gaal wishes that her hopeful mentor is wrong, Hari is sadly right: the two are quickly arrested and brought in front of the three Brothers, where they’re interrogated as part of a sham trial by a biased prosecutor (Alexander Siddig). It’s clear that even if Hari is right, and even if it’s reasonable to be concerned about the future of humanity in this sci-fi world, the three Brothers are prepared to do away with the learned man. Hari pleads not only for his life, but for the chance to build what he calls a “foundation” (hey, that’s the name of the show!) that can be used by future generations as they pick up the pieces of humanity’s fall. But that fall may be coming sooner than expected — the trial is broken up by a massive dual terrorist attack that destroys the Star Bridge from both the surface and its top in the middle of space, killing hundreds of thousands of people.
It’s a devastating and horrific attack — and Hari begs off not having been able to predict something quite so huge by saying that he can see broad-scale change, not specific ones, which does, as Brother Day notes, seem a bit convenient. But as much as the three Brothers are now more set on vengeance, they’re swayed to both grant Hari’s desired wish and seemingly punish him in the process. They agree to spare Hari and Gaal, allowing them to create a foundation for the future of the human race. That’s the good news, seemingly, while the bad news is that Hari, Gaal, and Hari’s followers will be sent to Terminus, located so far away on the Outer Reach that it will take them literal years (apparently, time flows similarly in this world) to arrive there, since the three Brothers will not allow them to use technology to enable their spaceships to move as fast as possible. Gaal is downtrodden, until Hari reveals that this was part of his plan all along, to be sent to Terminus. The opening episode’s framing device is set there, 35 years later, with a group of kids trying and failing to approach a mysterious floating Vault; every time someone approaches, they’re struck by a strange force that physically debilitates them ... everyone except for Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey), who is inexplicably able to walk right up to the Vault and touch it.
But the second episode, “Preparing to Live”, doesn’t revisit Terminus. Instead, it’s split in two parts: one focuses on Hari, Gaal, Raych, and the others heading to the planet, and how they prepare to live, as the title implies. The other focuses on the three Brothers, who are now trying to figure out exactly who ordered the two bombs that killed so many people either on or traveling to/from Trantor. Although they’ve been able to hone in on a few possible leads, the connection point between the two suicide bombers and the bomb itself is so massive there are hundreds of people who might have been involved. Though Brother Day remains convinced that the two leaders of the two opposing factions invited to Trantor in the pilot episode are behind the dual attacks, he doesn’t kill them, just as he didn’t kill Hari in the first episode. Instead, he chooses to make them suffer, by performing a mass hanging in a public square, in front of plenty of onlookers, as a way to communicate force and send a message.
On the ship heading to Terminus (which is otherwise entirely separate from the story), there’s a much bigger shock ahead. First, enough time has passed that Gaal -- whose most recognizable trait is that she recites prime numbers when she gets nervous, which is most of the running time of both episodes -- is now romantically involved with Raych, even going as far as imagining themselves having children. That's in spite of a tense scene in which Raych gets his hackles up about his adopted father Hari, when the latter joins the throng of regular folks (one of whom is played by Clarke Peters, AKA Lester Freamon from The Wire, so...hopefully he'll be back?) on their ship to Trantor, to tell them about how Raych's biological father was a drunk.
Both of these end up being key scenes that tie to the final, inexplicable moments. Gaal's other big trait in this episode is that she enjoys swimming laps while reciting prime numbers. The first time we see her swim, she's greeted by Raych as they flirt playfully. The second time, it's Hari watching her swim. But the last time, she's left on her own, which somehow makes her think something is amiss, and guess what? Gaal is right! Something is amiss! She sees as much when she runs out of the pool, into Hari's room, only to see him being stabbed to death by none other than Raych, who grabs Gaal, dashes her down to an escape pod, and sends her flying away.
On one hand, kudos to Foundation for both upending expectations and embracing them abruptly. The first episode's climactic moment hinges on whether or not Brother Day will kill Hari, in a scene that recalls the big death scene for Ned Stark (Sean Bean) in the first season of Game of Thrones. But Hari lives to fight another day. That Hari has been killed is both surprising (Jared Harris is listed first in the opening credits), and poorly directed, as we see the murder before Gaal does, even though the shock plays out from her perspective. But the speed with which Hari is killed (and a computer voice says as much as Gaal is rushed to the escape pod), and the speed with which Raych just sends Gaal away is so harried that it's now next to impossible to know what comes next on this show. That can be a good thing -- better to be surprised than to guess correctly what comes next, at least for those of us non-readers -- but two episodes in, I wonder if this show what comes next.
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