Five years ago we told you about the plans to create a mini-series out of Isaac Asimov’s classic sci-fi series Foundation, while also pointing you in the direction of the 1973 BBC radio dramatization. Back in 2015, Jonathan Nolan, brother of Christopher, was attached and HBO was set to produce. And then we all forgot about it. (Well I did, anyway.)
Fast forward into the COVID tsunami of this week and AppleTV just dropped the first trailer for the series. Nolan is out and David Goyer is in as showrunner. Goyer loves his pulp, and wrote or co-wrote the Blade trilogy, the Dark Knight trilogy, Dark City, and a lot of the recent DC Universe films. Also on board as executive producer is Robyn Asimov, Isaac’s daughter.
Production had started in Ireland on the series, but it closed up shop in March due to COVID-19. We have no idea how much of the 10-episode first season was shot, which might explain a preponderance of footage in the above trailer of people walking down corridors, walking into rooms, and staring out of windows, along with purely CGI establishing shots of spaceships and a black hole straight out of Interstellar.
On the other hand, we get a glimpse of Jared Harris (Mad Men, Chernobyl) as Hari Seldon, a mathematician who has developed a theory called “psychohistory” that allows him to see the future. And he does not like what he sees--empires collapsing, and a long dark age of 30,000 years. There’s also his protege called Gaal, played here by newcomer Lou Llobell; Lee Pace (Halt and Catch Fire) plays Brother Day, the emperor; and Leah Harvey plays Salvor, the warden of Terminus, where Seldon and Gaal are exiled. (Spoiler alert...we think.)
Two large questions to ask right now: will this ever get finished? And do we really need Foundation, or has its time passed?
For the first, AppleTV has put a date of 2021 for the hopeful premiere, but all the arts are on hold now. We might be looking at films that are even more CGI than they are now, shot totally on greenscreen in large socially distant studios, and assembled by a gigantic crew of remote animators. (Ireland is down to less than 10 cases of COVID-19 per day, so who knows.)
The second is more a matter of taste and a case of who’s adapting the books. Goyer’s filmography shows he’s much more of an action guy, and Asimov was more of an intellectual. We might see something between the international trade tariff skullduggery of The Phantom Menace and some Game of Thrones court intrigue.
The discussion on Metafilter certainly deserves a look, as it brings up issues like Asimov’s history of sexual harassment, the idea of Grand Old White Men of Sci-Fi, and a need to keep prestige television churning out product. And, of course, there’s a discussion of how much we might need some of Asimov’s optimism.
Asimov’s Foundation series was influenced by Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and we are certainly thinking about empires falling right now, especially as we can hear Nero’s fiddle off in the distance, getting louder every day.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.