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Foundation Season 2 posterSometimes a thing needs to get slightly better for you to realize the ways in which it isn’t working. The first season of Apple TV+'s Foundation was something worse than bad—it was boring: the sort of boring that slides off your mind; that resists, mercury-like, any attempt to pin it down. In its second season, the show makes a great leap forward in quality, largely by embracing a tone of high camp. And yet it is precisely this turn away from self-seriousness that makes it possible to more seriously examine Foundation, and wonder at its core assumptions.

Based on the series of novels and fix-ups by Isaac Asimov (which I have not read, though of course it is impossible to be a science fiction fan without picking up some of the series' core concepts), Foundation begins from the premise that a genius scientist, Hari Seldon (Jared Harris) has invented a branch of mathematics called psychohistory, which allows him to predict the future. Through his calculations, Hari predicts the collapse of the space empire that is his era's dominant political entity. He secures permission to take a group of his followers to settle a remote planet and establish the Foundation, a repository of knowledge and technology with which they will alleviate—and hopefully shorten—the period of chaos and ignorance that will follow the empire's end.

The first season of Foundation depicted this establishment, as well as the first multigenerational "crisis"—a series of turning points, charted by Hari, which were set  to endanger the Foundation and its ability to carry out its aims. It was, quite frankly, incoherent. Each storyline proceeded towards its end without any sense of why it was significant or what it all added up to. Characters droned on about psychohistory, crises, and "the vault" (an artifact left behind by Hari) with what was to them clearly a sense of great importance, but which to the audience felt merely tedious. Most crucially, the show never convincingly argued that the Foundation was necessary, much less a force for good whom the audience should be rooting for.

The most engaging part of Foundation's first season was actually the one invented whole cloth for the series: the machinations at the imperial court of Trantor, the capital planet of the empire whose collapse Hari predicted. Ruled over by a genetic dynasty of clones of emperor Cleon I, and overseen by the android Demerzel (Laura Birn), these scenes not only illustrated the cruelty and capriciousness of the empire, but its inherent, self-defeating insularity. Reigning emperor Brother Day (Lee Pace), his heir Brother Dawn (Cassian Bilton), and his retired predecessor Brother Dusk (Terrence Mann) squabbled over their supposed uniformity, fumed over their obvious differences, second-guessed each other's decisions, all while schemes against the empire brewed and boiled over. It was a soapy, overwrought storyline—carried, in large part, by the never less than magnetic Pace—whose excesses elevated a show that had not yet learned to argue for its own existence.

At the end of the first season, it was discovered that a genetic abnormality had been introduced into the Cleonic line, which reveals its effects, a hundred years later when the second season begins, with the decision by the current Brother Day to shore up the waning empire's power by marrying the queen of a nearby polity (Ella-Rae Smith). Worried about the Foundation's growing power at the edges of his fraying empire, Cleon also dispatches disgraced general Bel Riose (Ben Daniels), imprisoned after refusing an order that would have killed his men, to investigate its doings, much to the dismay of Bel's husband and aide-de-camp, Glawen Curr (Dino Fetscher).

Back on Terminus, the planet where the Foundation was established, priests Poly Verisof (Kulvinder Ghir) and Brother Constant (Isabella Laughland) are preaching the gospel of Hari Seldon in the territories abandoned by the empire, presenting to their populations advanced technologies as magic, when they're called back home by the activation of the vault—which in the first season was revealed to hold Hari's stored consciousness. It directs them to find Hober Mallow (Dimitry Leonidas), a former member of their order turned conman and huckster, who is nevertheless integral to addressing the looming second crisis. Another version of Hari, now made flesh, is in the company of his former protégé Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell) and her daughter Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey), attempting to establish a second Foundation that will act as a check on the first.

It's all a lot of fun, to be honest. (Well, the Gaal/Salvor storyline remains, sadly, the season's least successful, largely because these two independent, interesting women are yoked to Hari's opaque machinations, and play second fiddle to his navel-gazing.) The show's budget is clearly immense, which allows it to realize royal courts, prison camps, farming settlements, and public executions with verve, inventiveness, and—most of all—over-the-top stylistic excess.

The season begins with Day fighting, in the nude, a troupe of assassins who have infiltrated his bedroom. His fiancée suspects him of assassinating her family to put her on their now-vacant throne (which he of course did), leading to palace intrigue as both she, and the current Dawn and Dusk, begin to untangle Day's manipulations. These turn out actually to be the work of Demerzel, who has the current Day under her psychosexual control (making tremendous use of Pace's bluff masculinity to gradually reveal the deranged childishness underneath).

When Poly and Constant find Hober, he is on the verge of being impaled on a giant spike at the behest of an irascible local warlord (Philip Glenister). Another execution—this one achieved by fitting the condemned with decapitation collars—is interrupted by an attacking spaceship, which in turn unleashes an incensed dinosaur-like creature on the guards. Hari visits a long-dead mathematician who lives in a gargantuan statue of Cleon overlooking an abandoned imperial mining settlement. A tribe of white-clad telepaths whose leader (Rachel House) has been hopping bodies for centuries scheme to undermine the second Foundation. A man is incinerated from the inside out. It seems to have finally occurred to the show's creators that what people look for in space opera is, well, the operatic, and that on-screen presentations of the genre have certain obligations in this regard.

It's precisely because Foundation is now—at last!—engaging, however, that one can more easily consider how frankly weird it is that a major studio entertainment in 2023 starts from the assumption that the collapse of an empire is a calamity. Asimov was, of course, writing an SFnal version of the fall of Rome and the subsequent “dark ages”—an interpretation of events that contemporary historians have questioned, if not outright exploded. As Gautam Bhatia has recently pointed out, however, the fact that a twentieth-century writer (and Asimov was by no means alone in this preoccupation) was so hung up on a collapse that occurred a millennium and a half in his past seems more pathological than anything else. For a television series in 2023 to take this pathology so for granted that it actually takes us a bit of thought even to -2017860134 realize that this is an integral part of its premise feels almost perverse.

To be sure, Foundation is at pains to emphasize that the empire is “bad”—though arguably more in its first season than its second, in which we witness Cleon depopulate two planets whose leaders have displeased him, order the assassinations of religious leaders who have called his right to rule into question, and devise elaborate, byzantine punishments for people who have plotted against him. But at the same time, the show also clearly believes—and again, believes it so strongly that it doesn't even feel the need to say it, as if it were simply and plainly obvious—that empire is necessary.

It's undeniable that the collapse or retrenchment of a central authority—and especially one as totalizing as an empire—would have negative, perhaps disastrous outcomes in the short term (where “short term” can mean several lifetimes). Losing supply chains, knowledge bases, technological support, centralized authority, and law-keeping would inevitably lead to a loss of safety and quality of life. But it seems to me that an entertainment written in the 2020s should at the very least acknowledge that the reason for this loss is that one of the first acts of an empire is to hollow out existing local power and knowledge structures and replace them with itself—that, before an empire shows up, people tend to handle these functions quite well for themselves, and that the logic of its necessity is a direct outcome of its dismantling of these systems … which was, of course, the whole point of doing it.

When Brother Constant crows that she can give villagers abandoned by the empire agricultural technology, she is ignoring—or perhaps, the show that she is in is erasing—the local know-how that would inevitably have emerged on this planet, and which the empire may have suppressed in the name of streamlining and efficiency. On the whole, the show is weirdly uninterested in the people the Foundation helps—it spends much more time in the imperial court and among its military. When it does show them to us, they are not locals with an intimate understanding of their world, but unenlightened barbarians (in some cases, extremely racialized ones, which is disappointing in a show that is otherwise so deliberately diverse). As much as it views itself as a force of enlightenment, it's notable that the Foundation ultimately treats the people it “saves” no differently than the empire did, as subjects to be manipulated, cajoled, and in some cases controlled in order to return them to a specific, predetermined path towards progress.

Again and again, Foundation reveals that it does not know how to argue for the necessity, or the benevolence, of the Foundation, that it has failed to translate the arguments of a book series from the 1950s into something that an audience in the 2020s will find even remotely convincing. Trying to recruit the telepaths to her and Hari's cause, Gaal argues that the persecution they've experienced is an outcome of the empire's collapse, an indication that the galaxy is entering a crueller, more brutal age. In a show in which we have seen the empire casually depopulate entire planets (and which Day threatens to do again, to planets where the Foundation has gained a foothold, at the end of the season)—in which citizens who have displeased the Cleons are routinely condemned to brutal imprisonment or lifelong torture without any legal recourse, in which no one is safe if they happen to draw empire's attention, much less its wrath—this is, to say the least, an unconvincing claim. At best, it's yet another illustration of how badly Foundation is hampered by its failure to show us anything of life outside its centers of power. At worst, it makes Gaal one of those people who takes the violence of her era's institutions for granted, while being horrified by new and unsanctioned forms of it. It's hard to imagine that such a person is capable of shepherding civilization towards a more enlightened form.

Take the fact that the Foundation's primary interactions with the people they are trying to “save” take the form of trickery and false religion—something that Star Trek worked out was unethical back in the 1960s. This tendency is an argument against the Foundation that the show seems aware of, but has no idea how to counter or address. Multiple characters over the course of the season criticize the Foundation for these tactics (Day, in particular, seems delighted to have found something that he, a psychotic multiple genocidaire, gets to feel morally superior about). But the response is invariably a shrug, or another speech from one of the Haris that ultimately amounts to circular reasoning—the church of Hari Seldon is necessary because Hari Seldon, backed by psychohistory, says it is so.

The very excess that makes the second season of Foundation so much more palatable than the first also leaves the show with little space to do more than raise ideas and then leave them by the wayside. (A less charitable interpretation is that this was entirely deliberate.) This is not always a bad thing. The season's greatest accomplishment is the way it nimbly leaps between a wide array of storylines, neither short-changing nor wallowing in any single one. If you're not so invested in Gaal's conflict with the telepaths, you can wait a moment and get Hober negotiating with the spacers, a posthuman race whom the empire keeps in chemical enslavement. If you're not interested in the star-crossed romance between Bel and Glawen (though honestly, how could you not be), the season has multiple other romantic pairings on offer, each equally charming, and equally lightly touched upon. Each storyline has exquisitely turned individual scenes, which make up for its overall shallowness.

That same shallowness, however, also short-changes Foundation as a science fiction of ideas. There are moments in the season when characters stop to debate the ideas at the core of this series—the director of the Foundation (Oliver Chris) bitterly harangues Hari over the demands he continues to make on his followers, centuries after his death, in the name of a philosophy most of them can't understand; Bel and Glawen discuss the possibility of rebelling against the empire and the costs that doing so might incur; Salvor and Gaal argue over whether the latter's visions of the future mean that there is no way of changing it. But the show's heart clearly isn't in it. The scene ends, the debate concludes with no conclusion, and everyone continues largely as they already were, having given the impression of serious philosophizing, without the substance of it.

The point of the second season of Foundation turns out to be the same as the first, the same one the series started with: the Foundation must continue. Like the acolytes on Terminus, it seems, we're expected to believe in Hari Seldon because Hari Seldon says so. And yet the show, for all its high-camp pleasures, has failed to make believers of us. On the contrary, the more we see of Hari and his followers, the less plausible it seems that they are a force for good—or that they even understand what the evil they claim to stand against actually is.



Abigail Nussbaum is a blogger and critic. She blogs at Asking the Wrong Questions and tweets as @NussbaumAbigail.
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