Foundation premiere review: “The Emperor’s Peace” and “Preparing to Live”

“When I was a child, I told my mother I wanted to learn every planet in the galactic empire. Beginning in the center and moving out to Stars End. Each night, she told me stories, I traveled light years, my mind expanding to hold more and more worlds, but I never reached Terminus, straddling the furthest reaches of civilization. Unsettled by man, it was the end, and its story remained dark to me until many years later. Until it became my story. Until it became the only story.”

So begins Apple TV+’s adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s science-fiction classic Foundation. Originally comprising three novels that expanded to seven, Apple’s adaptation ignores the two prequels and delves straight into the 1951 novel. Our first episodes adapts the first part of the book, “The Psychohistorians,” in its entirety.

Episode 1. Leah Harvey in “Foundation,” premiering September 24, 2021 on Apple TV+.

Foundation review: Episode 1, “The Emperor’s Peace”

The opening episode of the saga, “The Emperor’s Peace,” starts in somewhat familiar territory, with a vehicle speeding across a vast alien landscape. It’s hard not to be reminded of Luke Skywalker traversing the deserts of Tatooine in his landspeeder. Yet here we have the polar opposite of that sun-drenched world, an unforgiving harshness of tundra and mountains.

Within the first minutes of the show, we see that life on Terminus is hard, with brief glimpses of the colony and terrain proving that this is indeed the “furthest reaches of civilization.” However, there’s mystery in the air in the form of “The Vault,” a mysterious floating structure that is said to keep away all people, birds and insects. Clearly of a much more advanced design than anything else in the area, what this Vault is and why it projects a force field is the first big question of the episode.

“To understand our future, we have to remember the past.”

Our interest sufficiently peeked, we flash back 35 years to the planet of Trantor, which is filled with marble, columns, and statues that invoke our own Ancient Rome. Introduced as “a mathematician, a martyr, a murderer,” Hari Seldon (Jared Harris) shares an ominous moment with his adopted son Raych (Alfred Enoch) as they consider calculations and a diagram of the galaxy.

We soon get another change of location as the show introduces our characters in quick succession. This time, it’s the water world of Synnax, where we meet Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell). Here, wooden shacks on the water bring to mind the paradise islands of the Pacific. Yet there is little paradise for Dornick, who has always wanted to leave, yet when the moment comes finds herself full of mixed emotions; she’s upset to be going but knows she will be safe and “accepted” on Trantor as she isn’t on ther home world. What her offense has been is, as yet, unknown, but there’s talk of priests, and her mother insists that she “hold [her] head high.”

Episode 1. Lou Llobell in “Foundation,” premiering September 24, 2021 on Apple TV+.

Everyone in the community looks at Gaal with reproach, instantly eliciting our sympathy. While later scenes show her genius, she quickly becomes the most relatable character of the episode; she’s anxious entering the Imperial Library and is instantly attracted to the handsome Raych. Later it’s revealed that her pursuit of mathematics offended her religion, with one priest accusing her of taking Hari Seldon as a new God.

Aboard an Imperial Jump Ship, Gaal reveals that she’s traveling to Trantor to work with Hari. As the ship’s occupants are encased in a kind of stasis, we get an idea of the true vastness of the story we’re about to witness. The camera pans around the ship as it activates its jump drive and traverses lightyears. Moments later, the vessel arrives at a space installation, the Star Bridge, built up from beneath the planet itself. The vast size is mind-boggling; the elevator flight down  to the surface passes thousands of floors and takes 14 hours.

We’re told that the citizens of the planet toil beneath the surface, and the true nature of Trantor, “the eye of the empire,” begins to reveal itself. We have already seen helmeted soldiers carrying back bodies from a skirmish elsewhere, and now we are told that the planet’s surface belongs to the cloned emperors that rule the galactic empire. The fear that Seldon’s name provokes amongst this elite is readily apparent, even getting to Brother Day (Lee Pace), the foremost of the emperors. Sitting on the middle throne, he has a charismatic presence; good-looking, he has something of a Jaime Lannister air about him.

Episode 1. Cooper Carter, Lee Pace and Terrence Mann in “Foundation,” premiering September 24, 2021 on Apple TV+.

The presence of the cloned emperors is likely to be controversial amongst Asimov fans. These characters did not appear in the original work; instead, the sons of the former emperor sit on the throne, one at a time. That said, the clone emperors are one of the most interesting aspects of Apple’s take on Foundation, both here and in coming episodes.

“War is expensive.”

The three emperors are cloned from the same person but are all different ages, one a boy, one an adult, and one and old man. They live in absolute opulence.

Having finally met Hari, the great mathematician informs the shocked Gaal that they will be arrested tomorrow. It is clear that we have entered Hari’s story some way along, his threat against the empire having been building for many years.

Hari’s great discovery is “psychohistory,” a form of mathematics that can predict the future. The problem is that his equations predict the destruction of Trantor and the fall of the Empire, which rather perturbs the emperors. Suddenly, some of the hints we’ve already seen start to make sense, with an empire at war on their outer reaches attempting to sue for peace due to the insane cost of conflict. Given recent events, the thread couldn’t be more timely, yet the origins lay in the fall of the Roman Empire, where Rome became bogged down in endless wars with barbarian factions at the fringes of their territory.

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Jared Harris in “Foundation,” premiering September 24, 2021 on Apple TV+.

The following day, Gaal turns to prayer for guidance, showing her complicated relationship with her culture. Hari, meanwhile, takes a sad look at the Imperial Library; whether he’s mourning its future loss or the predicted end of his work on the planet, we can’t be sure. Soon enough, the pair’s trial begins, with the prosecutor, Advocate Xylas, played by the always welcome Alexander Siddig.

The episode already touched briefly on the conflict between religion and science. Now we see a the clash between politics and science, with the powerful point-blank refusing to accept the scientific truth of Hari’s predictions. Whether this is through arrogance or a wish to save face is not made clear, but Hari’s conclusions are horrific in their awe. The complete collapse of order is soon to be at hand, resulting in ten thousand worlds reduced to cinders and a dark age lasting 30,000 years. It is inevitable.

“A rotten tree truck appears strong until the storm breaks it in two.”

The powerful argue that if Seldon’s predictions are accurate, the information must be suppressed to protect the people. In a way, that can seen as logical, which shows that the series won’t frame its conflicts purely in terms of good vs evil; there are complications here.

However, the empire is still obviously oppressive, as Hari will likely be executed either way, with Gaal unwillingly enlisted to disprove his predictions, although after looking at the math she sees he’s right.

Hari would not consider what he predicts to have any ambiguity; the fall of the empire is a cold scientific fact that must be prepared for. As Jared Harris desperately tries to get those in authority to agree that lives and, in this case, civilization must be saved, it’s hard not to think of his role as Valery Legasov in Chernobyl.

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Jared Harris and Lou Llobell in “Foundation,” premiering September 24, 2021 on Apple TV+.

As both Hari and Gaal are prepared for execution, a major suicide attack on the Star Bridge causes chaos. Tens of millions are killed as the immense structure crashes into the cityscape in what is sure to be an early pivotal moment in the series. The visuals are impressive, and make Foundation look every part the blockbuster movie release.

As predicted, the imperial library burns, and it becomes clear that Hari was right. Hari offers the emperor a way out as the outer worlds spark into rebellion: they must end their cloning program to delay the inevitable end. The idea is that only through new ideas and thinking might some salvation come.

As we reach the end of the first episode, we tie back to our opening with Hari and Gaal exiled to Terminus, allowed to continue their work, and intending on creating the “Foundation” through which civilization might survive after the coming fall. As we return to Terminus 35 years later, we learn that the colony there is the Foundation itself.

Foundation review: Episode 2, “Preparing to Live”

Released alongside the season premiere, “Preparing to Live” opens in a new location: the dwarf planet Aethra. Here, an illegal biohacking facility is raided by imperial forces hunting down those who carried out the attack on the Star Bridge.

Over the first two episodes, the galaxy has been changed utterly. So too has the personal lives of Gaal Dornick and Raych Seldon; they’ve grown closer between episodes and are growing closer still. However, there are still 54 more months until they reach their destination on Terminus, and Foundation will not be a show with many happy endings.

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Alfred Enoch in “Foundation,” premiering September 24, 2021 on Apple TV+.

Life aboard the ship is far from the gleaming white corridors of the Star Trek‘s USS Enterprise; the aesthetics are rough and industrial, showing that life in the Foundation universe is far from utopian. The Star Trek comparison is driven home when Gaal and her crewmates engage in a holodeck-like simulation, not for entertainment but as training for the harsh reality of Terminus. Gaal also issues a warning to another crewmate on the dangers of pregnancy aboard the ship. And we learn that not everyone will make it to Terminus as they’ve all been exposed to radiation and other hazards.

The episode’s other focus is the ongoing fallout of the Star Bridge attack, which resulted in the deaths of 100 million citizens of Trantor. The aging and infirm Brother Dusk heads to the scene of the tragedy and discovers that Dornick’s priest from the first episode has survived.

Unlike Brother Day, Dusk seems to be opening himself to the idea that Hari Seldon’s predictions are correct. Dusk’s faith in the system is genuinely shaken by events, his age perhaps giving him wisdom as he ponders the effects the cloning system has had on the empire. Fractures between the emperors are forming in private, while publicly Dusk maintains a harsh stance against the outer worlds. As pragmatic and prone to anger as his younger counterpart, Dusk knows that the people need blood.

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Cooper Carter, Lee Pace and Terrence Mann in “Foundation,” premiering September 24, 2021 on Apple TV+.

Injured in the empire’s flight, Demerzel (Laura Birn) is soon revealed to be a robot, which pays off a seemingly throwaway line from Hari earlier in the episode about the Robot Wars and “Sympathisers.” We learn she is the last of her kind and that the emperors are aware of her identity. Why she has been allowed to survive in such a high position, we don’t know.

“We’re not turning around now.”

After the impressive opening episode, “Preparing to Live” is more of a character piece as we get an idea of the dynamics between the three central figures within the Foundation: Gaal and Raych  are beginning a relationship, and Hari disapproves.

Hari puts his faith entirely in science and detachment, rather than emotion and human relationships. As Gaal says, “If we factor out human relationships, what are we trying to say?”

However, Hari can still be empathetic and inspiring, as shown by his big speech in the ship’s laundry. His intellect may be intimidating, but he values ordinary people, a contrast from the peacock-eating emperors back on Trantor.

Episode 1. Jared Harris in “Foundation,” premiering September 24, 2021 on Apple TV+.

The man-of-the-people-vs-the-cruel-rich-elite trope has been seen many times, but it’s done well here. Hari is far from perfect, especially when it comes to his son. The relationship between Raych and Hari isn’t as close as the first episode suggested, with Raych seemingly bitter about what happened to his real father after he chose to live with Hari. While the crew treats the great mathematician with deference, Raych knows a different man, and is angry when he learns that his father’s computations are not complete.

Foundation may be set an unknown number of galaxies away, but the character’s actions and motivations are all too human. As the episode begins to draw to a close, we see a combination of Game of Throne‘s “death of Ned Stark” and Star Wars‘ destruction of Alderaan, as Emperor Day personally not only executes people who clearly have nothing to do with the plot against Trantor, but destroys their worlds. The people cheer as all-out war is unleashed.

“The Emperor’s peace,” it seems, is maintained through bloodshed. Once again, it’s hard not to see echoes of modern politic in the story, although they’re not overbearing or discordant with the original message of Asimov’s book.

Where the show does break from the book is in this episode’s big twist, which sees Hari seemingly dead and Gaal cast into space. The suddenness of the ending is surprising, but we also get a sense that all is not quite as it seems. Still, it’s a monumental cliffhanger and twist that seems almost suitable for a season finale.

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Lee Pace in “Foundation,” premiering September 24, 2021 on Apple TV+.

Before Foundation aired, many expected it to echo Game of Thrones or Star Wars. Now that it’s here, we see that the show is something else entirely. Sure, there are nods to other series — the landspeeder from the opening reminds us of A New Hope, the soldiers being somewhat reminiscent of stormtroopers, and Trantor has shades of Coruscant. But Foundation is more cerebral, focusing on philosophical questions of politics, religion and science.

The show touches on climate change and suicide attacks. The most powerful empire in the galaxy is engaged in a forever war, and science is denied at every turn by vested interests obsessed with maintaining their own power. While Asimov offered a commentary on the fall of Rome, it’s not difficult to see the connection to our present. As Gaal says, “it takes more power to build than to burn.”

“The Emperor’s Peace” and “Preparing to Live” are strong starts for Foundation that successfully set out the issues at play and introduce us to our main characters, with newcomer Lou Llobell standing out alongside the ever-impressive Jared Harris. The episodes are well-paced and offer enough intrigue and insight into the Foundation universe to ensure that the series will be a future binge-watch classic.

While the original novel series can be daunting to new readers, the story here is kept simple. The show ensures the viewer cares about the fate of all the major characters, and every major scene either has ramifications on a galaxy-wide scale or personally for those building the Foundation. The changes to the novel are not yet too disruptive, although Asimov fans should be warned that there are many more to come.

The show is visually stunning as you would expect from David S. Goyer, and looks like it has the potential to be Apple’s killer show. Thoughtful, shocking, and spectacular, the epic has only just begun. Highly recommended.

Grade: A

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