David S. Goyer (Dark City, The Dark Knight) may be producing and writing Foundation, based on Isaac Asimov’s influential series of science fiction novels, for Apple TV Plus, but he had a rocky road to the novels themselves.
“I had heard about Foundation as a kid,” Goyer told Polygon over Zoom. “My father, who is an avid science fiction fan, gave me a copy of the trilogy on my 13th birthday. And he said, ‘This is the greatest science fiction work ever written.’” He didn’t read it.
The Foundation series — which is perhaps most concisely summed up as “the Fall of the Roman Empire but it’s space” — began as eight short stories published between 1942 and 1950, which were first collected into three novel-length volumes in the early ’50s. Much later, after fan and publisher pressure, Asimov returned to the series, publishing four more novels throughout the 1980s.
On theme, it took Goyer about as long to get into Foundation as well, only giving it a chance in his 20s. “I don’t think I understood it all. I picked it up again in my late 30s, early 40s, and then I started to get it and understand the magnitude of what Asimov had done. Foundation was the first science fiction work that was taken seriously, where people kind of sat up and said, science fiction can be a work of art, it can be a commentary on civilization.”
In the same way that Asimov’s established the Three Laws of Robotics as a framework for his Robot series, the Foundation books are based on a single science fiction idea. Mathematician Hari Seldon has developed a way to predict the broad course of society’s future and has discovered that the Galactic Empire will soon fall, after which humanity will be plunged into a 10,000-year dark age.
But Seldon’s math has also shown a way to shorten that dark age to a mere one 1,000 years: the establishment of a community called the Foundation. As the novels leap forward through the centuries, Asimov threatens the Seldon plan with societal forces without and within, and every time you think it’s about to fail, the plot twists.
“If you were to go into someone’s library when I was growing up,” Goyer told Polygon, “they would have a copy of The Lord of the Rings — that would be the one the fantasy book, even in a serious library, that would be up there — and they would have Foundation. That would be the one science fiction work that would be up there. So everyone, even serious academics, consider Foundation something worthy.”
But it’s also considered one of the more unfilmable holy grails of science fiction — and not just because of how the plot skips forward hundred of years at a time. Foundation doesn’t exactly focus on the classic star-faring ideas of cinema. Asimov keeps it light on action and visuals and heavy on almost Agatha Christie-style climaxes of argument between politicians, academics, or traders who are lightyears from the actual space battles.
How did Goyer turn that source material into the lush and colorful world of Foundation for Apple TV?
“That’s really the high wire act,” he told Polygon, “and the audience will decide whether or not we’re successful as a show. The novels are big on ideas and big on dialogue. They’re not particularly big on character, they’re certainly not big on action, almost all the action happens off screen or in between sentences. The Sack of Trantor —” the capital of the Galactic Empire, a planet whose entire surface area has been converted into a single covered city maintained in perfect climate control with artificial skies “— the fall of the Empire, happens off screen, in a sentence. That’s something that we could expand into an entire season. I think any reasonable person could read the books and know that it would be impossible to do a one-for-one, line-for-line adaptation of it.”
Goyer says he retained the spirit of the Foundation books even as he updated, humanized, and heavily expanded on them, by keeping several guiding ideas in mind throughout development: Keep the technology simple, the silhouettes memorable, and the conflicts relatable — and have a plan.
The tech: “In terms of the technology,” he told Polygon, “I didn’t want to spend a lot of time explaining the technology. It takes place 25,000 years in the future. I wanted the technology to be able to work intuitively and mostly visually without having to explain things. I didn’t want too many science fiction terms. So I use a lot of classical language. The Empire has forcefields but they call it an ‘aura,’ things like that.”
The design: “For the shapes of things, for the costumes, I wanted things to feel classical. I was really concerned with the silhouettes of things.”
The conflicts: “I wanted to make sure that the stories worked just on a purely dramatic level, even if you stripped away all of the science fiction trappings. Because if this show is going to work, it’s going to have to appeal to people that don’t count themselves as fans of science fiction, or even fans of Asimov.”
The plan: “I did pitch Apple eight seasons, 80 episodes. Who knows if we’ll get there. Hopefully, if it’s a success, we will. But the big plot points that are going to happen over the course of those eight seasons, those are all worked out, so that we know we’re not vamping. We know what we’re writing towards.”
Above all, Goyer said he wanted to make a version of Foundation that reflects the world of the modern audience, in the same way that Asimov reflected the audience of 70 years ago.
“People tune into television for a lot of different reasons,” Goyer told Polygon, “so the trick for me was to maintain the kind of heady philosophical debates that were going on, but also figure out how to dramatize those debates, how to come up with characters that would externalize the ideas that Asimov was working with.”
Foundation premieres on Apple TV Plus on Sept. 24 with two full episodes.