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'Foundation' review: Spectacular adaptation of Isaac Asimov's classic sci-fi trilogy

Lou Llobell in "Foundation," premiering Sept. 24 on

Lou Llobell in "Foundation," premiering Sept. 24 on Apple TV+. Credit: Apple TV+

SERIES "Foundation"

WHERE Streaming on Apple TV+

WHAT IT'S ABOUT The human race has spread throughout the galaxy, filling countless planets as part of a confederation called the Galactic Empire. But the one planet that rules over them all, Trantor, is about to get sobering news: The end is near. Preeminent mathematician and "psychohistorian" Hari Seldon (Jared Harris) has created a perfect model of the future that has precisely determined the date of this decline and fall, to be followed by 30,000 years of more catastrophe. Hari has summoned another mathematical genius, Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell), to validate his equations before the emperor of this vast empire (Lee Pace) — a cloned model of other emperors who have come before. Infuriated by these bearers of bad news, he banishes both to the ends of the galaxy, specifically the desolate planet Terminus, where Hari's followers establish the so-called Foundation, which could avert the fate he has foretold.

This adaptation of the Isaac Asimov story-novella series was produced by David S. Goyer (who wrote the screenplays of Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy).

MY SAY Asimov began "Foundation" in 1942, when he was just 21 and the fate of the world uncertain, ipso facto his own fate too. The future was shrouded in darkness, unknowable. But what if … what if?

Asimov had begun to dabble in the particulars of something he'd call "psychohistory" — could the future of humankind in fact be predicted? — which would become the main plot engine of the "Foundation" trilogy, completed in 1950. Into this bottomless well of an idea he poured other ideas, but the core one pivoted on the age-old argument of determinism versus free will. Do the actions of the individual matter or are they irrelevant in the grand sweep and scope of the universe?

Moreover, if one knows the future, can one affect it? (Or is that even logically possible?)

Finally, this: Is there hope for the human race, or — insert long, deep breath here — not?

Admittedly, you don't need this background as you dive into this ten-part adaptation but it does help explain why "Foundation" has never before been turned into a TV series: It has long been considered Nielsen poison. Among the two or three greatest works of science fiction, "Foundation" is nonetheless preoccupied with ideas instead of action — much of which took place offstage, like a Greek drama. The many characters weren't necessarily multifaceted, but in service to all those intricate questions Asimov set out to explore. It would be left to "Star Trek'' and "Star Wars"' to redress those apparent shortcomings.

Yup (sorry) more background, but it does set in sharp relief just how considerable an accomplishment this "Foundation" is. Goyer has sacrificed none of Asimov's ideas but enriched them by building out those characters. (Robyn Asimov, Asimov's daughter, is also a producer.) And because character drives action — as any first-year film student knows — he's enriched the action too.

Goyer gets a lot of help. "Foundation" has a dozen or two first-rate performances, and if any must be singled out, Pace's "Brother Day" is a valid one to start with. Not quite entirely evil, he's just one more sociopath who writhes in agony over the Empire's fate and especially his own legacy. As the puppet master himself, Harris' Seldon has the confidence of someone who knows the future, and the hubris to match

This "Foundation" is also filled with the wonder of discovery, which is what science fiction on TV ideally should have (but too often does not). It's world-building without the world having already been built in countless other movies, TV series and comic novels. Watch and you have the feeling that you are at the outset of a momentous journey.

Who knows? Maybe you are.

BOTTOM LINE Spectacular.

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