'Foundation' Is a Fresh, Expansive Update to a Classic Sci-Fi Series
Co-creator David S. Goyer has a very personal connection to Isaac Asimov's groundbreaking books.
Isaac Asimov's Foundation is not the sort of book you read and wonder, why hasn't this been adapted into a laser-blasting, spaceship-exploding blockbuster space opera yet? The best way to describe the first book in Asimov's centuries-spanning series is "groups of guys sitting in rooms and discussing events that you never actually get to see," which is not exactly material that lends itself to the neon light show sci-fi entertainment we've grown to expect. Foundation, set in the far future of humanity at the beginning of the end of a galaxy-wide empire, feels more like a philosophical parable than a lightsaber battle, with interplanetary warfare and spaceship dogfights mentioned offhand rather than made the center of attention.
That's not the sort of thing you want to hear about an upcoming science fiction television series, but trust that Apple TV+'s adaptation of Foundation has pulled off the unenviable task of adapting the core ideas of what made the books so revolutionary in the first place, while adding new notes of emotion and excitement to expand the world. Co-creator David S. Goyer is no stranger to adapting enormously famous material, having had a hand in penning the Blade trilogy, Christopher Nolan's Batman movies, Man of Steel, and the Constantine TV series, to name a few. Goyer spoke to Thrillist about updating a sci-fi classic for an audience of today, why his adaptation is more of a remix, and the personal connection he happens to have to the series as a whole.
Thrillist: Was Foundation something new for you, or were you already a fan?
David S. Goyer: Like a lot of people, it was kind of my gateway drug into science fiction. My father was a big science fiction fan. Our parents divorced when I was six or something like that. But on my thirteenth birthday, he gave me a copy of the trilogy, it was an omnibus edition, and I hadn't read it yet. And he said, "This is the greatest science fiction work ever written. You need to read it." I was mad at him. I didn't read it until I was about 25. I kind of got it, didn't get all of it, re-read it. And then shortly after 40, actually near the end of his life, we'd been estranged, I went up and saw him before he died. This is all true. He said, "I think you should make Foundation one day." And I said, "Well, it hasn't come my way recently, but if it does again, I'll give it some thought." And he died a week later. Couple years after that, Foundation came my way. So it's very personal. And I found that the book—not to get too heavy—but a lot of people have this crazy personal relationship to the book. It's, for whatever reason, very important to them.
I definitely read it, for the first time, when I was way too young for it.
A lot of people do.
I remember having this huge argument with my friend about it. I was like, I don't get this, I don't understand why it's such a big deal. And then of course, later, I realized that I was wrong.
I feel like if you go in, at least when I was growing up, in certain people's libraries, even serious people, you know, the one set of fantasy books they would have is Lord of the Rings, and only Lord of the Rings. And the one set of science fiction books that they would have in their library, any serious person, was Foundation—but only Foundation. It's just one of those sort of "important" series of books.
It's a hugely famous, hugely influential series, and I know that you've dealt with legacy characters and stories before, but did you feel any special pressure this time around to get it right?
Yeah, of course, there's pressure. And it's good to have that pressure. I mean, fortunately, I'd had the experience of adapting the big, important characters or works prior to that, whether it be Batman or Superman or things like that. And I know that there are purists that will take issue with some of the liberties or choices that we made. But the original novel, which is a collection of short stories, was written in the late '40s, early '50s. And when I talked to the Asimov estate, I said, you know that we're going to have to adapt things. The audience that's consuming it is an audience of today, 70 years removed from when Asimov was writing it. And, fortunately, they were completely open to the changes that I suggested that we make, and they said Asimov himself would have supported them. So, I think it's important to identify what's crucial about the source material, the themes that you have to preserve, and then what you need to change in order for it to reflect the audience of today.
What was that process like for you, to decide, OK, here's what we're going to keep pretty much the same, but here is the stuff that we clearly need to update?
Anytime I adapt an important novel or comic book or things like that, I go through this process, where on a legal pad, I literally write down, "These are the ten themes that I think that are the most important, these are the characters that I think are the most important." And, whenever possible, I have to talk to the creator, or in this case, Asimov's daughter, and say, "I have identified the right elements. Do you agree that these are the right elements?" And before I even come up with a story, that's my process. Those are the things we're going to preserve, that we won't change no matter what. I co-wrote the first couple of episodes, then went back and reread the books, having written the first few episodes, and decided if there's anything we want to tweak. It's a high-wire act.
And it feels like, even from the first couple of episodes, that this is not just the first Foundation. You're doing, potentially, the rest of it.
Later on in his career, Asimov wrote two prequels and two sequels. He never did finish the thousand-year story before he passed away. So, early on, I decided that I was going to pull some elements or even some characters from the prequels and possibly some elements from the sequels. I like to think of it as a remix, which is a phrase that Damon Lindelof coined for his adaptation of Watchmen.
And you bring little elements of the Robot books in there too, right at the beginning.
Those elements were also in Foundation. I mean, later on in his life Asimov decided to connect those two series.
I've only read the first book, so I don't know if this is true for all of them, but the first one is definitely very male-driven.
The show, obviously, isn't. Did you do gender-blind casting for some characters? Or did you switch things around beforehand?
I felt early on that I wanted to gender flip Gaal [played by Lou Llobell] and Salvor [Leah Harvey]. These were two characters specifically that I wanted to gender-flip, and I approached the Asimov estate and said I wanted to do this and were they OK with me doing it? And they were. I would say most of the other characters—most of them, not the Emperors—we cast gender-, race-blind completely, and it was just a question of best actor.
Foundation is, as you said, a collection of short stories, and narratively pretty sparse. The show, by contrast, is definitely more of a space opera with a linear, cohesive narrative.
I think the challenges with the books are, first of all, the significant time jumps in between the short stories in the first book. Certainly in the first book, most of the characters don't continue from one story to another. Hari Seldon's only in the first two stories. Salvor Hardin is in two stories. So, those are the obvious challenges. One of the other challenges is that the books aren't primarily concerned with action. That's not what Asimov was concerned with. So these massive events happen offscreen and in between sentences. The Empire literally falls offscreen in one of the books. They're primarily books about ideas, and books about philosophy and existential questions.
My goal was, because this is a TV series, we're going to have to dramatize some of the events that happen off screen, we're going to have to bring in romance. People tune in because of characters, they care about their fates. The biggest challenge was figuring out how to make it emotional, how to take Asimov's ideas and figure out how I could embody those in the characters. The cleanest example of that is the genetic dynasty, which is something that doesn't exist in the books. Empire is resistant to change. So [co-creator] Josh Friedman and I came up with this notion of what if the Emperors are just clones of the same guy. That's the purest expression not wanting to change, the purest expression of ego, of inflexibility. That led to all these wonderful character moments within the show.
The planet Trantor and especially the inside of the Imperial palace has this very art deco architectural style, which put me in mind of the Roaring Twenties, which of course was the decade right before the Great Depression. Was that intentional at all? Or am I reading way too much into it?
Some of that's intentional. One of the architects that we were drawing references from was an architect named [Carlo] Scarpa. But the decadence of the '20s was absolutely an influence. It's fiddling while Rome burns, you know. The Empire is at the height of its decadence. It's completely florid, while everything is sort of falling apart at the seams. That was absolutely intentional.
In expanding the world for this series, was there a particular character who you were excited to work more with in the story?
Demerzel [Empire's android assistant played by Laura Birn], for sure. In a way, Demerzel is a character that is not in the foreground of the first few episodes, but progressively over the course of the season, I don't know how many episodes you've seen, but certainly by the end, she-slash-it steps into the foreground a bit more. I think of Demerzel as the soul of this show, in many ways. When you're telling a story that is hopefully going to unfold over a thousand years, having a character that is effectively immortal and a robot is helpful for telling that thousand-year story.
The one constant while everything else is changing.
Exactly. Everyone else is a mayfly, and she's the one constant.