Foundation Meets “The Mathematician’s Ghost”

I’m still not sure, if this will be an ongoing series of episode by episode reviews, but I did watch the third episode of Foundation, though the review is a little late, because I was also at the virtual Octocon this weekend (a con report is coming). Meanwhile, Reviews of previous episodes of Foundation (well, just two so far) as well as two actual Foundation stories may be found here BTW.

Warning: Spoilers behind the cut!

The third episode of Foundation takes a step forward to the very first Foundation story – entitled only “Foundation”, when it was published in Astounding Science Fiction in 1942, but known to those of us who have read the book versions as “The Encyclopedists”. But in order to take that step forward, the show first takes a step back four hundred years in time (Foundation only deal in centuries) to the very first Emperor Cleon who was so eager to cling to power that he cloned himself. And so the episode opens with Cleon I (Terrence Mann in old age make-up) observing the Skybridge space elevator being built, Demerzel/Daneel by his side. Cleon I is dying and he knows it. He wishes that he could stand on the docking platform atop the Skybridge with Demerzel, but Demerzel will stand there with another Cleon.

Fast forward some 419 years and Demerzel is standing next to another dying Emperor, namely the Brother Dusk from the first two episodes (also played by Terrence Mann in old age make-up). Nineteen years have passed since the terrorist attack on the Skybridge (and we still don’t know who’s responsible, since the Anacreonian and Thesbian fall guys clearly didn’t do it) and the Imperial Threesome is about to shift forward. The next Brother Dawn is about to be decanted (literally, since the Emperors are grown in artificial wombs watched over by Demerzel who sings lullabyes to them), which means that there is one surplus Emperor, because there can only ever be three. Why can there only ever be three? There’s no real explanation beyond the fact that more Emperors would mean either hiring more similar looking actors or spending more time and money on old age make-up.

So the episode follows the soon to be ex-Brother Dusk through his last day in the universe. Brother Dusk is still working on the massive mural he’s been working on for decades – in fact, he is known as Cleon XI the Painter – putting some finishing touches on the mural. He has his death robes fitted and talks to Demerzel who assures him that she will remember him, because she remembers everything. She also tells him that all the Cleons are different and that they all leave her too soon.

This bit is interesting, because it explains why Demerzel supports that whole cloning enterprise. Because Daneel/Demerzel is approximately twenty thousand years old at this point and has seen countless people die, including people who meant something to her. And she can remember them all, which means she’s probably still mourning them all, too. Because no matter what Daneel/Demerzel was in the beginning, by now she is very much a sentient, feeling being. And mourning all the people she lost over twenty thousand years must be traumatic to her. Hell, she’s probably still mourning Elijah Baley, who was after all Daneel’s first human. Even in the books, it was always clear how important Elijah was to Daneel. And if Daneel always had a female body in this version of Foundation, this would also put an interesting spin on her relationship with Elijah.

So the whole Imperial cloning scheme may well be Daneel/Demerzel’s desperate attempt to finally get to keep a human she cares about, only to see him dying over and over again  in slight variations. In his review of the episode, Camestros Felapton also goes into Daneel/Demerzel’s role in Foundation and whether he/she will turn out to be humanity self-appointed guardian, as in the books, or the series’ main villain. I really hope they won’t make Daneel/Demerzel the main villain, because that would completely undermine what is the most important character in Asimov’s whole oevre.

The robot who can’t come to terms with the fact that his humans keep aging and dying is actually pure Asimov. It just isn’t Foundation, but the basic plot of “The Bicentennial Man”, only that the humans who keep aging and dying are not clones, but the robot’s family, the Martins.

Brothers Day and Dawn as well as Demerzel also take the aged Brother Dusk for one last flight up to the Skybridge docking platform, which is still orbiting Trantor, complete with a hologram of the Emperor in his Lee Pace form welcoming the non-existent visitors. However, the orbit of the platform is decaying, so it needs to to destroyed. And if you needed any confirmation that the Empire is in decline, the fact that they haven’t even gotten rid of the ruined docking platform (not switched off the hologram), let alone started to build a replacement space elevator in nineteen years certainly is proof.

After the flight to the docking platform,  the now ex-Brother Dusk is met by the newly ascended Brother Dusk, Brother Day (the Brother Dawn kid from the first two episodes) and the newly decanted Brother Dawn, who’s still a baby being held by Demerzel and the new Brother Day (Lee Pace briefly forgets that he’s supposed to be an intergalactic tyrant and just bobs around the baby, clearly enjoying himself). The former Brother Dusk is now Brother Darkness. He steps into a disintegration chamber (“Thanks for all your hard work for the Empire, now die.”) and is reduced to ashes, which are smeared onto the forehead of the new Brother Dawn. The baby is then placed in a crib underneath the mural his predessor so painstakingly painted.

Fast forward another fifteen years and the now teenaged Brother Dawn is having servants erase the mural (and Brother Dusk’s hard work), because he claims to have outgrown it. So much for rejecting tradition.

These scenes, which take up almost half the episode, are genuinely moving and well acted. However, they also have fuck all to do with Foundation and their only purpose seems to be to remind viewers that time has passed and that the Emperors Three they’re about to see are not the same people as in the first two episodes. Never mind that the story already made the cloning concept clear and that a simple caption would have done the job just as well and left more room for the main story, namely what the Foundation is doing on Terminus.

The Terminus section is introduced by a voiceover courtesy of Lou Llobell, the actress who plays Gaal. So she is the narrator’s voice we’ve heard all along, which suggests that Gaal – a one-of character in a single short story in the original – will be around at least until the time of the Mule.

If you were wondering what happened to Gaal and what happened to Raych, after he murdered his adoptive father at the end of the previous episode, well, keep wondering, because the episode doesn’t tell us. However, Raych is no longer around, when the Encyclopedists finally reach Terminus, which suggests that he was thrown out of the nearest airlock. Nonetheless, I wonder why they had to have that dramatic out-of-character murder at all, when they’re not even going to address it. “Hari Seldon died of old age en route to Terminus” would have worked just as well.

We get a few brief scenes of the Foundationers arriving on Terminus, finding the Vault already there and finding themselves unable to go near it. The Foundationers have no idea what the Vault is, whether it’s an alien artefact (nope, Foundation is set in a purely human universe) or a probe sent ahead by the Empire to spy on them. Of course, those of us who have known the books know what the Vault is, though in the books the Vault is in Terminus City and sealed by a timelock controlled by an atomic clock. Of course, the big question is how did the Vault get to Terminus. Did Hari send it ahead? Was it the doing of the Second Foundation?

We now get a timelapse sequence of the Foundationers scuttling their colony ship and using the parts to build their city, which looks like any Star Wars frontier town. It’s somewhat more primitive than the Terminus City of the books, but then Asimov never really payed much attention to how Terminus was settled and also underestimated the difficulties the colonists would face. It’s probably no surprise that the western is one genre Asimov never dabbled in, though he otherwise tried to write his way through the Dewey Decimal System.

We also meet Salvor Hardin again and learn that she (Leah Harvey is non-binary, but Salvor Hardin is female in the series, so I’m using she/her pronouns) is a member of the first generation born on Terminus, the daughter of two of the original settlers whom we already saw in the previous episode. This Salvor appears to be younger than her book counterpart. She’s also not the Mayor of Terminus, that’s her Dad, but the Warden of Terminus, who watches the perimeter, chases around stray kids and defends the town against the entirely non-Asimovian aliens monsters that inhabit Terminus. Salvor’s Mom is a senior Encyclopedist.

Like all teenagers, Salvor rebels against her parents. She has zero interest in the encyclopedia and thinks that her parents’ faith in Hari Seldon is akin to a cult. She’s not wrong either. Salvor’s Dad swears by Seldon’s ghost at one point and about the only thing in Terminus City that’s not needed for bare survival is a big statue of Hari Seldon in the town square, a statue that resembles the Lenin statues once found on every town square in Eastern Europe, as Paul Levinson points out in his review.

In the books, Salvor Hardin as the representative of the civilian government of Trantor is opposed to the Encylopedists, but it’s a political, not a personal opposition. Salvor’s main antagonist in the original story is Lewis Pirenne, head of the Board of Trustees of the Encyclopedia Galactica. Lewis Pirenne exists in the show and is just as much a jerk as he is in the original story. However, the conflict between Salvor and her parents, most notably her mother, doesn’t exist in the books and is apparently an attempt to give the character’s conflict a personal dimension. In his review at The AV-Club, Nick Wanserski notes that after Gaal Dornick’s opposition to her parents’ anti-science religion, this is already the second time that Foundation turns a general social or religious conflict into a family drama. I guess just as in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, everybody in Foundation has parent issues.

I suspect the idea behind Salvor’s parent issues is to give the character more of a personality, because in the books, Salvor Hardin is very much a cypher. Book Salvor is a fount of aphorisms and a shrewd politician, who happens to be on the right side during the first ever Seldon crisis. We learn pretty much nothing else about Book Salvor except that he uses male pronouns, is big and broad and smokes cigars. Turning Salvor Hardin into a black woman changes absolutely nothing about the character, because Salvor Hardin has none.

While I’m perfectly fine with giving Salvor more of a personality than he/she had in the original stories, one thing that irks me is that Salvor – just like Gaal Dornick before her – is portrayed as somehow special. Because this undermines the whole point of Foundation. Because psychohistory is all about using large populations and general trends to predict future outcomes, which Hari Seldon actually explains in episode 1 of the series. Psychohistory is very much an antidote to the great man (and it’s almost always men) theory of history, which was still prevalent in the 1940s, when the stories were written, because no one individual truly matters in psychohistory, it’s the sum of all individuals that matter.

As a result, none of the various protagonists of the Foundation stories are in any way special. Gaal Dornick, Salvor Hardin, Hober Mallow, Limmar Ponyets, Bayta Darrell are not special. They’re just people who happened to be in the right place at the right time. However, if none of them had ever been born, the events would still have happened with different protagonists.

There’s only one character in the Foundation stories who’s special and that’s the Mule. And the very reason he’s special, namely random mutation which has made him a powerful telepath, is also the reason why Hari Seldon could neither foresee his existence nor prepare for it. Being special is not a good thing in the Foundation universe.

Therefore, I wonder why the screenplay is falling over its own feet to tell us how very special Salvor Hardin is. It seems as if every second line in the Terminus scenes is “She’s different”, “She’s special” and the like. For Salvor is the only one who can approach the Time Vault without succumbing to nosebleeds and fainting spells. And once, as a child, she even claimed that the Vault was calling to her. In the series, Salvor is special the way Gaal was/is special, even though neither of them was special in the books. Book Salvor and Book Gaal are very intelligent and shrewd people, but special they’re not.

Salvor’s parents, who know that being special is not a good thing in the Foundation universe, keep Salvor’s specialness a secret, though the rest of the Foudationers suspect anyway. At one point, Salvor’s Mom even tries to figure out what it is that makes Salvor special and hands her the dodecahedron that holds Hari Seldon’s plan, the plan no one could understand except Hari Seldon himself and Gaal Dornick, neither of whom are available anymore. Salvor’s Mom also manages to speak about Hari’s death without even uttering the word “murder”. Alas, Salvor can’t make heads nor tail of the calculations. She’s special, but not in that way.

The plot of the Terminus section very loosely follows the plot of the very first Foundation story written, entitled simply “Foundation”, when it was published in Astounding Science Fiction in 1942, and “The Encyclopedists”, when it was republished as part of the first Foundation book. The reason that this episode follows the plot only loosely is that “Foundation”/”The Encyclopedists” is full of beginning writer issues (Asimov was twenty-two, when he wrote it) and also not very thrilling.

Because “Foundation”/”The Encyclopedists” essentially consists of a series of meetings of men discussing the plot. First, we have Salvor Hardin squaring off against Lewis Pirenne, head of the Encyclopedists, who only cares about his encyclopedia and wants Salvor to leave him alone with his concerns about the newly independent Anacreon and Smyrno. Then, we have Salvor reluctantly welcoming one Anselm haut Roderik, a delightfully pompous envoy from Anacreon. Next we have Anselm haut Roderik, Salvor Hardin and Lewis Pirenne meeting, whereby Anselm haut Roderik tries to pressure the Foundation allowing itself to be annexed by Anacreon, while Salvor Hardin slyly tries to figure out what the true intentions of Anacreon are and also where their weaknesses lie. Finally, we have various Foundation dignities gathering in the Time Vault just in time for Hari Seldon’s hologram to show up and explain the plot to everybody, without actually offering a solution (Hari is just as helpful as Gandalf in that regard). The story literally ends with Salvor declaring that he has found the solution to their dilemma – impending annexion by Anacreon or another equally aggressive neighbour – and that it’s very obvious – without telling us what it is. Asimov supposedly ending the story without supplying the resolution to force Campbell to buy the sequel “Bridle and Saddle” a.k.a. “The Mayors”.

It’s pretty obvious that this story will not make a good TV episode as is, so “The Mathematician’s Ghost” only borrows the basic premise that Anacreon is getting uppity and Salvor is the only one who can see the danger. Meanwhile, Salvor also notices that the repellant field around the Vault seems to be expanding – almost as if the Vault is waking up. Which it is – after all, Hari Seldon’s hologram needs to dispense its sage advice.

Salvor’s regular routine of patrolling Terminus is relieved by the arrival of a Thesbian trader named Hugo who supplies the Foundationers with everything from onions to Korellian chocolate (The Korellian Republic will become relevant in “The Big and the Little” a.k.a. “The Merchant Princes”). But for Salvor, Hugo (Daniel MacPherson) isn’t just a source of rare goods, he’s also a welcome distraction, because the two of them happen to be lovers. Since Salvor Hardin barely has a personality in the original stories, we also never learn about his love life. But TV Salvor is an adult woman, so more power to her for having a pleasant no strings attached affair with a trader, even if Hugo is a tad old for her (and he is older than he looks due to suspended animation – foreshadowing). We even get the requisite sex scene for those who want Foundation to be Game of Thrones and who only watched the latter for the sex scenes. There’s also nothing wrong with the sex scene, though it still feels jarring to me in Foundation of all things, because the original stories are so very sexless.

At night, Salvor wakes up with weird premonitions of doom – she’s special, you see? – and goes on a patrol round. She chases a mysterious kid to the wreck of the scuttled colony ship, meets an alien critter called a bishop’s claw (still more of a Star Wars than an Asimov idea) and chances to spot a strange ship heading for Terminus. A magical telescope reveals that there is not one but three ships and that they are Anacreonian gunships. Hugo wants to get the hell out of Terminus and take Salvor with him, but Salvor wants to defend her home, only that the Foudationers have barely any weapons. Lewis Pirenne wants to call the Empire for help – after all, Terminus is an Imperial outpost and Anacreon officially disgraced. However, when Lewis Pirenne and the rest of the Encyclopedists try calling the Empire for help, they receive no reply. Apparently, communication lines are already breaking down.

Salvor, meanwhile, chases the mystery kid into the scuttled colony ship again and finds the bishop’s claw wounded, with an arrow in its side. This is rather alarming, because there are no arrows on Terminus except in the Encyclopedists’ store of primitive technology to preserve for the coming fall. Soon thereafter, Salvor finds herself faced by a squad of Anacreonians. Thankfully, they seem to have given up their tree cosplay. They’re also threatening her with bow and arrows! Cue credits.

The central idea behind the first two Foundation stories is that Anacreon, Smyrno, Thesbis and the fourth kingdom whose name I have forgotten have experienced technological decline in the fifty years (thirty-five in the show) since they declared themselves independent from the Empire/were kicked out of the Empire. More precisely, the Four Kingdoms no longer have nuclear power, whereas Terminus, having been settled by Encyclopedia nerds, does. Salvor Hardin tickles this information out of Anselm haut Roderick during their meeting. The solution to the threat posed by the Four Kingdoms is that the Foundation uses their superior technology to both hold them off and kindly offer to share the miracle of nuclear power with its neighbours, provided they convert to a sham religion the Foundation uses to control them.

Of course, this plotline will have to be altered, because nuclear power is now a failed cold war era technology and no longer something that promises miracles (as Asimov realised earlier than most, because nuclear optimism vanishes abruptly from his stories after 1945). However, you could easily insert another advanced technology – nano-tech, fusion reactors, magical handwavium – in place of nuclear power. Of course, technologies and knowledge just being lost and forgotten is a lot less likely in general these days than it was after the fall of the Roman Empire or even in the 1940s (a lot of German research into transgender people was irrevocably lost, because the Nazis burned the research results and there were no copies), because there will always be multiple copies of papers, books, etc… stories in various archives both online and off. Even if the whole world decided to abandon nuclear power and switch off all reactors tomorrow, we could still build new reactors in fifty or hundred years, should we want to, because all the papers, blueprints, etc… will still be available in archives around the world. This is probably also why the show bombed Anacreon and Thesbis to smithereens, to accelerate the technology loss.

However, the Anacreonians fighting with bow and arrow, even though they have gunships is just anachronistic. Yes, the spaceships are probably a legacy technology – and indeed later Foundation stories confirm that the now independent outer reaches of the Empire are using legacy technology. And yes, apparently Anacreon has no more metal than Terminus. But bow and arrow, really? If the Anacreonians have legacy spaceships, surely they have a few legacy firearms lying around. As for ammunition, during WWI and WWII everything that was not bolted down and many things that were, e.g. statues (Bremen lost this statue of Gustav Adolf of Sweden and this statue of Wilhelm I to WWII metal drives among other things), were melted down to make ammunition. Surely, Anacreon has a few surplus statues of Creon lying around.

That said, I do hope that the TV show will keep the sham religion plot, simply because it’s such a typical 1940s Astounding idea (also see Gather, Darkness! by Fritz Leiber) and also illustrates how the Foundation inevitably wins by brain over brawn (because they have barely any brawn) and how ruthless they can be. Besides, you can’t really tell either “The Wedge” or “The Big and the Little” without the sham religion plot.

However, I do think that the episode ends too early. First of all, we don’t even get to meet “The Mathematician’s Ghost”, namely Hari Seldon’s hologram. And in general, it would have been much more satisfying, if the episode had ended where the original story ended, namely with Salvor Harding proclaiming that he/she has the solution and that it’s obvious. But then, the episode spent so much time on the Emperor plot, which was interesting enough, but barely relevant, that they shortchanged the actual Terminus plot.

Still, I’ll be interested to see how they update the plot of “Foundation” and “Bridle and Saddle” for the 21st century.

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3 Responses to Foundation Meets “The Mathematician’s Ghost”

  1. Pingback: Review: Foundation Episode 4 – Camestros Felapton

  2. Cassandra says:

    It’s been so long since I read the Foundation stories that I thought Salvor *was* the Mule. The telepathy threw me.

    I agree about the glacial pace. I may quit watching weekly and wait to binge it. It’s sooo pretty though.

    Excellent review!

    • Cora says:

      Well, if Salvor were to turn out to be the Mule, that would be one dozy of a twist.

      Anyway, glad you enjoyed the review.

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