TV Show ReviewsJosh Reviews Foundation Season Two

Josh Reviews Foundation Season Two

I was not very happy with the first season of Apple TV+’s Foundation, so I didn’t rush to watch the second season when it was released.  To be honest, I wasn’t sure I was ever going to watch it.  Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series is one of my all-time favorite fictional sagas, a gloriously complex and thought-provoking sci-fi series that takes place over many centuries.  I have long wished for a faithful adaptation to the screen, and a prestige TV series in the streaming era seemed like a match made in heaven.  Sadly, I felt the first season of the show disappointed me at nearly every turn; it was not at all what I’d hoped it would be.  (Click here for my review.)

I feel about this second season very similarly to how I felt about the first season.  If I’d never read a word of Isaac Asimov’s novels, I think I’d find a lot to enjoy in this series!  The show has clearly been produced with great care, and at a high budget level that is exciting to see.  The show looks incredible, packed full with exciting sci-fi locales: various different planets, lots of cool space-ships, and more.  The visual effects are incredible, and the sets, props, costumes are all very impressive, both in terms of their scale and the creativity of their design.  The cast is excellent.  The show is filled with twists and turns that I suspect many viewers would find exciting and inventive.

And yet, while a part of my mind can acknowledge and respect those achievements, as an adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s wonderful stories, I feel the series fails at nearly every level.  They’ve made a complete hash of the novels.  They use some familiar names and settings, but the story they’ve woven has very little to do with the original novels.  In fact, the series seems to be diametrically opposed to the main themes of the novels!  The central concept of the novels was the idea of “Psychohistory” as pioneered by Dr. Harry Seldon.  By applying math to the movement of enormous populations of humanity (denizens of the tens of thousands of planets in the Galactic Empire), Seldon could, in broad strokes, predict the future.  The whole idea of the books was that it wasn’t really a story about individuals, but rather about the movements of human history.  And yet the show is all about individuals (“outliers”, as the show calls them) taking dramatic action.  And while Asimov’s novels were firmly based in science and reason (even when depicting imaginary sci-fi concepts), the show is all about characters with unexplained and seemingly magic powers (to see the future and accomplish other deeds).  Few characters on the show bear any resemblance to their namesake characters from the books.  They have Harry Seldon brutally murder the Warden of Terminus in cold blood — literally incinerating the dude — for seemingly no reason at all.  In the finale, all our heroes seem to be OK with thousands upon thousands of Imperial soldiers perish when the entire fleet is destroyed, and no one seems to care.  Who are these characters?  Where is the deeply humanistic tone of the original books, that were all about the struggle for reason and goodness over savagery and selfishness??  None of the great scenes from the novels that I have loved for so many years have made it into the show.  I find that all to be an enormous disappointment.

Let’s dive in, shall we?

The trio of Lee Pace, Cassian Bilton, and Terrence Mann as the clones of “Empire”, Day, Dawn, and Dusk continue to be my favorite aspect of the show.  This is such a fascinating idea: that the Empire is ruled by clones of Cleon I who co-exist at three different points in their life-cycles.  All three actors are terrific, truly compelling, and I think the material given to these three and their bizarre family drama has been some of the best stuff on the show throughout both seasons so far.  Things really come to a head this season, as we see these three more at odds with one another than ever before, and it was great.  I was fascinated to watch the repercussions as Day shatters their centuries-long pattern by deciding to get married and father children.

Whereas the idea of the “genetic dynasty” was a clever way to allow the actors who played the Imperial leaders to remain on the show, even as the story moves ahead by decades/centuries, I found the solution used for Gaal Dornick and Salvor Hardin to be awkward.  The show jumped them both a century and a half into the future at the end of the first season.  I still don’t understand why either made that choice (they were both beckoned by visions, which doesn’t make much sense to me), and this season doesn’t really explore the impact of their having abandoned everyone they knew.  There’s a sequence in which Salvor thinks she encounters her boyfriend Hugo (who she thought long dead); that only underlined the way that 1) the show never really gave her a reason for leaving him and her potential for a happy life behind, and 2) it weirdly doesn’t explore her trauma at having done so.  And then the finale jumps Gaal and Harry Seldon (more on him in a moment) forward again, and again I don’t understand why they make that choice.  (How can they teach and guide the mentallics of the Second Foundation if they’re in cryo-sleep for a century?)  It doesn’t feel correct for the characters; more like a writerly excuse to keep them on the show for another season.  (Having made the choice to pair up Gaal and Salvor at the end of season one, I was bummed they wrote Salvor off at the end of this season.  I wish she’d had more to do this season, and that the show had more leaned into the idea of Gaal and Salvor, two bad-ass, brilliant female warriors, teaming up to save the universe.  That’s a version of this show I could have gotten behind.  Both actresses are terrific.)

I thought Jared Harris was great casting for Harry Seldon, and while I like Mr. Harris, I wish the show had had the courage to leave Seldon behind.  Here too, the way they keep finding ways around Harry’s death(s) to keep him involved in the story feels increasingly silly to me.  I can go with a Harry Seldon A.I. that lives within the Vault, that takes a more active hand in events than Seldon did in the novels.  That idea works for a TV show version of Foundation.  But having Seldon also somehow reincarnated as a human, to accompany Gaal and Salvor on their adventures, just feels silly to me.  Also, I was surprised they made Harry such a jerk this season!  (It reminds me of the way comic book writers often struggled to write the brilliant and powerful Professor X in the X-Men comics, and so wound up repeatedly resorting to stories that made him look like a jerk.)  I feel like they didn’t quite know what to do with Harry.  Oh, and as mentioned above, they also depict him as a murder, so really, I just don’t understand what’s going on with how the writers are handling him.

On the plus side, I really liked all the new characters introduced this season.  My favorite was Ben Daniels as General Bel Riose.  They took a flat character from the books and gave him a wonderful inner life.  I was quite taken by Mr. Daniels’ magnetic energy.  I only wish the season gave him more to do.  (And I wish they didn’t let down his character in the finale.  This man spent over a decade in horrible forced labor because he disobeyed a command from his Emperor that he thought would put his soldiers at risk.  And at the end, he’s totally OK when every single ship in his fleet explodes, killing tens of thousands??  Come on.)  I liked that they showed General Riose as being in a committed, loving relationship with another man; Dino Fetscher is solid as Glawen.  (Though I was surprised they revealed that Glawen seems to be General Riose’s first officer; that feels like a large breach of military protocol that I have a hard time believing Riose would be OK with.)

I really liked the pairing of Isabella Laughland as Brother Constant and Kulvinder Ghir as High Claric Poly Verisof, priests of the Foundation.  It was a weird period in the Foundation stories in which Mr. Asimov depicted the Foundationers as using religion to spread their influence to nearby planets.  I thought the show did a nice job handling this and depicting what a Foundation religion might look like.  Both Ms. Laughland and Mr. Ghir are terrific; fun and amiable and eminently likable.  I liked their pairing.  I also enjoyed Dimitri Leonidas as Hober Mallow, a fast-talking Foundation trader who’s something of a used car salesman.  Mr. Leonidas had a smooth charm that was fun to see on the show, and I enjoyed the sweet relationship that developed between him and Brother Constant.  (The thing about his trying to guess her real first name was cute, though why she wouldn’t tell him at the end, when it appears they’re about to be separated forever, is beyond me.  I often have trouble fathoming the storytelling choices this show makes.)

I enjoyed Ella-Rae Smith’s work as Queen Sareth, a delightful monkey-wrench thrust between Day, Dawn and Dusk.  Ms. Smith had a joyful energy and charisma, and I loved the different ways she played off each of the three Emperors.  I also really enjoyed Sandra Yi Sencindiver as “Enjoiner” Rue.  I liked seeing this smart, somewhat older woman in the mix of the show, and I really enjoyed (and was surprised by) the way Rue’s relationship with Dusk played out over the course of the season.

I liked seeing Holt McCallany (Wrath of Man) pop up as Warden Jaegger Fount.  I wish they’d given him more to do.

I haven’t yet mentioned Demerzel, the right-hand woman of the three Emperors who isn’t a woman at all, but rather a robot.  AAARGH I find the way they’ve handled this character to be so frustrating.  Demerzel is a minor character in the Foundation novels, but later books in Mr. Asimov’s series revealed the character’s true nature.  Ultimately this character was one of my absolute favorite characters in all of fiction.  My teeth grind at how they’ve treated the character here.  Again, if I’d never read a word that Isaac Asimov had written, I might have been interested in this story of a robot who is mysteriously loyal to centuries’ worth of Imperial clones.  (As a reader of the novels, back in season one, I could sort of blur my eyes and justify the character’s actions as doing their best to safeguard a universe of humanity by protecting the galactic empire, but I never understood her comfort with killing.)  We get Demerzel’s back-story here, and I was interested to follow her journey.  But I hate how they turned Demerzel into basically a villain (albeit a tragic one).  It’s a complete mis-use of the character.  That they so casually mention that somehow the Three Laws of Robotics (so critical to Mr. Asimov’s extensive writing about robots), which make it impossible for a robot to ever harm a human, were somehow bypassed by Demerzel and other robots from centuries earlier, rubs me entirely the wrong way.  I hate seeing Demerzel as a murderer.  (I also continue to be annoyed by the way the show, early in season one, made plain that Demerzel was a robot, thus spoiling one of my all-time favorite reveals in fiction.  Ugh…)

What else annoyed me?  Mr. Asimov’s Foundation stories depict The Mule as an exciting and threatening villain, because his mutant psychic powers are capable of disrupting Seldon’s meticulous plan.  But the Mule’s arrival on the show felt anticlimactic to me, because all we’ve been watching since the first episode of season one was individuals with mysterious psychic powers disrupt the plan!  The Mule’s brief appearances here were clearly meant to get us excited for him to take center stage in season three, but I had the opposite reaction.

Speaking of people with psychic powers, I think there could have been plenty of room for cool stories exploring just how the “mentallics” of the Second Foundation, as depicted in Mr. Asimov’s novels, might have come to be.  Unfortunately I didn’t much like what we got here, in the depiction of a cult in thrall to an evil villain.  (Though Rachel House was enjoyably terrifying as Tellem Bond.)  The show really bungled the whole story of the Second Foundation, in my opinion.  The running mystery of where the Second Foundation was based was a terrific story-line in the novels, a high-point of the Foundation series for me.  I loved reading as various characters tried (and usually failed) to solve the unsolvable puzzle.  The show gives us none of that; instead they just throw Gall, Salvor and Harry into contact with this group of evil psychics.   This was a big let-down for me.

Also frustrating to me was how show was constantly giving us over-the-top cliffhangers and then very lamely writing their way out of them.  So, for instance, this season, episodes end with the deaths of both Salvor and Harry.  Both are quickly undone.  (The explanation for how Harry survived his death is particularly ridiculous.  He and Gaal somehow had more mental powers than the super-powered mentallics on this planet, so were able to fool then?  And on top of that, Harry and Gaal were able to work together to plant a mental image in Salvor’s head, even though she found Seldon’s body many, many hours after he was “killed”?  It just doesn’t make any sense to me that Harry and Gaal would have spent hours projecting that image, so it’d be there when Salvor happens to show up.)  The finale shows us everyone on Terminus getting incinerated when the giant space-ship the Invictus smashes into the surface.  Then we learn that, oh no, everyone magically was brought into the “Vault”, Harry’s tesseract-like HQ.  I can maybe believe that every human on Terminus could somehow fit within the Tesseract (though the energy required to power that space, not to mention feed and house hundreds of thousands of inhabitants, is ludicrous to consider), but I cannot believe they all magically were beamed into it when the show showed characters literally watching as the Invictus smashed into the surface and sent smoke and shock-waves across the ground.  Just impossible.

The show also continues to engage in the type of “mystery box” storytelling that I find to be incredibly frustrating.  It’s an important plot point that Harry somehow becomes human again this season (and not just an A.I. hologram).  And yet the show never tells us how or why that happens, nor ever explains whether this was something Harry planned and wanted to happen, or not.  Why leave this dangling as a frustrating mystery??  Why not just explain to the audience what’s happening on the show, and why??


This show is such a strange case for me, in that I think it’s very well-produced, and if I’d never read the source material I think I’d like it a lot.  But as a fan of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation stories, this show is a big swing and a miss for me.

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