The new Syfy show Krypton premieres on Wednesday, March 21st, but audiences got a sneak peek at the show on March 15th at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival. Set two generations before Superman (aka Kal-El) or his later nemesis General Zod were born, the series’s 10-episode season tells a political story about members of the El and Zod families and about a Kryptonian society in flux, struggling with class warfare and other internal conflicts that occupy the ruling class and keep them blind to the external force posed by the alien Brainiac.
The story largely takes place in the domed city of Kandor, long familiar to Superman fans as Krypton’s capital city, before Brainiac miniaturized it and stuck it in a bottle. It revolves around Seg-El (Cameron Cuffe), a young man from the disgraced house of El, and his lover Lyta Zod (Georgina Campbell, from Black Mirror’s “Hang The DJ”), a ranking member of Kandor’s military police force. The rise of Kandor’s theocratic overlord and a variety of conflicts in the city keep Seg and Lyta apart and busy, but the outside threat dominates. Shortly before Krypton’s SXSW premiere, I sat down with showrunner Cameron Welsh to talk about how the show developed, what went into designing its world, what the show’s long-term plans look like, and how no one’s planning for Krypton to cross over with any other DC Comics media property.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What went into planning what this show would look like? What were the big concerns about how to shape it?
In terms of the challenges, when you’re dealing with a prequel, there’s a concern that the audience might feel like they know how this is going to end, so why engage? “When there’s so much out there to watch, why do I watch this show when I know how this story ends?” That was one thing we discussed early on, and we addressed that by adding a time-travel element to the show. I think the world itself is fascinating, and I think there’s enough there for people to be interested in. But adding that time-travel element makes the stakes affect the here and now, so it’s not just a look back at an ancient civilization somewhere else. It’s that and more. It also impacts what’s happening here. That was one of the things we wanted to do.
Apart from that… we wanted to make it entertaining, but also feel free to add some social commentary. That’s part of the nature of the world itself, the society we built here. It’s part of the DC world, but a relatively unexplored part that gave us a bit of a blank canvas. So we had a lot of room to move around and create a world that could reflect a lot of what’s happening in our world but through a sci-fi lens, which I think is what you want out of science fiction: to be able to hold up a mirror to society. The show’s not overtly political or anything. It’s entertaining more than anything else. But we wanted it to be a conscious show.
It’s pretty openly political, though! There’s an unmissable Eric Garner reference, where an unarmed man is saying “I can’t breathe” as an abusive cop is choking him. What did the conversations look like as you decided how specific or message-driven you wanted to be?
Those were the best conversations. That’s what our writers’ room is all about. We sit there and talk about this stuff. I’m glad you picked that up — the response to that, “If you can talk, you can breathe” is also directly from the Eric Garner case — and that part of the story is certainly about police brutality and the over-militarization of police, which obviously we’re seeing a lot of here in America.
We were able to address that in the story, but I think it’s there if you want to see it, and if you just want to engage with the story, politics aren’t the forefront of the show. You want it to be there organically. Not as the big driver, but it’s something we’re able to address.
So much of the show is built around class inequality, power inequality, wealth inequality. It’s hard to see mindless escapism here.
Yeah, and one of the things we’ve talked about. It goes back to the question of, philosophically, what is this show about? This is a show that comes before Superman, and it’s meant to help deepen and expand our understanding of that mythology. What do we know about Superman? That he was raised on Earth in Smallville, America, and he’s come to represent the values of truth, justice, and the American way. That’s all already baked in.
But if that’s the nurture side, what’s the nature side? How much of what makes Superman into Superman is in his upbringing with Ma and Pa Kent, and how much of it is in his lineage, his Kryptonian blood? Working backward from there, we asked, “What kind of society could birth the greatest hero the universe has ever seen?” Krypton has been talked about as being the most advanced civilization, but we thought since we’re going back two generations, it’d be more interesting to see that civilization not yet at its peak. We wanted to see the civilization in decline. The world of Krypton we have in our show isn’t yet the world it needs to be to birth Superman. So our hero, Seg, needs to lead a bit of a social revolution in order to shape society and to bring it into a new golden age if it’s going to become the Krypton we expect.
Because of the time-travel element, there are some characters involved that DC fans will recognize. Did you have to deal with any previously established continuity to bring them in? Do they integrate with any existing Superman story?
No. We do use characters from the DC mythology, but we’re still seeding our own story. We’re not part of the DC TV shows. We’re not part of the film side of DC. We’re kind of our own thing. Superman’s got a massive fan base already, so we didn’t want to just ignore everything that’s come before and do our own thing. We were very careful to be respectful of what’s come before. We don’t want to just throw all that away. We don’t want to change continuity just for the sake of it. But we did want to create something new. So we try to walk that line, like, “Okay, this has been established, but maybe if we change this little thing, it can open up some other opportunities.” It’s a balance. It’s a fine line you have to walk.
Is that separation built into your contracts? Are you positively never going to integrate with any of the present DC shows?
Yeah, as far as I know. It’s still early days, I suppose, so things may change. But as far as I know, we’re solely our own thing.
In addition to politics, the show deals with religion. We know Krypton has recently been through a major religious shift, but the early episodes don’t address how that happened or what it means. Do you eventually explore that?
Yeah, we get into it a little more. When the show starts, you see Kandor is a theocracy. And we’ll learn that there was a cataclysmic event in Krypton’s past, and at that time, there was a rationalization that was needed for survival. Once, the planet was spinning, but now it’s tidally locked, and there’s only a small habitable zone. People live within domed cities by necessity. And some opportunists within the different religious factions saw that as a chance to advance their own religion at the cost of all the others. There were originally six gods and goddesses, and now there’s only one dominant religion. Later on, we’ll unpack that, and we’ll learn that there are people practicing other religions, and that’ll open up a bit.
It’s unusual to see a far-future science fiction setting that’s built around science and rationality, but also fundamentally around religion.
Yeah, that’s one of the things I find really interesting about the show. A lot of people associate science fiction, and particularly Superman, with a rational, scientific world. In this society, there are guilds, and the science guild is a powerful force. So we like the idea of science and religion. So often, they’re seen as opposing forces or having opposing ideals, but I don’t necessarily agree with that.
And I think both institutions are made up of people. I don’t think they’re inherently good or bad. I think they’re both just defined by the people within them. That’s part of what we want to get into here. There are a lot of people who are anti-science or anti-religion, and we’re trying to say, “You don’t have to be solely either of those things. They can coexist. You don’t have to choose one or the other.”
What kind of choices went into creating the visual design of the show?
It was a long process. Lots of concept artists were brought in, and futurists. We worked alongside those guys. Every detail is well-considered. We tried to think about what materials exist on this planet because we want it to be alien. And so you don’t see wood. You don’t see furniture made from timber because the planet is devastated. Trees are just not there. And we came up with different textures for metal, so it wouldn’t be like a metal we know. It has a different quality. We tried to use lots of different materials and textures to make it feel alien.
But you know, it still needs to feel like a real place. One of the hardest things about doing the show is to have interesting sets, interesting designs, that feel alien, but still feel real. The further you go from what we know, the less real it can feel. So that’s what we tried to do.
The story allows us to create two very different designs. Krypton’s society is broken up into the upper class, the guilds, and then the lower classes, the rankless. We took that into our design aesthetic as well. So when you see sets in the guild area, they’re bathed in warmth. The tones we use are warm and golden, so the feeling is that you’re close to the sun, Rao, which is also the name of Krypton’s sun god. So it’s like you’ve got the light of Rao shining on the guilds. And down in the rankless areas, there’s a darker look, with chillier lighting. The tones we use there are much cooler. And then, in the military areas, it’s very harsh, and everything feels like going into a government building, with a utilitarian design. All those spaces feel very similar. And the biggest one for us was the fortress. That’s something that exists in the mythology, and we’ve seen various versions of it in comics and TV and film. So we wanted to do our own version of that, one that tipped our hat to the ones that came before, but still unique in its own way. I really like the fortress set.
Speaking of hat tips, your version of Brainiac is bound to remind people of the Borg from Star Trek. There’s his specific use of technology, and one of his minions even says, “You will be collected!” It starts to look like an homage. Was that intentional?
I think people who know Brainiac know that’s what Brainiac does. He collects worlds. We know from the cannon that he bottled the city of Kandor. So I think people who are familiar with Superman will know that. I wasn’t too worried about people making that connection. He has his own methodology.
The show’s dedication to diversity is particularly impressive, both in terms of gender and race.
It was something we consciously did. We wanted to the show to be representative and inclusive. We wanted to be diverse in front of and behind the camera. The writers’ room is similar — it’s a great gender balance, great ethnic balance. And I think those things are important, and that you have to do that consciously. You can’t sit back and see where it all lands. It’s very much on us as creators to make that happen. When we’re in a position to do that, we should do it. And we’re very proud of that.
What’s the story with the women with the Kryptonian script across their robes and faces? They obviously serve the Voice of Rao, the ruler who speaks for the god, but they’re just this strange background presence throughout the early episodes.
Those clerics are called the Word of Rao. They come into it a little more as the season progresses. Their role in the show increases. It’s hard to speak to that too much of without giving spoilers away, but they certainly become important characters. I would say “watch this space.”
How far out do your current plans for the show go? If you keep getting renewed, what’s your long-term plan look like?
I think we’ve got at least five years. I mean, we’ve got a big overview of where we want to go. I think you need to have that. Once you actually start breaking the story, sometimes you need to go off the path you were originally set on. But there is an endpoint we have in mind, and I think if we keep going this way, we’ll get there. But I’m sure there’ll be lots of little side adventures along the way.
Do you have a personal favorite Superman or era of Superman?
There have been a lot! Dan Jurgens is a great writer. I think he’s done some fantastic Superman. The Death of Superman is one I remember. As a kid, it was very impactful for me when I was growing up. All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison is another favorite. I loved Frank Miller’s take on Superman in Dark Knight Returns. It’s a really cool take. Neal Adams, I loved his stuff a lot. I loved his Superman Vs. Muhammad Ali. There’s so much to love. I love Jim Lee’s art, and Frank Quitely. I thought he drew Superman beautifully. And I’m really looking forward to what [Brian Michael] Bendis does with Superman. It’s exciting.