Scene Stealers 2021
The most complex sci-fi character on TV makes 'Foundation' required viewing
“Empire is always on my mind.”
"Like Empire, I do not have individuated sentience, so I too must not be in possession of a soul." This is what Eto Demerzel tells Zephyr Halima in the sixth episode of Foundation, Apple TV+’s lavish adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s seminal sci-fi novel. "If I were, perhaps I could disobey his commands."
Demerzel has been sent by her master, known simply as "Empire," to kill Halima. As she explains through tears, she is the last intelligent robot in the galaxy and has no choice but to do as he says. She is programmed that way. Still, Halima replies, awe-struck, "I know that you have a soul."
When we first meet Demerzel, she is nothing more than a slave of the system. Her hands are always placed demurely on her stomach. She speaks in the soothing, steady tones of a living doll. She repairs her artificial skin with unnerving tranquility. However, as Foundation progresses, there may be something resembling humanity mixed with her programming.
Scene Stealers is a countdown that salutes the unforgettable small-screen characters of the year. Demerzel is #28.
Played by Laura Birn, Demerzel does not have the theatrical bombast of the clones she serves. Yet her portrayal of the quiet inner struggle between what is right and what is programmed has made her a consistent scene stealer.
Who is Demerzel?
- Best Quote: "You know the way I am. I don't forget anything or anyone. Empire is always on my mind."
- Known For: A steely exterior with hidden depths
- The Scene-Stealing Episode: Season 1, Episode 8, "The Missing Piece" (Foundation)
- Super Power: Centuries of lived experience
- Their Scientific Element: Technetium. Like Demerzel, the silvery metal technetium is artificially-made. And, just as Demerzel protects the longevity of the Empire, technetium has the natural ability to protect other elements from corrosion. However, while it provides protection for some elements, it can also be toxic for humans.
- Walk-up song: "Me the Machine" by Imogen Heap
For most viewers, Birn is a fresh face. Prior to Foundation, she mainly appeared in Finnish films, her most prominent role being in the 2020 film Helene, playing a famous painter who has an affair with a younger art critic. She spent six months studying painting to prepare for the role. "I had this image of a fragile artist in my head,” Birn told Finland.fi. “I found her to be a passionate, obsessive, curious, ambitious, dramatic person with a dry sense of humour.”
In contrast to the cold and distant Demerzel, Birn showcased fiery passion as Helene. But both characters possess an inner strength that captivates the audience. In Helene, Birn is explosive. In Foundation, she is delicate and meticulous. Every movement is precise as each thought flickers across her eyes like a jewel caught briefly in the light. But most impressive is her understanding of the complexities of Demerzel.
"She has her own dreams, and things that she feels are right," Birn told Comic Book Resources. "But then she has her programming, and she would never betray her programming. So it was really fascinating to balance that and search for that."
Birn also knows of the gray area between good and evil in which Demerzel functions. "Does it make her a bad person that she does those things that she's forced to do? Or can she get away with it, saying, 'I'm a good person because I have to do bad things?' … You can always open another door, and ask another question," she mused.
“Every moment is precise as each thought flickers across her eyes”
Perhaps it is Birn’s slight otherness, rooted in her light Finnish accent and relative obscurity that gives Demerzel her distinctively alien quality. Or perhaps it is her intelligent approach to the role that brings to light the character's unexpected multidimensionality — either way, Birn’s embodiment of Demerzel is spellbinding.
In fact, Birn’s Demerzel is so captivating, we find ourselves wanting more. Foundation has a paucity of Demerzel — in an ideal world, we'd get a spin-off. Perhaps a prequel that explores her evolution throughout the entire Cleonic Dynasty. What relationship did she have with the first incarnation of Cleon? When did she discover her faith? What was her vision when she walked the Spiral? There are centuries of ground to be covered. A Demerzel-focused prequel could reveal just how central she has been in building the stasis that lies at the heart of the Empire, and how she, in fact, has been the one constant through it all.
There are hidden depths to Demerzel. Birn’s measured portrayal of her as a machine with human features draws us in, leaving us with more questions than answers. What makes us human? Is it flesh and blood? Is it consciousness? Demerzel may be a machine, but in many ways, she's more human than the reincarnated man she is programmed to serve.
Author Kazuo Ishiguro's latest novel, Klara and the Sun, is told from the perspective of an "artificial friend," who, like Demerzel, becomes more human-like as she learns about the world around her. “This [vision of AI] isn’t some kind of weird fantasy," Ishiguro told The Guardian. "We just haven’t woken up to what is already possible today.”
We live in a world where leaps in artificial intelligence happen every day. Intelligent robots are no longer science fiction but a fact of life. Maybe that's why we can't look away from Demerzel — this intelligent robot with wisdom earned through centuries is, in many ways, the most human character on the show.
Foundation is streaming now on Apple TV+.