Without doubt, this is one of the most anticipated TV series for this year, and at the same time a quite controversial one: while I read Asimov’s saga a few decades ago and therefore forgot most of its details, there are people who are quite conversant with it, and they have been quite vocal in their displeasure about the way this story has been translated to the small screen. My lack of familiarity with the original material did somehow work in my favor as I watched this first season: once I realized that it was going to be quite different from Asimov’s works, no matter how much of it I remembered, I decided to simply sit back and enjoy it nonetheless – and ultimately I did, although I have to admit it was something of a complicated journey.
The core concept, which Asimov drew from Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, is that of a vast galactic empire whose end has been forecast by scientists Hari Seldon through the application of psychohistory, a mathematical predictive model applied to large social groupings and able to foresee the development of future events. Seldon affirms that the fall of the Empire will bring a new Dark Age that might last for millennia, proposing the creation of a huge encyclopedic project – the Foundation – to preserve knowledge and shorten the dark ages before civilization can rise again. Seldon and his followers are exiled to the planet Terminus, there to collect such knowledge into the Galactic Encyclopedia, and to remove their destabilizing presence from the Emperor’s sight.
Asimov’s original work proposed a series of temporal leaps in which the reader could follow the Foundation’s progress over the centuries and the inevitable collapse of the Empire, and as such it certainly presented a narrative (and character) continuity problem for the televised format, and so the series’ creators choose to keep the author’s basic concept and move from there toward a different path – choice that caused the displeasure of many fans of the author. Personally I did not dislike this path, particularly where the theme of the Empire’s genetic dynasty is concerned: it is stipulated in the series that each emperor is a clone of the original founder, Cleon, and that he’s present in three different stages of his life – youth (brother Dawn), maturity (brother Day) and old age (brother Dusk) – thus allowing the effective ruler, brother Day, to always wear the same, recognizable face, while at the same time offering an intriguing narrative device through many reflections about the continuity of power and the prices to be paid to maintain it.
Another change comes from the decision to gender-switch a few key figures to create some much-needed character balance which the core material lacked, given that it was a mirror of its times and worldview, particularly where SF was concerned. And so we have the human-looking robot Demerzel, who acts as a combination protector/companion/guide to the various Cleons through the ages, and who quite intriguingly mixes an apparent coldly calculating exterior with some deep feelings and even religious beliefs. Then there is the young mathematical prodigy Gaal Dornick, who finds herself caught in Seldon’s project and ends up challenging its apparent ineluctability. And again Salvor Hardin, possessed with the heart of a warrior and the drive to keep her people on Terminus safe from any danger.
Visually, the series is nothing short of stunning and you can see that it received a conspicuous budget to carry on its goal: alien landscapes and civilizations, gorgeous costumes and incredible ships, not to mention everything related to Trantor, the imperial planet built of so many levels that only the most fortunate can enjoy the true light of day while others spend their entire lives seeing only the holographic representation of what the outside world could be. And yet, behind this beautiful façade something seems to be missing: for me it was a strong connection with the characters, because the constant changes of scenery and the time jumps did not leave me enough time to explore them as individuals, to understand their motivations or to perceive their feelings. These characters rarely feel like people, often driven to the discussion of deep, far-reaching issues but seldom coming forward as living, breathing individuals – if I’m making any sense here…
The story’s rhythm also feels off for most of the time, with sections that move at a glacial pace only to be followed by rapid changes of scenery that might appear unconnected to the entirety of the narrative: it’s only with the eight episode of the series that finally all those apparently disconnected threads start to take shape and to show that the ambitious – but slightly unfocused – design at the root of this first season is heading in a particular direction. With only ten episodes for the season this choice looks like a huge risk, because I can’t help but wonder how many viewers the story lost along the way because of that lack of cohesive focus – I know, because I came close to that point and now that this overlong “prologue” is over I’m glad I soldiered on and can hope that with season two we’ll be able to find a stronger storytelling method that will be able to fulfill the promises laid down by this somewhat shaky opening.
There is some hope that now that the foundations (sorry, no pun intended!) of the story have been set in place, the series will be able to carry on in a more organic and more narratively satisfying way: the last three episodes have strengthened this hope, so I’m looking forward to seeing what the next season has in store for us viewers…
And with this post ends the latest iteration of SciFi Month, one of the two pivotal bookish events I look forward to each year. As usual it was fun to roam through strange worlds and weird backgrounds and for this we have to thank once again our hosts IMYRIL and LISA whose guidance always steered us true and prevented us from falling into a black hole or to be snatched by a temporal anomaly 🙂
Until next year!