The problem with Isaac Asimov’s Foundation

Apple are making Isaac Asimov’s FOUNDATION for tv with David Goyer at the helm. All the signs are it’s going to be a disaster.

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So I’ve just watched the new trailer for Isaac Asimov’s foundation series brought to us by none less than Apple themselves as one of the launch properties for their new streaming television service. And I have to say that even in an era of over hyped sci-fi franchises with amazing trailers – this doesn’t even have an amazing trailer.

When I first heard about the idea of filming Isaac Asimov’s foundation as a prestige format HBO style television show I was – to say the least – a little bit skeptical.

Here’s a very quick story. I was known in college as someone who understood, in their early days, video codecs and how you could record and produce digital video. One day one of my lecturers, a very nice young woman, ran up to me and she gave me basically a high definition video cassette and said “I needed put on this floppy disk” and of course the video data would have been far too massive to have ever fit on to a floppy disk.

We have this disparity in our culture especially around storytelling that we’re all in one sense experts in story. We read a lot of stories. We have a very strong idea of what we like as stories. But that doesn’t mean that we all know technically how stories work, what they’re made of, or what they’re built from.

And if you look at the Foundation series – just take the first book which is where we can assume that the TV show is going to focus – tyhere simply isn’t enough story there to make a television show from, particularly in the style of prestige HBO television drama, which is what we seem to be talking about here.

If you’ve read foundation, you’ll know that it’s a very short book and these television formats require a lot of content. There is an idea in the science fiction community that the golden age of science fiction is fifteen, which is a play on the idea that the Golden Age of science fiction was around the 1940s and the 1950s when magazines like an astounding and amazing were launching and the editor John W Campbell was working. Now he’s rather controversial for his far-right political views. Maybe that’s a topic for another video. And he was involved with Isaac Asimov in coming up with the ideas for Foundation.

But what doesn’t do is give the book enough content to make a television show. We might think that it does because we’ve read it at the age of 15 which was our Golden Age of Science Fiction. Because at 15 we could pick up something that was mostly ideas that was sketchy that was in many ways poorly written, that wasn’t great storytelling, and our imagination could give it a great deal of weight.

Foundation wasn’t that kind of book for me. I’m too young for that thankfully! A similar book for me would be let’s say William Gibson’s Neuromancer, which I still adore because I give to it all that I imagined was in there when I read it as a 15 year old but. But younger generations reading it now often aren’t that inspired by it. They find it a bit flat. They aren’t driven by the prose writing the way that I was. It doesn’t have the kind of characters that they engage with and I fear that this is going to be one half of the problem with adapting Asimov’s Foundation to the television screen.

The other half is going to be simply what’s not there in this very short book. Prestige format HBO format television shows are relationship driven. You take a show like Mad Men. Like Sopranos. Like Band of Brothers or like Breaking Bad, You know, we have a new classic one of these shows every one or two years over around 20 years, now that’s given us a huge archive of them.

We binge watch them. We’re very familiar with how they work and if you understand that technically, you know that every scene in one of those shows you care to name develops the relationship between characters. That’s why they’re so compelling to us in a way they share this quality with soap opera. They have many things they do that are much better and much higher quality than soap opera but their relationship driven dynamics are fundamentally soap operatic.

Asimov’s Foundation doesn’t have any characters let alone relationships. Yes, you can name some cyphers. Some names that are there to play a part in the concept that Azimov is unfolding, which is the concept of psycho history.

It’s a fascinating concept. It’s a really interesting idea that the great mathematician Harry Seldon could predict far into the future using a form of mathematics that he named Psychohistory. And it’s an idea very pertinent to its time. But there are no characters in this story and there are no relationships to be built between these non-existent characters.

So there’s no material there to make the kind of TV show which Apple seems to have the ambition to put onto its new service. And then if you look at the lead writer involved, David S Goyer. He is a very competent writer when it comes to action sequences. The film which established his reputation is Batman Dark Knight Returns. It’s primarily an action movie, there’s really very little in there of substance beyond action, fighting, style, cinematography, and of course Heath Ledger’s amazing performance as the Joker in the movie, which is primarily why it’s still remembered today, and Batman’s rather deep and silly Batman voice.

What does this mean for Apple’s adaptation to the small screen of Asimov’s Foundation series? Well, it means it’s almost certainly going to be a disastrous failure, much like many of the other high-profile sci-fi franchises that we have attempted to adapt to television in the wake of Game of Thrones. George R R Martin, a very long established television writer beforehand, he understood relationship-driven storytelling, he brought that in a way into the genre of fantasy novels that he was constructing, and that made them very suitable for television, and now we have a huge wave of sci-fi and fantasy storytelling about to hit our screens with producers hoping to replicate the success of Game of Thrones, and it simply isn’t going to happen.

I think Asimov’s Foundation series is going to be the biggest of these disasters because David S Goyer simply doesn’t have the chops to add this material to the story, so we’re going to have a long extended show where almost nothing happens in relationship terms. And just this single concept of Psychohistory playing out quite thuddingly for audiences who are now 70 years on from the period in the late 40s and the 50s when Asimov was writing and publishing. Psychohistory was a pretty interesting idea in the post World War Two era when you had the Breton Woods agreement, which was the agreement between Britain, America and Russia. You had the establishment of institutions like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund which in many ways were the models for Asimov’s Foundation.

Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Director of creative writing at UoL, published with OUP and Cambridge. Currently travelling the world and writing a book.

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