While rival Marvel continues to break box office records, DC Comics has enjoyed the majority of its off-page success on the small screen. That track record continues with KRYPTON, a fresh addition to the Superman canon and one of SyFy’s strongest originals in recent memory.
ONLY THE PAST CAN SAVE THE FUTURE
Krypton is set on Superman’s eponymous homeworld two generations prior to the planet’s cataclysmic demise. His future grandfather is also the series protagonist, a streetwise misanthrope named Seg-El (Cameron Cuffe). Here, though, gramps is still a young man and Super-Birth scuttlebutt would be wildly premature prognostication.
Such benign contrivances of chronology and circumstance might set the scene, but they don’t begin to tell the tale. Regrettably, these are dark times on the planet. Things go from bad to worse following the arrival of a messenger from the future. He brings a dire warning of an approaching menace that threatens both Krypton and the existence of the Man of Steel.
Though the series tackles entirely new adventures without straying too far afield from iconic Superman lore, the underpinning of Krypton’s narrative structure is not beholden to the shopworn schematics of a superhero origin story. By virtue of its premise, it really couldn’t be. Even so, series creator David S. Goyer treads wisely here, deftly navigating a minefield of potential pitfalls, face plants and fan fury.
THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF EL
The handsome, well-appointed pilot opens in the domed city of Kandor, Krypton’s sprawling capitol. Val-El (Ian McElhinney), one of the most brilliant minds on the planet, stands accused of willfully violating the rule of law for refusing to abandon his life’s work and publicly disavow the existence of life elsewhere in the universe. Once a respected champion of exploration and discovery, the venerable scientist now finds himself marginalized by the repressive norms of a new cultural paradigm.
Though hyper-evolved and technologically advanced, a major power shift upended the planet’s institutional hierarchy. Krypton is now under the thumb of a messianic religious entity known as the Voice of Rao. Scientific pursuits that run afoul of Rao’s authority are considered heretical. Val-El is found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. To ensure punitive repercussions have lasting impact, the House of El is dissolved and its members are stripped of rank and honor. Among the witnesses to Val-El’s dramatic execution is his young grandson, Seg-El.
LOVE AND LIFE IN A LAND OF ROBOWOMBS
Years later, Seg is on the verge of manhood. Rankless and with little in the way of a bright future, he’s grown up to be a street-smart ne’er-do-well. Outsider status might relegate him to society’s fringes, but he’s not afraid to confront authority or defy the limits of his station. Case in point: Seg is enjoying a secret(ish) hot and heavy with Lyta-Zod (Georgina Cambell), a private in the Sagitari, Kandor City’s hard-line law enforcement agency. Unfortunately for these two, love isn’t blind or binding on Krypton. Their relationship ups the iffy with an extra load of uniquely knotty baggage.
In Kryptonian society, arranged unions are the norm. Couplings are often more strategic and functional than they are emotional. Children are conceived with a pre-determined life path and their birth is the final stop on a fully automated ectogenesis production line. So, even though Lyta is in love with Seg, matters of the heart don’t matter here. The dictates of social position determine optimum matches. Lyta is already bound to a fellow Sagitari and he has no intention of taking a powder or playing second fiddle to a de-ranked Don Juan.
HOUSE MOTHER OF ZOD
Complicating matters further, Lyta isn’t just any young officer of the law. Her mother, Jayna-Zod (Ann Ogbomo), is head of the powerful Military Guild and oversees training of the Sagitari. A formidable leader, her coaching style runs the gamut from tough to bloody brutal (literally). Jayna is particularly hard on Lyta and holds her to standards so high, they’re sometimes impossible to meet. This relentless pursuit of perfection defines their complex relationship. It’s also why questions are raised when we find out Jayna isn’t completely in the dark about her daughter’s decidedly downmarket dalliance.
Though riding the romance roller coaster might be stressful, once Seg fully realizes the significance of his true destiny, current crises and consternation will likely amount to little more than emotional bric-a-brac. His journey of self-discovery has all the earmarks of a remarkable adventure. As the pilot unfolds, it becomes the most resonant and consequential of Krypton’s sturdy narrative threads.
THE FUTURE IS STRANGE
Unaware he’s on the cusp of anything life-altering, Seg goes about his day-to-day. He’s also oblivious to the shadowy figure tracking his every move. Wearing a hoodie and Detroit Tigers baseball cap, this mystery man is obviously not a local. When the moment is right, the stranger intercepts Seg and introduces himself as Adam Strange (Shaun Sipos). He’s from a planet called Earth where he lives in the distant future. He’s traveled through space and time to Krypton’s past (at least from his chronological perspective) with a dire warning: something is coming that will destroy Krypton.
Seg is understandably confused. The story sounds unbelievable. Why seek him out, of all people? Strange reveals that Seg’s future grandson, Kal-El, resides on Earth where he’s been named Superman, the greatest superhero the planet has ever known. If this approaching menace destroys Krypton, Kal-El will never be born and Superman will cease to exist. Before Strange disappears, he gives Seg a crystal bearing the mark of the House of El and implores him to find “the fortress” and save Superman.
SOMETHING BAD IS COMING
The fortress, as it turns out, is actually his grandfather’s secret work space. When Val-El’s research was shut down by the Council of Krypton, he found a hidden location outside the Kandor dome and built a massive Fortress of Solitude where he could continue his work. Seg is eventually taken to the site, an important step in his journey that also leads to significant sacrifice and profound loss.
Seg emerges from the fog of tragedy and makes a return trip to the Fortress of Solitude. Adam Strange re-appears, this time with Superman’s iconic red cape in hand. He gives the cape to Seg, who notices it’s slowly disappearing from the bottom. Strange tells him to think of it as an hourglass. Once the cape is gone, it will be too late for Seg to save Kal-El. Strange has even more sobering news. The creature coming to destroy Krypton is none other than Braniac, Collector of Worlds.
A NEW HIGH FOR SYFY
It can be difficult to create epic scope and a sense of grandeur on the small screen. The challenge is even more daunting within the confines of a cable budget, especially on a network where quality is often a roll of the dice. There are no such worries here. By all measures, Krypton is one of the best produced originals SyFy has ever aired. A fully realized visual aesthetic evokes the creative spirit of comic book source material without resorting to mawkish flourishes or shopworn gimmickry.
So often in ambitious series like this, artistic vision is kneecapped by bottom-line bean counters. One of the most obvious victims is production design, rendered flat and unconvincing by overuse of poorly executed digital effects and curbs on hiring the most experienced (and expensive) crews. Krypton doesn’t repeat these mistakes. Colors are rich and vibrant throughout. Even darker scenes are deftly composed, never devolving into muddy repetition. From the creepy-sleek interior of a massive baby processing facility to soaring heights in the Fortress of Solitide rotunda, impressive depth and dramatic sweep breathe life into the physical spaces that establish the environs of Kandor City. Comic fans will take special delight in the spot-on realization of Braniac and his Skull Ship.
DARK MATTER: POLITICS, RELIGION AND A PLANET IN PERIL
Krypton is much more than a pretty package. Family turmoil, political skullduggery and palace intrigue give the series substantive texture and dramatic tension. Even though the premise is rooted in dense comic book lore, things proceed at a surprisingly brisk pace. There’s a fair amount of necessary world building in the pilot, but writers don’t get bogged down in distracting minutia. Rather than turning the opener into a slog through Kryptonian history, key backstory elements are introduced in well-placed reveals. They land like tantalizing breadcrumbs and lay the foundation for future plot expansion. It all rolls up into a smart narrative strategy that permits the orderly introduction of characters without sacrificing forward momentum.
The cast is uniformly strong, with a sizable contingent of talent from the UK. Though it’s certainly no guarantee of quality, all those well-heeled British accents do give the proceedings a distinctive gloss of gravitas. Red capes and bug-eyed villains not withstanding, there are weighty issues in the mix here. The volatile intersection of science, religion and politics leads to multiples deaths in the pilot. It also looks to be a recurring point of conflict, fueled in large part by the malevolent machinations of Rao and Daron-Vex (Elliot Cowan), chief magistrate of Kandor. Daron presided over the trial and execution of Val-El and is the closest thing you’ll find to a mustache-twirling villain on Krypton.
Though Krypton extends DC’s portfolio of successful television adaptations, it stands apart from the rest in ways beyond physical network home. Unlike the multiverse that sprung up around Arrow on the CW, this entry doesn’t lend itself to crossovers or interconnected storylines. There’s no pressure to watch multiple series or catch-up with anything before tuning in. That drops the barrier to entry considerably. Furthermore, if there’s a TV show inspired by a comic book that could be enjoyed by fans and non-fans alike, this is it. Krypton adds relevance and immediacy to familiar source material by filtering much of it through the lens of serious adult drama. It’s still a fantasy, but the action leads to more profound consequences and adventure is a confluence of risk, sacrifice and uncertain reward.