Review: Foundation Episode 2

Episode 1 took the short and thin Asimov story ‘The Psychohistorians’ and expanded it into a minor epic but the bones of the story were there. However, even at that rate of expansion, Asimov’s Foundation novels are not going to be sufficient material to sustain an epic miniseries, never mind several seasons.

Which takes us to episode 2 where we discover how the showrunners intend to fabricate a Game of Thrones from Asimov’s entertaining but thin material. I also learn the very obvious clue I was looking for and didn’t spot in episode 1 and from here on in we get actual, genuine spoilers…

Chapter 2 of the book jumps forward to Terminus where the Foundation is busy writing The Hitchhiker’s Wikipedia to Restart the Galactic Empire but the TV show is putting that off for a while yet. To fill in the space, Hari Seldon and his followers are on a slow ship to Terminus and in the months of travel, they have to prepare themselves to colonise the planet. Makes sense that we will get a personal drama following the development of the society that will develop on Terminus.

Meanwhile, the show takes us back to Trantor to see the events that will set the Empire on its slow descent into civilisational collapse. Lee Pace’s genetic Emperor will presumably be a recurring character, running a generational relay race with his clones. This is newish territory but fun stuff that has a long TV and film history behind it, with all the multiple versions of the slow descent of Imperial Rome baked into our popular culture. Asimov doesn’t touch that directly on those tropes until the second book but they run through the very idea of Foundation. Baked into it is that romantic idea of mad Celtic monks preserving the classic world in rainy British Islands while Rome descends into anarchy — bad history but a fun playground for SF&F.

The other source the show can pull from is Asimov’s later (and far more novel-like) Foundation sequels and prequels. Hence my joke in my last review referencing how Asimov later tied the Foundation series to his robot books and the Caves of Steel robot/detective stories via the character of R Daneel Olivaw. As sharp-eyed (or sharper eared) Cora Buhlert points out in her review of episode 1, the imperial advisor character Demerzel shares a name with one of Daneel’s aliases, Eto Demerzel.

Episode 2 spend more time on Demerzel, opening with her leading a raid to discover information about the terrorists who attacked Trantor in episode 1. Meanwhile, in the other plot thread, Hari Seldon drops a reference to the “robot wars” — which is kind of glorious. Foundation is such a source for later sci-fi tropes, that I love how the writers deploy the use of historical reference with the resonance of “the clone wars” or “the Butlerian jihad” back into a more seminal story.

Towards the end of the story, Demerzel’s robot nature is revealed and I’m going to give the show extra points now because I want to rewatch episode 1 to see all the clues I missed. Daneel/Demerzel’s artificial nature means we have another character who can continue on over centuries. It also explains how certain plot points…will continue given that, unlike the book, Hari Seldon has left Trantor…

Speaking of which…I’ve absolutely no idea what is going on with the finale of the episode. I’m enjoying that idea of the writers just blowing up the plot and sending everything off in a weird and wild direction. Of course, doing what they did may or may not pay off. Doing wacky plot surprises is easier than integrating wacky plot surprises back into a coherent plot. We will see but I suspect it is another move to give Gaal Dornick a longer role in the story.

I was, once again, entertained for over an hour with big sci-fi visual spectacle. Not bad going but not quite a must-see TV or compelling drama. I am keen for the next episode though.

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