The Medium and the Message
Apple TV+’s series, based on Isaac Asimov’s sci-fi novels, isn’t perfect. But its format positions it to succeed.
Two of science fiction’s most beloved texts are hitting screens this fall.
If you’d time-traveled back to the 1960s to tell readers that both Foundation and Dune would be incredibly relevant to the pop culture of 2021, they probably would not have believed you.
All those decades ago, Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert were living legends in the field of speculative fiction. In the fall of 2021, it’s very likely more people will be interested in Dune than Foundation — for the simple reason that Dune is hitting theaters as a star-studded blockbuster. In contrast, Foundation is airing on Apple TV+ as a challenging sci-fi epic.
That said, Foundation’s ambitious format offers proof that Dune could have (and perhaps should have) worked on the small screen.
Here’s why Foundation demonstrates that major, long-running sci-fi series are best-suited to television. Very mild spoilers ahead for both Dune and Foundation.
The saga of Foundation spans seven books, and the Apple TV+ adaptation plans to cover that ground over at least four or five seasons.
In the fictional world first established by Isaac Asimov, at least 1,000 years of future history are covered; the goal of this Foundation series is to do justice to that massive scope. Foundation’s ambition in this sense might make the series feel unwieldy to casual viewers. Unlike Battlestar Galactica, the characters in Foundation exist across not only several decades but also many locations. Drawing on Asimov’s prequels (including Prelude to Foundation), the first season feels like a prologue to a true Foundation series.
In other words, Foundation offers a masterclass in seeing how sci-fi can slowly and carefully build a world. If something doesn’t make sense in the first two episodes, that’s okay; the show counts on your patience. That’s the series’ greatest strength — and what makes it inaccessible.
Watching Foundation, paradoxically, can feel like reading Frank Herbert’s Dune. It’s meditative and deliberate — which, funnily enough, is not the experience you’d have reading Asimov’s Foundation books. Asimov didn’t write the first few Foundation novels with any plan, and so many of them comprise interconnected short stories. Reading them is a much more narratively jarring experience than watching the series. Asimov was also significantly less forward-thinking in writing non-male characters, which again makes the TV series an improvement. In short, Foundation also makes good use of a visual medium — and the current trend of heavily serialized storytelling in big-budget TV.
Foundation is not entirely better than Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part One. Personally, as visual storytellers, this writer thinks Villeneuve has Foundation’s David S. Goyer beat. Dune is mind-blowing; as Inverse’s early review of the film summarizes, it’s an “epic sci-fi masterpiece.” But Dune also has a huge problem: we’re not exactly sure when and if its sequel will be made. This matters especially because the first Dune won’t even cover all of Herbert’s first book.
Critics have already spoken about the “abrupt” ending of Dune: Part One, which might make audiences feel as if they’re watching the beginning of a vast epic without a guaranteed resolution. Unlike when The Fellowship of the Ring arrived back in 2001, nobody knows whether Dune: Part Two will get made. The expected strength of the international box office indicates there probably will be a Dune: Part Two, but the uncertainty is worrying all the same.
This new Dune could indeed be the best science fiction film of the 21st century. But without a sequel (and realistically, one more movie beyond that), it would feel incomplete. In 2020, original Dune star Kyle MacLachlan said he thought “a long-running TV series is probably the best bet” for adapting Herbert’s novel. Now that a risky Dune film franchise is nearly upon us, his words feel shockingly prescient.
Dune could be perceived as perfect in every way, and it will still be incomplete unless a sequel is made. Meanwhile, if Foundation gets canceled before it completes its ambitious five-season goal, it will still have covered more ground in terms of adapting its source material.
That’s not to say quantity is more important than quality — but it does mean significant sci-fi adaptations may need to hop between mediums in order to survive. Even Star Wars — the juggernaut of all sci-fi franchises — has proven the galaxy far, far away may work better on TV than it does in theaters. Star Trek, the franchise that pioneered TV science fiction as a mainstream art form, has also since 2017 moved primarily back to the small screen, after the mixed success of its reboot trilogy. Trek producer Alex Kurtzman has often said he believes “the line between movies and television is gone.” Foundation’s Goyer might agree with him.
But Villeneuve doesn’t want sci-fi TV to replace massive cinematic experiences. When Warner Bros. announced that Dune would stream on HBO Max and hit theaters on the same day, its director wrote a scathing op-ed in Variety, saying that he didn’t feel streaming would work for Dune.
“Streaming services are a positive and powerful addition to the movie and TV ecosystems,” Villeneuve wrote. “But I want the audience to understand that streaming alone can’t sustain the film industry as we knew it before… Streaming can produce great content, but not movies of Dune’s scope and scale.”
Is he right? Setting the various Star Wars and Star Trek shows aside, The Expanse, For All Mankind, and Foundation all seem to prove that epic scale can exist on the small screen. Whether that means the actual art is “better” on TV or in theaters is up for debate. But for the sci-fi junkie, there certainly is more to see on TV right now than at the movies.
Villeneuve seemingly still plans to direct the pilot episode of HBO Max’s spinoff series Dune: The Sisterhood. If Foundation has proven anything, it’s that this kind of major event series can work. Will we eventually see Dune shift to the small screen as well?
Foundation is streaming on Apple TV. New episodes drop on Fridays. Dune hits theaters in the US and HBO Max on October 22, 2021.
The Medium and the Message