What is the Foundation saga?
The Foundation series consists of the following seven books:
- Foundation (1951, a fix-up novel made up of short stories dating back to 1942)
- Foundation and Empire (1952)
- Second Foundation (1953)
- Foundation's Edge (1982)
- Foundation and Earth (1986)
- Prelude to Foundation (1989)
- Forward the Foundation (1992)
In addition, Asimov later declared the entire Foundation saga as taking place in the far future of his Robots and Empire universes, the three series retconned into one huge future history spanning twenty thousand years. It is likely that any TV adaptation of the Foundation saga will neglect or entirely abandon this, especially given the copyright issues involved.
What is Foundation about?
The Foundation saga begins approximately 22,000 years in the future. A vast Galactic Empire (of humans only; there are virtually no intelligent alien races in the Foundation universe) has arisen spanning much of the galaxy, centred on the city-planet of Trantor. Earth has long been forgotten. For 12,000 years, the Empire has ensured a relative level of peace and harmony across the galaxy. However, a scientist and mathematician named Hari Seldon has developed a science called psychohistory. Drawing on millennia of statistics, history and studies of human nature, Seldon believes that psychohistory is a reliable means of predicting the future. The Empire's rulers are sceptical, until some economic and military events come to pass in a broadly similar manner to what was predicted.
The Empire becomes concerned because psychohistory is predicting nothing less than a total collapse. The Empire is too old, corrupt and decadent and is now inwards-looking and no longer the great force for good that it once aspired to me. Planetary governors plot rebellion and civil war is brewing. Seldon's studies suggest that when the Empire collapses, it will plunge the human race into 30,000 years of barbarism. He believes this can be reduced to just a single millennia if preparations are made, a secret repository for the knowledge of the Empire is built and a new organisation of scientists, historians and teachers -a Foundation - is set up to help bridge the gap until the Second Empire arises. The Emperor reluctantly agrees and the Foundation is indeed established on the planet Terminus. Soonafter, the Empire begins to fragment and collapse. Seldon doesn't live to see his dream realised, but he leaves behind holographic messages which will play at key points in future history, when his descendants will need his advice.
The first three Foundation books (made up of short stories published over a ten-year time period) cover the first 377 years of the interregnum. They reveal that Seldon has established a hidden "Second Foundation" which guards the secret of psychohistory and can make course-corrections as time passes. They also depict the changing face of the Foundation itself (from an isolated colony of scientists to a military and regional powerhouse in its own right). The primary obstacle in the original trilogy is the rise of the Mule, a mutant with formidable powers, charisma and intelligence whose coming could not be predicted by psychohistory. The Foundation has to defeat the Mule without Seldon's guidance, and later on the Second Foundation is able to use new psychohistorical calculations made after the Muse's defeat to correct the predictions of the future.
Asimov abandoned the series in 1953 and wrote no further books in the setting. His publisher, impressed by the success of reprints in the series in the late 1970s (particularly after the success of Star Wars led to a hunger for more space opera stories), convinced him to revisit the series. Asimov complied with two new books, Foundation's Edge and Foundation and Earth. In these books, set 120 years after the original trilogy, a member of the First Foundation discovers that the Second Foundation has survived before making contact with a very strange world named Gaia, whose existence has ramifications for the future of the entire Foundation project. Later on he has to embark on a mission to find Earth, the original homeworld of humanity.
After writing Foundation and Earth Asimov found himself stymied on how to move forwards and resolve the story, so did not even try. Instead, he returned to the character of Hari Seldon and the founding of the Foundation in Prelude to Foundation and Forward the Foundation, the last novel he completed before his death in 1992.
What are the problems in adapting Foundation to the screen?
I'd say that the series faces several major issues in being adapted faithfully. These are as follows:
The Foundation saga consists of several episodes which are separated by many decades or centuries. Characters die between stories and new characters are introduced to replace them. The original Foundation trilogy is therefore very episodic, with no single serialised story or cast of characters to follow. This works well in novels, but probably will not work well on TV (unless Apple are taking a Fargo-style approach, which does not seem likely).
2. The central premise is flawed.
Psychohistory, of course, is a modification of various ideas for predicting market trends and historical impulses over decades. However, these trends can be thrown off by the emergence of unexpected charismatic leaders. Asimov seems to have cottoned onto this with the arrival of the Mule in the second book. However, the big death knell for psychohistory was the popularisation of chaos theory from the 1960s to the 1980s, which basically laid out the complexities of such huge systems as being unquantifiable in anything less than the very short term. Asimov seemed to take this on board in writing the later Foundation novels, which seem to throw out psychohistory altogether in favour of a new way of resolving the story ("Galaxia").
3. It doesn't have an ending.
Asimov introduced a lot of new ideas in Foundation's Edge and Foundation and Earth (which feel very much like the first two books of a trilogy), but didn't have a good idea on how to resolve any of them. His solution was to simply not even bother: he went off and wrote prequels instead. Any TV show tackling the story will have to do better than that.
4. It dovetails too much into Asimov's other work
The later Foundation novels see a convergence with Asimov's other series, particularly the Robots saga. Several key plot moments and revelations in Foundation and Earth, Prelude to Foundation and Forward the Foundation rely on reader knowledge of Asimov's earlier books, particularly The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun, The Robots of Dawn and Robots and Empire. Unless these stories are adapted as well, the later Foundation stories will come to rely on a series of increasingly left-field deus ex machina.
The Foundation universe lacks AI, robots or even sophisticated computers. There is an in-universe reason given for this (although not until the very end of the series) but any modern viewer watching this show set 22,000 years in the future which apparently doesn't even have anything as smart as Siri will be very weird. The fact that psychohistory is also developed without the assistance of AI is implausible, at best.
6. There are few female characters of note.
The original Foundation trilogy is centred almost entirely on male characters. There are some female characters knocking around, but mostly in secondary roles. The only female protagonist of note in the trilogy is Arkady, contrasted to numerous male characters. The later Foundation books, written in the 1980s, were written in a rather more permissive atmosphere so they are chock-full of attractive women our male protagonists can have sex with, but generally don't do much in the story. We can expect some pretty major changes to this side of the story
7. Other, better-known series have borrowed from it.
Many of the key elements of Foundation have since been used by other films and TV series. The idea of a galactic empire and a city so big it covers an entire planet can be both found in the Star Wars movies, for example, whilst space operas from Babylon 5 to Star Trek have employed some of the space travel and battle tropes created by Foundation. Part of the saga also involves a detailed search for the long-lost planet Earth, which sparks comparisons to Battlestar Galactica (which Asimov was, very briefly, involved with as a consultant on its second season before it was cancelled). The idea of a vast stellar empire tens of thousands of years in the future was also better-used by Frank Herbert in his Dune saga of novels.
Foundation may have originated these concepts, of course, but so many other shows have used them that Foundation may be left looking unoriginal when it arrives on screens.
Given the problems with a straight adaptation, I wouldn't be surprised if the Foundation TV series ends up borrowing the name, a few characters names and perhaps a few basic ideas from the books but otherwise goes off and does its own thing.