Foundation realises that there are “Barbarians at the Gates”

Looks like I’m doing episode by episode reviews of Foundation, so here is my take on episode 4. And yes, the Octocon report is coming, but I had a very busy week. Reviews of previous episodes of Foundation as well as two actual Foundation stories may be found here.

Warning: Spoilers behind the cut!

The very first Foundation story – entitled simply “Foundation”, when it was first published in Astounding Sciencen Fiction in May 1942, and “The Encyclopedists” for the book edition – is a comparatively short novelette, under 10000 words long. The Foundation TV series has now spent two episodes of 49 and 45 minutes respectively and still hasn’t reached the end of this short novelette.

As I said in my previous review, adapting “Foundation”/”The Encyclopedists” as is would not make for a thrilling TV show, because the novelette is a basically a series of meetings and men talking in boardrooms. So it’s obvious that they would have to change the plot of the story a lot for the series. And indeed, very little of the original story remains except for the names of some characters, the basic conflict – Terminus is under threat from its “barbarian” neighbours and the Empire is doing fuck all to help – and oddly enough the coin that Salvor Hardin likes to toss and irritate people with, something he/she does both in the original story and the TV show. And I like that they kept the coin, because it is a nice hat tip to the original story.

Still, how do you take a story that’s 15 pages long in the magazine version and 44 pages in the book version and stretch it to more than 90 minutes. Simple. You add a lot of padding. And that’s exactly what Foundation does.

For example, the many scenes featuring the Emperors Three are entirely padding, since the Emperor (just one) doesn’t even appear in the Foundation trilogy until the second book Foundation and Empire. We occasionally see imperial remnants in earlier stories, most notably in “The Big and the Little” a.k.a. “The Merchant Princes”, but mostly the Foundation stories focus on the Foundation and Terminus and pay little to no attention to the Empire.

The TV show, however, seems to have settled into a pattern of dividing its time equally between the Emperors Three, i.e. a plotline that’s not in the books at all, and Terminus, a plotline which is at least loosely based on the original stories. At least, the Emperors Three plot is generally compelling. And indeed, both AV-Club reviewer Nick Wanserski, who hasn’t read the books, and Paul Levinson, who has read them and is a big fan, find the Emperors Three plot more compelling than the Terminus plot, which is a problem, because the latter is what the books are actually about.

So what are the Emperors Three and Demerzel up to in this episode? By now, the time has moved forward to approximately thirty-five years after the exiling of the Foundation and the terrorist attack on the Skybridge. The city world of Trantor still bears a scar from the attack nor is there any indication that they are rebuilding the Skybridge – after thirty-five years. For comparison, thirty-five years after the end of WWII. i.e. in 1980, the bombed out German cities and infrastructure had long since been rebuilt (the rebuilding mostly happened in the 1950s with a few laggards in the 1960s) and improved compared to the pre-war era. There were a few remaining ruins or empty plots of land – inevitably hidden behind billboards, so passers-by wouldn’t see what was or rather wasn’t there – but that was mostly because no one knew who owned those plots of land. The fact that the Empire hasn’t even managed to rebuild their capital in thirty-five years shows that they really are in decline. And yes, the destruction of Trantor was massive, but not more massive than the reducing entire countries to rubble during WWII.

As we saw last episode, the Emperors Three have moved one up now. The gleefully tyrannical Brother Day of the first two episodes is now Brother Dusk. The terrified kid Brother Dawn from the first two episodes is now Brother Day, the prime Emperor. And the baby decanted in the previous episode is now a teenaged Brother Dawn. Only Demerzel is her unchanging robotic self.

So far, the Emperors Three seem to have gotten along well with each other, but this trio is at odds. The current Brother Day blames Brother Dusk both for the terrorist attack, the brutal retaliation, which he now claims he never agreed with, but only pretended to agree, because he was terrified of the then Brother Day, and the generally poor state of the Empire. Brother Day also suspects that Hari Seldon and his followers are to blame for the Empire’s problems, since some recent events – riots on Trantor, the failure of a vital communications relay and a religious schism – echo some of Seldon’t predictions at his trial. Brothers Dusk and Day were never really impressed, let alone scared by Seldon, but it makes sense that Brother Dawn, who was only nine years old at the time, would be scared and traumatised by the events and would also link Seldon to the Skybridge attack, because he experienced both at the same time.

Of the crises facing the Empire, the religious schism is given the most time. In short, the leader of an important religion with billions of followers has died – we see her funeral in an early scene – and there is a challenger to her designated successor. And this challenger promotes a belief that is deemed heretical, namely that one human being only has one soul. The Emperors, however, are three human beings – of fourteen clones altgether – sharing the same body. According to the heretical belief, it is questionable whether they have a soul, which could lead to revolts and uprisings down the line, so that heresy must be stamped out and he ascension of the heretical would-be leader prevented.

I have to admit that my eyes glazed over during this discussion about the beliefs of a fictional religion. I also find that the TV version of Foundation pays way too much attention to religion, first with Gaal and the anti-tech cult she left and now with the religion of the white-robed women who debate whether clones have souls. It’s obvious that any entity as large as the Empire would have any number of religions, including weird ones, but we see very little of this in the books. We do have a society, whose religion forbids all technology on the pain of death in “The Wedge”, but the only religion which plays any real role in the original Foundation stories is Scientism, a cult which worships nuclear power and is very much a scam devised by Salvor Hardin to control the four kingdoms, something I really hope we get to see in the series. Nor was Scientism the only fake religion to appear in the pages of Astounding in the 1940s – no, “science disguised as a scam religion” was a very common trope during the golden age, particularly in Astounding. Fritz Leiber’s 1943 novel Gather, Darkness! is another example that is quite a bit weirder than Foundation’s scientism.

Isaac Asimov was a secular Jew and avowed atheist who had no real connection to Judaism, as this article by Stephen Silver explains. Asimov apparently developed an interest in the Bible later on and indeed, there are quite a few biblical references in The Caves of Steel (which baffled my teenaged self, partly because I had trouble locating the respective Bible chapters due to transliteration and translation disparities*, and partly because I wondered why a Jewish author would include references to the New Testament in a novel). However, The Caves of Steel was published in 1953, eleven years after the first Foundation story. The Isaac Asimov who wrote those stories had little to no interest in religion of any kind and was writing in an environment, where religion was not considered a suitable subject for science fiction, unless it was a scam. There were religiously tinged science fiction stories published in the 1940s, but not in Astounding.

Therefore, I find the focus on religion in the TV show baffling, since the spirit of the original stories is very much anti-religious, unless you view the Foundation as a cult that worships the hologram of its dead leader, which is a valid reading.  I also wonder whether they couldn’t have found another crisis for the Emperors Three to deal with than an impending schism in a religion of white-robed women that we’ve never even seen before. Because the whole religious schism and heresy issue is mainly an excuse to get Brother Day to break with protocol and leave Trantor himself, something which is not done, rather than leave the issue to Brother Dusk.

The current Brother Day is also more hands on in other respects. Since this Brother Day is worried about Seldon and his predictions, he has several members of the Royal Institute of Statistics summoned to the palace to inquire if they have made any progress replicating or analysing Seldon’s calculations. Alas, the mathematicians have made as much progress as the Empire has made rebuilding the Skybridge in thirty-five years, namely none. This infuriates Brother Day so much that he channels his inner intergalactic tyrant – he used to practice in front of the mirror, he tells Brother Dusk at one point – and pitches an epic fit that causes the head mathematician to drop dead of a heart attack. He should have just asked the Second Foundation, who already have to be lurking on Trantor in this time, instead.

And talking of the Foundation, since Brother Day is the one who’s worried whether Seldon was right and whether the Foundation are a threat, Brother Day also dispatches an Imperial envoy named Lord Dorwin to Terminus. Lord Dorwin actually appears in the original story, where he is a pompous and hopelessly ineffective Imperial official who can’t really help Terminus agains the Four Kingdoms. This character is one of the very few things the episode actually took from the original story.

Those folks who want Foundation to be Game of Thrones and only watched the latter for the sex scenes are also treated to a scene of Lee Pace’s Brother Day attempting to have sex with what appears to be a high class prostitute. Havin sex is not so easy for the Emperors Three, because they are surrounded by a personal forceshield (which is something that actually exists in the books, though differently) that repells kinetic energy, so you can only touch them if you move very slowly and very carefully. The prostitute is just about the get the hang of it, when Brother Day experiences the ultimate coitus interruptus in the form of Demerzel walking into his bedroom and icily remarking that she knows that the Emperor has physical needs that have to be satisfied once in a while, but that there is a crisis he has to attend to. Since I suspect Daneel/Demerzel would have learned  in twenty-thousand years that interrupting humans while they have sex is just rude, I bet she did it on purpose. Most likely, Daneel/Demerzel is jealous.

While Brothers Dusk and Day are sniping at each other, they are both neglecting the teenaged Brother Dawn. This is a mistake, because this Brother Dawn has plenty of issues that should be attended to, preferably before he becomes the prime Emperor. The episode actually opens with Brother Dawn attempting to commit suicide by hurling himself out of his bedroom window. However, the same personal forceshield that frustrates his brother’s attempts to have sex saves his life. The suicide attempt is witnessed by a young woman who works in the gardens, a woman with whom Brother Dawn becomes obsessed. The gardener offers him a medicinal plant against the lingering pain from the suicide attempt, so Brother Dawn accepts the plant – after testing it on another staffer first – and also builds a dragonfly drone to spy on the young gardener.

So in short, we have an aged tyrant, who screwed up the Empire and committed genocide, a prime Emperor who at least tries to do better, but is still trapped by circumstances and genetics, and a suicidal teenager who creeps on random gardeners. Truly, the Empire is screwed.

Meanwhile, on Terminus, Salvor Hardin has met the Anacreonians, who have snuck ont the planet’s surface undetected and threated Salvor with bow and arrows. Since the Anacreons – who have ditched the tree cosplay in favour of Xena – Warrior Princess cosplay – outnumber Salvor, she is briefly taken prisoner. The Anacreons claim to be scrappers looking for the colony ship’s navigation unit, but Salvor tells them it was removed long ago. So they force Salvor to take them to Terminus City, where the unit is kept. Since Terminus City is surrounded by a force field fence, Salvor tells them she can only take one person through the field. That one person is the leader of the group, a scarred woman named Phara (Indian actress Kubbra Sait). It turns out that Phara does have a blaster as well, though she does carry bow and arrow and knows how to use them. However, Salvor tricks Phara by piloting her landspeeder too close to the Time Vault and its repellant field (which doesn’t work on Salvor), knocking her out.

Salvor takes Phara prisoner and interrogates her, but Phara keeps insisting that her people are just scrappers. Since Phara’s comrades are still outside the forcefield fence, Salvor also arms her few troops and tells them to keep watch. “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent”, Salvor’s Dad, the mayor of Terminus City, tells her. “That’s an old man’s doctrine”, Salvor counters.

Now “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent” is an actual line from the first Foundation story. However in the story, it is uttered by Salvor Hardin, who in the books is a fount of aphorisms, and not by his/her father. This line could also be used as an epigraph for the entire first book, because the Foundation prefers to solve problems with cunning and intelligence rather than violence, at least partly because they are not powerful enough to stand against their more aggressive neighbours. And indeed in the book, Salvor takes down the Four Kingdoms without engaging in any physical iolence.

The brains over brawn ethos, which is summed up by that one line, is one of the things that initially attracted me to the Foundation stories. Because I loved reading about smart people solving problems with their brains rather than with violence. And to see TV Salvor rejecting one of the sayings that are associated with the character hurts. Of course, it’s still possible that Salvor eventually comes to see that her Dad was right, but this is yet another storytelling choice that is just baffling. Salvor Hardin doesn’t need to be a white man or indeed a man of any race (since Salvor’s race is never specified in the original stories) at all and I have no problem with Salvor being a black woman with parents and a lover. However, it would be nice if Salvor were at least vaguely the same character as in the stories.

Salvor, her parents and Hugo also examine Phara’s bow and realise that the Anacreons have not really been reduced to using bow and arrow, as I assumed in my last review, but that the bow is ceremonial, since Anacreon’s culture is obsessed with hunting. And the fact that Phara has the ceremonial bow means that she is not just a random scrapper, but the Great Huntress of Anacreon and someone very important indeed.

Anacreon in the books is a neo-feudalist kingdom, which wants to carve up Terminus into estates and have peasants work the land, which was as anachronistic in 1942 as it is today. Their representative is a pompous self-styled aristocrat named Anselm haut Roderick. Meanwhile, Anacreon in the TV series is a post-apocalyptic society with a hunting obsession and a taste for leather garb, whose representative is a scarred Xena cosplayer, which is no less anachronistic than the neo-feudalist kingdom of the book.

Since Phara is still not talking, Salvor calls in Hugo, who has more experience with Anacreons and who attempts to intimidate her by flashing his eyes weirdly blue at her. The Thesbian delegation we saw in the first two episodes had those weird blue eyes as well. Finally, Salvor deduces from Phara’s facial scars that she was wounded during the bombing of Anacreon thirty-five years before. And since the bombing killed off half of Anacreons population within a week and another twenty percent within a year, Salvor deduces that Phara lost her family in the bombing, which is why she is so angry. Of course, none of this is really a huge feat of deduction – after all, when faced with the scarred survivor of the devastating war, it’s likely that they’ve lost someone.

Eventually, Phara also reveals what the Anacreons want from the Foundation. Cause it turns out that they really just want the navigational device from the Foundation’s colony ship, since the devastated Anacreon is no longer capable of supporting its much reduced population, so the Anacreons want to use what ships they have to look for greener pastures. However, they have no navigation tech. So apparently, navigation technology will take the place of nuclear power in the TV show.

As for the Empire killing off seventy percent of the population of Anacreon (and Thesbis), we already knew that the ex-Brother Day, now Brother Dusk revelled in his intergalactic tyrant role and that genocide and mass executions were exactly the sort of thing he would do. However, I do think that Demerzel needs to have her positronic brain examined, because she seems to have forgotten about the Three Laws of Robotics.  Of course, the Zeroth Law, the one that Demerzel/Daneel and their old pal Giscard came up with, allows them to occasionally let humans come to harm, if this is for the good of all humanity. However, killing off millions of innocents clearly isn’t beneficial for the good of all humanity.

Lewis Pirenne, the head of the Encyclopedists, also shows up to question Phara, with even less success than Salvor. Now Lewis Pirenne is a character who also exists in the books and is actually Salvor’s chief antagonist. He’s also the closest to his book counterpart, because Lewis Pirenne is an incompetent arsehole in the books and an incompetent arsehole in the series.

While the Anacreons are gathering outside the fence and turn out to be a lot more than expected, Salvor, Lewis, Hugo and Salvor’s parents are debating what to do. Salvor experiences another weird episode, a flashback where she finds herself in the Imperial Library on Trantor – the place where Gaal Dornick first met Hari Seldon.  She also sees the mysterious phantom kid she’s been chasing again, only this time the kid turns around and is a black boy wielding a knife. It’s a knife we’ve seen before, wielded by Raych, when he murdered his adoptive father Hari Seldon (something the show still hasn’t addressed). Salvor has never met Raych, so she’s clearly having visions of the past.

Now Salvor Hardin in the books is a very shrewd and intelligent, but otherwise perfectly ordinary person. He is no one whose coming was foretold by Seldon, because psychohistory cannot predict the actions of individuals, just general trends – a fact that the TV show repeatedly notes. And the books make it clear that if Salvor Hardin wouldn’t have been the mayor of Terminus City who came up with a way to hold the Four Kingdoms at bay, someone else would have done it.

Salvor in the TV series, on the other hand, is special, as we are repeatedly told. TV Salvor also obviously has psychic powers of some kind, as Camestros Felapton notes in his review of this episode. Now telepathy exists in the Foundation universe – the original stories were published in John W. Campbell’s Astounding, after all. However, telepathy is very rare in the Foundation universe. The only humans who have it are the Mule and the Second Foundation (and Raych’s daughter Wanda in the prequels). R. Daneel Olivaw also acquires telepathy from his pal R. Giscard.

Book Salvor Hardin, however, has no psychic abilities of any kind – and TV Salvor seems to be some kind of clairvoyant rather than a telepath, an ability that is never mentioned at all in the Foundation series. I honestly have no idea why the TV series felt the need to make Salvor psychic and super-special in general. In fact, Salvor is so special and different that Lewis Pirenne wonders whether her mere existence might not upset the Seldon Plan. Hold that thought, Lewis, and jot it down somewhere, cause it will come in handy in approx. two hundred years, when the Foundation meets the Mule.

The episode ends with the Anacreons assembling a very big gun outside the forcefield fence and preparing to fire at Terminus city. Meanwhile, a mysterious spaceship picks up the escape pod in which Gaal Dornick has been lying in suspended animation for thirty-five years now.

It was obvious that the TV series could not adapt “Foundation”/”The Encyclopedists” as it is, because the story is a little dull and not very cinematic and dated, too. That said, a lot of the storytelling choices just make zero sense.

The main conflict in “Foundation”/”The Encyclopedists” is the conflict between the Terminus and Anacreon. But there is also a secondary conflict between the Encyclopedists as represented by Lewis Pirenne, who still believe that their main purpose is compiling the Encyclopedia Galactica to stave off the encroaching dark ages, and the first generation born on Terminus for whom Terminus is their home and who couldn’t care less about the Encyclopedia, a generation that is represented by Salvor Hardin in the books. The conflict between these two fractions is compelling enough IMO, especially since it signals the turn of the Foundation away from the Encyclopedia Galactica (though it’s notable that the Encyclopedia does get written eventually, since it provides the epigraphs for the stories) to becoming the bastion of knowledge and kernel of the second empire or whatever will arise from the ashes of the dark ages. And indeed, the TV show hints at this conflict by putting Salvor at odds not just with Lewis Pirenne, but also with her Enyclopedist parents. I just don’t understand why we need to add layers of specialness and psychic powers to Salvor, when book Salvor never needed more than his wits.  Why not simply have Salvor be what they are in the books, namely a highly intelligent person and the representative of the generation for whom Terminus is home and who don’t give a damn about the Encyclopedia, but care very much what happens to Terminus? With the added threat of the Anacreons, that would be conflict enough.

Foundation has been renewed for a second season, which is a very good thing, because considering the glacial pace at which the show moves (at least three episodes for a short novelette), the first season probably won’t even get through the first book. Also note that we haven’t had any casting news for Hober Mallow or Limmar Ponyets. And I really want to see Hober Mallow engaging in some nude sunbathing and cigar smoking with his male friend. I also want to see Bel Riose (finally a reason to dust off the Cleons) and the Mule and Bayta and Arcadia Darrell, etc…

So far the show is still enjoyable enough, though many of the storytelling choices and departures from the books make little sense. I hope that the showrunners will pull everything together eventually and give us a story that is not exactly like the books – because that would neither be possible nor make for good TV – but yet close enough in spirit to be recognisable as Foundation.


*I even took my copy of The Caves of Steel to my high school religious education teacher, showed him the biblical references and asked him which chapters of the Bible they referred, because I wantd to read them and had problems finding them. The poor man was very baffled, even though he should have been aware of the translation and transliteration issue. But then, he was not a very good teacher and didn’t know much about his supposed subject either. Also, what sort of religious education teacher sends a student away, when they have a question about the Bible?

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6 Responses to Foundation realises that there are “Barbarians at the Gates”

  1. Lea says:

    TYOP patrol: The plural of “crisis” is “crises”, not “crisises”.

  2. Pingback: A handy guide to all SFF-related posts and works of 2021 | Cora Buhlert

  3. Pingback: Foundation encounters “Death and the Maiden” | Cora Buhlert

  4. Fiona Moore says:

    Catching up on this and just noting that my initial assumption when Hardin started Having Powers was that they were combining the characters of Hardin and the Mule for the TV series. Which… I’m not sure they are? Or are they? I guess we’ll find out.

    • Cora says:

      That would be a huge departure from the books, but considering that the showrunners don’t seem to see the books even as guidelines anymore, I guess you can’t rule anything out.

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