“Foundation” Episode Three: Asimov’s Heart, If Not His Plot

“Foundation” Episode Three: Asimov’s Heart, If Not His Plot

Late in episode three of Foundation on Apple TV+ come the words that might delight Isaac Asimov most in the series so far, had he lived to see it. “The Empire feared Hari because he could forecast the future,” says Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell) in voiceover. “But in reality, all he was doing was re-examining the past.”

The Foundation series was, the author made no secret, an attempt to transpose Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire into the distant future. Though psychohistory was presented as a new mathematical science allowing Hari Seldon to foretell the future, in a sense it was a red herring; the real discipline Asimov loved was simply history. Can we truly learn from the past? Can we accept human imperfection, the fact that even the vastest empire can and will fall?

Absolutely not, if you’re an emperor — especially one in a cloned succession of rulers. (Needless to say, spoilers follow for both series and stories.) The first half of episode three, “The Mathematician’s Ghost,” focuses on the elaborate ritual of succession among emperors, played at various ages by Lee Pace (Brother Day), Cassian Bilton (Brother Dawn), and Terrence Mann (Brother Dusk becoming Darkness).

This is all a fabrication of showrunner David S. Goyer and this episode’s screenwriter, Olivia Purnell. In the Asimov stories, imperial succession is far messier; there’s constant jostling for the throne, and at one point a military junta takes charge. Still, the show’s approach is an example of the potential to explore shades of expression for which Asimov — who was four years younger than Brother Dawn himself, Cassian Bilton, when the first Foundation story was published — had little time.

The older Asimov was far more sentimental, and another thing that would gratify the late Grand Master is how strongly the series draws upon the spirit of his final two novels, Prelude to Foundation (1988) and Forward the Foundation (published posthumously in 1993), in its depiction of the aged Hari Seldon (Jared Harris). “Mathematician’s Ghost” also dwells extensively on the relationship between the cloned Cleons and ageless advisor Eto Demerzel (Laura Birn). (One more spoiler alert, if you haven’t read the books!)

In the TV series Demerzel has already been revealed to be a robot, which is a major bombshell in Asimov’s prequel novels. There, Demerzel turns out to be not just a “humaniform” robot, but the humaniform robot: R. Daneel Olivaw, hero of Asimov’s four robot novels and clear inspiration for Lt. Commander Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation. The series hints at human animosity toward robots, which is a constant theme of Asimov’s late novels; it’s how he explains the fact that his robot stories and his seemingly robot-free Foundation stories actually exist in the same future universe.

Asimov, of course, was on Team Robot, and his robot stories contain some of his most deeply-felt writing. Although the relationship between Demerzel and Cleon(s) is much different in the series than in the books (where the emperors seem not to be aware of Demerzel’s true identity), the tender friendship between Brother Dusk and Demerzel contains strong echoes of Asimov’s robot stories — including The Bicentennial Man, the basis for a Robin Williams movie that, however sappy, may be the truest Asimov adaptation to date.

The second half of episode three takes us out to the frontier, where Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey) senses trouble. Although the character was male in the books, even the most casual Asimov readers will know great things are in store for Hardin, one of the most storied heroes of the original Foundation stories.

Here, she’s paired with a character named Hugo (Daniel MacPherson), one of the dashing traders beloved by Asimov (and a likely inspiration for Han Solo, making it apt that Star Wars gets a shout-out with a reference to “Corellian chocolate”). While the Hugo of the Foundation stories was a mathematician, not a trader, Goyer and Purnell must have decided the name was too good not to appropriate — especially since it’s also the name of the biggest award in science fiction, named after pulp editor Hugo Gernsback. (The Foundation series won a special Hugo in 1966, decades after the stories’ initial publication; Asimov was such a pioneer that his most popular and influential work actually predated the Hugos.)

By the end of the episode, the series is building up a head of steam driven by the same fundamental plot engine that powered the first Foundation stories: the Foundation is entering a series of seemingly existential crises, without instruction from Seldon but with the assurance that he’s done the math and somehow things will all work out. In the stories, a holographic Hari checks in occasionally from the “Seldon Vault,” already a point of major curiosity for the TV characters, to assure the Encyclopedists (the Foundation’s ostensible task is to write an Encyclopedia Galactica) that everything’s on track.

Until, of course, it isn’t.

Jay Gabler

Photo: Leah Harvey in Foundation (courtesy Apple TV+).