Foundation takes big, beautiful risks … and we’re hooked! [Apple TV+ review]

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Foundation review: Lee Pace is the swaggering spine of Foundation.
Lee Pace, who plays Brother Day, is the swaggering spine of Foundation.
Photo: Apple TV+

Apple TV+’s space opera ramps up this week to show us the goods. But can Foundation get to the business of exciting drama now that the world has been thoroughly built, the characters are in play, and the clock is ticking?

The show has been confident but not quite exciting yet. Let’s see if it can avoid the pitfalls that ruin a lot of Apple TV+’s original programming.

Foundation review: Season 1, episode 3

It’s 19 years after the Star Bridge was destroyed on Trantor, and Brother Dusk (played by Terrence Mann) is dying. We flash back to the death of the first of the emperors, Cleon (also Mann) — the man whose genes still make up the pool for the Imperial Cloning Project that produces the rulers of the universe — and see that the robot he produced to act as his aide-de-camp is none other than Demerzel (Laura Birn), who still holds the position as Brother Dusk gets fitted for his final set of royal vestments.

But something troubles Dusk still. Before his (offscreen) death, mathematician Hari Seldon (Jared Harris) predicted the end of the galactic empire. Hari’s words haunt Dusk. Was he right? What will happen once Dusk is dead and Hari’s warning has been forgotten?

Exile on Terminus

Meanwhile, we join the colonists sent to planet Terminus, where Hari went into exile after predicting the fall of civilization. There’s a structure (of which we’ve seen plenty by now) that makes all who come near it lightheaded and frail before making them pass out. This is The Vault and it becomes a mythic totem, surrounded by legend and hearsay as no one is allowed to get physically close to it without suffering. It beguiles a young girl named Salvor Hardin (who grows up to be portrayed by Leah Harvey), much to the chagrin of her mother and her father, Abbas (Clarke Peters).

As Hardin grows, she continues to be fascinated by The Vault even as her list of duties on Terminus grows numerous. She’s in charge of perimeter security and is also just a grunt worker for the now-thriving little colony out there. She’s pretty indispensable to keeping things running. When her sometime boyfriend Hugo (Daniel MacPherson) shows up, he tries to entice her away but it’s no good. This is her home.

So when three gun ships start hovering above the planet’s surface, it’s clear she’s going to have to fight to keep it safe, but what if there’s another way? What if this planet hasn’t finished revealing its secrets?

Every world has ghosts

Leah Harvey is about to become a bigger part of <em>Foundation.</em>
Leah Harvey is about to become a bigger part of Foundation.
Photo: Apple TV+

Before addressing anything else, it’s worth pointing out that last week someone who had seen all of Foundation lamented that a lot of the reviews of the season were being written without access to this week’s episode in particular. I agree that it’s a shortcoming of the job of TV reviewer. But also, you can thank Apple TV+ for doling out screeners in the most haphazard fashion possible. (To give you a peek behind the curtain, we got screeners for Jon Stewart’s new show, which is out now, on Tuesday, Sept. 28.)

But I’m also willing to admit that it’s in my nature to rush to judgment when reviewing TV because I’m so infrequently impressed by what many TV directors and showrunners are out to do formally. Foundation delivered a host of very beautiful images this week (TV vet Alex Graves directs and makes a colossal fool out of pilot director Rupert Sanders, dilettante extraordinaire). However, the show slowed way down to take in the tragic spectacle of Dust’s ascension.

The slow crawl toward death was affecting, thanks to all the emphasis Graves placed on shots of hands and close-ups of faces, taking in the unsightly spectacle of aging. But the best moment comes when Demerzal finally tucks him into bed like a child and says, “You always leave me.”

I was not expecting such a potent emotional moment after two episodes of nonstop plot. The death of Dusk (who in his last moments becomes Brother Darkness) lasts 20 minutes of this 49-minute episode of television. That is the kind of risk-taking I want to see more of in TV, to say nothing of the way Graves finds a more interesting visual language to tell this story. (It may not be Ernie Gehr or anything, but it’s better than Foundation’s preceding two episodes.)

And every house is haunted by them

The dramatic stuff on Terminus is also tremendous value compared to the awakening of Gaal Dornick in Foundation’s opening volley. Dornick just isn’t that compelling a protagonist as drawn here. She exists in the shadow of enormous forces and doesn’t seem all that interested or intrinsic to their outcome. Hari (who it helps is played by one of our best actors) would be a more interesting full-time foil, but again there was just so much plot to get through that the writers can’t quite bring him center stage.

On Terminus, for whatever reason, in a half-hour we get to know Salvor Hardin and her circumstances so well that we’re instantly drawn into everyone’s plight. (We also get a much-needed visit with Clarke Peters, another amazing character actor the show wisely cast.)

As unmoved as I was by the enormity of the opening of Foundation, I confess I’m all-in now. Even just the way the camera and the edit allow the action to settle, like when Hugo and Salvor have a heart-to-heart in the shadow of a statue of Hari Seldon in the town square, will hook you.

It’s unhurried, and their deliveries are filled with natural pauses. It’s just two people having a chat on another planet before the possible destruction of everything they’ve ever known. That’s how you do it. What a difference a week makes.

Watch Foundation on Apple TV+

The first two episodes of Foundation premiered on September 23 on Apple TV+. New episodes arrive on Fridays.

Rated: TV-14

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.