Apple's Foundation a spectacular slow-burn

Foundation, M, 65-minute episodes. Apple TV+. Four stars

The new streaming services have changed the shape of the world's film industry, and how we consume screen content, but I appreciate the approach Apple has taken since launching its Apple TV+ network. Unlike Netflix, which is content to throw billions of dollars at hundreds of new films and series every year and hoping that some of them are actually good, Apple has taken a "cautious cautious" approach. It produces only a handful of new films or shows but, like its computers, they're well made.

Along comes a big-ticket item like Foundation and it all seems worthwhile.

Apple has sensibly licensed the novel by grandfather of science fiction writing Isaac Asimov - in fact a series of short stories published in 1951 as a novel and later expanded into a literary juggernaut of sequels - which allows them years of content to pursue if this first series finds itself an audience.

There is a galactic empire of many thousands of planets ruled by Cleon I (Lee Pace), ruled in fact by a series of clones of the original Cleon across hundreds of years.

The Cleons are a violent lot, and so their empire is dominated by fear as much as by wise rule, but their control is threatened when mathematician Hari Seldon (Jared Harris) develops a formula that predicts the collapse of the empire.

Fearful that he is right, but fearful that killing him might turn him into a martyr and prove his predictions correct, they exile Hari and his followers to the distant planet of Terminus.

On Terminus, the colonists, or "Encyclopaedists", believe in Hari's predictions of the collapse of civilisation and are preserving the best of contemporary knowledge so that when civilisation returns in thousands of years, it might start well informed and not from scratch.

The Encyclopaedists don't know who they are preserving history for, what language the future generations will speak, how they'll count, what planets they'll live on, and need to guess at what should be preserved and what could be let go.

While that doesn't sound too interesting as an evolving plot, Terminus came with a mysterious alien artefact already in place that may or may not pose an existential threat to everything they're building.

There is Apple money in this production and every cent of it is up on screen. Remember the days when sci-fi meant location shooting in the desert outside of Los Angeles, and every alien world looked the same? The series was shot on Malta and Tenerife, brilliant volcanic landscapes that support the series' world building.

World building can be an issue when it comes to sci-fi. Long ponderous descriptions and expositions in fantasy literature to create these new planets and new civilisations different to our own are often the reason fantasy literature runs over into so many hundreds (thousands sometimes) of pages. A lot of this occurs in the first two episodes, but by episode three we settle into a familiar location and a reasonable number of storylines.

Leah Harvey in Foundation. Picture: Apple TV+

Leah Harvey in Foundation. Picture: Apple TV+

But as we arrive to this point - with new episodes released each Friday across a first-season order of 10 episodes - the set design, the costuming, the CGI and artistry involved in that world building is the reason to invest your time. Some of the worlds we visit are pulled right from the pages of Tekhnika Molodezhi, the Russian science publication whose futuristic cover illustrations inspired the cosmonauts of the 1960s.

But this world building does produce long ponderous scenes, and pace can be an issue at times in the screenplay from show runners David S. Goyer and Josh Friedman. Between them, they're responsible for the writing on huge franchise productions - Sarah Connor Chronicles, a few of the Batman films, Snowpiercer - and so I'm prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt.

The cast is enormous though characters seem to die off at a rapid pace, just surviving long enough to progress segments of the plot. The talent behind the camera is also impressive, plenty of names familiar from Game of Thrones and thus familiar with trying to rein in a hurricane of plot, exposition, CGI creatures and extras who look like they haven't taken a bath in eight weeks.

This story Sci-fi a spectacular slow-burn first appeared on The Canberra Times.