The darkness and light of humanity: Thoughts on Foundation (episodes 4-7)

(image courtesy Apple TV+)

If you thought that saving humanity from itself would be a tall order, even with abundantly detailed warnings courtesy of Hari Seldon (Jared Harris), then you would entirely right.

We are our own worst enemies, especially when at some indeterminate point in the future we have colonised the stars and created a vast and increasingly sclerotic empire whose leaders are a trinity of clones of the same man, Emperor Cleon, who reigned some 400 years earlier, and we think this stable and prosperous state of affairs will continue much as it has always done.

That simply can’t happen, of course, since entropy and decay are hard-coded into the universe and the decline of every power structure has ever devised is pre-ordained before it so much as stakes a step towards greatness.

In the middle four episode of Foundation‘s first season, based on the legendary books by Isaac Asimov, we bear witness to the inevitability of this decline, the very strength of which has been encouraged by the actions of the current holders of the triple throne, known by the honorific of “Empire”.

The current older member of the set, Brother Dusk (Terrence Mann), was the middle reigning emperor some thirty years earlier when Hari and his Foundation, the aim of which is to safeguard enough knowledge that humanity is not plunged into cultural and technological darkness after its coming fall, were consigned to an outer rim world of Terminus in punishment for daring to suggest that the empire would not prevail forever.

Brother Dusk’s impetuosity is reviled now by Brother Day (Lee Pace) the current holder of the middle throne, the one with all the real power and responsibility, who is having to deal with a Sinker rebellion down in the depth of the city planet and the empire capital, Trantor, where gross inequality rages, and a pushback by the Luminism religion which is poised to elect a new Proxima (leader; think of the Pope), Zephyr Halima Ifa (T’Nia Miller) who believes clones don’t have souls which, as you can likely surmise, cause a teensy-tiny issue of legitimacy for the Cleons, especially when you realise that Luminism has three trillion followers.

Yep, that a lot of the empire’s citizens who might start to take a dim view of their leadership who, according to the would-be Proxima, gifted with persuasively thoughtful oratorical skills, aren’t fully human.

You can see why Brother Day decides to break with protocol and journey to the home moon of Luminism known as the Maiden, to try to stop this sort of corrosive heresy in its tracks; alas while Brother Day is a more open-minded than his predecessor – they’re supposed to be all identical but clearly are not, which is causing issues for the current Brother Dawn (Cassian Bilton) who is the youngest of the group and quietly, the most divergent (shh tell no one) – he is committed to the preservation of empire, a task that becomes all the more complicated when the android who presents as human, Eto Demerzel (Laura Birn), who has attended to generations of Cleons, admits to being a disciple of Luminism.

This one strand of the storyline alone is fascinating because it reveals the sheer inevitability of the empire’s predicated decline, and how despite their best efforts, the Cleons may in fact be a key part of the reason why it falls in the end.

They are, in effect, the architects of their own demise, not simply because they authorised actions some decades earlier, on scant evidence, that saw a previously compliant outer rim planet Anacreon reduced to ruinous rubble, its people decimated, but because they are still convinced the empire can survive unchanged in its current form.

It can’t, of course, and that is blindingly obvious to those that have eyes to see, but the Cleons do not, save for Brother Dawn who exhibits a publicly-hidden gift for self-awareness and reflection that could be the saviour of the empire if anyone would listen to him, which they will not, and so they shall, despite their best efforts, preside over the continued downfall of their vast holdings, people and power.

What makes Foundation such fascinating television to watch, focused as it is on those who will lose power, and those such as Terminus Warden Salvor Harden (Leah Harvey) and mathematician Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell) who are trying to stop all of humanity being sucked down with the fall of empire, is that it tells its epic storytelling with patience, nuance and a firm grasp on the very best and the very worst of humanity.

Unlike many other shows on TV or streaming platforms at the moment which prefer to turbocharge their narratives with adrenalised twists and turns and a plethora of cliffhangers, Foundation is happy to take its time which allows real characterisation to take hold, powering a storyline which almost feels like it is unfolding in real time.

Foundation is not in any hurry, in the very best of all ways, and so we are able to see the battle between Salvor Harden, who could yet be the saviour not just of Terminus but many of the people in the empire, and Anacheon soldiers who, fired up by long-simmering vengeance, committed acts of atrocity of violence that suggest one terrible act, such as that of the Creons thirty years earlier, can have ramifications, both multitudinous and pronounced many years hence.

The empire is crumbling but it is doing so piece by piece, poor decision by poor decision and Asimov’s epic piece of storytelling is content to let us watch the pieces fallen slowly and horrendously, while pushing along the story in manifestly powerful and arresting to watch ways.

In fact, it could well be the contemplative, poetic nature of this show that is one of the best things about it.

It is epic storytelling that is allowed to be epic, not simply in tone and style which are evident in abundance – the sets alone are awe-inspiring and majestic – but in the time it takes to let the narrative grow and develop in real and organic ways that gives its characters a chance to demonstrate the flaws and strengths of their humanity in gripping ways.

This is sci-fi done right, epic and towering in intent and its execution, which by the end of episode seven when the Anacreons are poised to add dramatically to their vengeful tale, and the story of Dornick and Harden have taken expansive steps to all-but-inevitable destinies, is promising an engrossing final three episodes which should prove, I suspect once and for all, that humanity is, and always has been, its own worst enemy.

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