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Foundation’s first two episodes jump around the timeline with wild abandon

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Knowing Asimov makes knowing the timeline a little easier

Jared Harris in Foundation Photo: Helen Sloan/Apple TV Plus

Episodes 1 and 2 of Foundation, Apple’s epic adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s acclaimed novels, work to tackle the show’s biggest challenge: Showcasing a massive, galactic empire and the trouble that it’ll eventually find itself in. In the show’s first couple of minutes, writers David S. Goyer and Josh Friedman made an interesting choice for the first scene of the series: It takes place long after the initial events of the story begin, before the series rockets back and works its way forwards.

In fact, the first two episodes of Foundation, which premiered together on Friday, hop around to four different time periods and as many locations. Keeping it all straight takes a sense of Asimov’s greater world.

[Ed. note: This piece contains spoilers for the first two episodes of Foundation on Apple TV Plus.]

Foundation’s timeline, and when it all ‘takes place’

If you’ve never read Asimov’s Foundation, it’s Asimov’s take on the fall of the Roman Empire … in space! Set in the very distant future, humanity has expanded its presence to inhabit much of the galaxy, and for thousands of years and generations, it’s been held together by the Galactic Empire, which controls more than 25 million planets, ruling over tens of billions of people. That civilization is in its waning days, and a mathematician named Hari Seldon predicts that it will collapse in a matter of centuries, and that if humanity wants to stave off 30,000-year dark age, someone will have to take some drastic steps to not prevent the collapse, but to shorten it to just a handful of generations.

That’s a lot of ground to cover, and as Apple’s series opens, we’re treated to a quick voiceover from a character named Gaal Dornick as the camera settles on a bleak-looking world called Terminus. Gaal notes that she never came across the world, an unsettled planet at the furthest reaches of known space, until many years later when it became part of her own story.

But this scene is really here to introduce Salvor Hardin, warden of Terminus, as she saves some misbehaving kids from a mysterious floating structure with some kind of mental distortion field around it. Gaal’s narration says that Salvor will become important in the events that come to pass, and then we leap 35 years into the past to the actual chronological beginning of the series.

This brings us in line with the beginning of Foundation, the first novel in Asimov’s series: Now we actually get to meet Gaal, a young woman who’s been summoned to Trantor by Seldon. Her arrival sets a series of Seldon-predicted events into motion, and they are summoned before the ruler(s) of the Empire.

Lee Pace’s Empire clones and the time jump to Terminus

LTR: Cassian Bilton as Brother Dawn, Lee Pace as Brother Day, and Terrence Mann as brother Dusk in the first episode of Foundation. Photo: Apple TV Plus

That is, a trio of clones of the Empire’s original leader, Dawn (the youngest, who’ll eventually become ruler, played by Cassian Bilton), Day (the middle-aged current ruler, played by Lee Pace), and the elderly Dusk, (played by Terrence Mann) — all various versions of the same person. The conflict between Seldon and Day sets the events of the series into motion: Rather than kill and martyr him, Day exiles Seldon’s followers to Terminus, where they can create their galactic encyclopedia.

But Day refuses to let them go by jumpship — which means we spend a chunk of episode 2 traveling with them (relatively) slowly through space to the very place we saw at the very beginning of episode 1. But we keep checking in on Trantor past and “present.”

The origin of Brothers Dawn, Day, and Dusk is shown with a thousand-year flashback featuring the very first emperor, who started the whole emperor-cloning tradition in the first place. His unchanging “genetic dynasty” is an externalization of an empire too inflexible to weather the coming storm, and destined to fall.

Such time jumps are an intrinsic part of the original Foundation stories. Asimov originally wrote them back in the 1940s and 1950s, following Seldon and his efforts to set up the Foundation, and then following their descendants through time as the galaxy crumbles into darkness. The first book consists of five stories, and after the first one, “The Psychohistorians”, the next story, “The Encyclopedists,” is set fifty years later. The next (“The Mayors”) is set 30 years later — 80 years after the first story — the fourth (The Traders) is set 135 years after the start of the novel, and the last (“The Merchant Princes”) is set 155 years after the book starts. The other novels in Asimov’s initial trilogy, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation, also take some big leaps between installments.

Presumably, the series will continue these decade-long leaps back and forth in time as the season (and, potentially, followup seasons) charts the fall of the Galactic Empire, and the rise of the Foundation and its efforts to rebuild the galaxy’s civilization. After all, David S. Goyer says he has a plan for eight seasons and 80 episodes. That’ll be helped a bit by the fact that Pace, Bilton, and Mann are all clones: It’s a convenient way to keep at least one — or three — familiar faces around as the show moves forward into the future.