Isaac Asimov’s Foundation arrives on Apple TV Plus nearly 80 years after the story’s first publication. It’s the first big adaptation of the famous science fiction novels — but showrunners David S. Goyer and Josh Friedman’s series is going beyond just the events of that original 1951 novel to incorporate elements from across Asimov’s sprawling, retconned universe. Including the subject that he’s most famous for: robots.
Over the course of his career, Asimov is probably best known for both Foundation, and his robot stories and novels, from which came his oft-quoted “Three Laws of Robotics.” While he kept those two big stories apart for most of his career, he eventually merged them together into a single chronology. To best understand how this happened, you have to go back and look at the course of Asimov’s career.
The author began writing what would become the Foundation series in 1941, as a science fictional take on Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. His editor at Astounding Science Fiction, John W. Campbell Jr., was enthusiastic about the idea, and sent Asimov away to outline not a short story, but an outline of a much larger future history, to be told in separate installments in the magazine.
Around the same time, Asimov was also finding some success writing a string of stories about robots. In his introduction for his 1990 collection of robot stories, Robot Visions, the writer explained that he wanted to flip the script on the types of robots that he’d grown up reading in pulp magazines: “I determined to write a robot story about a robot that was wisely used, that was not dangerous, and that did the job it was supposed to do.” His first story was “Robbie,” published in 1940, and he followed it up with others, all exploring the safe limitations that the Three Laws placed on robots.
First: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
Second: A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
Third: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Asimov eventually collected the various short stories that made up the Foundation and Robot worlds into two novels. I, Robot brought together nine of those original Robot stories and came out in 1950, while the Foundation stories were released in three volumes called Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation. But he kept the two series separate, noting in his memoir, “If I got tired of one of them (or if the readers did), I could continue with the other with a minimum of troubling overlap. Indeed, I did get tired of the Foundation.”
The Robots and Foundation series catapulted Asimov to incredible fame within science fiction fandom, but he left Foundation behind to turn out more than 30 short stories and novels about robots, including a couple of books about a robot named R. Daneel Olivaw who solved mysteries with detective Elijah Baley in 1954’s Caves of Steel and 1957’s The Naked Sun.
Midway through the 1960s, Asimov ended up taking a bit of a break from writing science fiction novels, but was eventually enticed back in the early 1980s by his publisher, Doubleday. In his memoir, he recounted the scene:
“Isaac, we want you to write a novel for us,” editor Betty Prashker told him. A followup call clarified his marching orders: “When Betty said ‘a novel’, we meant a ‘science fiction novel’; and when we say ‘a science fiction novel’, we mean ‘a Foundation novel.’”
Dutifully, Asimov cracked open his own book and began to think up a continuation of the story, which would eventually become Foundation’s Edge, the fourth installment of the series. When it hit bookstore shelves in 1981, it was an immediate bestseller, prompting Doubleday to have him write another book. He wasn’t particularly interested in returning to the world of Foundation, however, and he opted to return to his Robot series, producing The Robots of Dawn in 1983, which became another bestseller.
As he set about plotting out his fourth Robots book, he decided it was time to begin tying those two universes together, over the objections of his publisher. As “my robots were becoming increasingly advanced with each robot book,” he wrote, their absence in the Foundation universe became more and more pronounced.
In that fourth book, Robots and Empire, Asimov began to explore some of the greater limitations of the Three Laws, and ultimately established a Zeroth Law, one that prompts his robots to look at the greater good of humanity. Over the course of the book, his two robotic protagonists, R. Daneel and R. Giskard Reventlov, established the basic principles of psychohistory, setting up the science that Hari Seldon would later pick up thousands of years later in Foundation.
Afterward, Asimov returned to Foundation for three additional novels: the sequel Foundation and Earth, as well as two prequels, Prelude to Foundation and Forward the Foundation, which detailed Hari Seldon’s early life and how he came to develop psychohistory. Ultimately, Seldon comes face to face with R. Daneel, who was serving as Emperor Cleon I’s chief of staff under the name Eto Demerzel. After learning that Seldon was trying to devise a mathematical method to predict the future of humanity, Demerzel/Daneel tells him that he would like to assist Seldon in an attempt to further the Zeroth Law by developing a method to help protect humanity.
[Ed. note: The rest of this piece contains spoilers for Foundation on Apple TV Plus.]
According to Goyer, as he worked to develop Foundation for Apple, he landed on a rough plan of eight seasons (80 episodes in all), and that there will be some big plot points over the course of that run — if it happens. Speaking with Inverse, Goyer went a bit further, noting that their approach was to essentially remix the original novels, sequels, and prequels. “Some elements from the sequels will be showing up in Season 1,” he says, “and some of the elements from the prequels will be showing up in Season 2.” (Apple has yet to publicly greenlight a second season of Foundation.)
Evidence of those robot stories shows up in the first couple of minutes of Foundation’s second episode, in which Hari Seldon (played by Jared Harris) makes an interesting reference to in-world history: “there’s an apple orchard in the imperial gardens that’s older than the Robot Wars,” he tells Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell), a tantalizing hint of the large world and history that Goyer has set up.
There’s an even more explicit reference to those stories as well, as we meet Demerzel, an advisor to the trio of Emperors, who is revealed in the second episode to be a robot hiding out as a very realistic-looking human.
Goyer explained to Polygon that he has some big things planned for the show’s first season and beyond: “by the end of the first season we’re going to answer many major questions,” he says, “but there are some questions that we’re not going to answer, or there are things that we alluded to, like the Robot Wars, that the plan is we will get into. Hints and Easter eggs that are dropped for future seasons. My hope is that it will also reward multiple viewings.”