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Can a solid Foundation lead to a weak first story?

Yes, it can and it did. When the Apple TV series Foundation began streaming this past September, Gizmodo ran Rob Bricken’s review titled “They Said Foundation Couldn’t Be Filmed, And It Still Hasn’t Been”.

He concluded that the TV series created by David Goyer (who wrote the Blade trilogy, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, as well as the obscure Dark City that was a forerunner of The Matrix) “is so different that calling it ‘inspired by the works of Isaac Asimov’ still feels like a stretch.”

So what’s the problem in the eyes of folks like me who read the Foundation trilogy back in high school, as well as other Asimov fans who’ve loved the novels in the half-century since then?

There are several problems. Let me start by addressing political correctness complaints, which distract PC advocates from looking at deeper issues.

Asimov wrote the original stories in the 1940s, collecting them into a solid trilogy in the early 1950s. At that time, most science fiction fans and most STEM professionals were white men. He added two sequels in the 1980s, and then two prequels, one of which was published posthumously in 1993.

Readers of the original Foundation trilogy 50-70 years ago were most likely white and may have assumed all the characters were white, but there is nothing that precludes imagining the characters as members of other races. Indeed, the original series of Star Trek in the late 1960s went to places no TV show had gone before, portraying a crew of earthlings (with one half-Vulcan) that included male and female officers of several races.

It’s reasonable to portray galactic diversity in a TV series called Foundation. In fact, it’s hard not to imagine that people born in distant star systems would represent the diversity seen on earth, and more. Star Trek TOS was an exemplar of interracial harmony (and featured the first interracial kisses on network TV), but its vision should have been updated to include biracial characters in the reboot movies, as I noted two years ago:

Star Trek sidestepped the implied colonialism of earthlings populating much of the Milky Way galaxy, but Foundation, Dune, and Blade Runner are all examples of what I called Manifest Destiny in Outer Space in a more recent blog post:

Let’s review key ideas that Asimov expressed in several of his novels. In Foundation, the main theme is that the behavior of very large groups of people can be predicted mathematically, which he called Psychohistory. Individuals do not have a galactic impact, no matter what their destiny is.

Asimov’s vision (attributed to Hari Seldon in Foundation) contrasts starkly with the notion of destiny expressed in the contemporaneous Lensman novels, wherein guardian beings from the planet Arisia give special powers to prospective heroes (like the more well-known Green Lantern, which also originated in the 1940s). Although the Arisians could predict a very specific event in a person’s future, they could not foresee the destiny of the galaxy.

Another key concept emerged when Asimov combined his robot stories into the novel I, Robot, namely Three Laws of Robotics hardwired into every robot’s brain. This concept has since been echoed by modern writers and AI researchers, particularly those who want to allay xenophobic suspicions about robots by including the directive that a robot cannot harm a human.

Now let’s look at the gender switches and see how they fit the key themes. As Bricken noted, it’s a “must” nowadays for an entertainment broadcast to include female main characters. This is not social justice as much as it is a calculation of market share: female protagonists attract female viewers (conversely, some TV series/movies that have only inconsequential male characters have lost market share among male viewers). The Foundation TV series soberly swaps some of the original trilogy’s genders, smoothly integrating additional female characters into the streaming plot.

So, the problem is not that Salvor Hardin has shifted from a (presumably white) man to a young black woman. The problem is that Silicon Valley and Hollywood keep pushing the “kickass woman” stereotype, ignoring the strength of women who manifest grace, warmth, and political savvy (e.g., Lady Jessica in the original Dune novel). Thus, the black female Salvor in the TV series serves the Foundation colony not as the opportunistic mayor in the original trilogy but as the colony’s “warden” (security guard).

Further, nearly every episode has a person telling Salvor that she is “unique” or “special” which fits the superhero motif that Goyer excels at. This emphasis on a wonderful individual runs completely against the key theme Asimov expressed via psychohistorian Hari: destiny is determined by large social movements, not by individuals. Neither Goyer’s talent, nor the proliferation of superhero movies as a kind of “bread and circuses” in the 21st century, justifies distorting the essence of Asimov’s vision.

And then there is the other kickass woman, actually a robot made to look like a woman: Demerzel (described as male in the original trilogy). This major domo character serves the “genetic dynasty” of clones of the original Emperor Cleon (an anagram of “clone”). Does she follow the Three Laws that were a foundation (pun intended) of Asimov’s robot stories? Nah.

She poisons Halima, a demagogic member of the ancient and ubiquitous Luminist cult who threatens the tripartite emperor by reviving an orthodox concept of the human soul. And in the next episode, Demerzel snaps the neck of Brother Dawn, the youngest member of the clone triumvirate. Why would a robot in a story “inspired by” Asimov murder a human being?

You might have read justifications of Demerzel related to the zero-th law:

This law overrides the inhibition against killing a human by invoking “ends justify means” in the sense that 0-th precedes 1-st and therefore its law supersedes protection of an individual, in order to protect humanity. But the two robots who hypothesized this law in Asimov’s Robots and Empire admitted they could never be sure a murder would ultimately benefit the destiny of humanity. Anyway, protecting a dynasty (as Demerzel declares after murdering Brother Dawn) is a far cry from protecting all of humanity.

Say, what do you call it when the original imitates an imitation of itself?

Frank Herbert admitted to being influenced by Isaac Asimov when he wrote the Dune novels: galactic empire spanning millennia, political machinations, and so forth. Writing for the Singapore blog Popwire, Hidzir expressed the superb insight that Herbert imitated Asimov but he made the Mule into the hero (i.e., Paul Atreides is genetically unique and has superpowers):

Now the Foundation TV series seems to be imitating Dune by making Salvor Hardin a unique person with superpowers. Instead of telepathy, which is the special ability that “mentalics” have in Asimov’s sequels, Salvor has precognition. As noted by Hidzir, this ability to have “visions” that predict the future is the main superpower of Paul Atreides in Dune.

In addition, the necessity of linking a human brain to the Invictus spaceship in order to navigate it by “folding space” seems like the role of the Guild in Dune. I guess Goyer’s innovations of Asimov’s novels aren’t quite original.

Here’s the core question when evaluating the TV series: Does it stand on its own, regardless of Asimov’s key concepts? That’s an essential point for reviewers, because many if not most of the people who watch Apple’s streaming have not read the original trilogy. (I wonder if the scriptwriters of the individual TV episodes all read it.)

Personally, I found the TV series passable. The Trantor storyline about Hari, Gaal Dornick (also male in the original trilogy), and the triple emperor flowed well, like Game of Thrones in outer space. I’d rate that as a 7 on the IMDB scale. But the Terminus storyline about the Foundation came across as disjointed, with its loose ends and contrived action covered up by showy battle scenes. And the science of the Foundation geeks was sloppy at best. I’d rate that storyline 5. The acting was excellent in both storylines though.

Elliott, whose Youtube channel Movie Files has >18K subscribers, stated in his analysis of the last TV episode that the Trantor storyline was his favorite while the Terminus storyline seemed “rushed” and lacked emotional resonance. I find his comments noteworthy because he says he never read the books (thus he is evaluating the TV series on its own merits) and he is a black man expressing dissatisfaction with the storyline that has the larger number of significant black characters: Salvor, her adoptive father Abbas, and (tangentially) her biological mother Gaal.

Finally, we should recall the stark historical example of the French Revolution, which seems to have been considered by Asimov in the original trilogy and again in Herbert’s Dune novels: the corrupt empire is overthrown but the revolutionaries eventually become authoritarian, too.

At the start of the TV series, the empire is governed by three “brother” clones of an emperor who died a few centuries earlier. The scriptwriters label it a “genetic dynasty” but all dynasties based on bloodlines are genetic. The term “clone dynasty” would be more accurate. Ironically, the “corruption” of the DNA recycled from the first Cleon means their dynasty is not stagnant. The behavior of Brother Day and Brother Dawn in Episode 9 suggests their ability to adapt, specifically becoming more compassionate.

Salvor finding Gaal 138 years in the future might not simply be a device for keeping those two characters prominent in the second season of the TV series. It might also be a hint that they are forming a “genetic dynasty” of their own, rising in power as a unique family that has special mental abilities.

All in all, I’d consider the TV series to be WYTNYM: Worth Your Time, Not Your Money. If you haven’t seen it yet (and you’re still interested after reading this blog), watch it for free via a trial subscription to Apple TV. If you have seen it already, consider this recommendation when season 2 is released. I myself will certainly watch an episode or two of the next season before paying.

Sloppy Science and Inconsistencies:

  1. During the Foundation’s journey to Terminus, some of the young women discuss becoming pregnant before arrival: keeping the baby in the womb versus extracting the “zygote” who will develop into a child after arrival. The use of the term zygote here is incorrect, possibly inserted by a member of the scriptwriting team who wanted a more obscure word that sounded more scientific. To undergo zygote extraction, a woman would need to come in for the procedure soon after each act of intercourse, because fertilization (the zygote becomes an embryo) can occur within hours. In his review of Episode 10, Elliott refers to embryo not zygote.
  2. The geeks on Terminus come across as petty and narrow-minded. One episode shows them debating which time-keeping technology to preserve during the coming dark ages: water clock? or sundial? Why does a series devoted to diversity impose a one-size-fits-all solution for the entire galaxy, instead of having the Foundation present each star system with the device that is most appropriate? In fact, Asimov didn’t imagine humanity falling that far back: during the galactic dark age, Foundation technicians traveled to other star systems serving as “priests” instead of acting like engineers.
  3. Salvor’s precognition superpower is demonstrated casually by her ability to flip a coin and always “know” whether it will land heads or tails. But this slick presentation of mental “powers” ignores the fact that magicians can perform that trick. The following video shows how you can do it, too:
  4. The spiral walk on the planet Maiden is presented as a test of physical hardship that produces spiritual insight. Brother Day undertakes it, suffers, and then has a vision that earns him the support of the cult, thereby undermining the influence of Halima who asserts that clones have no soul. Later Demerzel guesses that his vision was fabricated, which she haughtily contrasts with her own. Wait a minute, how could a robot capable of remaining intact for thousands of years suffer during the spiral walk?
  5. In Episode 8, hologram Hari tells Gaal he is journeying to his home planet Helicon to establish the Second Foundation. In the original trilogy, Asimov teased readers with hints about the location, saying Star’s End was “at the opposite end of the galaxy” from the First Foundation. The third book revealed that the Second Foundation had been hidden on Trantor itself, the center of our galaxy, which is at the “opposite end” of one of the galactic spirals. The cleverness of Asimov’s plot twist (reminiscent of the notion “hidden in plain sight” that is common to several schools of mysticism) was eliminated from the TV series, possibly by a scriptwriter who never read the original trilogy.
  6. When Hari asks Gaal how she found the solution to the math problem he posed in the galactic competition, she refers to an ancient mathematician who expressed equations in poetry. This revelation may thrill viewers who are humanities majors, but in fact most algorithms were expressed verbally before mathematical notation (for algebra, etc.) was standardized around 400 years ago. Scroll to 10:50 in the following video to see how an early algorithm for the cubic equation was expressed as a poem.

From the Horse’s Mouth:

Robyn Asimov writing in 2004 about the release of I, Robot, recalling her father’s admission that he isn’t a “visual” writer and “someone else” should do the screenplays, which he wouldn’t expect to be “faithful” to his writing.

But the author’s recognition of the need for adaptation isn’t carte blanche for a scriptwriter to change his key concepts about robots, even though that film skillfully explored the conundrum of a robot who could only save one of two drowning people, as well as the lack of limitation on the villainous AI that controlled a new line of robots.

By analogy, an adaptation of Batman for the screen would “stretch” too far if he had superpowers, or if he had been born poor instead of rich. It just wouldn’t be the same story, and that’s the gist of the negative reaction of fans of the original Foundation trilogy. Robyn Asimov doesn’t mention any complaints that she may have had about the I, Robot script.

Den of Geek quotes Goyer glowingly describing how the Asimov estate (i.e., Robyn) approved his Foundation TV series, again apparently without any reservations. In the movie industry, studios want full control in exchange for purchasing film rights and rarely accept the presence of the fiction writer on set to check the faithfulness of the script. Then again, Robyn isn’t a writer; she describes her role as “guardianship” in her SFGate article.

Other Comparisons of TV Series and Novels:
A visual comparison of the original trilogy with the first two TV episodes posted by Pete Peppers on his Youtube channel (128K subscribers):

Pete continued to compare two episodes at a time, mentioning the zero-th law and the Second Foundation in his coverage of E7 and E8:

Miles Surrey of The Ringer favorably reviewing the entire TV series and comparing it all to the original trilogy:

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