The short review: I felt like I was being condescended to by an idiot.
In what follows I assume that you have seen the first episode of Apple’s Foundation series and that you are familiar with the eight short stories published between 1942 and 1950 collected in Isaac Asimov‘s Foundation Trilogy. The series may well eventually work in ideas from Asimov’s other Foundation and Robot books, but they seem irrelevant to the premiere episode.
Notoriously, people with a youthful investment in Golden-Age SF come to filmed versions with a skepticism verging on hostility. The best authors left huge, unfilmably grand parts of their stories to our imagination, and how could any special effects match that? Too often scripts are written piecemeal to link and set up special effects set pieces. When huge budgets are spent on such spfx, of course they will dominate, and ‘what will look cool’ to some studio committee drives the story. The Star Wars prequels are good examples of this. I found myself fidgeting in my seat during the spfx because they were pretty but boring by themselves. An example for the better is the recent film Midway, where splendid spfx serve the story and help us understand it better than our unaided imaginations could.
David Hackett Fischer‘s imperishable 1970 catalog of historians’ fallacies includes a section on presentism, the intellectual sin of presuming to reconstruct the past foolishly guided by the idea that those people were just like us and thus animated and consumed by the preoccupations of our day. In a funny and good-natured article reviewing recent interpretations of ancient foreign policy, J.E. Lendon imagines how a presentist would think: “And so, students of antiquity could test their conclusions against the common standard of common sense, and answer ‘Why did Pericles do it?’ by asking ‘Why would Mr. Eisenhower have done it?'”
Classic SF is like the classical world in this, at least: we come to both with significant gaps in our knowledge. What do we do with texts like Asimov’s original Foundation stories? He was content to let us imagine the grandeur of Trantor with only a few guideposts along the way: a metal-sheathed world, few inhabitants ever visiting the surface, and so on. You can see that what sold the series was the proposition that we finally have the CGI spfx to visualize the immense realities Asimov clearly implies but rarely or only scantily fills out. Alas, the filmmakers predictably (and lazily) reached for what is on hand in our society to fill in the gaps.
Let’s take an example. Asimov’s first short story begins with mathematician Gaal Dornick traveling to Trantor to work for Hari Seldon. Asimov cleverly used the character, a smart, well educated rube with whom we sympathize, to allow us to experience the wonder of Trantor through the eyes of an intelligent ingenue. Trantor seems miraculous and the empire immensely powerful. Through Dornick we meet Seldon and are presented with the central, paradoxical problem, which Dornick, our surrogate, has the mathematical eyes to see: proof that despite appearances, the empire is falling. The conflict arises because no one in power wants to admit that, and no one ever rewards the bringer of bad news. Asimov was subtle, therefore, in deploying a central character who is paradoxically passive and peripheral to the story but by following whom we enter quickly and efficiently into the Foundation universe.
Filmed, Dornick is now a woman of color gifted with a short but extensive origin story who carries religious baggage and is made to seem so far the equal of Seldon as to validate his work. I take it for granted that this casting has a morally earnest purpose: yet it is Seldon, the most important character in the whole series, who would have been better (and more bravely) cast as a black woman, or Seldon and Dornick both. Why not? Although Asimov is sometimes taxed for having too many male characters, and although some of us probably imagined the characters as white by default, I think you will find upon rereading the trilogy that a character’s race and sex are inconsequential compared to their intellectual and moral qualities. In fact, since the story is one of galactic fall and means to combat it, characters, at least in the first volume of the trilogy, are generally reduced to careful, memorable caricatures, so that they stay out of the way of the story. Having cast Dornick as a black woman, the writers were morally obligated not to tokenize her by having her play a negligible foil to an old, white, authoritative, male Hari Seldon. So she becomes the central character, displacing Seldon and taking center stage, accordingly demanding lots of screen time to flesh out her story.
So we sit through minutes and minutes of overlong special effects from her home planet, dialogue about how she’s oppressed there, how she can never return, how she has to give up her scarification implants, how she looks up a priest on Trantor, how she is approached to lie about Seldon’s work, time spent on her emotions, and, and, and. All of these minutes, like the rest of the really unnecessary material which was not in Asimov’s work, push out some of the best of what was in it: the description of psychohistory, how it reveals the central problem, and how it offers a remedy. The episode is filmed through the contemporary lenses of racial politics, terrorism, Abu Ghraib, and a hundred other modern anachronisms.
No need to overstate the case: some of the beats are there, if etiolated, but watching is like playing cards with a deck reduced to diamonds with a bunch of Zener cards mixed in. The writers, evidently diffident about holding our interest in an abstract story, reduce big themes to more trivial ones focused on personalities. In the book, Dornick’s naive view of imperial benevolence is tempered by his experience with the Commission for Public Safety, a kind of galactic HUAC. A powerful committee with an unseen agenda was a neat if diffuse way for Asimov to point to how the empire was getting long in the tooth with a creaky bureaucracy, and its head, Linge Chen, quickly established that the commissioners were dangerous mandarins jockeying for power and security. Asimov’s point was not that the empire was evil, just inescapably wearing down; evils were bubbling up and all humans would be worse off as a result of its fall.
Instead, we get visuals informed by stormtroopers and Guantanamo Bay jailers (pointedly gagging Dornick twice), terrorist attacks, and a crazy triune emperor whose willful and hypocritical cruelty is shown by his blasting a long-time servitor caught with one of Seldon’s disfavored treatises. Asimov cleverly left the emperor out of almost all of his stories because such a character tempts the writer (and certainly the Apple writers) to emphasize his agency as a sort of narrative shortcut; yet Asimov is clear that the emperor, while powerful at short range, is pulled along in the collapse like everyone else. This is the entire burden of the story of Bel Riose.
Asimov’s trial before the Commission for Public Safety is eminently filmworthy. Since he presented it as a transcript, it was ready-made for filming. But of course now we have to deal with the emperor sitting in personal judgment, and Dornick is given outsized prominence for the reasons we’ve seen. Only the barest suggestion of some of the finest dialogue in the entire trilogy is hinted at. Here is about two minutes’ worth from Asimov’s pen:
Q. (theatrically) Do you realize, Dr. Seldon, that you are speaking of an empire that has stood for twelve thousand years, through all the vicissitudes of the generations, and which has behind it the good wishes and love of a quadrillion human beings?
A. I am aware of both the present status and the past history of the Empire. Without disrespect, I must claim a far better knowledge of it than any in this room.
Q. And you predict its ruin?
A. It is a prediction which is made by mathematics. I pass no moral judgments. Personally I regret the prospect. Even if the Empire were admitted to be a bad thing (an admission I do not make), the state of anarchy which would follow its fall would be worse. It is that state of anarchy which my project is pledged to fight. The fall of the Empire, gentlemen, is a massive thing, however, and not easily fought. It is dictated by a rising bureaucracy, a receding initiative, a freezing of caste, a damming of curiosity—a hundred other factors. It has been going on, as I have said, for centuries, and it is too majestic and massive a movement to stop.
Q. Is it not obvious to anyone that the Empire is as strong as ever it was?
A. The appearance of strength is all about you. It would seem to last forever. However, Mr. Advocate, the rotten tree-trunk, until the very moment when the storm-blast breaks it in two, has all the appearance of might it ever had. The storm blast whistles through the branches of the Empire even now. Listen with the ears of psychohistory, and you will hear the creaking.
It gives me a thrill to read that even now, and this confrontation between Seldon and the Commission, the climax of the story, could go on for four or five minutes of screen time. Audiences can sit through minutes of dialogue—think of Netflix’s Midnight Mass with its minutes-long patches of dialogue that are perfectly watchable—as long as writing and acting are compelling. But the material gratuitously added by the series’ writers left little room for Asimov’s compelling words. One is reminded of the famous credit for 1929’s Taming of the Shrew: “By William Shakespeare, with additional dialogue by Sam Taylor.”
More than once in the trilogy Asimov pointedly describes the empire as big—brobdingnagian even—where everything was built on a one-size-fits-all galactic-imperial scaled standard with an assumption of infinite resources. In fact, Asimov makes it clear that the imperial engineers can no longer think nimbly on a smaller, more efficient scale. His mental model for Trantor, I think, was New York City. Dornick’s arrival seems patterned after an imagined Kansan’s arrival in Penn Station, for example, his trip to the surface on going to the observation deck of the Empire State Building. Which is to say, I think that design sources true to the spirit of the text were easily discoverable in 1940s high-glitz Deco and Moderne architecture for Trantor and the empire, and when the story gets to Terminus, a nimble late-40s modernism, with Wright Usonian or Entenza Case Study houses. We see how successful this design could be in Dune, The Shadow, The Fifth Element, and countless others.
A reviewer, they say, should never task an author for not having written the work she would have written. In this case, I’d have settled for Apple’s Sam Taylors following Asimov’s work.