One of my favorite books is the original Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov. I was over the Moon when I heard that Apple TV was adapting it for streaming.
I was so excited that I sprang for a subscription. That may not sound like a big deal until you understand that I come from a time in the misty past where TV used to be free. Paying for TV is like paying for air, in my mind. But for something special, like when 70- year-old classic Sci-Fi books are brought to life, I’ll pry open my wallet.
At this writing (December 2023), 20 episodes have aired, with more to come. I’ve watched them (skimmed them, actually) and I am left with one question:
Why do I hate what Apple did to Asimov’s creation?
To answer, let’s summarize why the books, at least, were so compellingly awesome.
The story takes place many thousands of years in the future. With an imperial system of government, mankind reigns supreme over the entire Milky Way galaxy. The Emperor is secure in that there are no threats to his hold over the billions of star systems. But there is a danger that only one man sees:
With no more meaningful challenges left to conquer, mankind stagnates and starts to decline. Subsequent generations’ ability to apply existing technical knowledge erodes.
The empire’s grip on the galaxy’s outer rim becomes tenuous. Those star systems begin to defy the weakened empire, without repercussions. They become more and more independent and barbaric. The ensuing societal rot slowly moves inward, to the civilized core of the Empire.
The one man who sees the danger is a mathematician who has developed a novel science that predicts the fall of the empire, followed by a Dark Age.
Hari Seldon and his proclamations are not popular with the ruling imperium. He proposes — to their faces, anyway — to preserve the sum total of mankind’s physical sciences in an all-encompassing Encyclopedia Galactica. Curation of all this knowledge would take decades and decades of work by the best scientific minds in the galaxy.
To rid themselves of this rabble-rouser, they grant him the use of Terminus — a planet on the extreme rim that’s farthest from the galactic core. He’s effectively banished, but he sets up his Foundation to work on the Encyclopedia.
Problem solved, as far as the imperium is concerned. And just maybe the project could be useful in helping to arrest further decline.
Hari, however, has given up on the current empire as a lost cause. His mathematical science of prediction, called psychohistory, cannot save it. However, with the proper manipulation of certain variables, he can set humanity on a path that will reduce the length of the interregnum to a mere 1,000 years — after which a second empire will arise, stronger than the first. Otherwise the Dark Age could last for tens of thousands of years.
Several decades later, after Hari has passed, the Foundation is happily working on the Encyclopedia Galactica, as their imperial charter mandates. And they’re looking forward to hearing Hari’s first scheduled holographic message to them.
The only thing that dampens the mood is the aggressive posture of Terminus’s neighbors. By now, Terminus is surrounded by rogue star kingdoms, and all of them have cast envious eyes on the imperial outpost. Still, the administrators of the Foundation are smugly confident that the empire will protect them. Eventually they realize that the empire is becoming less and less capable of projecting its power to the rim; and even if it could, it also lacked the desire to extend itself for the Foundation’s protection.
Terminus was on the verge of being occupied by barbarians.
Hari, the inventor of the greatest predicting science of all time, will tell them what to do, think the administrators. Gathered to hear Hari’s recorded words, he appears on schedule — but his message is not what they expected.
He tells them that it’s nice that for the last 50 years they’ve diligently worked to preserve mankind’s technical knowledge. But it was all just busywork; it was never the Foundation’s true purpose.
The Foundation was always intended to be a safe haven for galactic civilization. When anarchy replaced imperial government at the outer reaches of the empire, the Foundation would reseed civilization there. And as the empire continued to shrink, the Foundation would continue to expand civilization until the whole galaxy was reintegrated under a new empire.
Hari Seldon’s recorded image also correctly surmised that by now the Foundation would be under threat from its neighbors. It would be the first of many crises during the thousand-year interregnum predicted by his mathematical models. And like now, he’s scheduled to appear at each predicted crisis. Unfortunately, he would offer no solutions, because that would throw off the math of his predictions, and his plan would be jeopardized.
The only realist in the room absorbed Hari’s words with sober reflection. Salvor Hardin, the Mayor of Terminus, had always known that they were on their own against the neighboring kingdoms; now, so did everyone else on Terminus. Knowing that the Foundation had little-to-no military capabilities, Hari intimated that there was a solution — and it should be obvious.
You’ll have to read the books to see how things turn out, but isn’t that a compelling setup?
Apple’s series deviates from a strict retelling of the trilogy’s story. And given the age of the original material, I suppose that has to be expected; but for my money, they didn’t improve it.
They went way above-and-beyond in fleshing out the plot and the characters. But there was plenty of material in the original 750 pages. Did they really need to add new conflicts and new histories to each character?
First: They took Hari’s assistant — a minor character in the book — and made them and their enhanced history pivotal to the onscreen plot. That character even becomes mother to the first book’s major character: Terminus’s first mayor.
Second: They build the Emperor into a major focal point; in the books, he’s referred to but hardly seen.
Third: Apple’s series presents an empire in technical decline, as in the books — but one is hard-pressed to see how. They’re still capable of visiting and exercising their will over the systems of the outer rim.
Fourth: Unlike the books, Hari is alive for most of the series. He had died and could occasionally be seen as an artificially intelligent holograph, but then magically someone converts that digital image into a living, breathing man.
Need I go on? Fans of the books are hard-pressed to recognize the series as the same trilogy.
Surprisingly, I do know some people have liked Apple’s series. But I strongly suspect they didn’t read the books.
To be fair, I also understand that viewers are more likely to invest their interest in a miniseries when the characters are the same from episode to episode. That’s a tall task for screenwriters, given that the books spanned generations, with different characters for each section.
However, this purist will continue to wait for a more-faithful depiction of the Foundation to be committed to the big or small screen. For now, there’s always Star Wars.