The Foundation Dilemma

The TV series, Foundation, has just finished its second season on Apple TV.

I thought everyone who cares about good science fiction would know about the series, but a reader I was conversing with the other day was not aware of it. Because of that conversation, I thought I’d mention the show here.

Perhaps Apple TV is not advertising as widely as other streaming services usually do. I’m not sure.

Foundation is based upon Isaac Asimov’s loose series of books. It was first published as a series of short stories and novellas…in 1942! It has taken 81 years for the beloved series to make it to either the large or small screen.

And I can understand why it has taken that long.

The series is hugely popular. It was awarded a Special Hugo award for best series, and three normal Hugo awards for various parts of the series. Isaac Asimov wrote that fans hounded him for more and more in the series, and the last book was released in 1986 (Foundation and Earth), only six years before the author’s death.

Asimov has also written that The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was one of his sources of inspiration for the series. And Frank Herbert has, in turn, said that he wrote Dune in response to Asimov’s Foundation, as a counterpoint. Which makes Asimov’s series hugely influential.

Yet no one attempted to film it or turn it into a series. That’s because the structure of the stories in the books make it a massive headache to put on film.

I’ve read partway through the series, and keep meaning to get back to finishing it one day, but I’m reluctant to do so because of this same awkward structure issue that scares off screenwriters and directors.

The first story and book is super-interesting. The reader gets to follow the fate of Harry Seldon and the setting up of his Foundation.

So far, so good.

But when you get into the second set of stories/books, it’s hundreds of years later, and every single character from the first book is dead and gone. Now you have to get to know a whole new set of people, and how they fit into the massive series arc.

I petered out after the second set of stories. As interesting as the series concept is–the survival of humanity through a 30,000 year Dark Age–I just ran out of patience. Not having a character(s) to follow through the series, to get to know them and care about what happens to them, is a major drawback in fiction. There are two major moving parts to fiction; What happens, and who it happens to. (Plot and Character.) The Foundation series is hobbled by the fact that reader can’t invest in any of the characters in a way that sustains the story across the series.

I realize that saying this will horrify a lot of fans who love the series. Foundation is considered to be Asimov’s defining work. And its scale is absolutely epic and awesome, no argument. But to love the series is to love the concept, not the story itself, because there is no single story. There are lots of little stories that add to the overall concept.

Given all this, I was wary about investing my time and attention in Apple TV’s series, when it first popped up and caught my attention.

But the trailer was lush, epic and gorgeous. So I tentatively watched the first season and was delighted to find that the TV series has resolved all my issues with the books.

I’m two seasons in, now, and can’t wait for the third season. There are strong rumours that the third season will get the green light, but nothing has been confirmed as I write this post.

The casting for this series was inspired. Lee Pace is an old-style actor with huge screen presence, who chews up the scenes. The series needs someone like this to successfully carry the epic scale of the story-telling. So, too, is Jared Harris the perfect choice for Harry Seldon. He has a quieter presence than Pace, but he exudes heroic qualities with every syllable he utters.

If you love the Foundation books, but have not yet seen the series, I must warn you that the writers have changed huge swathes of the story, characters and more. But if they were to tell the Foundation story at all, they had to. And while I was mildly uncomfortable with the changes through the first half of the first season, once I realized why they had made those changes (to be able to tell the story at all), then I settled in happily and just enjoyed the fabulous visuals and the characters and stories the way the series needed to tell them.

The major concepts and story arcs from the books are still there, but the path the stories take to explain those concepts are a bit different.

I like the differences. None of them (so far) have been arbitrary, and all of them make for highly visual, dramatic and, (yes, I must use the word again) epic story-telling.

Check the series out, if you haven’t got around to it, yet. It’s worth the time.

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