TV Review: Foundation (2021) – S01E01 – The Emperor’s Peace

TL;DR – Advancements in film, technology and CGI bring Isaac Asimov’s quintessential sci-fi series to life. This is the new standard in sci-fi cinematic experience. Episode 1 introduces us to Trantor, the capital of the Galactic Empire, ruled by Emperor Cleon for four centuries through cloning himself.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Let me stress something from the start. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy was published from 1951 to 1953. He actually did the writing of this series in the 1940s. Apple bought the rights to produce the series in 2017 and filming commenced in 2020. It has taken over six decades for a production company to attempt adapting this story to film. Prior to this, Foundation was considered by most as ‘unfilmable’.

The fact that it has now come to our screens is not the point (though this accomplishment is in itself ground breaking). What I want to stress is Asimov is a sci-fi writing genius. Not only did it win the 1966 Hugo Award for Best All-Time Series (a year where Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien was also nominated), but the complex ideas and concepts have stood the test of time and have translated remarkably well when adapted to film. My mind is blown when it thinks that Asimov imagined Foundation in the 1940s.

Star Trek was written in the mid-1960s and Star Wars was written in the late-1970s. Neither of those sci-fi undertakings are as intelligent and epic as Foundation.

And therein lies the rub.

If you come in expecting Apple+ TV’s offering of Foundation season one to have clear archetypes and a plot that revolves around good versus evil, you will be sorely disappointed.

Foundation revolves around two schools of thought. We have the established Galactic Empire that has been ruled for 400 years by Emperor Cleon XII (Lee Pace) who is known as ‘Brother Day’. The line of emperors began with Cleon the First who cloned himself thus securing his existence in perpetuity. While Brother Day is the established ruler, there is ‘Brother Dusk’ (Terrence Mann) and ‘Brother Dawn’ (Cooper Carter). Brother Dusk is the Cleon clone who is now in his twilight years and Brother Dawn is the Cleon clone that will ascend to be the next emperor. Thus, the cycle is maintained as Dawn grows to become Day, Day grows to become Dusk, and Dusk eventually grows to be ‘Brother Darkness’ (later in the series we see that once a Cleon clone becomes ‘Brother Darkness’ they are turned to ash in a blink of an eye by entering some sort of pulsing laser furnace). The ‘new’ Brother Day gets cloned to create a newborn Brother Dawn. Cleon’s school of thought is to maintain stability throughout the Galactic Empire and allow kingdoms under his rule to flourish. Arguably, the system has worked because we see Trantor (the planet that is the capital of the Galactic Empire) as a hub from which races from all other planetary kingdoms come to.

This system becomes challenged when mathematician and psychohistorian, Hari Seldon (Jared Harris) presents a picture that foretells the Galactic Empire’s destruction and he states that this destruction is a mathematical certainty. Psychohistory was developed by Seldon that incorporates history, statistics and sociology to predict future events of a large group of people. Seldon posits that you can’t foresee the actions of an individual, but future events can be predicted over a general population mass.

As you can imagine, the Cleon trinity are not impressed with Seldon’s prophecy.

Episode one sets this all up and introduces Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell) who lives on Synnax (a world that shuns any pursuit of science). Turns out Gaal is a science prodigy and she is whisked away at the bequest of Emperor Cleon and brought to Trantor to debunk Seldon’s psychohistorical forecast.

Seldon’s inquisition by the Cleon trinity is a brilliant sequence of events culminating in Gaal’s honest proclamation that Seldon’s calculations are correct. This coincides with a spectacular scene where the Starbridge (a station that acts as a flight terminal and connects new arrivals to Trantor by a giant space elevator that exceeds the Tower of Babel; it takes 14 hours to get from the Starbridge terminal down to Trantor ground level) is destroyed by terrorists.

This leads to a conundrum for the Cleon trinity. It appears that the downfall of the Galactic Empire has begun, and Brother Dusk’s initial reaction is to execute Hari Seldon as he perceives the scientist as creating a movement against the Empire. However, Brother Day is not so brash and questions Seldon and Gaal further. Gaal manages to convince Brother Day that Seldon represents hope and if you destroy hope then you will accelerate the Empire’s destruction.

Brother Day then questions Seldon and asks him if the downfall can be accelerated then can it not also be slowed? Seldon answers in the affirmative and states it can be slowed by a few centuries if imperial cloning is stopped. He goes on to say that the dynastic line of Cleon offers nothing different, nothing new that all it offers is “a younger grape from the same vine destined for the same old bottle.” He then declares, “You can’t save yourselves, but you can save your legacy.”

After deliberation, the Cleon trinity decides to stay Seldon’s execution and instead allows him to proceed with building a second foundation (in the words of Seldon, he calls it an ‘encyclopedic galactica’) but that this will not occur on Trantor. Instead, Seldon and Gaal (along with Seldon’s followers) will establish this new foundation on Terminus (an uninhabited ice rock of a planet on the outer reaches of the galaxy). Essentially, they are being exiled.

The emperor’s strategy is thus, the galaxy will know that he has sent Seldon to fight the fall of the Empire and if it proves that psychohistory is fraudulent then the foundation will simply wither and die. If the foundation proves to be true then the emperor will be seen as co-opting in saving the Empire and bolster its regime. To Brother Day, it is a win-win.

All this in the first episode. Epic does not do justice to describe this jaw dropping opening act. Asimov, you would be proud. It is worth noting that Robyn Asimov (Isaac’s daughter) serves as executive producer. I wonder if Isaac used psychohistory to predict that one day his Foundation series would lift off the pages and shoot into the stratosphere and beyond.

9.5 out of 10

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