I’m still not sure, if this will be an ongoing series of episode by episode reviews, but I did watch the second episode of Foundation on this shit show of an election night. Reviews of previous episodes (well, just one so far) as well as two actual Foundation stories may be found here BTW.
But before we get to Foundation, I wanted to let you know that I’m over at Galactic Journey again today for a joint article in appreciation of Cele Goldsmith Lalli, editor of Amazing Stories and Fantastic from 1958 to 1965 and editor of Modern Bride for a long time thereafter.
My colleague John Boston, Galactic Journey‘s resident Amazing reviewer, focusses on Cele Goldsmith Lalli’s career at Ziff-Davis Magazines in general and how she turned around the fortunes of that old warhorse Amazing and its younger cousin Fantastic. My half of the article focusses specifically on Cele Goldsmith Lalli’s role in bringing about the sword and sorcery revival of the 1960s, because she published sword and sorcery in Fantastic, when no one else would. Cele Goldsmith Lalli also rescued Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser from oblivion, introduced John Jakes’ Brak the Barbarian and Roger Zelazny’s (Zelazny was one of several authors Cele Goldsmith Lalli discovered) Dilvish the Damned and even published one of Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories.
So in short, Cele Goldsmith Lalli was a highly influential editor and one who should be better remembered.
And now on to the second episode of Foundation, which has nothing whatsoever to do with the books, largely because it covers a period of time that the book skips over, namely the long journey of those who will eventually become the Foundation to Terminus. In the book, the story only starts up again 35 years after the Foundation settles on Terminus and skips the trip there as well as the early pioneer years.
Since episode 2 covers ground that the book doesn’t, writers Josh Friedman and David S. Goyer have a lot of liberty regarding what to do. Mostly, they use this liberty wisely – except for one baffling and utterly infuriating decision near the end of the episode.
Warning. Spoilers beyond the cut!
The episode follows two different narrative strands. One is the journey of the Foundation members to Terminus, the other the investigation who is behind the terrorist attack on Trantor’s space elevator in the last episode.
On Trantor, the Imperial Triumvirate and their aide Demerzel are still trying to figure out who is behind the terrorist attack on the space elevator, which left 100 million people dead. And so the episode opens with Demerzel overseeing the torture of a woman who runs an illegal biohacking lab and implanted the bombs into the terrorists. However, the clues don’t lead anywhere.
The most likely suspects are the delegations from the rim kingdoms of Anacreon and Thesbis, since the terrorists sang a hunting song and said a prayer in their respective languages. However, in endless interrogations, the heads of the delegations keep claiming that they’re innocent and know nothing.
Brother Day doesn’t believe them. Brother Dusk does, but also knows that they will be executed for the crime anyway, because a culprit is needed and who cares if it’s the right one. Young Brother Dawn just finds the whole thing deeply disturbing.
There’s also a subplot that Brother Dusk finds his health declining. He heads to the destroyed sections of Trantor and goes to see a priest of the religious fanatics of Synnax, who of course survived the attack. Brother Dusk wants to know if the priest can foresee the future and if Gaal Dornick can, but gets no satisfying answers.
While Brother Dusk goes to see the priest, parts of the unstable ruins collapse. Brother Dusk is unhurt, but Demerzel is hit in the shoulder by a fragment, which leads to repair scene which reveals that she is a robot. We also learn that the Emperors know what Demerzel is as well as a bit about the “robot wars”, which ended with the humans destroying all robots not named Demerzel a.k.a. Daneel.
Unless it turns out that the robots were innocently persecuted, this moment is a bit eye-rolly, because a robot uprising is not possible in Asimov’s universe due to a little thing known as the Three Laws of Robotics.
If I hadn’t read the books, I would assume that the most likely culprit for the terrorist attack (because the fall guys from Anacreon and Thesbis clearly didn’t do it) is Demerzel herself, probably to get revenge for the robot wars. At any rate, all signs point at her. Though I really hope they won’t go that route, because it would completely undermine Daneel’s character.
Meanwhile, Brother Day decides to channel his inner Ronan the Accuser (who is of course Lee Pace’s other great space opera role) and mete out Imperial justice on Anacreon and Thesbis who are deemed responsible for the attack, even though they most likely are not. And so he stages a public execution for the edification of the public on the site where the stalk of the space elevator hit Trantor.
First, Brother Day has both Thesbis and Anacreon bombed in retaliation for the terrorist attacks and forces the delegates to watch a holographic projection of the bombings. Because bombing random planets is absolutely the way to go when you want to prevent your Galactic Empire from falling apart. Never mind that Anacreon and Thesbis are still needed for future installments, so don’t bomb them too much. Also, I wonder what impact the bombing of Anacreon and Thesbis will have on future developments. Is the reason that Anacreon and Thesbis no longer have Imperial technology (cause I’m pretty sure they won’t go with nuclear power in the series, cause that bit was outdated even by the time I first read the books in the late 1980s post-Chernobyl) by the time of “The Encyclopedists” and “The Mayors” that they had the shit bombed out of them?
After the bombings, Brother Day has all members of the two delegations except for the two leaders hanged in the ruins of Trantor. The twitching bodies of the sworn enemies hanged side by side certainly makes for a great spectacle, however, the whole thing feels off. Because whenever someone is threatened with execution in Foundation or any other Asimov science fiction story, the execution method is either the gas chamber, as in “The Wedge”, or lethal injection, a fate that Hari Seldon himself and Dors Venabili narrowly escape, when the violate the taboos of some religious fanatics in Prelude to Foundation. This pattern is very notable. In Asimov’s work, executions – when mentioned – are always by gas chamber or lethal injection. I suspect it’s because Asimov was a chemist and probably felt those were the best methods to kill people.
But of course, gas chambers or lethal injection are not nearly as photogenic as people kicked from some kind of concrete platform and twitching and kicking at the end of a rope, while the citizens of Trantor applaud. As deviations go, it’s also fairly minor.
Brother Dawn is not a fan of public executions, so Demerzel assures him that being Emperor won’t require making such decisions all the time, that most of the time there are no public executions. “How often do we have to do this?” a disturbed Brother Dawn asks. “You do this every single time”, Demerzel replies, which sure sounds ominous.
The 9/11 parallels in the Trantor scene are very notable, from the shots of the ruined city to Brother Dusk declaring that he can smell and taste the ashes of the dead – something that residents of Lower Manhattan reported after 9/11. And of course there are the retaliatory attacks on two random planets/countries, which are not actually responsible, but look guilty enough.
9/11 parallels have become a lot less common compared to the early 2000s, when every science fiction show on the air had to have one. The new Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek Enterprise are probably the worst culprits. Is a blatant 9/11 analogue appropriate for Foundation? Well, Isaac Asimov was a near lifelong New Yorker, though he was actually born Petrovichi, then Soviet Union, and emigrated to the US with his family at the age of 3. Had Asimov lived longer (he died in 1992 of AIDS, having contracted HIV from a blood transfusion in 1983), he might well have experienced the September 11, 2001 attacks. He would have been 81 then and he would certainly have had opinions. So I don’t think that Asimov would have objected to the 9/11 parallels in the show, even though they’re not in the book for obvious reasons.
In general, the Trantor scenes are interesting and visually impressive, though they have next to nothing to do with the books. We already know that Lee Pace is good at playing Galactic tyrants and his Brother Day is a step up from Ronan the Accuser, because Pace manages to find the balance between his harsh public persona and the private persona which shows tenderness towards Brother Dusk and particularly young Brother Dawn, who are the only real family he has. Laura Birn will never be my idea of Daneel, but her take on Demerzel is quietly sinister.
The whole clone dynasty plot still feels as if it wandered in from a completely different book. But the idea of a perpetual dynasty of white male rulers who are all the same person and manage to reproduce without any women at all is a very golden age science fiction thing. I suspect John W. Campbell would have approved as would teenaged Isaac Asimov who wrote outraged letters to the science fiction magazine of the 1930s that he wanted no women in his SF, thank you very much. Adult Asimov was quite embarrassed by those letters.
The other plot strand follows the colonists who will one day become the Foundation on their multi-year (because the Empire wouldn’t give them a jump ship) trip to Terminus. In the books, the original settlers of Terminus are a bunch of nerds who want to assemble the greatest encyclopaedia of all time. In true 1940s style, no attention is paid to how those nerds will keep warm, where the power comes from, who’ll cook their meals and wash their clothes and how they’ll survive on an inhospitable planet.
The series attempts to remedy that and shows us the laundry workers of the Foundation, the guards of the Foundation (who barely know where to aim their rifles), the reproduction medtechs of the Foundation and the miners of the Foundation. In general, this is a good thing. That said, the fact that many, if not most of the people aboard that ship are not nerdy encyclopedists but regularly folks makes Hari Seldon seem even more like a sinister cult leader leading his followers to the promised land of
Jonestown Terminus. Now the fact that the Foundation does come across like a fanatic cult is something that even comes across in the original stories, as I noted in my review of “The Wedge”. It’s even more apparent in the series, especially since according to calculations, more than thirty percent of the colonists will die within a few years. “Well, at least the percentage is dropping”, Hari Seldon exclaims with inappropriate cheer.
Because the colonists have a lot of time on the ship, they occupy themselves by using the holodeck to train for all sorts of work someone will have to do while on Terminus. And so we are treated to a simulation where a group of nerds cosplaying as miners are attacked by a monster called “Bishop’s claw” and all die. That scene is probably supposed to inject some action into the otherwise quite talky shipboard scene, but it also made me grit my teeth, because there are no aliens in Foundation and in Asimov’s science fiction in general. And while the Bishop’s Claw is just a random monster and not intelligent, it still doesn’t fit here, because unlike the Star Wars universe, Foundation is not set in a universe where every random cave is inhabited by a monster. Nor do I think Asimov would have approved since he was not a fan of the bug-eyed monsters of early science fiction.
When the colonists are not playing simulations or sitting in meetings about the encyclopaedia (nice moment where Gaal points out that the worlds of the Empire can’t even decide on a unified number system), they do what a lot of humans cooped up on a cramped spaceships over long period of time do – they fall in love, have relationships and have sex.
The latter is a problem – no, not because John W. Campbell’s editorial assistant Kay Tarrant is lurking somewhere in the background, eager to exercise any hint of impropriety from the stories published in Astounding/Analog – but because a baby boom on a spaceship with limited resources is not a good idea. Never mind that the radiation of deep space may harm fetuses. And so the reproductive medtechs of the Foundation extract eggs and embryos from female members of the Foundation to freeze them for later use. This seems like a sensible policy, until one of Gaal’s friends manages to get pregnant from a one-night stand and decides that she wants to have the baby now, because who knows if she’ll survive Terminus. Gaal tries to talk her out of it and apparently succeeds, because the next time we see the young woman in question, she’s drinking wine, hinting that she is no longer pregnant.
Meanwhile – to the surprise of no one except Hari Seldon who can be mightily blind for someone who can calculate the future – Gaal Dornick and Seldon’s adopted son Raych end up in a relationship. There are two sex scenes, which will satisfy the folks who want Foundation to be more like Game of Thrones* and which will make Kay Tarrant rotate in her grave. Gaal and Raych also talk of building a cabin together and having kids, once they reach Terminus.
This sounds so nice and idyllic that something has to go wrong and so of course, something does. Because Hari Seldon, it turns out, is not at all happy about the relationship between Raych and Gaal. It’s not quite sure why, because he’s clearly fond of both Raych and Gaal. Gaal suggests that Hari might be jealous and indeed, that’s a possibility, because some of the looks Hari gives Gaal are not very paternal. Not to mention that Hari watching her swim (and Gaal swims a lot in the ship’s swimming pool) is kind of creepy. Honestly, I’d hoped that we would leabe Asimov’s occasionally dirty old man moments to the books, especially since this one never even happened in the books?
Raych, meanwhile, claims that Seldon doesn’t like relationships in general, because he believes they distract people from what is important, namely the plan. Now there are Asimov characters who really do view relationships as an unnecessary distraction – Susan Calvin is the most notable example and my teenaged self loved her for it.
However, Hari Seldon is never portrayed as anti-relationship anywhere in the books. Book Hari marries Dors Venabili and adopts Raych. And book Raych is married as well and has a daughter called Wanda. Hari Seldon is very fond of his granddaughter. In the books, Hari Seldon clearly has no problem with people, including people close to him, having relationships.
TV Hari, however, is not at all pleased that Raych and Gaal are in a relationship and so he behaves like a jerk and publicly recounts the story of how he caught young Raych trying to steal books to support his alcoholic father, which clearly embarrasses Raych.
Raych is understandably pissed off, but nothing about the exchange seems like more than a regular parent-child argument. And indeed, Raych ensures Gaal that they have this same argument every two years or so.
However, the next time Gaal goes swimming and counting prime numbers in the ship’s pool (which for some reason is always empty when she’s in there), she has a premonition that something awful is going to happen. And come to think of it, Gaal also claimed that something was wrong with the space elevator moments before it exploded. So is Gaal a precog? Psionics do exist in the Foundation universe (well, the stories were published in John W. Campbell’s Astounding, so of course psionics are a thing), though only as telepathy. They also don’t show up until book 2, when they do so in an explosive fashion.
At any rate, a spooked Gaal clambers out of the pool and races to Hari Seldon’s quarters, where she finds Hari bleeding out on the floor with a stab wound in his chest, while Raych is standing over him with a knife in his hand. And yes, the knife is Raych’s – since we see him with it in the first episode.
So Raych Seldon has just murdered his adoptive father because of what’s essentially an argument over a girl. I’m sorry, but what the fuck…? This not only doesn’t happen in the books, it also makes zero sense. Though at least I now know which scene so infuriated Rob Bricken of io9 that he wanted to tear his TV to pieces. And yes, I sympathise.
For starters, Hari and Raych are fond of each other. They are fond of each other in the books and in the TV show, until Hari randomly decides to be a jerk because of reasons. And yes, Hari Seldon never reaches Terminus. The books imply that he died of old age and indeed, book Hari is a lot older – in his 80s or even 90s – than TV Hari, who is played by 60-year-old Jared Harris. And while it’s possible that book Hari did get murdered after all, he certainly wasn’t killed by Raych, since Raych is dead at that point. Also, if Hari gets murdered by the end of episode 2, will he have enough time to record all of those holographic pronouncements which will enliven the rest of the series?
Once Gaal stumbles upon Raych standing over the body of his father, a bloody knife in his hand, Raych grabs her and drags her to the nearest escape pod (amazingly, no one even tries to stop them, even though they’re on a packed colony ship), shoves her in, puts her in suspended animation and shoots her out into an asteroid field, because of reasons. Honestly, the only explanation for Raych’s behaviour is that he had a sudden psychotic break.
From a narrative POV, I can see why they would put Gaal in suspended animation, so they can keep the character around longer than she would normally be. As for killing off Hari, murder at the hand of his adoptive son makes for a more dramatic cliffhanger than dying in bed of old age. But it still doesn’t fit the spirit of the books at all. The Foundation people are nerdy encyclopedists, not killers. Not to mention that the Foundation has just lost the only two people capable of understanding and interpreting the Seldon plan. Luckily, all the real work is done by the Second Foundation back on Trantor.
It seems to me as if the producers are scared of making Foundation the way it should be made, as a series of largely self-contained stories with a completely different cast each episode or two and Hari Seldon and maybe the Emperors Three as the only continuing characters. Personally, I think that people would watch that – after all, people are happily watching anthology shows like Black Mirror, Love, Death + Robots, Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams and all of those American Something or Other Story shows. Because audiences in general are smarter than Hollywood producers give them credit for. And the fact that the Foundation series has been read and enjoyed by countless people who had zero issues with its episodic structure shows that audiences have no problem with this format. Just as they have no problem accepting that Foundation is not an action packed story. It does have cliffhangers – several in fact – but they’re usually a character saying “Now I have the solution” or the memorable “Stars in heaven, now I know” and not bloody murders.
Of course, there currently is a flurry of comments on Twitter by people who not only bounced hard off Foundation, when they tried to read it, but who also seem to be personally offended by the existence of the books and their continuing popularity, which they view as an attempt to exclude them personally from the genre for not liking Foundation.
Now I have no problem with people not liking Foundation. There are plenty of beloved books I don’t care for. I also have no problem with people whose gateway into the genre was not Foundation or another SF classic such as Heinlein’s juveniles, but something completely different. There are as many gateways into the genre as there are fans and all of them are valid.
However, what annoys me is the standard narrative of a budding female fan who is urged to read Foundation by a male relative, bounces hard off the books, because they are so sterile, male, white and sexist and decides that science fiction is not for her. Until she chances to read Ursula K. Le Guin (or maybe Octavia Butler, but mostly Le Guin) and realises that science fiction does not have to be stale and male and sterile. Therefore, Foundation is bad and the only people who like it are old white man.
Now I was a budding female fan, when I found Asimov and Foundation during a long stopover at Athens airport in the late 1980s. No one handed the books to me – my parents didn’t read SF – I found them on my own, because it was the only science fiction novel in the spinner rack at the airport bookstore. Nor was Foundation the first SF book I read. I’d read Star Wars novelisations and Anne McCaffrey before and of course, I’d loved plenty of media science fiction. However, Foundation literally blew my mind. It blew my mind so much that I forgot the stuffy airport with the broken air conditioning system or the fact that I had a shitty aisle seat on the plane, next to some woman who kept drinking hard alcohol and just behind the curtain that separated business class an economy, a curtain that the flight attendant would always sweep into my face, while passing. Because the book was just so good. It was so good that I ran out and bought everything by Asimov I could get my hands on except for his non-fiction and the Black Widowers mysteries.
The fact that there were so few women in Foundation didn’t bother me, probably because I read Prelude to Foundation first, which does have female characters. The whiteness did not register, because Asimov hardly ever describes his characters anyway and I never viewed all of them as white. The fact that the characters are cardboard didn’t bother me either, though in retrospect a lot of what I thought I remembered about the characters only existed in my head, so my imagination supplied what Asimov did not. And the sterility, i.e. the relative unimportance of romantic relationships and yes, sex, was actually a plus, because sixteen-year-old Cora was not particularly interested in reading about romance and not at all interested in reading about sex.
As I said above, everybody’s gateway into the genre is different. And while Foundation wasn’t the gateway for me – that honour belongs to Star Wars, Star Trek, Raumpatrouille Orion and the Captain Future anime – the books were very important to me once. And yes, I accept that many people don’t like them, but please don’t dismiss my experience as someone to whom those books once meant a lot.
After discovering Foundation, I read a lot of SF, mostly classics from the 1940s and 1950s, which were still readily available in print at the time. And yes, I also discovered Ursula K. Le Guin (The Word for World is Forest was the first one I read) and enjoyed her work. But it doesn’t hold the same importance for me that Asimov’s work does.
Back to episode 2 of Foundation, Camestros Felapton also reviewed the episode and seems to enjoy it. Though I agree with him that while Foundation the show is entertaining enough, it’s not quite must-see TV nor compelling drama. And at least the second episode is also not the Foundation that blew my mind more than thirty years ago.
I will watch and probably review the next episode, but the final judgment is still out.
*The constant comparisons between Foundation and Game of Thrones are something I really don’t get, because both series have nothing in common apart from being both part of the large SFF genre. However, no one would think to compare NCIS and Grey’s Anatomy, even though they’re both set in the contemporary US, because both shows are completely different animals which do different things and appeal to different audiences. So why must Foundation or indeed any other new SFF show inevitably be the next Game of Thrones? Why can’t it just be its own thing?