I waited until yesterday to watch episode 2 of the new Foundation series on Apple TV+, “Preparing to Live,” and until today to watch “The Mathematician’s Ghost,” episode 3. The reason is simple enough.
There were a lot of changes from Asimov’s story-telling when it was adapted for streaming. That’s to be expected. Transitioning between two very different forms of story-telling eighty years apart is going to require that. And the powers that be have chosen to expand the story considerably, which is also fine so long as they do it well.
However, given the constraints on my reviews, I faced a dilemma. My practice has been to give two ratings, one for the Asimov fan and one for the general audience. Granted, that was only for the books, but still I felt honor-bound to at least attempt the same with a series based directly on the books.
Now, reviewing the first episode, “The Emperor’s Peace,” was pretty straightforward because it basically covers the first part of Foundation, “The Psychohistorians.” This is all well and good, because I have something to do a little compare and contrast with. (The fact that I still haven’t written up a review is irrelevant. I’m used to reviewing stuff years or decades after publication, after all. <insert emoji here>)
The next story in Foundation, “The Encyclopedists,” takes place a full fifty years later, whereas it was clear that the next two episodes of the streaming series would largely take place in the gap between the two. They would be harder to judge in terms of the Asimov fan vs the general science fiction fan. I wanted to have someone who hadn’t read the books on hand to better gage the reaction of someone in the latter camp.
As it happens, neither of my daughters has read the books. The eldest tried but got bored because “it’s just two guys sitting in a room talking to each other,” which is not altogether a false assessment for the bulk of the first few sections. The youngest has not even tried. She was therefore my guinea pig, and I had to wait until she was available.
The good news is that I actually liked both episodes on their own merits. The exploration of what it means to be one-third of an emperor continues to be fascinating, and it was nice to get Demerzel, er, fleshed out a bit. There was a good sense of world-building where Terminus is concerned, both on the story level and the story-telling level. Terminus in the books is not nearly as harsh an environment (so far as we’re ever told), so having the colony struggle more is definitely a nice touch. It’s rather too small, of course, but we’ll let that pass.
The ending of the second episode has come under considerable criticism. From the perspective of the Asimov fan, that’s because—well, it is just totally different from the characterization we see in the books. Having Seldon leave Trantor contradicts the books, for example, and the relationship between Raych and Seldon is more strained than one would expect from the books. And, of course, Seldon dies in the “wrong” way.
From the perspective of a person unfamiliar with the books, the ending is definitely muddy and confusing. Why are the characters acting this way? It seems so contrary to the way they’ve been acting hitherto.
Well, if you’re a fan of the books and can survive the non-book-continuity bit, it’s pretty clear what’s going on. Within the series (but not the books), Dornick and Seldon are the only two who understand psychohistory, and the books firmly state that if the population whose future is being predicted know too much about that future, too much about what psychohistory has to say, well then the whole process will fall apart. For the Plan, the real Plan, to succeed, the Foundation needs to be kept in the dark as much as possible. So Gaal and Hari have to be removed as early as can reasonably be managed.
The books’ solution is much neater, of course. Just leave Hari on Trantor both because he’s too old to travel and because someone can reasonably be left behind to tie up loose ends. Since there are more than two people who understand psychohistory, having some of them go to Terminus will be safe (and even desirable) so long as they make sure they don’t teach anybody what they know. And they don’t.
So the ending of the second episode is definitely muddier than one would like, but it lets Goyer (et al.) add a bit of conflict, flesh out the side characters—well, to be more accurate, create them out of whole cloth—and make their universe a bit richer. For example, the fate of the Anacreonians and Thespians is very chilling and very well-done.
The third episode more directly involves the set-up for “The Encylopedists,” and again major liberties are being taken, particularly where Salvor Hardin and the Time Vault are concerned. Some of it will be make clearer in future episodes I am sure. If they continue to hold semi-close to the books, I’ll be fine. If they start to deviate more significantly, I think I’ll start to have problems.
Also, hey, Daneel, Three Laws. Enough said.