How To Betray Your Source Material: A Review of Apple TV’s Foundation

Spoilers for the Apple TV series Foundation ahead. Considering I’m going to strongly recommend that you not spend any of your life watching this show, take that as you will.

I wondered how Foundation was going to handle the source material. The stories, originally by Isaac Asimov, are solidly in the tradition of Silver Age science fiction. Characters are often cardboard cutouts with a focus on the ideas expressed in the tales.

And those stories had some really good and revolutionary ideas at the time. "Psychohistory" – an amalgam of sociology and economics – was a new idea at about the same time that economics and sociology actually began cross-disciplinary explorations. The stories – particularly in the first book – encompassed centuries and an entire galaxy. Despite having some memorable characters, they lived and died merely due to the passage of time; the focus was not individual people but instead people working to preserve humanity. The technology Asimov envisoned was remarkable at the time, and most importantly, it focused on nonviolent resolutions to violent conflict.

The stories also have their problems. Aside from the flat characters, they first stories saw print in 1942, and the societal norms of the time are reflected in the worlds that were imagined. Nuff said there.

So I wondered how they’d translate these stories to television.

There’s been a bit of a renaissance in reimagining classic stories lately. They look at the source material and go from there. Sometimes they are significantly reworked and for the better (Doom Patrol, The Color Out of Space), sometimes they closely follow the source material, only subtly addressing issues of pacing and tweaking story structure (The Expanse, Dune (2021)).

In these cases, it is clear that the showrunners are determined to embody the spirit of the original work, even if the reworked script deviates from the source material somewhat.

The first episode of Foundation made me think it was going to be the former. I have no problem with gender and race swaps at all. The change in Gaal Dornick’s story worked for me. I enjoyed the design work of the Empire (both the ships and of the worlds), and the actors did a rather good job. I knew the focus would change due to the different formats, and that was okay by me.

I especially enjoyed the inclusion of religions. It’s a valid critique that religion is rarely addressed at all in science fiction, with many authors preferring to just avoid the discussion altogether. In a work that addresses sociology, you have to address people’s faith and how that shapes societies.

That’s something you absolutely have to do, even if the focus of the work is on science and sociology.

You also do not have your story proclaim that one of the religions is at least somewhat right about mystical matters, and make that a major plot point.

In the most recent episode – "The Missing Piece" – the series makes it canon that an artificial intelligence has a literal soul able to receive visions, whereas a cloned Emperor does not.

None of this is in the books, if you’re wondering. I did not mind the addition of a repeatedly cloned Emperor and the "Genetic Dynasty". I thought that was actually rather clever. I’d started to become concerned about the science around it…

Okay, let me pause to say that I was getting right annoyed by the sheer stupidity of some of the quasi-science by episode four and five. Whether it’s people somehow free jumping tens of miles across vacuum between two moving ships with literally no guidance in thirty seconds (and making it!) , or suddenly introduced pseudoscience to provide drama and the tension of ticking clocks, it was already getting old.

Then when we learned the ultra-advanced Empire is still taking cells from the original Emperor, leading to variation in the newest clones, I grew really concerned. After all, we’ve already sequenced the human genome. If a galaxy-wide civilization is entirely based upon the accuracy of these clones, wouldn’t you have a little bit of quality control? Couldn’t they spin up a clone literally from the sequenced DNA? Instead, we have the youngest clone desperately hiding his color-blindness (way to shame folks, BTW), and some really sketchy assertions about genetic code and how that’s expressed in behavior.

And then, this:

[Day] According to Zephyr Halima, I am soulless. I must appeal to the triple Goddesses themselves.

As part of a political crisis brought about by one of the largest religions in the Empire, the middle Emperor goes on a pilgrimage through the desert.

A trek of over 170 kilometers with no food, no water and no rest.

Again, the showrunners show their ignorance of scale. That’s over 100 miles. There are “Centurion” races, where the challenge is to walk 100 miles in 24 hours. It’s also something that requires a lot of training (something the Emperor and pilgrims explicitly do not have). See for one person’s journey in real life. Further, these real-world races have no restrictions on food, water, or rest – again, all things forbidden to the Emperor or the pilgrims in a blazing desert. For the Emperor, this ends in a grotto where there is a small spring, where

After you immerse yourself in the pool, if the Mother is willing, you will be graced with a vision.

The Emperor completes the challenge, and his description of his vision is seen as proof that he has a soul, and therefore is worthy to lead. Then the AI reveals that she had a vision when she did this pilgrimage thousands of years earlier, confirming that she also has a soul.

“You had a vision? A robot?”

“I did. And I am pleased that you were graced with one as well. Seeing nothing… I would not wish that emptiness on anyone.”

And of course, our closing scene is the reveal that the Emperor has completely fabricated his vision – and is now devastated by this realization. NEVERMIND THAT IT WAS ESTABLISHED LESS THAN AN HOUR AGAIN THAT THE VISION IS A SELECTIVE BOON, NOT A LITMUS TEST. Is the AI also being duplicitous? Probably not – it wrestling with its faith (despite being constructed instead of born) was a significant and very interesting plot point. It truly believes in this faith and what it experienced. Similarly, this could have been an ongoing philosophical question in the series, provoking thought about the personhood of clones, constructed intelligences, and “natural born” humans. Instead, Foundation went out of its way to canonically establish that there are souls, that only those with souls can receive these visions from a goddess figure, and that clones don’t have them, but AIs can. And at that ironic point, Foundation has completely lost the spirit of the original work. Save the precious moments of your life. Skip Foundation entirely. Go watch (or read, or re-watch or re-read) The Expanse instead.