Foundation flourishes with battles big and small [Apple TV+ review]

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Foundation review: Lou Llobell faces some major flashback action this week.
Gaal (Lou Llobell) faces some major flashback action this week.
Photo: Apple TV+

Apple TV+’s big, shiny space show hits its first set-piece battle this week, but more exciting things are happening in solitude. Foundation hits its stride — and the direction its drama takes proves confident and exciting.

Can the sci-fi show based on Isaac Asimov’s classic continue its upward trajectory toward greatness?

Foundation review: ‘Upon Awakening’

Gaal Dornick (played Lou Llobell), who’s been narrating the events on Terminus, hasn’t been playing a part on Foundation for two episodes now. This week, in an episode titled “Upon Awakening,” we flash back to her life on Synnax.

She has a run-in with an elderly dissident (Wale Ojo) who disagrees with the religious edicts that rule life on Synnax and beyond. Watching him die because he believes so steadfastly in the power of knowledge, of trying to understand the world instead of leaving its mysteries intact in the name of respect for gods, is the first moment of Gaal’s awakening.

The punishment for heresy on Synnax is to be drowned with your possessions. So that night, Gaal braves the icy waters — and the fear of being caught. She swims down to the old man’s watery grave and takes his books back to the surface to read. And she educates herself enough to not just solve an equation that brings her to the attention of galactically renowned mathematician Hari Seldon (Jared Harris) on Trantor, the start of her journey, but also to predict that Synnax will fall.

She predicts rainfall and winds that will destroy life on her home world. Her parents are furious that she’s been doing math at all, especially to predict that their way of life is suicidally foolhardy. They leave on dreadful terms and it’s clear now that she’ll never see them again.

Searching for clues

Why is that? Well, when her lover, Raych Foss (Alfred Enoch), stabbed Hari, dismantled the ship to Terminus, and threw Gaal into hypersleep, he set her sleep period for 34 years. She was blamed for his death along with Raych, and now she’s stranded on a vessel no one knows exists with only the ghost of Hari Seldon for company.

She looks up the footage of Raych’s trial and execution. And though she’s too upset to notice it, he’s left her clues as to why he killed Hari, and indeed hints that Hari needed him to do it as part of his gambit for saving life in the galaxy.

If you’re having Star Wars flashbacks, that’s because George Lucas was an avid consumer of all things science fiction and fantasy. On top of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Akira Kurosawa, he also liked him some Isaac Asimov.

Back on Terminus, Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey) is having a hard time keeping Phara (Kubbra Sait) and her army of Anachreon warriors from destroying their settlement. The imperial army arrives under the command of Brother Day (Lee Pace) but they may be too late. And Phara actually seems happy that the imperial troops are here….

You can still solve the puzzle

Foundation review: It's time to fight!
It’s time to fight!
Photo: Apple TV+

This episode’s director, Alex Graves, really deserves commendation. Returning to the Gaal Dornick storyline after two episodes away could have proved a lethal drag on the very exciting Terminus plot line just as it was moving into endgame. But he finds not just moments of visual grace (there’s a slow-mo sequence here that, while completely unnecessary, is simply marvelous to behold) but a compelling pace and tone for the scenes with Gaal.

Lou Llobel also kicks it into high gear, making Gaal’s plight much more immediate and intimate than it was when she was just watching worlds collide. This week, we see a huge, expensive battle scene (though it’s admittedly relegated to something like the background while more important human drama transpires). But it’s never as thrilling as watching Gaal conversing with a computer, charting her position in space through mathematical deduction.

The combat stuff is fun and chaotic but Graves is on surer footing in the battle of wits between Phara and Salvor. It really stings to hear Phara’s justification for trying to destroy Terminus. Both Sait and Harvey breaking their poker faces to taunt each other is exciting, and I get the strong feeling it’ll be another full episode before any of these loose ends are tied up. I’d be upset about that, but I’m equally looking forward to a dip back into the Brother Day storyline.

Foundation is officially on track

This show becoming all business, all the time was the right strategy, and the confident storytelling helps the breakneck pace seem like a necessity. Foundation has become appointment television for me in just a few course-correcting episodes.

This week also proved a great showcase for the music of composer Bear McCreary. He faces an unenviable task here, underscoring dramatic work that requires your full attention, and yet trying to come up with themes and motifs that befit a show of such huge scope. I really like his theme song but he hasn’t been doing a lot of showy work in the background of most episodes.

This week, I noticed just how wonderfully his work fits the show’s texture and ideas. It’s got that lithe, sweeping nature, but isn’t afraid of bombast. He really nailed Foundation’s big moments this week.

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.