71 Years Later, The Weirdest Religion in Sci-Fi History Is Back
Let's talk about the Church of the Galactic Spirit.
Science fiction legend Arthur C. Clarke was famous for the axiom that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” but what his fellow golden-age sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov postulated was a little more complicated. In the Foundation novels, Asimov suggests that a science-based religion may actually take hold in the distant future. And, in the second episode of Season 2 of Apple TV’s Foundation, we actually see what that might look like on a massive scale.
With the episode “A Glimpse of Darkness,” the ambitious sci-fi show has given us a much bigger look at a scientific religion, with perhaps more nuance and heart than Asimov pulled off his second Foundation novel, over seven decades ago, in 1952.
While the majority of the TV series Foundation is a liberal “remix” of all of the Asimov-penned stories and novels, huge arcs of this season loosely adapt big swings from the second book, Foundation and Empire. This novel was published in single-volume book form in 1952 (one year after the first novel), but it is actually a composite of several novellas and short stories, which go all the way back to 1942, and were (mostly) published in the pages of the legendary SF magazine Astounding (later known as Analog). This means that all Foundation “canon” was retroactive while Asimov was writing the original stories, which makes David Goyer’s approach to crafting the TV series smart. In other words, there’s no such thing as a faithful adaptation of Foundation, because Foundation was barely faithful and consistent to itself.
So, with that in mind, in the second episode of Foundation Season 2, “A Glimpse of Darkness,” the series seems to make a major departure by suggesting that the Foundation itself — an institution devoted to science and truth — is now peddling mysticism. Shouldn’t this run contrary to Asimov’s staunch atheism and disbelief in pseudo-science? Nope! As we meet two of Foundation’s most compelling new Season 2 characters — Cleric Constant (Isabella Laughland) and Cleric Poly Verisof (Kulvinder Ghir) — we’re introduced to the concept of the Church of the Galactic Spirit. And this notion is perfectly in line with the opening pages of Foundation and Empire.
Church of the Galactic Spirit, explained
In the opening pages of Foundation and Empire, General Bel Riose is sent by the Empire to determine whisperings of so-called “magicians” on the outer fringes of the galaxy. The reader quickly learns that these “magicians” are scientific practitioners of the Foundation. But, as Riose grills a guy named Ducem Barr, he is told, “An uninformed public tends to conflate scholarship with magicianry.” Again, this is similar to the Clarke axiom about tech becoming indistinguishable from magic, but the practical implementation of this idea in the book Foundation and Empire is pure Asimov.
So, when we meet Poly and Constant in “A Glimpse of Darkness,” and they’re putting on tech-fueled “magic” shows for the uninformed populace, they’re essentially preaching the gospel of Asimov, and within the universe of the show, the science-based faith of the Foundation. This takes concepts that Asimov touched upon in the books to a much more grounded place. Poly, the older, often drunken cleric, is a firm believer in the Seldon Plan, not just because he believes in the science, but because Seldon, at this point, has become a saint. But unlike saints in actual religions, Poly actually saw Hari Seldon when he was a child back in Season 1. This gives his science-based faith some groundedness but also sets up some very interesting conflicts in the episodes to come.
Foundation versus Empire
So, while the Clerics seem a little bit catch-as-catch-can in this episode, the reality is, they have been successfully converting tons of planets on the edges of Empire to the cult of science! At this point in the show, the character of Bel Riose hasn’t appeared. But, without spoiling too much about everything that happens in episode 3, and beyond, rest assured, Bel Riose is coming. And just like the “magicians” from Asimov’s second novel, he too has been remixed into a more realistic and grounded character.
On a larger scale though, what the Church of the Galactic Spirit does for Foundation is making the conflict of this Season 2 crystal-clear. The clone dynasty of the Cleons governs over a shrinking empire that is amoral, with people who seemingly believe in nothing. Meanwhile, their rival, the Foundation, is empowering people to believe in a mathematical prophet and the promise of science. Asimov based some of the arcs of Foundation on the falls of real historic empires. But, in this case, the emerging religion that is helping to create a rebellion isn’t one that espouses the worship of one true God. Instead, these missionaries just want you to get down with math.