Skip to main content

'Foundation' 1.3 review: The Mathematician's Ghost

The new series 'Foundation' jumps forward in the timeline in an unexpected new episode.

Leah Harvey in 'Foundation'
(Image: © Apple TV+)

Our Verdict

Though 'Foundation' continues to look phenomenal, the plot of the latest episode is unexpected in both good and bad ways.

For

  • - This show looks incredible and truly futuristic
  • - Leah Harvey's performance as the Warden of Terminus is a strong point
  • - The implacable nature of the Cleon clones is intriguing

Against

  • - The choice to sidestep the cliffhanger from the prior episode is immensely frustrating
  • - The timeline-jumping is headache-inducing
  • - It's hard to latch emotionally onto characters with such a brief amount of time allotted to them

One of the many fascinating aspects of the new Apple TV Plus series Foundation is that it appears to be confounding more people than just those of us who haven’t read the Isaac Asimov books on which the show is based. 

When I mentioned that I count myself among that latter group in my review last week of the two-episode premiere, I expected that being so lacking in knowledge of the story of humanity attempting to restart itself after doom-and-gloom predictions by an extremely shrewd mathematician would clarify my reaction as being mildly impressed but also a little perplexed. Color me doubly perplexed, then, to note a number of folks online (either in response to this review or just in general) stating that they’d read the books cover to cover, and well, the show was confusing them too.

So what will the book-aware folks make of the third episode, “The Mathematician’s Ghost?” 

The predictable aspects of prestige TV would seem ripe for Foundation to build off the stunning cliffhanger at the end of its second episode. The aforementioned mathematician, Hari Seldon (Jared Harris), was brutally murdered in the finale by his adopted son Raych (Alfred Enoch), who then promptly sent the innocent and shocked Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell) into an escape pod to parts unknown. That seems like a pretty big ending, one that raises lots of questions: why did Raych kill Hari? Did Hari know this was going to happen? Was it supposed to happen? And what happened to Gaal, our erstwhile narrator?

Well, the good news is that Gaal continues her narrating duties in “The Mathematician’s Ghost.” The bad news is that absolutely nothing related to that cliffhanger comes up, unless you count an offhand reference to Seldon’s funeral as something related to that cliffhanger. The person making that reference, the mother of Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey), also notes that the only person aside from Hari who could make heads or tails of his psychohistory theory of humanity was Gaal. And that’s about it. 

If “The Mathematician’s Ghost” is any indication, Foundation is going to be a profoundly maddening TV show, one that looks truly incredible and is too busy with keeping epic-spanning plates spinning in the air to actually tell a cohesive, coherent story.

Laura Birn in 'Foundation'.

Laura Birn in 'Foundation.' (Image credit: Apple TV+)

Part of the problem is that Foundation has a lot of different timelines to latch onto, as is evidenced by the first 20 or so minutes, which begin 400 years before the main action of the prior two episodes, before jumping ahead to 19 years after the terrorist bombing on the planet Trantor, and then leaping forward 17 years after that. As I type these words, I think of a true science-fiction classic, the Mel Brooks comedy Spaceballs, and how the nefarious Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis) stares out at the audience after one exposition-laden monologue and snaps, “Everybody got that?” That’s what it feels like watching Foundation so far. 

Anyway, that first 20 minutes focuses mostly on the eldest version of the three Brothers overseeing Trantor, Brother Dusk (Terrence Mann) who is just the latest clone iteration of Cleon the First, the ruler of Trantor who seems closest to the ageless android Eto (Laura Birn), who stays the same age even as he grows older perpetually, just like a science-fiction Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused

Brother Dusk is really Cleon the Eleventh, with Brother Day (Lee Pace) serving as Cleon the Twelfth, and so on. As Brother Dusk faces the reality that even as a clone, he’s aging to a point where he will have to die and a new clone be born to continue the Day/Dawn/Dusk line of succession, he’s struck by thoughts that perhaps Seldon was right, at least about the unnatural aspect of cloning. As Brother Dusk sees an incubating clone baby in some of his final moments, it’s hard not to disagree with him.

This section of the episode ends with a hint toward a perhaps even darker future for the three Brothers, as we meet a teenaged version of the new Brother Day as he orders that a longtime mural on his wall charting the reaches of the galaxy be removed. Maybe it’s a happy accident that he looks callow and haughty — at this point, it’s difficult to know what Foundation has up its sleeve.

Leah Harvey in 'Foundation'.

Leah Harvey in 'Foundation.' (Image credit: Apple TV+)

As was the case in the second episode, there’s really no connection point between the story of the three Brothers and the exiled humans heading to Terminus. Whereas last week’s episode was focused on the ship and the humans making their trip to the outer-reach planet, the rest of “The Mathematician’s Ghost” is squarely focused on what’s happened now that the humans arrived. 

As we learned in the premiere, there’s a strange alien object resting on Terminus that the humans dub the Vault, a large floating device that incapacitates almost anyone who tries to walk up to its surface. In what the show dubs in a superimposed caption as “Now” (AKA the part of the first episode where we see what life is like on Terminus for the remaining vestiges of Seldon’s followers), we follow Salvor in her position as the Warden of Terminus, as she tries to handle two potentially severe issues. One is the arrival of a group of Anacreons, the outer-reach race that was implicated as one of the terrorist groups that attacked Trantor. The other issue is that the force field surrounding the Vault, the field that screws with anyone (except Salvor), is expanding to a point where they may need to relocate their shanty town.

It’s not that any of this is bad, per se. Foundation looks as impressive as any show depicting a science-fiction future ought to look, perhaps far more so than most other genre entries. The biggest obstacle this show has — does Foundation create a world that seems alien and strange but also futuristic and implacable? — is one it clears with confidence. The headache is trying to figure out what’s worth caring about. 

Three episodes in, Gaal Dornick is our omniscient narrator, but after spending two episodes trying to get invested in her journey, “The Mathematician’s Ghost” hints a lot about the ghosts that the living are dealing with day after day, without actually showing us any of those characters. 

That Foundation is still raising questions is perfectly reasonable. We’re three episodes into a series that could last for eight seasons (at least if co-creator David S. Goyer has anything to say about, having mentioned before that he envisioned the series lasting 80 episodes, 10 per season), so getting everything resolved would be poor storytelling. But the basic questions the final moments of the previous episode raised — what happened to Gaal? Why did Raych kill Hari? — are still raised now, and what’s worse is that this episode doesn’t seem remotely interested in resolving those questions or even acknowledging their existence.