Thursday, June 27, 2024

TV shows: Foundation

 I finally decided to watch the Foundation.

I read the books as a teenager. I remember liking it at the time, but it had also been a while. I always liked the idea of saving the world through making an Encyclopedia. Even if it was a trick in the story, the mission of the encyclopediaists always reminded me of Wikipedia and its mission, something which had a big impact on my life. I did end up being inspired to re-read the book after watching the show and refresh my knowledge.

The premise of both the book and the show, is essentially the fall of the roman empire in space. There is a giant sprawling space empire, this has been stagnating for a while now and is about to slowly collapse. A mathematician named Hari Seldon comes up with a statistical method dubbed "psychohistory" to predict large scale events at a population level (but importantly not at an individual level). He predicts the fall of the Empire and a resulting dark age. He believes that he can cushion the fall by setting up a colony called the foundation, which will keep advanced technology alive and serve as a seed to rebuild society after the fall, ostensibly by compiling an encyclopedia.

tl;dr: The TV show wasn't great.

It is an utterly terrible adaption of the source material. Taken independently from the source material, it is a mediocre Sci-Fi show with decent visuals and some interesting ideas but overall terrible writing. All in all quite disappointing with some good moments thrown in the mix.

The Good

There are actually some good parts to this.

Most notably, I love the idea of the "genetic dynasty". The source material provides snippets in time of important moments in the history of the foundation. Each foundation story is set in a different time, typically with a different cast of characters, or at least the young characters from the previous story being very old in the next.

This of course makes it hard to adapt to television if you are changing the cast between seasons or even episodes. The show works around this in a bunch of ways, including cryogenic freezing, personality uploading/downloading, possibly there might even have been time dilation somewhere in there, I can't remember. Most of these were under-developed and pretty lame.

The exception was their concept of the galactic empire being ruled by a series of clones, the "genetic dynasty", with 3 clones active at any one time (A young one, a mid-aged one, and a senior clone). This was not in the books, but an excellent idea to provide something for the audience to latch on to as generations pass in the show.

The Galactic Emperors - Cleon

However its not just the idea that was great, but the execution was on point. The emperor was probably the only consistently well developed character in the show. Lee Pace's acting really brought the mid-aged emperor to life. The emperor was consistently the best part of this show.

I think its no coincidence that the plot thread least connected to the books was also the best. While watching, it felt like the parts based on the book were often misunderstood by the show writers, adapted in such a way that they no longer made sense or lost what made them interesting. Cleon's character was entirely new, thus the show writers could make him what they needed him to be, instead of trying to force a square character through a round plot hole.

I'd also say that generally acting was pretty good. I thought Lou Llobell did as good a job as possible with Gaal despite the writers making the character do all sorts of silly things.

The Bad

If you do a death fake-out once, its probably a bit of a hack but no terrible. If you do death fake-outs so many times that I lose count, it is just bad writing.

Soooo many death fake-outs and resurrections.

Fundamentally the problem with this show was bad writing. Character motivations not making sense with their back story, characters suddenly doing stupid things to move the plot along, etc. If you want your character to be a bad-ass, you can't have her fall for the most obvious traps ever. If you want her to be super stoic and logical, you can't have her throwing temper tantrums (She can still get revenge, just if she is introduced as the logical one have her actually plot something with logic instead of lashing out in the moment).

We spent basically a season watching you be angsty, trapped on the spaceship only for the payoff to be you disappearing.

This was especially pronounced with the characters most connected to the foundation. I think what happened is the characters were changed enough that their original motivations in the book no longer apply, but the writers still wanted to get to the major plot events in the book. Hence the characters did things against their character development to advanced the plot in the direction the writers needed. Often the result was boring characters who just seemed to be hanging out killing time until their part of the plot was ready to happen. When it eventually did happen, it was pretty underwhelming as most of the character motivation no longer made any sense.

The other way the writing was disappointing was how much science magic was introduced as a plot connivance without much regard to how it affected the world.

Hari Seldon can upload his consciousness to a computer. Nobody else can, even though in-universe the original emperor Cleon is obsessed with cheating death and would certainly want to. Hari Seldon can split himself into multiple digital copies; nobody else seems to want to or be able to. Hari Seldon somehow goes to a secret cave where he gets put back into a freshly made body, because reasons. Nobody else seems to avail themselves of downloading into new bodies. Hari Seldon's magic notebook is also a tesseract that allows instantaneous travel between different parts of the universe. For some reason he is the only one with this technology. Essentially Hari Seldon is a space wizard with a bag of universe changing magic tricks that only he can use for unknown reasons.

The ugly

All of the above might make this a mediocre show. Not great, but certainly still watchable. Taken by itself, that is certainly true.

I think the truly disappointing part is what a bad adaption this is of the Foundation novels, at a time when I think the world would be ready for an adaption of the type of novels the Foundation is.

If the foundation novels have a take away, it is brain over brawn.

Unlike many contemporary (and modern) sci-fi novels, where the protagonist is an action hero bad-ass, the heroes of the foundation (or in later novels, the second foundation) are physically weak. They win the day through outwitting their opponents and manipulating situations to their advantage even though they would clearly lose in a head-on confrontation.

The hero of a foundation novel is a less ethical captain Picard not a captain Kirk.

I've heard some people describe this as a "nerd" novel for this reason. I think that may have made sense in the 80s, but modern conceptions of the term "nerd" have changed a lot in the last 40 years such that I'm not sure that still makes sense.

The TV show changes things up. The main characters are obviously gender swapped, however I don't really care about that. The worst part is that they have essentially been converted into generic action heroes. All of their characterizations are of stereotypical masculine strength - the avoidance of which is the very thing that made the Foundation novels interesting!

Gaal's main character trait seems to be swimming, just endless swimming. We are told she is smart, but never really shown it. Hardin on the other hand is such a mountain man that she may as well have been played by Ron Swanson from parks & rec. Both are very much depicted as strong in a very traditional manner.

More importantly, problems get solved at the point of a gun in the TV show. Hardin says things like "Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent" in both the book and the TV show. The difference being that in the TV show she says it after shooting hundreds of people. In the book, he at most indirectly causes one person to be beaten up.

Book Hardin is not powerful because he is good at shooting people. He is powerful because he wins the war without firing a shot.

I think all this is a missed opportunity. TV is full of bad-ass, shoot first, ask questions later female characters. Don't get me wrong, I love them, but the trope is a bit over-worn at this point. The foundation books are interesting because they didn't use that trope. Instead they showed a different conception of power - characters who get their power from their wits, ranging from machiavellian scheming to diplomacy. This is not just much more interesting than action-barbie but also something that I think is really missing from the modern TV landscape. Just because the protagonist had a gender swap, does not mean they have follow some outdated sterotype of what it means to be powerful.


Still watchable, but very trope filled, and almost certainly a disappointment to any fan of the original books. Would probably be better if they took the parts not related to the foundation stories, and just made their own story in their own universe, as there are some interesting things there that are weighed down by the burden of servicing a bad adaption of the original novels.