Foundation review: Episode 103, “The Mathematician’s Ghost”

Previously on Foundation, we were introduced to Hari Seldon, a genius mathematician whose creation of “psychohistory” had predicted the end of the galactic empire. Cruel and detached, the clone emperors of Trantor moved against him and his new protege Gaal Dornick, forced from her own homeward for studying math. The duo is soon exiled to the inhospitable Terminus, where they intend to build the Foundation designed to preserve civilization when the empire inevitably falls.

Before they go, however, a deadly suicide attack on the immense Star Bridge brings the structure crashing down on the planet, killing 100 million people. Fractures are beginning to show both in the empire and Foundation, with Gaal falling in love with Seldon’s adopted son Raych and the emperors of Trantor doubting each other. As all-out war is unleashed, Raych’s friction with his father seemingly boils over, and he stabs Hari to death as Gaal is cast into the depths of space.

Before we follow up on last week’s shocking conclusion, we flashback 400 years to find Demerzel (Laura Birn), looking no different as she serves Emporer Cleon the First, the man who started the clone dynasty. While our moments with Cleon are fleeting, he appears far more benevolent than his later clones. Whether he started that program of succession because he lacked an heir, a fear of death or personal vanity, we can but wonder.

Whatever his reasons, Demerzel clearly loves Cleon and his clones. Interestingly, she says that he always leaves her when he dies, suggesting that she loves the older and wiser Brother Dusk (Terrence Mann) over the bloodthirsty Brother Day (Lee Pace) as whom Brother Dusk spends most of his life.

Back in the “present,” we find that 19 years have passed since the Star Bridge bombing, and around the same length of time since the death of Hari Seldon (Jared Harris). Brother Dusk has reached his final day, standing at the same window and looking upon the ruins of the work he failed to complete as Cleon, 400 years before. The small scene has an excellent sense of symmetry to it.

With time having passed, we find that Brother Dawn has grown to look precisely like Brother Day did in our opening two episodes, and that Brother Day is now aged. The never-ending circle is complete as a new Brother Dawn is born, and Dusk becomes Darkness. Before he is disintegrated, Darkness warns that something is wrong, and another 17 years later, the imperial palace is undergoing radical changes, wiping away a mural of the past as the teenage Brother Dawn (Cassian Bilton) insists he’s outgrown it.

“To be alive is to know ghosts”

As we rejoin the colonists, we find that they’ve finally arrived at Terminus, discovering The Vault we glimpsed in the first episode to already be there. They are officially introduced to Abbas and his daughter Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey). As time passes, Salvor becomes a warden of the Vault like her father, and is the only colonist it allows to approach. Born after the ship left Trantor, she represents a new generation of colonists who don’t necessarily believe entirely in the vision of Hari, having never met him or even heard his words and theories directly. There’s a magnificent statue of Hari standing at the center of the colony that’s somewhat reminiscent of Lenin, and Salvor’s mother accuses her of calling their apocalyptic ideology a cult. Everything, it seems, is working toward the vision of the martyred Hari Seldon.

While Hari may be dead, the kids of the colony have a new hero in the form of the instantly likable trader Hugo, who’s romantically involved with Salvor. Gaal’s dream of a life on Terminus with Raych has become somebody else’s. This is very much Salvor’s episode like the first was Gaal’s and the second Raych’s. Yet Salvor is not as instantly easy to like as those characters, and the landscape of Terminus and general unhappiness of life on the planet make it a stark watch.

Late in the episode, the Anacreons threaten Terminus as the show moves onto the second part of Asimov’s work, The Encyclopedists. The theme of resurrection, rebirth, and ghosts of the past runs throughout “The Mathematician’s Ghost,” with a young boy seemingly unknown to the colony twice leading Salvor on a chase into the ruins of their ship, where Salvor ends up at arrow-point.

“The Mathematician’s Ghost” is the weakest episode of Foundation so far

“The Mathematician’s Ghost” is a far bleaker episode than the first two. It lacks the considerable talents of Jared Harris and the hope and inspiration that Hari Seldon brought to the early narrative, his legacy being the ghost of the title. There are no answers to last week’s big question regarding Gaal and Raych. But we do get new ones concerning the new Brother Dusk, Salvor’s relationship with The Vault, the Anacreons’ intention on Terminus, and more widely, the status of the war against the empire.

Much of the episode is entirely original; the show is attempting to bridge the gap between the first two parts of Asimov’s first book. However, as was often seen with Game of Thrones, the best TV adaptation comes when the scripts remain as faithful as possible to the source material. While updating the work for a modern audience is welcome, Foundation must be careful not to stray too far from Asimov’s themes and message.

Overall, this is a poorer sort of episode, but still important for how it builds intrigue for coming weeks as well as exploring the culture surrounding the emperor’s cloning program and introducing the new status on Terminus long after Hari’s death.

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