A Stronger ‘Foundation’

Season 2 of the Apple+ sci-fi epic gets closer to Asimov’s vision

It’s been two years since Apple+ TV attempted to turn Foundation into a major science-fiction franchise. Scorned as unfilmable…well, many critics said that it still hasn’t been. The various Foundation stories were Isaac Asimov’s great epic of the triumph of science over the decaying sands of time, the titular Foundation seeking to guard against the inevitable collapse of its resident galactic empire by using psychohistory to predict, and avoid, the pratfalls of large civilizations. Of course, a lot has changed in the eighty (!) years since Isaac Asimov wrote the first Foundation stories. In Asimov’s day, the collapse of civilization was a distant inevitability, with psychohistory’s prophet Hari Seldon achieving exile through his own seeming irrelevance. Today? We can barely even discuss politics in any serious sense anymore, trapped as we are between the choices of  saying America should be great again or blithely asserting that America is already great.

The first season of Foundation may not have been a proper Asimovian adaptation, but it was certainly one appropriate for the era we actually live in. Empire in Foundation literally exists as a trinity, with Cleon perpetually cloned in Dawn, Day, and Dusk forms under the assumption that preventing any change to the system is the best way to keep it going. In the first season we saw Day competently, but unnecessarily cruelly, murder whole planets in the opener, and then in the closer use just as much cruelty in a more subtle way to obliterate the legacy of the woman who mentally assaulted Dawn with love and fear.

The opening credits of Foundation, a degradation of mighty statues alongside arcane math, only further enhances its literal decay in the second season as the spiritual rot has gotten even more pronounced. Cleon XII in the first season was cruel, but competent and by the end was even able to show some humility. Cleon XVII in the second season is cruel and even childish, to an alarming and hilariously ironic extent. The show first depicts Clean XVII in the nude, having just finished having sex with Demerzel, the last robot whose maternal role in the first season is horribly confused by the now very-dysfunctional royal family. Where Cleon XII in Day form called Dawn his son and brother, Cleon XVII has come up with a baffling and absurd plan to cut Dawn out of the royal line altogether and restart monarchism by taking a wife and impregnating her.

Day, Dawn, and Dusk don’t get along in the second season of Foundation. They barely even seem to like each other. But Demerzel ends up with the most tragic arc of the season, as Foundation accidentally yet brilliantly skewers the entire artificial intelligence trend that didn’t even start until after they’d finished the scripts for this season. Demerzel is, as we can see, an exceptionally competent robot devoted to serving Empire. The problem is, that Empire has increasingly become a very impractical and unworkable idea. Is Demerzel being at all useful if she’s using her artificial intelligence to do stupid things, or is her competence actually making the situation worse by preventing alternate solutions that don’t involve the preservation of Empire?

There’s no denying that, as was the case in the first season, the Empire arc of Foundation is the strongest despite it also being the most radical departure from the books, not in that it’s contradictory, it’s just that we don’t see Empire up close in the books. Also, Demerzel only really shows up at the tail end of the stories, and only as a cameo because in his later years Asimov was trying to establish that everything he ever wrote was part of the same continuity. An accurate adaptation of Foundation would try to preserve that, and it would be very dumb. That’s how good the Demerzel metaphor is for structural problems in flawed projects, it even manages to apply to her own existence in the metatext, and the payoff is way better than the early Law of Robotics references would have us believe.

But there’s a lot going on in the other plots too for thematic relevance. Gaal Dornick, the protege of Hari Seldon, is back this season in a universe where everyone she ever cared about is long dead. Gaal Dornick rebelled against Hari Seldon’s arbitrary application of psychohistory, and nearly derailed his whole plan except that by dumb luck that her biological daughter Salvor Hardin was in the right place at the right time in the first season to fulfill that role. Salvor Hardin is back too, both of them alongside Hari Seldon in their own Second Foundation storyline.

The contrast between Dornick and Hardin is more noteworthy and purposeful this season because Foundation explicitly draws a contrast between Dornick’s continued horror at how different she was in a theocratic society, while Hardin was well-adjusted in a secular culture that genuinely values alternate experiences. The scientists at Foundation never hated Hardin for being different. At worst they just thought she was kind of odd, while at the best of times they thought she was pretty cool. The quest for a Second Foundation takes these two alongside Hari Seldon’s consciousness to a planet with outcasts whose mental powers are similar to their own, as well as the Mule, the inevitable villain of the third season.

A surprising rebuke of identity politics follows, which is doubly ironic since you could theoretically accuse Foundation of woke casting when it comes to Dornick and Hardin. Does Dornick owe her allegiance to mentally powered people similar to her physically, or Hari Seldon’s plan, which seeks to improve everyone’s lives, and not just Dornick’s own people? Dornick’s position is ambiguous, but Hardin’s isn’t, because while Dornick lived in a close-minded society, Hardin didn’t. The final twists in their storyline also make a strong note of the fact that whatever their personal feelings may be, a person who correctly claims the mantle of an oppressed person is not necessarily a good, virtuous person just because bad things happened to them in the past.

The final major storyline of Foundation is on a far more optimistic plan than these other two, depicting magicians who use showmanship to try to convince other planets in the Outer Reaches to align with the Foundation, and not the Empire that abandoned them. The show makes the significant point that while the Foundation like the Empire is employing quasi-religious elements to justify its exalted position, the Foundation is at the end of the day actually trying to help people improve their lives. Where Empire obsesses over disrespect and legal technicalities as a means to prevent people from making the situation worse, the Foundation sincerely believes that, given the choice, people will choose self-improvement over pointless, slow, self-destruction.

This isn’t a moral framing that would have made any sense to Isaac Asimov in his lifetime, but we should give Foundation a lot of credit for updating its moral framework for the present day, and for being so clearly sincere in its ideas. Even where emotional arcs fall flat, or certain plot points prove easy to nitpick, Foundation is a show that’s actually trying to say something. It’s not being irreverent for the sake of being irreverent, or using bright visual candy to secretly sneak in uninspired anticapitalist sentiment. Foundation thrives by keeping its worldbuilding constantly on the edge of creeping doom, a grim sentiment that certainly feels historical, even if it’s not necessarily psychohistorical.


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William Schwartz

William Schwartz is a reporter and film critic based in Seoul, South Korea. He writes primarily for HanCinema, the world's largest and most popular English language database for South Korean television dramas and films.

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