There’s a reason there hasn’t been a screen adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s classic science fiction saga Foundation until now. First published as a series of short stories between 1942 and 1950, it’s historically been considered “unfilmable”, not unlike other texts that eventually made it to the screen in one way, shape, or form to greater or lesser degrees of success.
One of the aspects that has made fans of Asimov’s literary series label it such is the complexity of its characters – something it’s difficult to explore in a two-hour feature. This is undoubtedly one reason for the failure of any attempt to launch a big-screen adaptation, alongside the story’s sprawling scale and twisting plotlines.
And people tried. In 1998, New Line Cinema had hopes of developing a movie version of Asimov’s original trilogy of novels. Rights wranglings would ultimately see the franchise wrestled away by Sony who then also failed to produce their proposed project before HBO won the rights in 2014 after they once again became available. So, the seeds for a TV series were sown. Though it would ultimately be Apple TV+ that would commission and follow through on a 10-episode straight-to-order series with acclaimed screenwriter and lifelong Foundation fan David S Goyer (of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice fame) on showrunner duties.
Psychohistory: Qu’est-ce Que C’est?
“When you’ve got ten hours to tell a story, or 80 hours to tell a story, you don’t have to distill everything down into a neat, tidy package of two hours, or two and a half hours, as with a feature,” says Goyer, who hopes to adapt the entirety of Asimov’s Foundation works into eight ten-episode seasons. “So that’s one of the things that’s lovely about these big streaming shows. You can take a character, let’s say Demerzel for an example, who’s in a few scenes in the first episode, but then kind of slowly peel back the onion layers of her character over the course of the season. And she’s obviously an incredibly important character for the show. I like it sometimes that storytelling like this can take a character who’s in the background at the beginning and then slowly bring them to the forefront of the story.”
In the series, Demerzel, played by Laura Birn, is the right-hand advisor to the trio of emperors, Brothers Dawn, Day, and Dusk, that are clones of Emperor Cleon I, created to ensure the Empire’s unbroken reign and to maintain peace in the galaxy. But the status quo is threatened after brainiac mathematics whizz Hari Seldon (Jared Harris) reveals the future, recruiting the young and impressionable but similarly smart Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell) to authenticate his claims.
“I like it sometimes that storytelling like this can take a character who’s in the background at the beginning and then slowly bring them to the forefront of the story.” — David S Goyer
Through his knowledge of ‘psychohistory’ Seldon is able to predict future events by looking at patterns throughout the past, and it’s a future that looks bleak for the Cleons – the Empire will fall, he says, and plunge humankind into tens of thousands of years of chaos as a result. Things swiftly begin to unravel as, scared and feeling threatened, the Cleons exile Seldon and his followers to the far reaches of the galaxy and the desolate planet of Terminus. It’s here that his plan, which begins with building a foundation designed to gather knowledge and limit mayhem, begins to take shape.
Hari Seldon: Hero, Antihero, or Villain?
Hari Seldon is initially presented as a hero in Foundation, but like so many other characters in the series, he’s far more complex than that. Would Goyer call him an antihero rather than a hero?
“I would say that if the show is allowed the amount of hours that I hope to tell this epic he will be both a hero, a villain, and antihero — all of the above, as will many of the characters, by the way,” says Goyer.
Jared Harris, who plays Seldon, says he’s a morally complex character.
“He’s somebody who has made the choice that the ends will justify the means and the actions that he is taking are to prevent an apocalyptic outcome. So, in that sense, I see him as being an agency for good because they aren’t actions that he’s taking for his own aggrandizement. But he’s manipulating people. He’s withholding information. He’s not giving them the full opportunity of their own agency so in that sense he’s a morally ambiguous character. If you look at it from [a] “white hat, black hat” [perspective], he’s somewhere in the middle. And that’s what makes it interesting.”
According to Harris, in a twist that could make the showrunner the antihero in his own story, Goyer deliberately withheld information about the plot and characters from the actors, so it’s fair to assume Harris may not yet know where Goyer intends to take the character in the story he plans to tell. If Seldon is, at the end of Season 1, an antihero in Harris’s eyes, the character could yet be about to step into murkier villain territory if Goyer’s comment is anything to go by.
“He’s manipulating people. He’s withholding information. He’s not giving them the full opportunity of their own agency so in that sense he’s a morally ambiguous character.” — Jared Harris
“I spoke to David about [the entirety of the story’s journey] at length,” says Harris but he reveals that Goyer was “reluctant to share too much about what was going to happen as opposed to what Hari thought could happen.”
He adds, “He filled me in on everything that the character understood up to the point in time that we are introduced to him in this story. It’s tricky because what happens is you learn things as you go along that you suddenly realise would have informed you in a completely different way but you’ve already moved past that point.”
Love, Hope, and An Exponential Rise in Interest in Heroes
The aim on Goyer’s part is presumably to elicit as honest, layered, and convincing a performance from the actor as possible, so that the audience really buys into where Seldon, and each of the other characters, are coming from. What it also does is build in an important sense of flux; pulling away subtly from this sense of predeterminism that Seldon advocates.
In a science-fiction saga as huge as this, it’s crucial to ground it where possible to help draw out the themes and parallels with our own world. Hence Goyer’s insistence on foregrounding love in the series, something less prominent in the novels (“They’re not books that are steeped in a lot of emotion … If we don’t have love, then there’s nothing worth preserving; it has to be about love.”) And even though the story was first published almost 80 years ago, it’s arguably more relevant today. Indeed, Goyer said in an open letter to the press that he wants the series to communicate a message of hope that resonates loudly in these difficult times we’re all living through.
Goyer’s wishes for the overarching message of hope in the series ties to some interesting data the clever number crunchers here at Fandom have unearthed. We’re not saying our guys are as smart as Hari Seldon but it’s close. Historically, at Fandom, fans have been way more interested in villains than in heroes, with the Villains wiki larger and attracting more traffic than the corresponding Heroes wiki. However, over the past year, the Heroes community has ballooned 20% to over 51 million pageviews, beating the Villains community growth rate of just 12%. The Heroes home page alone has seen a 35% increase in fans visiting. David S Goyer has some thoughts.
“If we don’t have love, then there’s nothing worth preserving; it has to be about love.” — David S Goyer
“My armchair explanation is we’re going through a really challenging time right now, everyone, personally and across the globe,” offers Goyer. “It’s unusual to have something that affects the entire planet at the same time, where so many of us, no matter where we’re living, are going through similar experiences of sacrifice and loss, and uncertainty and anxiety. And so I think there tends to be a pendulum. I think sometimes when things are good, people are attracted to the villains. And sometimes when things are challenging, people are attracted to the heroes because we need some stories of hope. And we need some stories of heroism.”
Harris agrees: “We need a hero desperately right now. We’re looking for someone to step in and save us from this s––show that’s unfolding all over the world. Someone, some leader. These people, they’ve gotten elected — get behind the wheel.”
Blurred Lines: Better Protagonists… and Antagonists
I suggest that there’s also a case for arguing that protagonists have become more interesting and complicated across the board on screen – something also alluded to by Goyer.
“I think it’s something that’s been recognized in successful storytelling, which is we’re interested in flawed characters,” says Harris. “Perfect characters are difficult. Look how hard it is to play Jesus Christ on screen — very hard because we know everything about the character. Someone who is just good all the time, they become tedious to watch. We also probably recognize that we aren’t that ourselves. We have good days and bad days. So we like to perceive characters that are reflecting our own experiences.”
“If you look at how much storytelling they invested in you understanding the position the villain took in Black Panther, it was an extremely empathetic position [you took on] that character.” — Jared Harris
Villains too are becoming more layered, suggests Harris – even within the Marvel Cinematic Universe which has historically been criticized for its difficulty in creating precisely that.
“If you look at how much storytelling they invested in you understanding the position the villain [Killmonger] took in Black Panther, it was an extremely empathetic position [you took on] that character. You couldn’t argue with him and what he understood as being wrong. His method was questionable but… So I think there’s more of an interest in trying to create complex narratives, in that sense. We are consuming so much narrative now so you really have to be on your toes in trying to figure out ways of entertaining audiences in a way that is surprising.”
Is Foundation’s Cleon Just Another Typical Villain Clone?
One actor who knows villains is Lee Pace. Known for playing the MCU’s radical Kree warlord Ronan the Accuser, he portrays one-third of Foundation’s main antagonist. As the Day to Terrence Mann’s Dusk and Cassian Bilton’s Dawn, he’s the middle of three ‘brothers’ of differing ages that make up the Cleon clones, or “Empire”. At the start of Foundation, Day is presented as a nasty piece of work but does Pace see him that way? Similar to other characters, it’s complicated…
“I think the story is about power, right?” begins Pace. “It’s about an inherited power, and a resistance to change. That would be one of the real themes of the show that I find very interesting — change. You’ve got one side of the coin — Gaal and Hari — who are like, change is inevitable, change is the principle of human life. And the Cleons, who are resisting that change. The reason they’re resisting that change is to keep a kind of peace, prosperity, and growth happening throughout the galaxy. They’re responsible for this unprecedented period of stability. The only way they hold that kind of power and peace is through violence. That’s the only thing they know how to do.”
“I don’t think that our show wants to be like, this is the good guy. And that is the bad guy. It opens the investigation and respects the audience in such a way to be like, what do you think about this? What do you think about his actions?” — Lee Pace
Pace continues, “So I can’t define him [via] good guys and bad guys, because this character does contain multitudes — not just because he’s many different people. But because power is such a many-faceted thing. And I don’t think that our show wants to be like, this is the good guy. And that is the bad guy. It opens the investigation and respects the audience in such a way to be like, what do you think about this? What do you think about his actions? What do you think he would do next with the situation he’s in?”
Pace adds to the discussion around why fans might be becoming more interested in heroes over the past year. It’s in part because we’re all looking inward a little more in this unprecedented period in our history where we’re not only facing global crises in the present – a pandemic, unrest, the tangible effects of climate change — but also attempting to grapple with the imminent threat to our species should climate change actually be irreversible.
“Storytelling is how we find our values,” he says. “It’s how we, as a culture, explore what it means to be a human. And I don’t know that we get any clarity with looking at black and whites, I think.”
Empathising With ‘Monsters’
Goyer is interested primarily in presenting those “shades of grey”.
“I love big novelistic journeys,” says the writer and showrunner. “I love seeing terrible characters redeem themselves and then fall from grace again. I like seeing good characters fall from grace. On the surface, Day and the other emperors are portrayed as these absolute monsters. But the challenge that I put to my other writers, [was that] I want to come up with storylines and scenes that make us empathize with them, and confuse us because we empathize with them. Some of the episodes, they do things that are monstrous, and then I think you feel sorry for them. And I think that’s wonderful.”
“Some of the episodes, they do things that are monstrous, and then I think you feel sorry for them.” — David S Goyer
I mention the end of Episode 8 as one example. “I’m really proud of that episode. I think that’s probably the cleanest expression of what you’re talking about right now,” says Goyer.
Batman and Hari
The conversation turns again to Hari Seldon, and antiheroes, or complex-cum-morally ambiguous heroes. I ask Goyer if he thinks that these characters need a “true hero” to keep them fundamentally rooted in “good” over “evil”. Seldon, for example, has Gaal while Batman – another of Goyer’s screen characters – has Alfred (among others).
“I think that [is true of] the classic antiheroes; Batman is a great example,” says Goyer. “They need a countering balance, they need a countering force. I think it’s probably accurate to depict, certainly in Season One, Hari Seldon as an antihero and Gaal as a more heroic figure, I think. In Season One, Salvor [Hardin, Terminus resident and warden played by Leah Harvey] functions as a more selfless and heroic figure, and so does her father [Clarke Peters]. If the show progresses, though, some of those heroic figures might become antiheroes or might even become villains.”
““They’re [both Batman and Hari Seldon] dealing with complicated situations that are colouring outside the lines.” — David S Goyer
That’s a tease if ever there was one. So what other parallels does he see between Hari Seldon and Batman?
“They’re [both] dealing with complicated situations that are colouring outside the lines,” he says. “They’re manipulating people; they’re operating outside the rules of society to a certain extent, hopefully to effect greater change. But there’s a paradox when you’ve got characters like that, and you have to ask yourself with a character like Hari Seldon, or a character like Bruce Wayne, to what extent is this also about their ego? And them working out their own issues? And that’s what’s interesting about characters like that. Can they have their own egos, but also be doing things for the benefit of society? Or do the two things contradict or blur one another?”
There’s another question asked of the audience right there. If Foundation is nothing else (and it is), it’s certainly a thought-provoking drama that doesn’t elicit easy answers.
Foundation premieres on Apple TV+ on September 24, 2021 with the first two episodes, followed by one new episode weekly, every Friday.
Check out our interview with Ben Schnetzer, star of new dystopian series Y: The Last Man, who talks about the surprising ways the world might change if all the cisgender men died out, and why he didn’t get bad monkey vibes from his simian co-star like Friends actor David Schwimmer…