'Foundation' TV show adapts a classic science fiction trilogy using modern sensibilities

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Sep. 24—As a nerdy child with no friends, I derived comfort from science-fictional sagas that unfold at a massive scale. None figured more prominently than Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" trilogy, a weighty tome bestowed upon me by an aunt, and reduced to tatters over multiple re-readings.

"Foundation" tells the story of a galactic empire in decline, and of a scientist who foretells — using a discipline called psychohistory — its eventual destruction. The fall cannot be averted, Hari Seldon tells imperial leaders on the capital planet of Trantor, but the dark age to follow can be shortened from 30,000 years to a mere millennium if appropriate steps are taken.

Branded a heretic, Seldon is banished with his followers to the planet Terminus at the galaxy's outer rim — exactly as the crafty psychohistorian intends.

The galactical machinations that follow over three volumes are the bedrock upon which subsequent sci-fi classics such as "Dune" and "Star Wars" are constructed. (The "Star Wars" capital planet of Coruscant is Trantor; ask any bookworm.)

But, by flashy modern standards with lightsabers and The Force, "Foundation" can be a bit dry — It's about math, after all. A product of the 1950s, the trilogy's almost entirely male (and presumably white and cisgender) characters largely sit around tables talking — they won't stop talking!

As a kid, I fantasized about "Foundation" being turned into movies or a TV series, but wondered how on Earth that could be pulled off. Even a boy like me could tell Asimov wasn't great at character development.

By golly, David S. Goyer has (mostly) done it.

He is a co-showrunner for "Foundation," a 10-episode series premiering on Apple TV+ tonight, with a storyline that will delight old geeks like me, but won't lose those who are unaware of or indifferent to the dusty source material.

He did this by coming full circle — preserving the bones of Asimov's opus, but fleshing it out with ingredients instantly recognizable from modern sci-fi works such as "Star Wars," "Star Trek" and "Game of Thrones." During one scene on a desert planet, I kept expecting Daenerys Targaryen to swoop in on her dragon. In fact, a key character in that scene looks a lot like Khaleesi — except SHE IS A ROBOT. Well played, Goyer.

"Foundation" is challenging to turn into a show partly because it is not really three novels but a series of novellas with few recurring characters (except for Seldon, who is supposedly dead but has a way of popping up in a weird way).

To solve this problem, Goyer created something new: the "genetic dynasty" (stick with me here). This refers to an endless succession of galactic emperors called Cleon who are clones of the first Cleon. What's more, the Cleons govern as trios: There are always a young Brother Dawn, a middle-aged Brother Day and an elderly Brother Dusk, working together. It's a gimmick, but injects needed continuity into a show that keeps jumping back and forth over years and centuries. The brothers are riveting in a Sith sort of way; Lee Pace as Brother Day is the most prominent, and terrifying.

Diversity has been a must in sci-fi TV and films a while, and Goyer delivers. Hari Seldon (played perfectly by Jarred Harris) is white, but both his psychohistory apprentice Gaal Dornick and a crucial Terminus character, Salvor Hardin, are Black and female (played wonderfully by Lou Llobell and Leah Harvey).

"Foundation," if a success, has a ton of Asimov content to harness over what could easily be 10 seasons (Goyer says he's sketched out eight).

The first season's storyline uses but a fraction of the trilogy's first volume, also called "Foundation." (It's followed by "Foundation and Empire" and "Second Foundation.") I don't want to give too much away, but it involves Seldon's flock on Terminus flirting with disaster as they deal with nearby kingdoms that are disturbingly warlike, yet happen to be key parts of Seldon's legacy.

There's also a mysterious obelisk nicknamed "the vault" that floats over a hill near Terminus Town, and emanates a force field that renders unconscious those who come too close. This will baffle old "Foundation" hands since there's nothing like that in the books, but rest assured there's a psycho-historical angle.

"Foundation" has jaw-dropping moments fans of the trilogy won't see coming, and I ain't tellin' — except to say that Goyer is thinking big, really big, and he got the budget he needed (thanks, Apple).

Yet "Foundation" can feel disjointed at times, and Goyer often seems to be using the "throw things against the wall to see what will stick" TV-plotting method while swiping from the likes of "Terminator," "Stargate" and Arthur C. Clarke's novel "The Fountains of Paradise."

But if you're able to stick with it, all (or at least most) will be made clear. "Trust the math," as Hari Seldon would put it.

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