Our entertainment has been defined for a decade now by the competition over streaming set off by Netflix's success. Then, it accelerated due to the COVID lockdowns. It's led to the writers' and actors' guild strikes this summer. And throughout the period, streamers spent billions looking for a model to become profitable.
The core of that effort is creating fictional TV universes, coming up with something at least as successful as HBO's Game of Thrones, hopefully achieving generational influence by having users become familiar with a service over the better part of a decade. Netflix had House of Cards and Stranger Things, but doesn't seem to be achieving much anymore. Disney bet on putting more and more of its many properties on its own streaming service. HBO is now MAX and seems to be attacking its own brand. Amazon has been spending maybe half a billion on Lord of the Rings, without much success.
AppleTV+ also joined this mad race, but with remarkable restraint. It bet modestly on adapting Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, one of the science fiction bestsellers of the 20th century. It doesn't cost hundreds of millions of dollars, although it's an expensive series, with the kind of visual effects that charm people now—maybe we can compare this style to the Art Deco of a hundred years back, a mix of techno-modernism and archaeological retrieval of ancient, especially oriental styles.
The story has the right scope for this kind of entertainment: the collapse of a galactic empire and the rise, in the galactic periphery, of a modernist rival, the eponymous Foundation, based on technological prediction of the future, over a millennium. Accordingly, Foundation alternates a storyline in the galactic capital Trantor, a planetwide techno-city, with another, of space travel, and a third, of community and eventually empire-building in the austere outlands.
It's partly a science fiction thriller, partly a coming-of-age story. Maybe it has the right feel for the moment, given worries about the decay of American power. The first season, for example, re-created 9/11 and suggested race riots and religious revolts in the context of an imperial capital. Foundation raises the problems of decline and progress in a way most pop culture doesn't even contemplate. In going back for its sources further than most of our nostalgia fashions, it also seems to look forward with more daring.
The second season of Foundation has begun, and its first episodes confirm that the vision of creator David S. Goyer is unfolding confidently, ignoring most of the trends that attract critical attention (Succession, for a particularly egregious example). He now has the best science fiction series on TV and a better prestige drama than most running. On the business side, the show has been renewed for its third season, which shows Apple's commitment to a long series in a moment when production companies are scurrying to cut costs or abandon overambitious or reckless projects.
I don't want to spoil any surprises, so let me describe the story and its marvels discreetly. The female protagonists, genius mathematician Gaal Dornick and warrior Salvor Hardin, run on parallel tracks trying to save the Foundation through its various historical challenges. At the same time, they want to understand in what sense they are personally free, being involved in this historical mission to save civilization in the midst of decadence. That mission is based on the predictions and organization of another mathematical genius, Hari Seldon, who becomes a religious figure, a prophet to the Foundation.
Gaal and Salvor faced their challenges in parallel timeframes in the first season, moving closer and closer to the inevitable meeting, which happens in season two. They thus begin to understand their unusual orientation to the future and the past respectively, as well as their connection. This gives a more human, emotional aspect to Goyer's major achievement in Foundation, his thinking about time: Everything from the unusual form of eternity offered by cloning to that offered by predictions of the future and A.I., and every kind of playing with the effects of time nonlinear storytelling can offer, including time-traveling by relativistic effects. Modern man's feeling of being existentially vulnerable, bereft of nature or providence, is Goyer's theme, and it's what elevates his series far above most of our entertainment.
Thus, Foundation is now the only ambitious show to present its audience a vision of themselves that they could admire, as elite. It replaced Asimov's male adventurer protagonists, who seem to have no qualms, with female protagonists who seem to have nothing but. Internal struggle and the suffering of coming to the elite, the Foundation, but not being able to see the future or put the past behind is a major theme of the show. It is Goyer's vision of what happened to our own progressive politics, dominated by women from college to corporate HR. It reminded me of the previous decade's Westworld, which shared concerns about problems like A.I. and corporations, and was created by Jonathan Nolan, who wrote the Dark Knight trilogy with Goyer.
It's too early to say what elites will learn from a story that includes variations on Einstein's paradox of twin brothers aging differently—mother and daughter aging differently, such that the daughter is older. Then Goyer throws in surrogacy, another timely element of a story concerned with the dangers of genetic manipulation. Goyer is trying to portray the problem of a post-religious world, i.e., one where there are no sacred restraints, and where people can come to worship clones or A.I. as gods. What commands would such masters issue? Tune in and find out.
Foundation is now streaming on Apple TV+.
Titus Techera is the executive director of the American Cinema Foundation and a film critic for Law & Liberty, the Acton Institute's Religion & Liberty, and the Free Press.
Published under: TV Reviews