What does it mean to have a soul? Is science a danger to religion? What does it mean to be a good leader? Do your genetics determine your fate? How do we hope when things look bleak? These are the kinds of thought-provoking questions kindled by the show Foundation (2021) inspired by the stories by Isaac Asimov.
I haven’t read the books yet, so, for better or worse, I was able to enjoy the show without nit-picking its alignment to the original story or knowing what was going to happen next. I was captivated by the story, the stunning visuals, and, especially, its philosophical questions.
I’m late in reviewing this, but if you haven’t noticed, this blog isn’t necessarily about being relevant. I just like stories and enjoy digging into them. But, because Season 2 is coming this summer, now is a good time to watch the first season.
I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers, and I encourage you to watch the trailer below to get a feel for the show. The story revolves around a plan to save humanity after a mathematician predicts the downfall of society. It covers vast time spans, lives, and planets, including a genetic dynasty consisting of a continuous cycle of an original emperor’s clones at different stages of life–a child, a young man, and an old man. These, together, are called the “empire.” Not “emperor,” but “empire,” as though the three are a kind of corrupted trinity.
After finishing and reflecting on the show, I realized how often it surprised me by merging science with spirituality in interesting ways. The show begins with a girl, Gaal, who is a mathematician in a society that believes science is opposed to faith. Of course, as someone with faith, I questioned if the show would continue to make religious people look ignorant. But, again without spoiling too much, it does not.
Each character, religious or not, is written with respect to their beliefs, and the show even brings up existential questions about the afterlife and the soul. As “math” becomes Gaal’s religion and the way to ease her mind about her choices, she quickly realizes that even that can be unreliable. In fact, unexplained “magic” is at work that no one could predict. Instead of pushing science vs. the spiritual, the writers allow for both to work together in surprising ways.
The show also uses examples of clones and AI to explore what it means to have a soul and if it requires growth. The genetic dynasty is one of the most fascinating elements because it challenges what it means to be human at all. If every empire is genetically identical–and is raised by another clone–there is no growth. In one chilling scene, a young clone watches an older clone make a devastatingly violent decision. The boy speaks to the empire’s aid, a robot who has walked with every cloned version of the empire over the centuries, who says he always makes the same choice.
When we are introduced to a religious society who believes in reincarnation and the necessity of growth through each stage, we contrast this to the stagnancy of the empire. For the first empire to clone himself so he could rule forever illustrates humankind’s hubris while also demonstrating the repercussions of stagnancy in leadership. When all of your leaders are mock-ups of each other, there is no growth. If there is no growth, can you really be “human”? Do our genetics determine our fate, or do we?
Similar questions surround Demerzel, the AI aid to the empires. As a robot, she is religious but doubts if she can have a soul because of her programming, which forces her to follow orders that often go against her will. Again, as with the clones, the story brings together science, technology, and spirituality.
While we may not be at the point of asking if AI or clones have souls, it does make us think about how spirituality interacts with the physical world and human effort. That is one of my favorite things about science fiction–it exaggerates something to make us think about it in a new way. It doesn’t necessarily give us answers, either, letting us chew on the questions ourselves.
I often, for instance, have to wrestle with what I know about certain scientific discoveries and what I believe about God’s character and promises. I trust scientific predictions while believing in a story about a God who entered into the physical world and performed impossible miracles.
Foundation is not a Christian show by any means, but it does, surprisingly, show how magic–or miracles–can surprise us when we think we know exactly what’s going to happen. Despite its dark elements, it’s a show about hope amidst devastating evidence that everything will go wrong.
That said, I should warn some of my readers that this is not a clean, family-friendly show. What I see in the story may say more about me than what the writers intended…The show does have violence and brief sexuality, and it is sometimes hard to watch because of how dark it gets. Don’t expect this to be an uplifting show with happy endings.
While I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone, I think it is worth seeing if you are interested in a well-written show that doesn’t push politics or make solutions too easy for the characters. Unlike me, I also advise that you go into it knowing this is a slow-burn show that will drop storylines for several episodes or take uncomfortable turns. It can be frustrating, as one reviewer noted, but it works well if you go into it knowing the show takes its time. I don’t think this was a popular show based on reviews–it is not perfect and doesn’t always explain some of its concepts–but I wanted to try it anyway, and I’m glad I did.
For those of you who watch it, I hope you enjoy Foundation. If you’ve already seen it, I would love to know your thoughts!