A space opera is a delicate balancing act. In its later seasons, “The Expanse” found a way to keep each individual storyline rich and memorable while maintaining a solid overall arc in masterful fashion. With “The Expanse” concluded, “Raised by Wolves” canceled and the “Battlestar Galactica” re-reboot on ice, there are few shows left that dare to tackle science fiction on an intergalactic scale.
The Apple TV+ drama “Foundation” is well on its way to carving its own space in this niche, but still lacks the writing finesse that brought “Andor” so much critical praise last year.
Based on the iconic science fiction book series written by Isaac Asimov, “Foundation” took major creative liberties from its source material to adapt a famously unadaptable series with a massive, time-bending scale to television. Its first season received mixed reviews, and the second season more or less continues on that same trajectory.
Let’s be clear: the show is still stunning to watch. Its visual effects and attention to production design detail justify the two-year wait between seasons. Everything from object design to the spaceships and costuming feels unique, and carved out of a budget that must have stretched Apple’s deep pockets. There is no shortage in diversity of sets and locations, including even more underwater scenes and explosions than before. There is little to pick apart visually in a show that looks this good.
Unfortunately, the show continues to drag on matters of character and basic cause-and-effect plotting.
A show can only pull the rug from the audience’s feet so many times before the viewer begins to lean away from believing what they are watching. “Foundation” utilizes this bait and switch one too many times over the second season: something shocking happens, and the twist is the reveal that the thing did not in fact occur, followed by lengthy exposition by a character describing what really happened. By the last “twist,” it starts to feel like the show doesn’t trust its viewer to believe the stakes as they are.
The second season picks up where we left off: Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell) waking up from stasis on her flooded home planet 138 years into the future and coming face-to-face with her daughter Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey), now older than she is. In this future, Hari Seldon’s (an always fantastic Jared Harris) predictions for the state of the Empire-controlled galaxy are already materializing: the Empire’s sphere of influence is weakening, and the 16th generation clones of its original ruler are increasingly breaking with tradition and balking at their slow loss of power. The Second Crisis is upon us.
There is plenty of momentum and urgency as the mother-daughter pair explore their clairvoyant abilities and try to use Seldon’s psychohistory predictions to prevent impending catastrophe. They eventually meet a mysterious group with psionic abilities led by Tellem Bond (Rachel House), where things go slightly off the rails. In this multi-episode arc, telepathic abilities only seem to be accessible by characters when it’s convenient for the plot. That said, Llobell and Harvey are fantastic together and carry the stunt-heavy material extremely well.
Back at the royal palace on Trantor, the pace is much, much slower. It takes far too many episodes for the intentions of the sharp-witted Queen Sareth of Cloud Dominion (Ella-Rae Smith) to become clear as Brother Day (Lee Pace) picks her to be the wife that will break the genetic dynasty and carry his biological children.
After the events of last season, when one of the clones tried to break away from the dynasty unsuccessfully to seek his own romantic path, it becomes hard to believe the table is being shaken beyond repair on royal matters. After all, we’re constantly reminded there are clones on ice in case they need replacing. But Day is certainly at his most chaotically arrogant (he has an earring now because he’s edgy), while Brother Dawn (Cassian Bilton) and Dusk (Terrence Mann) have less than compelling side plots.
The star of the royal show this season is Demerzel (Laura Birn), the unstoppable robot with unshakable loyalty who engages in an odd sexual relationship with Day. Her backstory and motivations are explored in depth this season and serves as a great performance for Birn, who has to straddle the nuances of showing emotion as an android.
This season does satisfy the need for answers on multiple fronts from loose threads introduced in the first season, particularly on backstories for characters like Demerzel and Seldon, and brings welcome depth to different races within the galaxy like the Spacers. Unfortunately some of these threads are more compelling than others. In a story spanning multiple centuries, it’s hard to understand how some storylines are truly relevant to the bigger picture — like one depicting Brother Dusk’s sex life, for example.
There are also a small handful of new characters introduced, like the magicians (Kulvinder Ghirand and Isabella Laughland) who are spreading the Foundation’s gospel as a way to convert more planets to their anti-Empire cause. The magicians are asked by the Seldon to seek out Hober Mallow (Dimitri Leonidas), a grifter and scammer who provides levity with comic relief and one-liners. These characters are welcome additions but leave the rest of descendants of the Foundation, who were key players in the first season, underdeveloped.
“Foundation” has all of the raw materials to become one of the best sci-fi shows on television, but at times gets lost on where the show’s stakes should be grounded. There is an increase in romantic pairings this season, some of them compelling and tied up with the plot — like the show’s first gay couple — and others, melodramatic and time consuming.
The show doesn’t shock in the way of “Game of Thrones,” opting to play safe within the sandbox of sci-fi cliché, despite source material that is anything but basic. Just like the first season, it feels like it’s getting closer, and certainly more immersive than the “Halo” television series, but is still not quite there. Luckily, it’s dripping with production value and excellent performances, enough to hold things together when the show’s writing fails to deliver.
“Foundation” returns on Friday, July 14, on Apple TV+.