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Foundation - The Emperor's Peace + Preparing to Live - Double Review

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Foundation Episode 1: “The Emperor’s Peace” – Review

Foundation is AppleTV+’s bold, new expensive television show that wants you to know that it’s expensive and looks expensive. Adapted from Isaac Asimov’s science fiction classic this new show, with the first two episodes penned by David S. Goyer and Josh Friedman under the helm of directors Rupert Sanders and Andrew Bernstein, the series casts light on not just a dying world, but a dying Galactic Empire, with Goyer returning to the Krypton sequences from Man of Steel and instead turning them into a whole television series, taking that idea that was shared across the material - he returned to it in the SYFY series Krypton too - so doomed Empires fighting against an unstoppable disaster is clearly Goyer's thing - and battling with it, with an epic, galaxy-spanning universe. Rather ambitiously, Goyer claims that he wants eight seasons - eighty episodes – that’s right – eighty hours – to tell Foundation to its full potential – but judging by the laborous, clunky heavy-handedness of the first episode, many are not even going to see a small fraction of that eighty hours. They’d be lucky to make it past the first twenty-five minutes.

It’s an exposition-fest galore and very lore-heavy right from the get go. Although it’s not the most action-packed of series and I was never expecting it to be, Foundation could have done with any kind of character development – or any reason to make me care about the characters. Its sole focus is lore, and the lore can feel overwhelming. Stick with the twenty-five minutes and you’ll get the promise of what the series’ end-game is, but right now, it’s all telling with practically zero showing, despite the mammoth CGI budget attached to this series, it’s mostly thrown into expansive world backdrops that make the Galactic Empire that this series calls its home look vastly expensive, like a Mass Effect game dialled up to eleven – AppleTV+’s visuals have been fantastic across the board, like with their main fantasy product, See, but both series have experienced turbulent starts. See at least improved – the fate of Foundation so far, remains to be seen.

It’s a show that attempts to be meaningful and attempts to be focused, but there’s a large element of contrived-ness about this storyline. It’s all over the place in terms of narrative – and on top of that, the production value is inconsistent. Sometimes – it delivers on its budget, but other times it feels awkward, like a SYFY pilot – it can’t quite remain consistent in its tone. What’s perhaps worrying is that I never felt the sense of galactic scale at play once in Foundation – and its still early days, but for a grand, epic space series – The Expanse or Battlestar Galactica remain the high bar. This is unlikely to challenge them. The books are borderline unfilmable so this was always going to a hard sell – I certainly don’t envy Goyer for taking on this task, and it is something that only could have been achieved with the amount of money that Apple were willing to throw at it. But maybe a showrunner with a defter hand was needed - did it have to be this boring?

Hari Seldon is Jared Harris back in his Chernobyl role of a prophesier of doom (and is best-placed to correct it), and it’s an immensely lazy typecast but something that I am absolutely on board with – Harris gave Amazon's Carnival Row something of a steady hand with his experience and excels again here, giving his absolute all opposite Emperor Lee Pace, Brother Day – part of the three clones of the Emperor at different ages (Brother Dawn and Brother Dusk are the other two, played by Cooper Carter, Cassion Bilton and Terrance Mann respectively) who is sceptic of Hari’s plans. Hari reckons that the empire will fall and plunge into 30,000 years of darkness – there’s nothing that can be done to stop it, but he reckons – if they plan now, they can cut it down to 1,000 years. It’s easier to burn things down than to build, so Brother Day is less than keen – and sentences Hari to be executed for his troubles, with an explosion of Trantor’s starbridge that kills millions, spectacularly choreographed with all the effects that money can buy.

Hari is joined in this matter by co-conspirator Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell), who’s brought in in a chess game between the two men from her planet where universities are burned and scientists are hunted. Gaal is understandably awed by the whole occasion – especially being in the same room as someone like Hari, but the show rarely devotes to spending any time with her, as Llobell’s emotional reactions to stuff that is going on are basically the only kind of character development that her character gets – and she give it her absolute all, I’m very excited to see what she can do with more material provided.

Much of the heavy lifting of the clunky script is done by the actors here beyond just her though, Alfred Enoch is spectacular in his small role, and it’s a joy watching the two acting giants of Lee Pace and Jared Harris go head-to-head – whilst much of the Emperor’s clones don’t make anywhere near enough the same impression, the Young Brother Dawn did give off similar vibes to Paul’s younger sister in David Lynch’s Dune, although that might be because I watched it over the weekend for the first time so it’s still fresh on my mind..

It’s just a shame that the show spends most of that time overflowing you with exposition and never really spends its time giving you a reason to care about its characters, who have plenty of promise and are the potential to become one of the series’ best assets – especially with Gaal’s potential for character growth. It’s much more of a traditional pilot than we would have expected given the streaming freedom of AppleTV+, but then again – this is David S. Goyer we’re talking about. His pilots have always been very traditional – structured, laboured, and, like they have done in the past, lacking a kind of passion that the best kind of series needs. It is early days – there’s still time to improve, and there’s a hint of promise when the series finally starts to spend time moving beyond its exposition, but it almost comes in too little too late.

Mass Effect or Halo, Foundation is not. Could it be one day? We’ll have to wait and see, but I don’t expect we’ll get anywhere near the full eighty hours that Goyer wants to tell this story, no matter how lenient AppleTV+ have been with renewals – and with a deluge of great television on right now, you’d be forgiven for not investing so much on a “wait and see” approach. If it’s got any chance of success it needs to find a personality to go with its expensive blandness, and fast.

Foundation Episode 2 “Preparing to Live” – Review:

Preparing to Live fixed no flaws from the first episode of the series; if it was hoped that with the storyline kicking in audiences would have a reason to stuck around, Foundation offered scarcely none of that in the second episode. After realising that there was zero character development in the first episode, this episode doubles down on it and rushes through it in a bid to make up for lost time, meaning that the character work done here doesn’t feel authentic or believable, and instead, you’re meant to buy into a relationship that you only do thanks to the strengths of the two actors – if this episode is watchable it is down to Lou Llobell and Alfred Enoch, who keep their characters, Gaal and Raych, grounded in this vast, expansive universe that is still struggling to feel like one.

This episode was largely split into two threads and followed the Galactic Empire with its second, introducing you to what it was truly capable of, ending with a spectacular aerial bombardment that looked ripped straight from Star Wars’ video games. The technical effects are insanely good they’re better than most big-budget movies, but it’s just a shame there’s nothing in the world that makes the people that inhabit it feel really alive just yet. We got some attempted dynamics between Brother Dawn, Dusk and Day – with Brother Day’s speech reminding those who remained loyal that they had nothing to fear. The execution by hanging scene was brutally visceral and wonderfully illustrated, Lee Pace scenery-chewing like the best of them in his speech. You can tell he’s having fun. They both some to recognise that Brother Dusk might not be the man he once was – and sooner rather than later, it will be Dawn’s time in the sun. The interrogation scene was a highlight of this episode, with some great back and forth there.

There’s a lot of Star Wars in this - specifically in the Empire's storyline more than anything else - and it’s trying to complicate that by pulling some Game of Thrones shocks on us so early on – especially by the killing off of Jared Harris’ Hari by Raych at the end of the episode, presumably framing Gaal as a way to cover his tracks – but what Game of Thrones did first was give you a reason to care about Ned Stark before killing him off. Here, Hari’s death comes as no surprise, especially when Preparing to Live spent much of the episode foreshadowing it, and casting a relatively big-name actor to kill him off in the first two episodes is prime television material. There’s nothing new there. What it does instead is that it robs the fascinating dynamic that was building between Hari and Gaal before it has any chance to truly start, and what it does in the scenes following is rob Gaal of any agency that she had – for all the talk about her character having any agency, she has none, or at least – not yet. For all we know – Raych killing Hari could have been part of his plan all along, but his belief was certainly shaken once he learnt that his calculations had missing pieces. Alfred Enoch really was the MVP of this episode, playing a tortured soul with the kind of depth levels above the writing for the character. This episode had a unifying thread across the board that kind of brought both storylines together without feeling too disjointed – whereas Raych was at a surface level, losing faith in Hari, Brother Day appears impatient and cocksure, refusing to buy into the pacificist approach of Brother Dusk.

If Preparing to Live does one thing right that makes it an improvement over the first is that it reduces the lack of location hopping and zones in on a few characters, we spend much of this episode with Gaal and Raych. This is good – early positive signs that Foundation is starting to realise that there’s no point in having all this money if we don’t care about what’s going on – The Expanse and Battlestar, to namedrop two more shows – made us care about its characters, no matter how flawed they are. If Foundation can do that – rather than spend most of its time trying to play catch-up, then we might have a show on our hands.

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