Foundation finally experiences “The First Crisis”

And here we thought that we have been in the middle of the first Seldon crisis since episode 3.

Anyway, welcome to my review of the penultimate episode of Foundation. Reviews of previous episodes of Foundation as well as two actual Foundation stories may be found here.

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

But before we get to Foundation, I also want to point you to my latest Raumpatrouille Orion (Space Patrol Orion) review over at Galactic Journey. Unlike Foundation, Space Patrol Orion never pretended to be an Asimov adaptation, even though Asimov’s works clearly were one of several influences on the series. And indeed, Orion feels more like an Asimov story at times than Foundation.

But let’s take a look at the latest episode to see how it compares to the books and if the story is back on track by now.

Warning! Spoilers under the cut for both the TV series and the book!

The answer is that at least by the end of the episode, the story is sort of back on track, though the way to get there has nothing whatsoever to do with the books.

Like previous episodes, “The First Crisis” divides its time between two different storylines, namely the adventures of Salvor Hardin and the saga of Brother Dawn, the imperfect clone. Gaal Dornick is absent, except to provide voice-over narration about how history is written by the victors, though Hari Seldon’s hologram puts in a most welcome appearance.

As before, Brother Dawn’s story is the most interesting part of the episode, even though it has nothing whatsoever to do with the books and instead borrows elements from a lot of more recent space operas. The influence of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series is very obvious – and can we maybe adapt that, please? There are also similarities to Sean Danker’s Admiral series and Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein, which beat Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity in the race for the 1956 Hugo Award for Best Novel.

Brother Dawn, the defective clone, was clearly terrified of being found out and killed by his “brothers” and so he is plotting his escape with the aid of the lovely palace gardener Azura. However, before Dawn and Azura can put their plan into action, Brother Dawn is summoned by Brother Dusk, who has now taken over the neverending task of painting mural depicting the glories of the Cleons. Brother Dusk wants to show Dawn something, namely a pictorial representation of their hunting expedition back in episode 6. Considering that the mural normally depicts great victories, this is an unusual choice. Nonetheless, Brother Dawn pretends to be honoured and remarks how well the mural captures the three pterodactyl-like things he killed. Brother Dusk gives Dawn a very sinister smile and then leaves him to contemplate the mural on his own. Curious, Dawn dons the colour correction lenses Azura got for him and notes to his shock that Brother Dusk painted six rather than three pterodactyl creatures, i.e. the number of creatures that Dawn really killed. However, he painted the three missing creatures in a way that someone with red-green blindness cannot see them.

Dawn now knows that Dusk is on to him and heads for his chamber to make his escape now. However, before he can, Dusk’s right-hand man Obreht comes to fetch him, most likely to escort him to his execution. And Dawn’s protestations that he’s the Empire, too, and that Obreht is supposed to obey him don’t help either. Dawn finally uses his personal forcefield and projects it outward to knock out Obreht and runs away, while the palace guards go after him. He can’t get past the scanner at the palace gates, so he escapes via the ruins of the old palace (Why are those ruins even still there, since they must be hundreds, if not thousands of years old?) into the sewer system, almost drowns and then wanders around among the homeless of Trantor, clad only in his pyjamas. For of course, there have to be homeless people living in the sewers of Trantor, so Dawn can get a glimpse of the real world (TM).

Dawn trades his forcefield bracelet (yeah, smart, trading in the one weapon and protection he has) for the smelly coat of a homeless man to disguise himself. Unfortunately, he fails to put the hood up to hide his very recognisable face, but the people using Trantor’s public transport pretend not to notice. And so Dawn makes it to the Scar, i.e. the area that was wrecked by the falling space elevator and never fully repaired, where Azura has an apartment.

The scar looks like (and probably is portrayed by) a 1970s Brutalist outdoor shopping mall, jazzed up with glowing domes, trippy light projections and low-rent punks straight out of the 1980s cyberpunk novel. As AV-Club reviewer Nick Wanserski points out, it’s probably the cleanest slum with the best-fed population you’ve ever seen, but somehow it works, if only because Brutalism was the look of science fiction, especially of the dystopian kind, for decades.

Somehow, Dawn manages to find Azura’s apartment. Azura doesn’t look too happy to see him, though she does let him in. As before, Azura must live in the cleanest and most spacious slum apartment ever. The place looks like a mid-range hotel suite. Azura sends Dawn to take a shower, because he reeks. When Dawn emerges from the shower, Azura pulls a gun on him. “What’s that for?”, Dawn – not being the sharpest Cleon in the drawer – asks. Azura fires and Dawn realises that she has betrayed him. He tries to run away, but the picturesque punks have him quickly surrounded and knock him out. Just before Dawn passes out, he finds himself looking up into his own face.

At this point, I assumed that Azura was working for Brother Dusk and had been instructed to spy on Dawn and find out his secret and that the fellow with Dawn’s face was the replacement clone we saw two episodes ago. However, the truth is a lot weirder than that.

For when Dawn comes to again, he finds himself strapped to a chair in Azura’s apartment, a needle in his arm, as his nanites are removed from his blood and fed into that of Dawn’s doppelganger. We now learn that the whole thing is a plot by the (never before mentioned) Trantor underground decades in the making. Somehow, the Trantor underground managed to get their hands on enough genetic material to clone their own Cleon. They also managed to reprogram to nanites in Dawn’s bloodstream to alter his genes and cause the mutations that plague Dawn. This was supposed to induce Dawn to flee the palace, so the underground could grab him and replace him with their own Cleon. Azura was in one the whole plot – and Paul Levinson points out in his review that in Forward the Foundation, a (male) gardener assassinates the non-cloned Emperor Cleon.

Now I have to admit that this was one development I absolutely did not see coming. As plans go, the Trantor underground’s plan is overcomplicated and also hinges on way too many coincidences, such as Azura being in the right place to witness Dawn’s thwarted suicide attempt and getting him to trust her. Unless half the staff at the palace are members of the Trantor underground, which would certainly be interesting. Also, if you’re going to introduce an underground movement, it would be helpful to at least drop a few hints that such a movement exists, i.e. have the Cleons and Demerzel hunt unsuccessfully for the Trantor underground. However, we get no hints of that sort beyond a vague mention of unrest on Trantor.

The Trantor underground is just about to kill the surplus Dawn, when he spots the dragonfly drone he had given Azura. Soon thereafter, Imperial troops led by Brother Dusk storm the apartment, kill the rebels including the fake Dawn and arrest Azura, using those weird prison hoods again.

Brother Dawn is shocked that Dusk knew what was up all along and used him to root out the rebels, though he’s also happy to be rescued. Brother Dusk, however, is still furious at Dawn, for being stupid and gullible, though those sins are forgiveable. The fact that Dawn is defective, though through no fault of his own, however, is not. “Your face is a permanent reminder of our failure”, Dusk says to Dawn, whereupon Dawn points out that it’s his face as well. Dawn also points out that Dusk can’t decide his fate on his own, he has to consult with Day. And this version of Day is somewhat nicer than his predecessor, whereas Dusk has always been a murderous bastard. However, Dusk points out, Day is probably not going to be kindly inclined towards Dawn after his ordeal on the moon of the Luminists. And he did order the murder of Zephyr Halima, after she’d ceased to be a threat. On the other hand, Day’s half-naked pilgrimage also gave him a crash course in empathy, as Camestros Felapton points out in his review, so maybe everything will go all right for Brother Dawn. Especially since I have the feeling that Brother Dawn will make a pretty good Emperor, if he survives.

It needs no saying that none of this happens in the books, beyond the assassination of Emperor Cleon by a (male) palace gardener in Forward the Foundation.  Instead, the whole clone doppelganger plot is borrowed from other science fiction novels, most notably Lois McMaster Bujold’s 1989 Vorkosigan novel Brothers in Arms, where Komarran insurgents plan to replace Miles Vorkosigan with a clone in a plot to assassinate Aral Vorkosigan. Needless to say that this does not go the way anybody expected.

Sean Danker’s Admiral trilogy also has a junior member of a royal family replaced by a lookalike, who then proceeds to sabotage the royals and their planet. However, this is all backstory – the actual trilogy starts with what happens to the royal lookalike after he has fulfilled his mission and has become a liability to his own people. The trilogy is well worth reading, though fairly obscure, so the similarities might just be a coincidence.

Finally, in Robert A. Heinlein’s 1956 science fiction novel Double Star, which beat Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity in the Hugo race for Best Novel, a down and out actor is hired to replace, first temporarily and then permanently, a prominent politician. Hijinks ensue. Heinlein admitted that Double Star was inspired by the granddaddy of all “important person is replaced by a nigh identical doppelganger” stories, namely The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope.

But even though neither the clone doppelganger plot nor the whole genetic dynasty are to be found in the books, this storyline is actually entertaining and a lot of fun to watch.

Which brings me to the other plot strand, namely the adventures of Salvor Hardin. The Salvor plot starts with a flashback to little Salvor and her Dad watching the stars. Salvor’s Dad tells her that all humans, whether Foundationers, Anacreons, Thespins or Trantorians, all come from the same planet, though they don’t know where that planet is. There are several theories, including one that the origin of humanity is a planet called Earth, though no one knows where that planet might be. I was pleasantly surprised at this scene, because the location of Earth is also a mystery in the books. I guess the showrunners were trying to set up Foundation and Earth, the final (not very good) book in the series. At the pace they’re going, they’ll get there in eight or nine seasons.

Little Salvor is stunned. So everybody comes from just one planet? Then why do people hate each other? This prompts Salvor’s Dad to give her a lecture about how violence and hate beget even more violence and hate. Hereby, Salvor’s Dad also says the following, “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” This is an actual quote from the books – and one of the most famous ones, at that – though in the books Salvor Hardin is the one who says it. Of course, Salvor may well have gotten the saying from his/her Dad.

But while book Salvor acts according to his own aphorism and beats the Anacreons without a single shot fired – twice – the TV series has turned Salvor into an action girl character who usually tries to solve problems by hitting or shooting at them. Still, even a little bit of Asimov is welcome in a show that offered so very little of that.

Flash forward to the present: When we last saw Salvor, she was on the bridge of the Invictus with Lewis Pirenne, Phara and the last remaining one of Phara’s goons, when the Invictus suddenly jumped to parts unknown, pulling several Thespin ships along with it.

Now Foundation has made a point of making it clear that unaugmented humans cannot tolerate hyperspace jumps while awake, which is why they are sedated before the jump. However, since the Invictus jumped in the middle of a fight, no one had the time to get sedated. And so Salvor is awake during the jump and not negatively affected beyond distorted vision, because Salvor is super-special, just in case you hadn’t noticed it yet.

When Salvor scrambles to her feet again, she realises that the Invictus is orbiting Terminus, which is exactly where Salvor wanted to take her. She finds that Lewis Pirenne has plugged himself into the navigation console and sent the ship to Terminus, which cost him his life. Rest in Peace, Lewis Pirenne, a character who was so much better here than in the books, while also staying true to his book self.

The jump also knocked Phara and her goon out. Salvor ties them up and then tries to hail Terminus or indeed anybody on the coms of the Invictus, but gets no response. Plus, unless Salvor can figure out how to disable the jump drive, the Invictus will jump again to heaven knows where.

On the scanners, Salvor spots Hugo’s ship, which apparently was dragged into the jump as well. So she gets into a spacesuit to return to the ship she at least has some hope of controlling. Of course, she still can’t hail Terminus, but at least a piece of cosmic debris on a collision course with the ship turns out to be Hugo in his spacesuit, who somehow had also hitched a ride with the Invictus. So Hugo and Salvor are reunited. They make a very cute couple and Hugo is one addition the series makes that I genuinely like. Though they quickly start arguing, because Hugo just wants to take his ship and Salvor and fly away, whereas Salvor doesn’t want to abandon Terminus or the Invictus. She also explains that she believes that the reason she can’t hail anybody on Terminus is that the null field around the Time Vault has expanded to swallow Terminus City.

So Hugo returns to the Thespins to help them disable the Invictus‘ jump drive, before she can jump again, while Salvor heads for Terminus. Now we also finally see some Thespins not named Hugo. They are all white, vaguely Eastern European and tend to go for totalitarian chic. Indeed, they could easily be Imperial officers in Star Wars. The Thespins arrest Phara’s lone remaining goon, but Phara herself has escaped and promptly hijacks a Thespin ship.

Meanwhile, back on Terminus, everybody has passed out from the expanding null field. Only Salvor, who’s immune to its effects (cause she’s super-special), can still walk around. Unfortunately, she neglects to disarm and tie up the Anacreons, but instead checks the vital signs of people she knows like those two cute kids and her Mom, whom she finds unconscious fairly close to the Time Vault. In her hand, Salvor’s Mom holds Hari Seldon’s magic dodecahedron.

Salvor now has another psychic flashback and sees Hari Seldon and Gaal Dornick with the dodecahedron. More importantly, she also sees how to activate the dodecahedron, so she does just that.

I’ve seen the theory bandied about that Salvor is the biological kid of Gaal and probably Raych (who was implied to be psychic in the books), which is why she seems to be psychic as well. There is certainly some merit to this theory, especially since we got that lengthy sequence about Irish Foundationer Shivaun extracting eggs and embryos from women aboard the Foundation’s generation ship, including Gaal, back in episode 2. That said, I have no idea why Salvor’s parents would decide to carry the biological child of Gaal and Raych to term, unless there was a mix-up at the fertility clinic. Also, in the books, Salvor Hardin is smart and resourceful and in the right place at the right time. However, he/she is not in any way special.

Salvor’s activation of the dodecahedron has the desired effect. There are some glowy special effects, the Time Vault turns to a glowing crystal, burries itself into the ground of a hilltop and splits in half, revealing a glowing doorway. Meanwhile, the null field is deactivated and everybody wakes up again.

Salvor and her Mom are arguing about whether to do through the glowy doorway, when the Anacreons show up, brandishing guns. Foundationers and Anacreons are at each other’s throats, when the Thespins show up with two neat ships, which look like streamlined TIE-fighters and can be remote-controlled by the Thespin commander to fire at the Anacreons, unless they stand down.

The stand-off escalates, when Phara shows up with her stolen Thespin spaceship and blasts the other two Thespin ships to bits. Then she lands and also pulls the remote control stunt on the Anacreons and the Foudationers. Meanwhile, Salvor – who has taken her father’s words to heart after all – yells at everybody to calm down and listen to her. After all, the Invictus is the most powerful weapon in the universe and much too useful to waste on Phara’s crazed revenge scheme. Keeping her and using her to keep the Empire and any other expansionist neighbours at bay would be a much better purpose, so why don’t Anacreons, Thespins and Foudationers just band together and sing Kumbaya use the Invictus to tell the Empire where they can stuff it.

It’s a good proposal and the Foundationers, the Thespins and most of the Anacreons are actually considering it. However, Phara won’t have any of that, so her own goon pulls a gun on her, cause he’s had enough of Phara and her crazed revenge quest. This leads to another stand-off between Phara and her goon, while Salvor grabs Phara’s bow and shoots her, instant archery skills apparently being another of her super-special abilities.

Seriously, fun as the whole Invictus and Terminus sequences were, the fact that everybody just instantly has all the skills they need is seriously eye-roll worthy. After all, Salvor has never been to space before and yet she can instantly fly a spaceship, put on a spacesuit and navigate in it and use the com system on a seven-hundred-year-old spaceship. Lewis Pirenne has some space knowledge, but can use the navigation console of a seven-hundred-year-old spaceship without any issues, even if it kills him in the end. Phara can control a type of spaceship that’s completely unknown to her. And Salvor can hit someone with an arrow on the first try. I’m as sick as anybody of calling every remotely competent character a Mary Sue, but the instant skills many of the Foundation characters display are just ridiculous. Salvor knowing how to fly a spaceship with zero training is like me flying a plane and not crashing with zero training. And that arrow would have been far more likely to hit a random bystander than Phara, if Salvor had managed to fire at all.

While everybody is still at each other’s throats, the glow of the Time Vault intensifies and out strolls none other than Hari Seldon or rather his hologram, a smug grin on his face. “Well, well, Termini, Anacreons and Thespins all in one place”, the hologram says, “If that isn’t a good sign that we will survive this crisis.”

Astoundingg May 1942

“Foundation” may be by far the most famous story to appear in the May 1942 issue of Astounding, but the cover actually illustrates the lesser known “Asylum” by A.E. Van Vogt.

This is basically how the first every Foundation story published, entitled simply “Foundation” upon first publication in the May 1942 issue of Astounding Science Fiction and “The Encyclopedists” for the book version, ends, with Hari Seldon’s hologram showing up and explaining that everything is happening just as he foresaw it and that the solution to their dilemma is obvious – though readers would have to wait until the June 1942 issue of Astounding to hear just what that obvious solution was.

Astounding June 1942

The sequel “Bridle and Saddle” actually did get the cover of the June 1942 issue of Astounding, though it’s a rather underwhelming one.

I have to admit that I punched the air when Hari Seldon’s hologram showed up with that smug grin on his face, because this right there was what I’ve been waiting to see for thirty years. Here finally was the Foundation I read and enjoyed all those years ago. Of course, it still took the show seven episodes to tell a story that is under 10000 words long (the first episode was an adaptation of “The Psychohistorians”, the first story in the book version, and the second episode was filler/bridging material). And even though the outcome is the same – the Foundation will join up with (and very likely control) its aggressive neighbours – the way the show took to get there was long, meandering and a massive detour from the books. The endless chase, capture, escape sequences on Terminus and the equally endless exploration of the Invictus could have easily been condensed to two or three episodes, which would have given the show the room to adapt “Bridle and Saddle” a.k.a. “The Mayors” in the first season as well. Since both stories are two halves of a whole and both feature Salvor Hardin, this would have actually made sense, before jumping ahead in time and giving us Limmar Ponyets and Hober Mallow.

ETA: Bob Mayer also complains about the glacial pace of Foundation and points out how much better Dune and The Expanse work as adaptations.

So in short, Foundation is back on track after endlessly meandering detours. Though I hope that the TV show will also adopt Salvor’s obvious solution – share our tech with our neighbours, but pretend it’s magic and only special priests can controll it – because the fake religion of Scientism was always one of my favourite bits from the first Foundation book.

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3 Responses to Foundation finally experiences “The First Crisis”

  1. Steve Wright says:

    Is the dodecahedron thing the Prime Radiant, as seen in “Second Foundation”? Or is it some entirely new plot contrivance?

    The location of Earth is known well enough in the trilogy’s era; it’s a minor (and rather inconveniently radioactive) world inside the Empire (see “Pebble in the Sky”). What people have forgotten is whether Earth or some nearby planet is the original home of humanity. Lord Dorwin has a little speech about it at one point. (Incidentally, I think you’ve rather maligned book-Dorwin in your reviews – if it hadn’t been for Hardin recording and analyzing his speeches, he would have got away with his main mission, of making the Foundation feel gently reassured while committing the Empire to absolutely nothing. Not quite as daft as he looks, Lord Dorwin!)

    • Cora says:

      I think it’s supposed to be the same thing, though the question is how the Second Foundation will come by it, if the First Foundation has it. Maybe Seldon had a spare.

      In Prelude to Foundation, Hari Seldon is eager to find to origin of humanity to test his theories at one point, though he mistakenly believes it’s Aurora from the robot novels. So they no longer know on which planet humanity originated, even if they do know where Earth is. Daneel knows, of course, but he/she isn’t talking.

      That said, I always found it a bit unbelievable that humanity would simply forget where they come from, but then Asimov seriously underestimated the development of communication and information storage. See also how the Foundation no longer knows that the Empire still exists by Hober Mallow’s time.

      I herewith formally apologise to Lord Dorwin for underestimating him. Though I do like what the show has done with minor character like Dorwin or Lewis Pirenne in keeping fairly true to their book counterparts while giving them a lot more to do.

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

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