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When the brain trust at Apple TV+ set out to adapt Isaac Asimov’s Foundation for the small screen, they had their work cut out for them. Foundation is a beloved masterpiece by a science fiction titan; in 1966, the Foundation series, then just a trilogy, beat out The Lord of the Rings to earn the prestigious one-time Hugo Award for Best All-Time Series. You’d think a series so lauded would have been adapted for the screen long ago, right?
The problem is, Foundation is notoriously unadaptable. Firstly, the series operates on a massive scale that would frighten most filmmakers into turning tail and running the other way. The first installment alone spans 200 years, while the series writ large transpires across 600 years. Second, Foundation is a novel of ideas, not of characters. Most mid-century works of what scholars call “hard science fiction” share this trait: these are high-minded stories of weighty intellectual themes, which prioritize airtight scientific rigor over character-driven narratives. Foundation is a brilliant series, but you won’t find much in the way of character development or emotional beats here; what you’ll find are scantily sketched characters, most of them white men, conversing at length about the fate of the Galactic Empire. If you’re looking for epic space battles and wrenching character deaths, look elsewhere, because in the world of Foundation, most deaths are just the casualties of time’s inexorable march. In a cosmically massive story, they barely merit a paragraph.
You can see how transforming Foundation into can’t-miss television would require some leaps of imagination. According to showrunner David Goyer, the Asimov estate was fully on board with the changes he wanted to make.
“For me, the big thing was that the books aren't particularly emotional,” Goyer told SlashFilm. “They're books about ideas. And so I thought, ‘Is there a way to create characters that can emotionally embody the themes that Asimov is talking about? If we can do that, then maybe there's a way to tell the story.’ And so, I told the Asimov estate and Robin Asimov that I didn't think it was possible to do just a straight line for line adaptation. Fortunately, they said, ‘We agree with you. And even Asimov did before he died. He agreed with you.’"
Luckily for us, the first two episodes hint that Apple TV+’s Foundation will be more inclusive and thrilling than Asimov’s books. Right out of the gate, we see Goyer’s changes come to life. In the first scene of the series, we meet Salvor Hardin, one of Asimov’s greatest heroes. Fans of the series will remember Salvor as a man who presides over Terminus, a distant world that plays host to the Foundation. Founded by mathematician Hari Seldon, the Foundation is an institute formed to preserve the knowledge of galactic civilization after Seldon’s calculations prophesy the collapse of the Empire. In Apple TV+’s Foundation, Salvor has been gender-swapped and reimagined as a much more action-oriented character.
From Salvor’s first appearance, Goyer’s philosophy creeps outward to touch other characters. In the first Foundation novel, there are very few women characters, and only one woman has speaking lines. In Apple TV+’s adaptation, our point-of-view character is Gaal Dornick, a young mathematician and acolyte to Hari Seldon, who has been reimagined as a woman. To go with her new identity, Gaal has also been given a new paramour in Raych, Seldon’s right-hand man. Asimov’s books are notoriously light on sex and romance, so for an on-screen treatment, it only makes sense that Apple TV+ would up the steamy scene quotient.
Gaal and Salvor aren’t the only characters getting a glow-up. In the novels, the Galactic Empire is ruled by a series of different emperors, while in the on-screen adaptation, the Empire is ruled by a sequence of clones.
“The Empire's resistant to change. How can I come up with a character or series of characters that can embody that?” Goyer said. “I thought, ‘Well, the purest embodiment of being resistant to change is a single individual, just cloning themselves over and over and over again, this just immense act of hubris and ego.’"
In the on-screen adaptation, we meet three clones of Emperor Cleon the First, each at different life stages. A young boy is Brother Dawn, an adult man is Brother Day, and an elderly man is Brother Dusk. Brother Day tells us that their “genetic dynasty” has reigned for over four centuries, with no end in sight. Goyer’s invention may suggest that Apple TV+’s Foundation is going to delve into genetic engineering in ways that Asimov never did.
Beyond the character remixing, most of the changes in the first two episodes have to do with injecting drama and action into the notoriously talky series. In the novel, Seldon never made it off of Trantor, the seat of imperial power. After revealing to Gaal that he was dying, he was later found dead, slumped over his desk. But in Episode Two, Seldon makes it onto the Foundation’s long spaceflight to Terminus, only for the episode to end with his climatic death sequence. Stabbed by Raych, Seldon dies aboard the spaceflight; with the ship in turmoil. Raych forces a devastated Gaal into an escape pod, then blasts her into an asteroid belt. Why did Raych kill Seldon, and why did he separate Gaal from the Foundation? No doubt we’ll find out why Goyer made these changes in the coming episodes.
If you think packing at least two centuries of story into ten episodes of television means Apple TV+ will have to scrimp on what you know and love about Asimov’s series, think again. “We're not really condensing Asimov's Foundation with this show,” Goyer said. “We're actually expanding it, and that's a luxury.” The season is still young, so watch this space for updates; we’ll continue to flesh out all the differences between the adaptation and the source material as the series unfolds.
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