Foundation encounters “Death and the Maiden”

Looks like I’m doing episode by episode reviews of Foundation – at least for now – so here is my take on episode 6. Reviews of previous episodes of Foundation as well as of 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 this week’s episode of Foundation, I also want to point you to the other TV show of which I’m currently doing episode by episode reviews. Because my latest Raumpatrouille Orion (Space Patrol Orion) reviews are up at Galactic Journey. Here’s episode 2, “Planet Off Course” and episode 3 “Guardians of the Law”, which also happens to be an unofficial adaptation of an Isaac Asimov robot story.

Which brings us back to Foundation, one of the comparatively few official Asimov adaptations.

Warning: Spoilers behind the cut!

After an episode of absence, the Emperors Three are back and get two of the three plot strands of the episode devoted to them. The IMO least interesting of those three plots involves Brother Day’s and Demerzel’s trip to the planet of the generic triple goddess religion. Okay, so we do get to see Lee Pace wearing nothing but a towel (always a plus) and Demerzel finally changes her clothes and hairstyle, but otherwise this whole subplot not only has nothing to do with the books, it also fails to move the story forward in any way. Plus, it undermines Demerzel/Daneel’s character.

Now I have stated before that I have a very low tolerance for religious content, whether real world or fictional religions, in science fiction. And the Brother Day segment is basically all about the internal religious squabbles and schisms of the generic triple goddess religion a.k.a. Luminism. Now I can accept that Luminism is apparently one of the Empire’s major religions with three trillion worshippers. And the Maiden, Mother, Crone trichotomy of Luminism nicely mirrors of Dawn, Day, Dusk trichotomy of the Emperors Three. Nonetheless, I still don’t give a damn about these people and the details of their beliefs.

As was mentioned in episode 4, the leader/high priestess of Luminism has died. Because it’s such a popular religion, this is a big deal, similar to the death of a pope. Usually, there is a designated successor to this high priestess, but this time there are two potential candidate, Zephyr Galat, a white woman who is friendly inclined towards the Empire, and Zephyr Halima, a black woman, who is an upstart and not friendly inclined towards the Empire at all. In fact, Zephyr Halima believes that the Emperors Three are not really human, because their souls cannot be reincarnated, as the Luminist religion demands. And no, I can’t help but notice that here we have yet another antagonist who’s played by an actress of colour. This pattern is becoming really notable.

If theological debates involving real world religions make my eyes glaze over, theological debates of fictional religions are even worse. Because to be honest, I don’t give a damn if the Luminists believe that the Emperors Three share one soul or have none or fourteen souls. Personally, I’d say that clones or not, the Cleons are human and if you believe that humans have souls, then the Cleons must have one. But it honestly doesn’t matter to anybody except the Luminists. And since Luminism is a fictional religion, though inspired by several real world religions, that means that no one cares, because there are no Luminists.

Brother Day pretty much feels about the Luminists as I do. He doesn’t care what they believe and assumes that throwing money at the problem – by promising the Luminists to build a desalination plant to solve the lack of salt-free drinking water on the habitable moon that is the centre of their religion and location of their temple. This would seem to be a perfectly logical thing to do, since it solves a real world problem that these people have, namely a lack of clean water, rather than some spiritual mumbo jumbo about souls and reincarnation. However, religion is not logical and so Zephyr Halima (T’Nia Miller) gives a rousing speech, denouncing the Emperors Three by claiming that they are not developing and evolving, because their souls are not reincarnated. And since she’s an excellent speaker, the Luminists are completely convinced and drop to their knees.

Personally, I was reminded of Fritz Leiber’s 1959 Fafhrd and Grey Mouser story “Lean Times in Lankhmar”, where Fafhrd finds religion and briefly brings the obscure cult of Issek with the Jug (not to be confused with Issek in the Jug or any other number of Isseks) to prominence due to being a trained skald and excellent storyteller. “Lean Times in Lankhmar” (which I encourage everybody to read, because it’s hilarious) was supposedly inspired by Fritz Leiber’s brief time as an Episcopal priest, where his acting experience made him an extremely popular preacher, even though the vocation was lacking. The heretical priestess Zephyr Halima is Fafhrd or Leiber in this episode. She’s simply a better speaker than her rival. Too bad she also has it in for the Emperors Three for reasons unknown – unless she really believes every word she’s saying, which is of course possible. After all, Fafhrd did take Issek seriously as well.

The problem with the whole “Brother Day and the religious schism” segment is not only that it is boring (though visually gorgeous), but also that – unlike “Lean Times in Lankhmar” – the show takes Luminism absolutely seriously, as if it were a real religion with real worshippers, even though it is no more real than Leiber’s cult of Issek with the Jug (not to be confused with Issek in the Jug or any other number of Isseks).

And then there is Demerzel, who is revealed not only to be an adherent of Luminism, but who also drops to her knees when Zephyr Halima holds her speech. Now Demerzel/Daneel does show an interest in religion in the books, since Daneel and Elijah Baley have several philosophical discussions about biblical matters in The Caves of Steel. However, there is never any indication that Daneel views the biblical stories he discusses with Elijah as anything other than interesting philosophical questions. After all, Elijah uses the biblical story of Jesus and the adulteress to illustrate that following the letter of the law does not equal justice. But then, the biblical discussions in The Caves of Steel draw on examples taken from an actual religion, with which many/most readers will be familiar. Besides, that whole episode is funny in a way that Foundation is not, because Daneel has no idea what adultery is or what stoning is for that matter and keeps asking Elijah to explain, who is very embarassed by the whole thing. Come to think of it, I would love to see Laura Birn as Daneel in an Elijah Bailey/R. Daneel Olivaw buddy cop show.

Besides, Demerzel believing in Luminism of all religions also makes little sense in this context, because if even the cloned Emperors Three don’t have a sould according to the black priestess, then Demerzel who is a robot most definitely doesn’t have a soul. Not that this is a problem for me, but it clearly is one for the Luminists. So why would anybody, least of all the most advanced robot in the galaxy, follow a religion that treats them as not only less than human but potentially evil? Never mind that Daneel/Demerzel is old enough that he/she was already around when the moon broke into three parts, which initiated the religion, and knows there is nothing divine about that event. Honestly, this makes no sense. Though I did love the way that Demerzel lied to Brother Day’s face that her purpose is to serve the Emperors and the Empire, because we know that her purpose is much bigger than that.

Camestros Felapton enjoyed the “Brother Day and the theological debate” plotline rather more than I did, but then he has a higher tolerance for theological debates than I do. Besides, Camestros agrees that the whole Luminism subplot doesn’t move the overall plot forward by a single inch.

While Brother Day is away, dealing with annoying religions, Brother Dusk and Brother Dawn hold the fort in Trantor. Brother Dawn is still fascinated by the female gardener who chanced to witness his failed suicide attempt in episode 4 and seeks her out to thank her for her herbal pain relief tips.

Meanwhile, Brother Dusk has taken it upon himself to make Brother Dawn into a man – quite literally. So he first takes Brother Dawn hunting for what looks like little pterodactyls in the Emperors’ private hunting preserve. Personally, I was reminded of the accidental pterodactyl cameo in Citizen Kane. I love the blue hunting coats BTW, though they don’t look exactly practical.

The pterodactyl creatures are sneaky and blend into the foliage, so they are not easy to shoot. However, Brother Dawn turns out to be remarkably adept at shooting them, much more adept than Brother Dusk. And so Brother Dawn shoots seven pterodacytls on his first day out, whereas Brother Dusk never managed more than three in one day. However, Brother Dawn is terrified of Brother Dusk – just as the current Brother Day was terrified of him, when he was Brother Dawn – and so he instructs his attendant to throw four of the pterodactyl things away, so he will not break Brother Dusk’s record. However, one of Brother Dusk’s attendants finds the discarded pterodactyl corpses, so Brother Dawn’s secret is out.

After the hunt, the quest to make a man of Brother Dawn continues in the Imperial harem (yes, there is such a thing. I’m sure John W. Campbell and Kay Tarrant would be shocked and Asimov pleased). The Imperial harem contains young women (apparently, all Cleons are assumed to be straight) from all over the Empire, who will have their memories wiped after their time with the Emperors Three to avoid any tell-all memoirs. Meanwhile, Conan, who has a harem himself in his time as King of Aquilonia, wonders where the fun is, if the ladies forget what happened during their time spent with him.

Brother Dusk encourages Brother Dawn to pick a woman. Brother Dawn picks one who reminds him of the young gardener and takes her to his chambers, but won’t do anything with her. “I’ll tell them you did fine”, he tells her and remarks that since she’ll have her memories wiped, she won’t remember anything different either. However, the woman doesn’t have her memories wiped at once and tells Brother Dusk exactly what happened, namely nothing.

The next day, Brother Dawn has the young gardener called to his chambers (once he realises that he can do that) to show her what the garden looks like from above. The garden scenes were shot somewhere in Bavaria, which is why the logo of the German film support fund is in the credits.  Brother Dawn entices the young gardener to step onto the ledge, from which he tried to jump back in episode 4. She’s reluctant at first, but Brother Dawn takes off his personal force field and offers it to her. The gardener refuses, so they both stand on the ledge in a very precarious position and without any protection. They admire the gardens and Brother Dawn asks the gardener to describe the colours to him, whereupon she realises that Brother Dawn is colour-blind. This is also why he is such a good hunter.

Now colour blindness is a genetic condition in the vast majority of cases and men are more affected than women. And therein lies the problem, because no other Cleon has ever been colour-blind, which suggests that the cloning process is imperfect and genetic mutations are creeping in.

Brother Dawn is terrified that someone will find out his secret, because he fears that as a defective clone, he will simply be killed and replaced by another clone. And considering that the first Brother Dusk we saw was disintegrated, this fear is not entirely unjustified. There is a tense moment with the gardener who knows his secret and could expose him to Brothers Dusk and Day, then Brother Dawn and the gardener kiss.

Paul Levinson notes in his review of this episode that in Forward the Foundation, Cleon I is murdered by a gardener in front of the eyes of Hari Seldon, though that gardener is an old man. The purpose of that scene (which I had completely forgotten) is to show that even Hari Seldon can’t predict the actions of individuals like a deranged gardener murdering the Emperor.

Meanwhile, in the TV show, the purpose of the various Emperors Three scene is to show the slow but inevitable decline of the Empire. The Brother Dawn sequences show that decline on a genetic level, since the cloning process seems to be breaking down from too many copies made, while the Brother Day sequences show the decline on a macro level.

I wasn’t too impressed by the teenaged version of Brother Dawn in episode 4, but I like his storyline in this episode. Meanwhile, as mentioned above, the whole Brother Day sequence is just dull. I understand that the showrunners want to show the decline and fall of the Empire on the screen rather than have it happen off-page as in the books. But honestly, couldn’t they have come up with something more interesting for Brother Day to do than deal with the internal squabbles of an annoying religion? I suspect that the religion angle is a reference to the rise of Christianity, which coincided with (and some feel was to blame for) the decline of the Roman Empire. But while visually very pretty, the whole Luminist sequence was just dull and made me yell at the screen, “Oh, just have that rabble-rousing priestess assassinated and pass it off as the will of the goddess.”

Which brings us to the main storyline – even if the show keeps forgetting it – on Terminus, where the Anacreons have broken through the fence around Terminus City and are happily murdering Foundationers in the streets, while Salvor Hardin has been taken prisoner by Supreme Huntress Nutcase Phara and her little gang of Xena cosplayers. The Anacreons also managed to shoot down an Imperial warship under the command of Lord Dorwin. Though amazingly, Dorwin survives the fiery crash – being married to the Thirteenth Doctor has its advantages – only to be promptly taken prisoner by the Anacreons.

Phara is uncommonly interested in certain Foundationers who had vital roles in piloting the starship that brought the Foundation to Terminus. She’s also keeping Dorwin alive, because she needs him. It becomes clear that Phara needs people who can operate a jumpship. And not just any old jumpship either, but the Invictus, a legendary lost Imperial superweapon. Uh-oh.

Quite a few people such as io9 reviewer Rob Bricken were annoyed at the whole Invictus angle, because Isaac Asimov’s original stories barely have space battles, let alone Death Star type superweapons. However, the whole Invictus bit is actually closer to the original stories than the whole Luminism subplot. Because an abandoned Imperial battlecruiser retrofitted by the Foundation on behalf of Anacreon does play a role in “Bridle and Saddle”, the second of the original Foundation stories, which was published in the June 1942 issue of Astounding and later became chapter three of the first book under the title “The Mayors”. Coincidentally, there’s also a character named “Fara” in that story, though that character is a) male and b) a Foundationer, not someone from Anacreon. Can you tell that I have my copy of Foundation next to the computer to look this stuff up?

The battlecruiser in “Bridle and Saddle” is called Wienis, after the treacherous Prince Regent of Anacreon, and not Invictus. But whatever the name, both are Imperial battleships retrofitted and refurbished by the Foundation with their superior technology on behalf of Anacreon. In “Briddle and Saddle”, the villainous Prince Regent Wienis wants to use the eponymous battlecruiser to launch an attack against Terminus. However, the Foundation has built in a fail-safe in the form of a kill switch, which is then remotely triggered after a priest of the Foundation’s fake religion scientism curses the ship. A subsequent attempt to shoot Salvor Hardin also fails due to the nifty personal forceshields that the Foundationers have. This convinces the Anacreons that the Foundation are mighty priest-magicians and causes them to bow down before them.

While Phara is threatening Foundationers to find a crew for the Invictus, Salvor is rescued by two of the plucky kids we’ve been seeing running around in the Terminus scenes and reunited with Hugo and her Dad. There’s also a neat scene where Salvor learns that her Dad never really believed in Hari Seldon and the whole plan, but only joined the Foundation because he was in love with Salvor’s mother and she believed in the plan.

Furthermore, the kids managed to overhear the word “Invictus” and Salvor just happens to know that that is the name of a legendary lost Imperial battleship. Sorry, but Asimov, who was also a mystery writer, after all, would have come up with a less clumsy way to drop that clue even at the tender age of 22. So Salvor, her Dad and Hugo decide to launch a three-person attack on the Anacreon corvettes, because without ships, the Anacreons can’t leave Terminus and can’t reach the Invictus.

We get an impressive raid sequence, where Salvor gets to show off her sharp-shooting skills. However, Salvor suffers another weird flashback at the worst moment possible and sees how Hari Seldon and Raych planned Hari’s murder. But it was Raych, not Gaal, who was supposed to escape in the escape pod and get to the mystery ship we saw last episode. As for why the murder is necessary at all, Hari gives a speech to Raych that sometimes the fate of the whole galaxy hinges on the actions of a single person and that Raych and Gaal getting together will upset the plan. As for why Salvor Hardin is suddenly getting infodump flashbacks, who knows? Especially since the infodumps are only of interest to the audience, not to Salvor.

Of course, psychohistory is about predicting the future based on large-scale trends and large numbers of people. It cannot predict the actions of individuals and can also be stymied by unpredictable individuals like the gardener who murdered Cleon I and the Mule. And the show actually has Hari Seldon explain just that in episode 1. So why does the show keep contradicting this central tenet of psychohistory by constantly showing us that the actions of certain individuals – Salvor, Gaal, Raych – are vitally important and may change the entire course of history and upset the Seldon plan? Especially since the books make it very clear that if Salvor Hardin or Hober Mallow hadn’t done what they did, someone else would have done it and the outcome would have been the same. I’m not the only person who is irked by this. AV-Club reviewer Nick Wanserski, who as far as I recall hasn’t read the books, notes the contradiction as well.

Salvor’s infodump flashback derails the original plan and so her Dad is the one who sets off the charges and blows up the Anacreon corvettes, sadly perishing in the process. With the Anacreon corvettes destroyed, there is only one ship left on Terminus capable in getting the Anacreons off planet and that is Hugo’s ship. So Salvor and Hugo try to reach it, before the Anacreons realise what’s up. However, they’re too late and are taken hostage by Phara – again. Phara wants to take Hugo alone, but he transfers the controls of the ship to Salvor, so Phara has to take them both – plus, Lewis Pirenne and two other Foundationers. The episode ends with them taking off in search of the Invictus.

This was the first episode where I actually felt sorry for Lewis Pirenne, a character who’s very much a pompous jerk in the books and not much better in the TV series. Meanwhile, I really, really hate Phara and the Anacreons. I certainly won’t cry if the Empire nukes them from orbit again.

It seems to me as if the show is combining the first two Foundation stories, “Foundation”/”The Encyclopedists” and “Bridle and Saddle”/”The Mayors” into one, which makes a whole lot of sense, because a) both stories star Salvor Hardin, even though they are set thirty years apart, and b) “Foundation” is rather dull, whereas “Bridle and Saddle” has a lot more action. Besides, Salvor even says in the episode itself that this is the first Seldon crisis.

That said, I’m getting really worried that we’re not going to see the fake religion of “Scientism” being presented as the solution to the problem of Anacreon and the Four Kingdoms as it was in the books. Which will make me very cross, because I always loved the idea of pacifying aggressive idiots via a fake religion that worships nuclear power of all things. I don’t mind if Salvor Hardin is a black woman and super-special now and I don’t mind all the extraneous stuff that doesn’t happen in the books, but I really want to see “Scientism”, complete with pompous robed priests worshipping sacred technology and uttering curses that trigger kill switches.

The three hosts of the Star’s End podcast said a few weeks ago that they believe we won’t get to see Scientism, because the idea of a deliberately fake religion being used to trick people might offend religious viewers. Personally, I think this is nonsense, because Scientism is not an analogue to any real world religion and therefore unlikely to offend anybody. And the sort of fundamentalists who believe that Harry Potter and D&D promote Satanism aren’t watching Foundation anyway. Though now I wonder whether the many scenes devoted to the religions of the Empire aren’t supposed to form a counterpoint to Scientism – see, we do take religion seriously, after all.

Never mind that the first two Foundation stories were written and published in 1942, at a time when the US was a lot more religious than they are now. Nor was this the only “science as a fake religion” story published during that era. Particularly John W. Campbell’s magazines Astounding and Unknown were full of that sort of thing. If you think Scientism might be offensive to religious people, then what would they make of Fritz Leiber’s 1943 novel Gather, Darkness, also published in Astounding, where the fake religion is not only a lot more modeled on some of the more regressive strands of Christianity, complete with robotic drones that look like angels, while their opponents, who wield science disguised as magic, employ a mix a wiccan and pagan tropes? Or how about Fritz Leiber’s above mentioned “Lean Times in Lankhmar”, published in 1959 – no, not in Astounding but in Fantastic – which is a sharp satire of religion as well as a hilariously funny story starring everybody’s favourite pair of rogues. Or how about Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp, future mutilator of Conan, published in 1939 in Campbell’s Unknown, whose modern protagonist finds himself in Ostrogothic occupied Rome in the year 535 AD, i.e. after the fall of the West Roman Empire and at the beginning of the so-called “Dark Ages” and sets about to introduce advanced technology to stave off the Dark Ages – sound familiar? – and also to suppress the rise of Christianity and prevent the development of Islam altogether?

In general, religion of any kind does not play a big role in the SFF of the so-called “golden age” of the 1930s to early 1950s. If religion does appear it’s either a scam or for aliens or both or it involves robed cultists sacrificing nubile virgins to some Lovecraftian monstrosity. The whole “science as religion” thing seems to have been one of Campbell’s pet topics, considering how often it shows up in stories he published in Astounding and Unknown. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Foundation and Lest Darkness Fall and maybe even Gather, Darkness! all grew from the same prompt. But the scepticism of organised religion goes beyond the Campbell mags. In the 1910s, Edgar Rice Burroughs gave us the corrupt and fake Gods of Mars. Robert E. Howard’s Conan may swear by Crom – because, as Bobby Derie put it, using “Fuck” was not acceptable in the 1930s – but Crom is explicitly an absent god who sits on his mountain top and just wants to be left alone. Conan himself is an agnostic, who explicitly says in “Queen of the Black Coast” that there are probably gods, based on what he’s experienced, but he doesn’t know which religion gets it right and doesn’t particularly care either.

So how was it possible to tell stories like Foundation, Lest Darkness Fall, Gather, Darkness or Lean Times in Lankhmar in the much more religious US of the 1940s and 1950s without mobs armed with torches and pitchforks descending upon the Street & Smith building and fatwas being issued again L. Sprague de Camp and John W. Campbell, but nowadays the concept of a fake religion that uses science to create miracles is apparently too offensive for TV? Or is it a case of the Apple+ service being overly cautious, because someone somewhere might be offended, similar to how Disney handles LGBTQ characters?

At any rate, I hope that we get to see Scientism eventually and of course, Hari Seldon’s hologram dispensing vague wisdom.

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5 Responses to Foundation encounters “Death and the Maiden”

  1. Pingback: Foundation discovers “Mysteries and Martyrs” and departs even further from the books | Cora Buhlert

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  4. Michael Helm says:

    I always thought “Foundation” as a whole was a response to or inspired by “Lest Darkness Fall”. I read them both a long time ago at about the same time, & they also first appeared in print about the same time, “Lest…” first.

    I don’t know if that’s in fact true or if de Camp and Asimov were even aware of each other at the time (they certainly were later, and during the period when Asimov was writing the later parts of the Foundation series). Maybe each says more about this in their respective bios.

    • Cora says:

      Asimov definitely read Unknown, Astounding’s sister mag where “Lest Darkness Fall” was published, because he was eager to break into it, so he likely read it. Though both “Lest Darkness Fall” and “Foundation” might also result from the same writing prompt given by John W. Campbell, since we know that he used to do that.

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