Foundation, based on the iconic series of novel by the legendary Isaac Asimov, is one those televisual moments you experience rather than simply watch.
Visually sumptuous, possessed of an expansive, imaginative sensibility and charged with taking 10 episodes to tell its cinematic tale of the rise and fall of power, and its use and misuse, Foundation sweeps over you in a gloriously immersive wave, subsuming you in the best way possible in a story that covers great periods of time but which also encompasses an immense amount of thought about the human condition.
That much you might expect from Asimov whose storytelling, in common with the greats of science fiction, was as much about musing about what people do and might do, both good and bad, as it was about laying an engrossing narrative.
In Foundation, the first three episodes of which have been released by Apple TV+ over a fortnight, it is stunningly clear that here lies the rise and fall of humanity across a galaxy-wide landscape where the status quo, though immense and seemingly impervious to being assailed, is facing some real and dangerously destructive challenges.
Chief among them is the decay that comes to all great power structures, no matter how sturdy and rigorously maintained; in this case it is the Galactic Empire, a sprawling grouping of countless planets, overseen with ruthless authoritarianism by one of the most unique ruling systems humanity has likely ever witnessed.
The ruler of this millennia-old empire is in fact three people, one a boy (Brother Dawn, portrayed by Cassian Bilton), one a man in his prime (Brother Day, played by Lee Pace) and one a man in his twilight (Brother Dusk, given world weary life by Terrence Mann), all of them clones of Cleon 1, who decided some four hundred years later that his greatest legacy, and one that would ensure the longevity of the Galactic Empire, would be to make all subsequent rulers exact copies of himself.
In that respect, he has succeeded marvellously, keeping the empire at peace after a period of disruption and upheaval and ensuring that power remained firmly in the hands of the ruling dynasty.
But nothing is forever and as Foundation opens, rich with worldbuilding wrough in gobsmackingly wondrous CGI splendour, we see a system that is outwardly robust but which is, according to Hari Seldon (Jared Harris), mathematician and developer of psychohistory (mathematics which predicts possible futures), soon to fall in tens of thousands of years of ruinous darkness which will bust humanity back to the Dark Ages.
He believes, with the arrogance and force of a man consumed by his own greatness, and willing to act as ruthlessly as an emperor to advance it, that only he and his foundation can save human civilisation by putting as much as knowledge as they practically can into an ark of sorts so that when the fall comes, people have something with which to rebuild.
He will is well aware that this will not go down well the Cleon clones on the throne, but sees no other way to prevent humanity from losing everything from spaceflight to harvesting food and telling the time.
But power structures, particularly longstanding ones with much to lose and a great deal to keep held tightly to them, do not take kindly to sage advice, even if its scientifically accurate; though even that is a matter of debate among Seldon’s acolytes who accept his findings without question, save for the newest kid on the block, and his effective successor, Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell), who backs them but remains open, unlike all other true believers, to the fact that Seldon hasn’t got everything right.
What is fascinating as we watch the first three episodes of Foundation, which cover a 430 year period in both flashback and forward storytelling, is how power, whether it is brute military might or a fundamentalist way of thinking, can warp those who wield it.
In many ways, Seldon is no different from the Brothers, and while he may well be right, and his followers, now colonists on the outer edge of the galaxy on an icy world named Terminus where they debate what can be saved and what cannot, remain committed to the task at hand, it is all boils down to people butting heads on who should hold the biggest and most authoritative stick.
It’s a titanic battle to be sure, and in hands less sure of their storytelling ability and prone to epic bombast, it might have been bigger and messier than Ben Hur, but Foundation, created by David S. Goyer and Josh Friedman, it is a story which is allowed to be told with patience, measured thoughtfulness and an eye on the long and slow-moving, if dramatic sweep, of human endeavour.
Much of the enthralling majesty of the show’s arresting visual and narrative poetry, comes from this slow and nuanced flow which allows scenes to play out in seeming real time, which permits considered conversation between characters and allows even a possible attack by renegade empire citizens from a disgraced world to be given their time to make their case and speak their mind.
This is storytelling with real heart and ruminative cleverness, and it is consumes you as you watch it, all too aware that the story it is telling is one that people have told over countless tens of thousands of years and which they will likely tell, if they survive to do it, for countless millennia more.
Watching the glacial movement of history sweep across the narrative, punctuated by violent moments that do not have the impact they should on the establishment of the day – literally the Day in fact who is the Brother who makes all the real decisions – is a fascinating exercise, one made all the richer by characters allowed to find and express themselves fully and without narrative contrivance, a keen eye for the ebb and flow of flawed human activity, and a production aesthetic which prioritises time’s slow but ever-changing hand over more sensationalist storytelling.
It is gloriously good and engrossing to watch, not simply because it looks beautiful and massive and riotously, if majestically, alive, but because it understands, as it did Asimov, what people are like, and that there are no good or bad ones, simply broken, hopeful, grasping souls, all of whom believe they are the holders of truth and right but who must face the eventual cruel truth that perhaps they are not so right after all.
Foundation continues through to 19 November with weekly episodes on Apple TV+.