Speculative fiction isn’t in a particularly optimistic place these days. Art reflects the environment it’s created in, and currently our science fiction reflects a deep and not entirely unearned fatalism about the future of our civilization, our species, and our planet. So it’s not surprising that Apple TV had to go back to 1951 and the first publishing of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series to find a story where intelligence and forethought will triumph. Not without opposition along the way, of course. But as Dr. Hari Seldon (Jared Harris) says to his young protégé Gaal (Lou Llobell) when she exclaims, “Everything is dying!,” “That doesn’t mean it won’t all work out.”
The Foundation series is governed by an all-encompassing sociological/mathematical model known as psychohistory, a field of study that claims it can utilize behavioral models to accurately tell the future of human civilizations. Perhaps to balance out such an academic premise, the show is a sumptuous production. It is saturated in jewel tones and rich textures. Characters are often shown tiny against their environments, threatening to be consumed by great compositions of shape and movement. It is grand and it is minute; one moment showing a mural that stretches beyond human sight, the next, showing the individual flecks of pigment that dance along its surface. One of the most impressive feats Foundation pulls off is never letting you forget it is individuals affected by galaxy-wide events.
“The Emperor’s Peace” (B+) is bookended by brief vignettes on the planet Terminus. It’s a desolate place where the only entertainment for the local kids appears to be planting flags as close as they can manage to a giant, floating monolith surrounded by a shield that repels all life. What’s this all about? We’ll have to go back 35 years to find out. There, we’re introduced to Gaal, a young woman being led through an ocean-side village where she receives the stink eye from the other residents. She boards a ship where she’s taken to the imperial library on Trantor, the planet at the center of the galactic empire. We learn that she essentially won a math contest by solving some esoteric, poetry equation, and her reward is to learn under the great Dr. Seldon. When she arrives, Hari’s adopted son Raych (Alfred Enoch) brings her to Hari, who tells her they will both most likely be arrested within a day of her arrival. The crime is Hari’s claim that, according to the psychohistorical model he’s constructed, the thousands-year-old galactic empire will collapse within half a century, and without Hari’s intervention, remain in a dark age lasting 30,000 years. The trial provides both a very helpful framework to deliver mounds of necessary exposition, and also displays Jared Harris’ strongest acting. Here we see the full weight of his calculations. Like Darwin crafting the theory of evolution, it’s a truth he does not enjoy, but knows is unavoidable.
This news doesn’t sit well with Brothers Dawn, Day, and Dusk—three genetic clones of the galaxy’s original emperor decanted at different ages to act as the holy trinity overseeing their kingdom. They are collectively known as The Empire, though of course it is Lee Pace’s wonderfully hammy, decadent Day who does most of the decision making for the trio. They place Hari and Gaal on trial for their crime of heresy and find them both guilty.
However, before the pair can be executed, a terrorist plot occurs on the Star Bridge, Trantor’s space travel hub that’s tethered to the planet by a massive space elevator. The destruction of the Bridge is harrowing. It shows the individuals trapped in passage to the planet’s surface breaking free into the upper atmosphere. Worse, the shattered central column of the Bridge collapses onto the planet, cutting deep into the surface and creating a path of violence that kills 100 million people. The attack is seemingly executed by two people: one from Anacreon, one from Thespis, from two warring outer rim planets with ambassadors brokering with The Empire for peace. While both civilizations claim innocence, the attack lends credence to Hari’s prophesy of revolt.
Thus, Hari and Gaal earn a form of clemency. They are exiled from Trantor and sent to Terminus to develop the Foundation project. Absent jump drives, their journey will take five years.
So far, the most interesting aspect of the show is the lopsided conversation it maintains on faith. It establishes early on and doubles down on the parallels between the seeming non-negotiable objectiveness of Hari’s math and faith-based prognostication. Sure, you can check his numbers, but only if you can speak the same specialized language as him. Like Joseph Smith’s golden plates, the prophecy isn’t for everyone to read, only a select, chosen intermediary. As wielded by Hari Seldon, psychohistory blends the hard formula of math with prophecy, and the galactic scale of his vision bears down on each individual within it. And for those who do believe, Hari has been exalted. He is a secular prophet. It all evokes a feeling of spiritual awe. It is literally on a cosmic scale and awakens a response of wonder and terror as great as any biblical vision. But while the series is happy to maintain that tension within the science of psychohistory, it makes sure to still include actual religious faith that exists, so far, only as an expression of the ignorant or violent. It’s not enough that Gaal’s people distrusted her for her love of math and for relinquishing her prayer stones. We also learn that her people maintain a pogrom against all educated people known as “the purge’.” When Gaal seeks out a church on Trantor for comfort the night before she’s to be executed, the priest offers nothing but contempt.
This dichotomy is an easy one to make. As we are now, in the midst of the dissolution of our own democracy at the hands of a bunch of venal white Christian nationalists who embrace anti-science with pride and cruelty, it’s difficult to find the virtue in religion. But if the show is going to continue wrapping its central conceit in the embellishments of faith, it would probably benefit from more thoroughly exploring why those embellishments are so provocative.
After spending much of the first episode on the macro, “Preparing to Live” (B) is a much more intimate affair, transitioning from a grand treatise to a more human scale, space-pioneering episode as the characters now have to deal with consequence of their decisions. For Hari and his hand-picked crew, it’s being on a four-and-a-half-year long voyage to Terminus and the significant time that provides for doubt about their mission to creep in. For the Empire, it’s how to react to the debilitating act of terrorism they suffered. On the ship, the crew runs series of mini-pyschohistorical models to test their preparedness to live on a planet as harsh as Terminus. This includes a monster-and-mine-explosion simulation that doesn’t provide much other than adding some action to the crew’s otherwise explosion-free mixture of interpersonal dynamics and math fetishism. Paired with the brutal attack on the black market geneticist at the beginning of the episode, one gets the feeling series creators David S. Goyer and Josh Friedman fear there’s an inherent lack of dynamism in the story. If you are predisposed to enjoy black-op raids and monster attacks, they were both fun additions, but neither offered much beyond comforting bombast.
It’s established early on in the episode that Gaal and Raych have become lovers. Other than Raych suggesting Gaal turn on Hari in order to save herself in the first episode, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of chemistry connecting the two. But there are a lot of things that happen in this episode that feel more driven by the necessity of the story than actual human reactions to things.
Interestingly, some of the show’s most compelling moments occur with The Empire. Brother Dusk, taking over mural maintenance duties from the servant Day murdered in the previous episode, suffers an accident that appears to be brought on by either age or genetic obsolescence. This incident propels a significant amount of introspection for Dusk. First, he visits the scar left by the broken space bridge tether. He meets with the priest who refused to administer to Gaal in the previous episode and it’s apparent the two have history together. Dusk noticed the priest at Hari’s trial, but the priest refuses to offer up why he was present.
Facing his own mortality, Dusk begins to internalize the inevitability of Hari’s predictions. He and Day have a creepy argument around the vacuum-sealed display of their genetic originator before Dusk demands to see the Anachrean and Thespan delegates. He explains to them that there is a likely chance that both are innocent, but it doesn’t matter. The predictable forces of inertia and revenge will result in them being killed. Day proves this true. Openly exploiting Dawn’s fear, he justifies staging a mass execution of the delegates while simultaneously bombing their planets. It is the predictable sequence of revenge and retaliation that fits exactly into Hari’s psychohistorical model.
The episode culminates with Raych’s apparent murder of Hari, which only deepens the religious parallels of psychohistory. Earlier during the dinner scene, he was already showing anger with Hari for his mentor’s dismissive and poorly remembered history of Raych’s family. While his agitation foreshadowed some break between him and his adoptive father, it was an abrupt shift over the course of one episode from nothing, to anger, to assassination. So now Raych is Judas, and Hari will only be speaking to his faithful from beyond the grave. Raych’s motives are unclear at this point. Specifically, we see him yanking some doodad from behind Hari’s ear. But less clue-oriented than that detail, Hari was noticeably walking through this entire episode in a state of distraction. He alluded to his time alive after exile as a gift, and in retrospect, seemed to be bracing himself for his fate.
How that fate concerns Gaal is another matter. After the murder, Raych thrusts her into an escape pod that fills up with a disturbing mixture of embryonic fluid and Hari’s blood, before she’s jettisoned into the stars. It’s a hell of a lot to wrap up just the second episode. But the show has proven itself to be thoughtful and well-crafted so far, and I remain excited to see where the rest of the season goes.
- Hi! I’m Nick and thanks for joining me for Foundation recaps! I have never read any of the Foundation books. I started reading the first one in eighth grade, but was quickly distracted by some Dragonlance novels. So forgive me if I miss details or connections from the books.
- The faster-than-light ship at the beginning was truly gorgeous. The way the fully-powered drive mimics the event horizon of a black hole is just stunning visuals.
- I like Gaal’s Good Will Hunting-esque backstory. Space janitor solves space equation no other space student could solve. How do you like them space apples?
- Brother Day always wears the armor of the conqueror. While Dawn and Dusk both favor robes with the high, golden collars, Day only presents himself clad in the warrior’s garb depicted in the great mural.
- While I’m a little down on the show’s depiction of religion, the rituals they created for Gaal’s people are very cool. The prayer stones embedded in their cheeks so God may see them, and the ritual to have them removed all felt very thoughtful and lived-in.
- Another parallel between faith and science is how Gaal will recite prime numbers to herself as a mantra or rosary in contrast to the terrorist who sang a brief song before detonating his bomb.
- Brother Dawn has a close and complicated relationship with Demerzel, The Empire’s majordomo/enforcer who is also an android. She alludes to having been around since the robot wars, which, according to Asimov’s own shared universe timeline, puts her origins somewhere around the I, Robot era. I wonder how many generations of Dawns she’s nurtured?
- There seems to be a point of surrounding Hari with elements of the natural world to show how the chance and design of biological structures match psychohistory. Even the floating model of Hari’s calculations contains an element similar to a starling’s murmuration.