Foundation realises “Upon Awakening” that the story is still moving at a glacial pace

Looks like I’m doing episode by episode reviews of Foundation – at least for now – so here is my take on episode 5. Reviews of previous episodes of Foundation as well as two actual Foundation stories may be found here.

ETA: For more Foundation discussion, check out the Star’s End and Seldon Crisis podcasts.

Warning: Spoilers behind the cut!

I’m sorry, but I just don’t understand the storytelling choices this show makes. Like I’ve said before, I accept that a literal adaptation of the original stories isn’t possible, because stories of people sitting around and talking would not make for very thrilling TV. However, the shows pads out the lean narrative of the original stories with a lot of stuff that’s at best irrelevant and at worst contradicts the story. The show also deals with the fact that the Foundation series takes place over a long period of time (500 years for the original trilogy with the sequels and prequels spanning an even longer period of time) by inserting yet more unnecessary time jumps.

So episode 5 opens with a flashback to Gaal Dornick’s past on Synnax. Now I doubt that anybody was clamouring for Gaal Dornick’s backstory. I at any rate wasn’t. Gaal Dornick in the original books is a cypher who serves as the POV character for a single short story that’s all about Hari Seldon. Gaal in the TV series is given more characterisation, which is a good thing. However, as Nick Wanserski points out in his review at The AV Club, episode 1 gave us all the Gaal backstory we needed to know. We didn’t really need an extensive flashback to Gaal’s life on Synnax to hammer home the point that Gaal goes against the religion and tradition of her people at great personal risk. Especially since the flashback turns Gaal from a highly intelligent young woman raised in an environment that does not value intelligence to an even more super-special ultra math genius than she already was.

Gaal, we learn was not just a member of a fundamentalist anti-science religion, but she actually was an acolyte, though apparently mainly for the pay that supports her family. The show follows Gaal through the Synnaxian equivalent of a baptism (inserting those weird stones into a baby’s cheeks) and then on a hunt for heretics in the ruins of an abandoned university. Because learning, science and even books are forbidden on Synnax as heresy against their religion.

Gaal finds her heretic taking books from the abandoned university and lo and behold, it’s someone she knows, a former friend of her parents named Arren Sorn. Unlike Gaal’s religious parents, Sorn is a man of science. Gaal implores him to leave the books and flee, but Sorn won’t do it. He has recognised Gaal’s intelligence and tries to encourage her to take a particular book/scroll, the mathematical paradox that she will solve and that will lead her to Trantor and Hari Seldon. But for now, Gaal does not take the book. She waits until her fellow religious fanatics show up to arrest Arren Sorn.

Justice is swift on Synnax and heresy must be stamped out without mercy, so the next scene is Arren Sorn’s execution. Because Gaal is an acolyte, she’s forced to officiate. And so Arren Sorn and the books he took, including the chaos theory scroll he wanted to give to Gaal, are tied to stones and thrown into the ocean.

Where do the people of Synnax get the stones from, considering they live on a water world? And while a lot of the boats, furniture, etc… we see on Synnax seems to be made from reed, some of it is clearly made from wood. Where do they get the wood from – or even the reed, considering there seems to be no dry land anywhere? Also, how can rising sea levels threaten Gaal’s village, when it seems to be floating? And how can Gaal’s Mom tell her about black holes and tell her the names of the worlds in the Empire, when she lives on an fundamentalist anti-science planet. None of this makes any sense and the whole water world only seems to exist to make a clumsy point about climate change. Arren Sorn even tells Gaal that the people of Synnax melted their polar caps and now their whole world is drowning. Again, this makes no real sense, unless all the dry land on Synnax was only barely above sea level, but why let logic get in the way of a good climate change analogy.

The climate change analogy, which is repeated at least two times, annoyed me a lot, first of all, because it’s so very on the nose. Hari Seldon predicts the fall of the Empire, but the Empire won’t listen to science? Come on, everybody living in the early 21st century will see a climate change analogy in that, even though that’s not what Asimov intended in the early stories, though ecological concerns creep in in later stories.  We don’t need the on the nose dialogue about a drowning planet. Also, if Synnax is part of the Empire, why doesn’t the Empire send help? Are they already so far in decline that they can’t help a single backwater planet with a global warming problem?

It was clear to me that modern audiences would interpret Foundation through a climate change lens, because it’s just such an obvious analogy to draw. However, seeing the parallels spelled out in the dialogue irks me, because the point of the whole Foundation series is that the Foundation (almost) always wins, because they are smarter than everybody else and find scientific and technological solutions to every crisis. However, the noisy anti-climate change activists in real life – groups like Extinction Rebellion or to a lesser degree Fridays for Future – are anti-technology and closer to the fanatics of Synnax than to the Foundation. Of course, it’s possible that the show wants to make exactly this point – the people of Synnax rejected science in response to their climate change problem and only made things worse. But if so, it’s hopefully muddled.

Finally, environmental activism isn’t something that sprang up in the 21st century. It was also very much a thing in the 1980s when I grew up (and before), though climate change was a lot further down on the list of concerns compared to issues like acid rain, forest die-back and the ozone hole, most of which are now resolved, though forest die-back is an issue again.  There were a lot of regressive, anti-technology environmental activists in my school and probably in many other West German schools at the time.  Now I had a slightly different view, because my Dad worked in the waste processing industry at the time, which also disillusioned me about the nobility of environmental groups – especially since my Dad has probably done more for the environment than any of those people.

As a result, I argued with the would-be eco activists at my school a lot and pointed out their idiocies (“If you want to protest against Shell selling genetically modified grain – and that’s only a rumour – then staging a protest at the nearest Shell gas station is not the way to do so, because the leaseholder of a Shell station has no influence whatsoever on Shell’s policies and is actually being exploited by them” – and yes, this was a real thing). I was bullied for my troubles – by students and teachers. And one of the arguments I used to try to convince those people was – guess  what? – the Foundation books, which I discovered around the same time (This went about as well as you can imagine). Because the message of Foundation is, “Science and technology will solve all problems and everything is going to be all right in the end, even if it takes some time to get there.” In many ways, Foundation was hopepunk before we had a word for it.

So seeing the Foundation TV series drawing clumsy climate change analogies that seem to support the sort of reactionary environmental activists I was arguing with more than thirty years ago (and how depressing is it that we still have to do this) actively hurts me, because it feels like a betrayal. For the record, that’s also why I hated the Gaia and Galaxia nonsense in Foundation’s Edge and Foundation and Earth so much, because I didn’t want any eco-stuff in my Foundation and the whole Gaia thing felt like a betrayal of the story I’d been promised. And at the time, I didn’t know that this was based on a real hypothesis, though I have resented James Lovelock ever since I found out, because this crap ruined Foundation for me.

All of this is completely personal, since very few other fans of the books will have the same history as me. But it colours my response to the show, because those books were not just something I used to escape from an unpleasant school experience, they were an argument in my favour. And no, I absolutely don’t recommend shoving Foundation into the hands of people and urging them to read it, because it will change their lives, since that doesn’t work.

Next, we see Gaal diving into the water by night. She swims past the bodies of several other drowned heretics – a chilling reminder that Gaal’s people are fanatical mass murderers – to Arren Sorn’s body and retrieves the triangular scroll with the math puzzle. How can Gaal dive to the ocean floor without any breathing apparatus, even though her people apparently live in the middle of the ocean? That’s just one more thing that makes no sense.

Come to think of it, Foundation is an extremely execution-happy show. Arren Sorn’s drowning isn’t even the only execution scene in this episode. Now it’s not as if there are no executions or close calls in the original books – there are a few. But the TV show lays it on really thick. The executions are also all by very old-fashioned methods (hanging, drowning, etc…), something that the executions and execution threats in the books explicitly are not.

A bit later, Gaal is totally absorbed by the math puzzle to the point that she neglects her religious duties. Her mother is concerned and wants her to stop. But Gaal doesn’t stop. She solves the puzzle that has been unsolved for fifty years – even though she hasn’t had any formal math training and most likely can barely read – and sends a message to Hari Seldon. How she knows where to send the message is unclear. Maybe the address was in the book.

Hari sends Gaal a holographic message in response, inviting her to come to Trantor. And indeed, it’s fascinating that we have seen Hari Seldon as a hologram several times in the past two episodes, but not the holographic Hari we are waiting for, namely the one who pops up in times of crisis to make cryptic pronouncements.

The rest is stuff we’ve already seen. Gaal has the stones removed from her cheeks. Why she does this is never made clear. She wouldn’t have been discriminated against, because we have seen members of her religion on Trantor. Never mind that it probably would have been easier to remove the stones on Trantor with better medical facilities. Maybe it’s a way to make a dramatic and visible break with her past.

By the standards of her planet, Gaal has committed heresy. Yet unlike poor Arren Sorn, she is not drowned, but allowed to leave. None of this makes any sense or has any real relevance to the actual plot, because episode 1 told us all we needed to know about Gaal. We didn’t need this deep dive into her past, especially not since it actually diminishes her character.

Camestros Felapton likes the Gaal flashback somewhat more than I did and notes that it’s possible that the reason Gaal was not drowned but allowed to leave was because the people of Synnax feared the reaction of the Empire. Since Gaal won the math competition, her disappearance would be noticed, unlike Arren Sorn going missing. Indeed, this does make a certain degree of sense. Romanian German writer and Nobel Prize winner for Literature Herta Müller once said that the most important literary award she ever won was not the Nobel Prize but the Aspekte-Literaturpreis for best German language debut novel. Because once she had won that award, she knew that the Romanian secret police could not just make her disappear, because her disappearance would be noticed.

So Gaal did not just grow up on a fundamentalist religious planet, she was actually an acolyte and complicit in the murder of supposed heretics. Okay, so there are a few lapsed priests in the actual Foundation stories, most notably Limmar Ponyets, but the Foundation’s fake religion does not murder people. Besides, Gaal is not just uncommonly smart and a math genius, she’s able to solve a supposedly unsolvable puzzle with barely any training. In episodes 1 and 2, Gaal was Katherine Johnson, a highly intelligent young woman from a disadvantaged background. Now she is a super duper math genius, who can solve an unsolvable puzzle in spite of having only the equivalent of a middle school education, if that. This is yet another instance of the show’s irritating tendency to make characters like Gaal Dornick or Salvor Hardin, who were resourceful, intelligent and shrewd people in the books, but still regular people, into super duper special superheroines.

The whole Gaal flashback takes up a lot of time and adds absolutely nothing to the story. Nor is it particularly interesting – on the contrary, it’s quite boring.  Also, I’m not sure what the point of the whole flashback is. If the showrunners wanted to show a conflict between science and a fundamentalist anti-science religion, there actually is a Foundation story which does just that, namely “The Wedge”, which even has executions of supposed heretics. However, given the glacial pace at which the show is moving, they will never reach “The Wedge” in this season. Most likely, they won’t even reach “The Mayors/Bridle and Saddle”.

After the extended and completely unnecessary flashback, we see Gaal again as the escape pod into which Raych (whose surname is Foss – a hat tip to Chris Foss, whose covers adorned the Panther/Granada editions of the Foundation books that I had?) shoved her back in episode 2 and shot her into space, is picked up by a mystery spaceship. So Gaal wakes up aboard an empty spaceship with no idea what happened to her. The computer will not give her all the information, because Gaal has no authorisation (which again doesn’t make any sense), though it does tell her that she has been in suspended animation for thirty-four years. The computer also shows her a replay of Hari’s murder and Raych’s trial, which ends with Raych taking a walk out of the nearest airlock, courtesy of Lewis Pirenne. Meanwhile, Hari Seldon is given a space burial in a casket of his own design. I strongly suspect that casket eventually became the Time Vault. Gaal also learns that she is believed to have been Raych’s accomplice.

Seeing Raych shot out of the nearest airlock so depresses Gaal that she grabs a scalpel and tries to kill herself in the shower. However, a course change manoeuvre of the mystery ship stops her just in time. Gaal wants to figure out where the ship is taking her and has to – to quote The Martian – math the shit out of the situation, because the ship won’t just tell her what she needs to know. None of this happens in the books, but – as Camestros Felapton points out – Gaal mathing the shit out of the situation is a very Campbellian solution to her dilemma. Gaal even takes a spacewalk – even though she’s from a backwater planet and has never been in space before leaving for Trantor – to figure out the truth. She realises that the ship is headed for Helicon, Hari Seldon’s homeworld, which is the last place where she wants to go, since she is considered an accomplice to Hari’s murder and really doesn’t want to experience whatever retro methods of execution the people on Helicon favour (We haven’t beheading yet. Or garrotting.). Presuming, of course, that anybody on Helicon would care about what happened to Hari, especially thirty-four years after the fact.

Gaal’s rude awakening becomes even ruder, when she finds puddles of blood on the floor on the spaceship, blood that is not hers, and then sees a glitchy looking hologram of Hari Seldon, stabbed but not quite dead, in the ship’s cargo bay. I think it’s pretty clear by now that Hari engineered the whole murder, though I’m not sure if Raych was in on the plot or if Hari manipulated and sacrificed him. I also suspect that the purpose of the mystery ship initially was to pick up Raych and not Gaal. Paul Levinson also wonders if Hari might still be alive, since he did not die immediately after being stabbed. Personally, I doubt that Hari is still alive – at least not thirty-four years after his stabbing – though we will see him again as an omniscient hologram.

Which brings us to what is supposed to be the main plot, namely the stand-off with the Anacreons on Terminus. When the episode finally does give us Terminus, nothing has changed there since the last episode. The Anacreons are still outside the forcefield fence, occasionally firing their rifles at it. The Foundation is still facing them, outnumbered and outgunned, but protected by their fence. Anacreon leader Phara is still in Foundation custody and still gloating and unpleasant. The Anacreons do set up a very big cannon, but for now all they do is camouflage it, though the question is from whom, since the Foundationers have already seen it.

The situation shifts when an Imperial warship under the command of Lord Dorwin, played by Christian Contreras, who is the real life husband of Thirteenth Doctor Jodie Whittaker. Lord Dorwin is actually a character from the original story, where he is an ineffectual Imperial official who basically tells the Foundation, “You’re on your own, sorry.”

His TV counterpart is more effective. For starters, TV Dorwin is actually willing to defend the Foundation, not because he cares about the Encyclopedia Galactica, but because he really, really doesn’t like the Anacreons. He talks to Lewis Pirenne and – after demanding to speak to the minister of defence and learning that Terminus is a colony of geeks and has no such thing – to Salvor Hardin. Dorwin is thrilled that Phara has been apprehended and wants to interrogate her himself in the so-called tower, a part of the Foundation’s colony ship that now serves as the hub of Terminus City.

Salvor thinks that taking Phara to the tower is a bad idea, because that was where Phara wanted to go from the beginning and who knows what she might be planning. But as usual, Lewis Pirenne doesn’t listen to Salvor and has Phara brought to the tower, before Salvor can stop him. This turns out to be a grave mistake, because Phara suddenly freaks out, once she’s inside the tower, and rips out her left eyeball, which turns out to be an implanted bomb, much like the ones used by the terrorists that blew up the Skybridge in episode one. So does this mean that the Anacreons were responsible for that attack after all or did Phara simply purchase her eyeball bomb from the same arms dealer?

Phara triggers the eyeball bomb, which takes out the generator for the forcefield fence, allowing the Anacreon troops assembled outside to attack Terminus and its pitifully few defenders. Shivaughn, the resident example of that classic golden age trope, the Irish person in space, is wounded and Hugo, the not so classic example of an Australian in space, is shot as well, while the Anacreons proceed to trash Terminus City and set buildings on fire.

Meanwhile, Phara has taken Salvor’s Mom hostage and heads for the artefact archive, Salvor hot in pursuit. Phara puts a gun to the head of Salvor’s Mom, but Salvor puts on a convincing act of “I don’t particularly care if you shoot my Mom. We never got along anyway” (so convincing that even Salvor’s Mom believes it for a moment), while signaling to her Mom to duck. What follows is a hand to hand fight of Salvor against Phara with improvised weapons. Salvor wins, at least temporarily, when she stabs Phara in the shoulder with the sundial we saw in episode 3 (so keeping it was good for something).

However, Salvor’s victory is shortlived, because Phara and her fellow Xena-cosplayers apprehend Salvor and her Mom again. Now Phara also reveals her true plan. She wants to destroy Terminus City in retaliation for the bombing of Anacreon, because she believes that Hari Seldon blew up the Skybridge and also riled the Emperors Three (who are notably absent in this episode) up so much that they took out their frustration on Anacreon. How Phara, who was about five at the time of the bombing, knows all this or came to this conclusion is unclear. But then Phara is completely nuts anyway.

Meanwhile, up in orbit, Lord Dorwin is not having any of this anymore. As far as he is concerned, the Anacreons are responsible for the terrorist attack on the Skybridge and now they are attacking an Imperial outpost, so he will intervene.

However, there is still that big cannon that we saw in the cliffhanger of the previous episode. The big cannon that is now camouflaged. That big cannon fires once – and since the Anacreons are jamming communications and neither Salvor nor Lewis thought to warn the Imperials of the very big cannon the Anacreons had set up beforehand – the Anacreon gunner manages to take down an Imperial warship with a single shot. The warship crashes on Terminus in a fiery inferno.

Rest in Peace (and in pieces), Lord Dorwin. A pity, cause I liked the TV show’s take on the character much more than his book counterpart. Besides, he was easy on the eyes and is married to the Thirteenth Doctor in an epic franchise crossover.

As for Phara’s revenge scheme, it makes about as much sense as everything else in this episode. The execution of her plan is actually pretty good, but what precisely do the Anacreons hope to gain from attacking an Imperial outpost and blowing an Imperial warship to smithereens except to get nuked from orbit once again? Yes, the Empire is in decline, but they will still be able to muster enough warships to nuke Anacreon again. Of course, Phara is completely nuts, but you would think someone on Anacreon would still be sane.

Now I have absolutely no issue with making the stand-off between Anacreon and Terminus more tense and action-packed than it is in the books, where the “stand-off” is basically a state visit and a meeting in a board room. But I don’t see why the show had to change the motivation of the Anacreons so completely.  Because the Anacreons in the books basically want to annex the Foundation to gain more land for the nobles of their neofeudalist kingdom. They also want technology, because the Imperial legacy tech is failing. As motivations go, this may not be as sexy as the crazed revenge scheme of a woman radicalised by a massive bombing, but it makes more sense. And if you’re looking for real world parallels, look at Crimea, Eastern Ukraine and maybe soon Taiwan for examples of what happens when a more powerful country wants to annex a smaller one and no one wants to pick a fight with the more powerful country, because they have nukes.

Finally, I find it hugely problematic that the two planets we’ve seen which are inhabited almost solely by arseholes, Anacreons and Synnax, are also the only two planets where the population consists solely of POC, black people for Synnax and people of Indian or Pakistani origin for Anacreon. Meanwhile, Thesbis seems to be majority white; Trantor and Terminus are mixed.

Now Asimov makes it very clear in The Currents of Space in 1952 (!) that while certain planets are racially homogenous, the overwhelming majority of the citizens of the Galactic Empire are mixed race. Indeed, one of the things that makes the planet Florina in The Currents of Space stand out is that its population is very light-skinned, which is extremely unusual for the Empire. The Florinians are also being oppressed and exploited by their neighbours.

I understand that the showrunners wanted to show the Galactic Empire as the very diverse place it is in the books, but making the only two planets that are inhabited solely by terrible people inhabited solely of people of colour is not the way to do it. Why not make Synnax and Anacreon as diverse as everywhere else?

As I said in the beginning, I just don’t understand the storytelling choices Foundation makes. Instead of actually moving the plot forward, especially since we’ve not spent a whopping 150 minutes on a novelette of barely 10000 words, the show pads out the plot with all sorts of side plots that have nothing whatsoever to do with the books.

The adventures of the Emperors Three are at least compelling, even if they have very little to do with the story. The Gaal flashback, however, was completely superfluous and could have been cut without losing anything. And while the scenes of Gaal awaking aboard the mystery spaceship were more interesting, we should have seen those scenes in episode 3 instead of forgetting Gaal’s existence for two whole episodes. The actual plot on Terminus is exciting enough, but it is deviating so far from the books that I don’t really see how they’re going to pull off the fake religion solution.

And yes, a literal adaptation of Foundation wouldn’t have worked, because the original stories are very talky and low on action. But I don’t know why they couldn’t just take the conflicts from the original stories, especially since those conflicts are compelling, and jazz them up a bit with action, explosions and firefights.

So far, I’ve been cautiously positive about Foundation, in spite of some strange choices. But episode 5 is the first one that actively annoyed me. Let’s hope that episode 6 is better and that it maybe actually gets to the solution of the story known as “Foundation” a.k.a. “The Encyclopedists”.

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5 Responses to Foundation realises “Upon Awakening” that the story is still moving at a glacial pace

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  2. It’s a great review – very, very thorough – and helps me understand why others I respect are not crazy about episode 5. I also felt the Synnax backstory was long and unnecessary, but appreciated it much more on a second viewing. Part of the problem is I watched it first on my phone – which one should never do with this show because of the awesome visuals, and the Synnax scenes in particular are very beautiful. I see the complain on POC arsehole planets though. That does seem problematic. That said, I probably wouldn’t have noticed it if you hadn’t pointed it out to me.

    I enjoyed the scenes on the ship the most, especially the “mathing the shit out of the problem” part. The Terminus scenes were OK – but the battle scenes were really clunky apparently due to Covid restricting the number of extras (according to showrunner Goyer). Speaking of which, I highly recommend the Goyer AMA on reddit if you want some faith restored. The pace isn’t bothering me at all since I’m seeing it as an eight season arc, and I like the complexity they’re bringing to the plot.

    • Cora says:

      The visuals of Foundation, particularly the Synnax scenes, are truly gorgeous, though the eye candy doesn’t really make up for the fact that we don’t need the Synnax flashback.

      The ship scenes are fun, though I would have preferred to see them in episode 3. Regarding the Terminus scenes, it does make sense if covid restrictions affected the battle scenes.

      If Foundation really gets its eight season arc, then the pacing should be fine. However, a lot of shows are cancelled prematurely and never get to complete their planned arcs, e.g. Y: The Last Man was cancelled earlier this week after only one season. And it would be a pity to have a Foundation show which never even gets to a Mule, let alone the Second Foundation.

      Personally, I expected that the first season would cover the fix-up now known as Foundation. It would have worked out, too. Then season two could have done all of Foundation and Empire, though it might be good to split it between “The Dead Hand/The General” and “The Mule”, since both are long (a novella and a short novel) with plenty of plot to cover. Season 3 or 4 would be Second Foundation. Then Foundation’s Edge and Foundation and Earth respectively.

      Also thanks for the tip regarding David Goyer’s reddit AMA, which I hadn’t seen yet.

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