The long-awaited adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s classic sci-fi epic Foundation is nearly upon us—the 10-episode series begins streaming on Apple TV+ next week. The author himself worked on the story for over 50 years, with the last volume in the saga being released posthumously in 1993. So to say there’s a lot of characters, settings, and big ideas in play would be an understatement. Thankfully, those involved knew what they were getting themselves into.
As it unfolds in streaming form, Foundation begins with a mathematician named Hari Seldon (Jared Harris) confirming his intricately plotted theory that the Galactic Empire, which governs all of humanity, is on the verge of collapse. It then follows Seldon and his followers as they’re exiled to the edge of the galaxy, where they colonize a new planet and plan for the unsteady future ahead. That’s barely scratching the surface of what the Apple TV+ series covers—and even then, the series still leaves out plenty from the source material. This was something that showrunner, writer, and executive producer David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight, Batman Begins, Dark City) knew would be a necessity from the very beginning, and ended up helping him prioritize what he wanted to include in the show.
“Whenever I’m adapting something, I read it again or watch it again, and I try to write down what I think the core ideas are, the essential ingredients,” he told io9 over video chat. “In this case, because Asimov wasn’t alive, I was talking to his estate, to his daughter, and I said, I want to make sure that I’ve identified the core ingredients that make Foundation, Foundation. Fortunately, they said, yeah, we feel like you’ve zeroed in on the most important elements. And because we’re adapting it now, over 70 years after Asimov first wrote it—you know, it was a metaphorical story back in the post-World War II environment—some of the events, some of the things that we’re interrogating, we’re going to have to change because we’re speaking to an audience of today and not an audience post-World War II.”
The first big, important change: diversifying the characters. “Because there are virtually no female characters in the first book, I said to the Asimov estate, ‘How would you how would you feel if we gender-flipped a couple of the characters?’ And they said, ‘We love it. We think Asimov himself would have completely embraced that,’” Goyer said.
Overall, the characters became the anchor point for Foundation’s sprawling story. “It’s impossible to do a line-for-line, word-for-word adaptation of Foundation, especially 70 years later. So you try to make sure that you cleave to the core tenants—but, let’s be honest, people tune in for the characters. So you need to make sure that the characters have fully three-dimensional lives, that we care about their hopes and their dreams. The books are primarily books about ideas. A lot of big events happen off-screen and kind of in-between sentences. We knew that we were going to dramatize some of those events. But the thing that I really tried to dig down into is the characters—so I tried to figure out ways of creating characters that could inhabit the themes and ideas that Asimov was working with.”
One of those characters, Goyer explained, is actually time itself—something that helped shape Foundation’s structure, which viewers should know includes a lot of time shifts. “The book series itself makes these massive leaps forward in time, and particularly the first book is very ontological,” Goyer said. “Very few characters continue from one story to the next. My very first meeting at Apple, I said to them, ‘Guys, time is a character. You’re just going to have to embrace that.’ We do time jumps. We’re going to jump forward. We’re going to jump backwards. Sometimes we’re going to tell two parallel storylines that are operating at different times. We just have to embrace it. It would be insanity not to embrace it. And fortunately, everyone embraced it.”
While Goyer hopes Foundation appeals to the “diehard fans of the books,” he’s also aware that many potential viewers may not have read them, and may not even be familiar with the story. “I count myself as someone who reveres the books,” Goyer said. “But primarily I know that I’m creating [the show] for an audience that hasn’t read the books and may not even count themselves as fans of science fiction, which is a good thing. I think it’s important. So to my writers, my actors, my fellow directors—I said with every scene, with every storyline, we need to be able to strip away the spaceships and the robots and the science fiction elements and make sure that this story works as if it were a contemporary drama. What is the real-world version of this storyline? Do we understand it? Can we ground it? If it doesn’t work without the science fiction trappings, then that’s not a story we’re going to tell. That was our true north for how we approached the show: this needs to be able to appeal to people who would not consider themselves fans of science fiction, in the same way that I think Game of Thrones brought people in who weren’t necessarily fans of fantasy.”
Goyer also hat-tips Game of Thrones when reflecting on why now is the right time for a Foundation series. “I think the medium is caught up to Asimov; I don’t think it could have been done prior to these big, streaming novelistic shows,” he said. “The audience for these streaming shows is OK with something sort of unraveling at a novelistic pace—again, thanks to shows like Game of Thrones with a lot of different characters, a generational saga.”
However, Goyer also thinks that Foundation’s themes make it especially relevant, even decades after the first book was written. “None of us could have predicted how prescient the show has become in the wake of a global pandemic. We were halfway through filming when the pandemic broke out and—well, on one hand, it’s sobering, I would argue that the show is probably more relevant today than even when Asimov first wrote the books,” Goyer said. “The thing that I cling to, that I think is important for the audience as well, is that Asimov was fundamentally a humanist. He believed in science. He believed in rationalism. He believed that it could see us through the dark times. And when I first pitched the show to Apple, that’s what I pitched. I said, I fundamentally want to tell a show that’s got a message of hope. And, you know, I think that’s not a bad message to deliver right now.”
Foundation’s first two episodes arrive on September 24 on Apple TV+ with weekly drops thereafter on Fridays.
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