One of the prevailing themes of the masterful storytelling that is Foundations, adapted from Isaac Asimov’s saga of the same name, is how of what happens to people the result of blind, immutable destiny and how much resides in our often fallible hands?
Musing on this great conundrum has kept philosophers busy down the ages, not to mention more than a few religious acolytes, the latter group at least often landing in the camp of all destiny via the deity of your choice and no choice while philosophy either plumps for fatalism, where you’re damned no matter what you do, or Aristotle’s hypothesis that believes humanity retains key agency in the direction of its own affairs.
Foundations seems to land somewhere in the middle, not out of any sense of prevarication, but because life is often a mix of the two, a sense of pieces falling where they will, come what may, and people being the architects of their own demise.
The series, which is one of the most thoughtful and nuanced to come along in some time, and which has allowed the storytelling to take its time where necessary to allow for a certain ruminative air, acknowledges that the world, or in this case, the universe, around us is a complicated one, and that any answers do not come easily.
Of course, if you are mathematician and developer of psychohistory, Hari Seldon (Jared Harris), the founder of the foundations in the title – yes, it turns out there is more than one but quite how that plays out is best left to the viewing – you are mostly convinced that the events that shape human history, which the narrator in one episode, Gaal Dornik (Lou Llobel), are part of an unstoppable chain of events that while they may be ameliorated in some way, cannot be stopped.
Certainly Seldon, and his followers who have ended up on the Outer Rim planet of Terminus, which is final and bleak as it sounds, do subscribe to some form of freewill since the foundation/s wouldn’t exist if they did not, and are actively working to cushion humanity from the inevitable end of civilisation that the end of the galaxy-spanning human expire will bring.
But by and large, Seldon, who it turns out has an altogether different motive for starting the foundation than he made clear to his followers, and which could indicate he actually sits further along the self-determinism scale that he has so far publicly admitted, believes humanity’s plunge into the abyss of a millennia-long dark ages is coming whether we like it or not.
His establishment of the foundation/s is really only their to colour the destiny that awaits humanity, rather than to actively change it its shape and form although the events of episode nine “The First Crisis” would suggest that Seldon stands ready to do far more.
His may seem like a strange and contradictory, not to mention duplicitous, position but it more accurately reflects where many people land on the issue, and why he is forcing those on Terminus, and the invasive armies of the Anacreons and Thespins, who it turns out, might have more to gain together than apart despite their enmity, to try to take a more active role in what happens when the empire finally breathes its cataclysmic last.
Speaking of the empire, which is presided over by the tripartite governing body of the Cleon emperors, Brothers Dawn (Cassian Bilton), Day (Lee Pace), who is torn between ruthlessness and self-doubt, and Dusk (Terrence Mann), things aren’t looking too rosy there.
It seems that the current iteration of Dawn – each of the three men is an exact copy of the original Emperor Cleon some four hundred years ago or so, and represent the youthful , middle-aged and older parts of life, with the Day being the one in charge effectively – is having more than a few divergent ideas, not to mention a few genetic differences that he has worked hard to keep under wraps lest he be seen as an outlier to be despatched to oblivion by a dynasty that favour power and tradition over any and all kinds of self-expression.
Quite what that might be is a mystery – SPOILERS AHEAD! – until Dawn escapes the palace when it emerges Dusk is onto his younger “sibling’s” departure from the purity of the Cleon clone line and plans to do something murderous about it, with the younger “Empire” (they all have the same honorific applied) spurred on to rebel by gardener lover Azura (Amy Tyger) and discovers to his horror that conspirators determined to end the Cleon line, have play havoc with the emperors’ genetic code.
They literally plan to bring things down from the most inside of insides, and while their plans are foiled somewhat by Dusk acting with typical ruthlessness – he is the one who destroyed much of Anacreon and Thespis and bred a vengefulness from the first group so great that he has essentially started the ball rolling to Seldon’s predictions coming true (again – destiny or self-will? It appears they have an equal role to play) – the lengths to which the Cleons go to keep in power speaks to the inevitability of their downfall.
They think they control things, and certainly Dusk thinks he is fully, brutally in control, but Day begins to wonder if they are inadvertently the architects of of their own demise?
Perhaps they are, with the arrogant Brother Dusk at least, demonstrating again and again that he is holding the dagger, not to uphold their rule as he believes but to end by a thousand cuts, which points to a thrilling mix of free-will and destiny bringing a major pivotal point in history to pass.
Dornik, and the Warden of Terminus, Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey) are also wrestling with whether events simply take care of themselves or we have an active hand in them, with the former narrating through the three episodes on the ideas about the nature of history and whether it is fact (doubtful) or fantasy (more likely) and how humanity goes to great lengths to shape narratives to bolster the idea of fate winning out or the brilliance of the victor being the factor that influences the events of the day.
They occupy a unique position because both of them, for reasons again best left to the revelation of the show itself, have some ability to tap into the future and presage coming events, something that means they are able to act faster than others and in many cases, playing a key role in how certain situations play out.
But are they merely playing a role in a destiny already decided or are they shaping and re-directing it?
That is the million dollar question, and one that season two of the show, which will examine where Dornik and Hardin, Seldon and the Brothers Dawn, Day and Dusk, and Eto Demerzel (Laura Birn), robotic majordomo to the Emperors who may well influence what happens next, will no doubt ponder, 138 years in the future where destiny and freewill it seems are about to have the mother of all empire-defining battles.