Superman’s origin story is so well-known that Grant Morrison opened his All-Star Superman series by summing it up in just eight words: “Doomed planet. Desperate scientists. Last hope. Kindly couple.” Krypton showrunner Cameron Welsh, who cites All-Star Superman as one of his favorite Superman stories, has the unenviable task of trying to make audiences really care about the “doomed planet / desperate scientists” half of that story. Prequels always struggle to justify their existence, and that’s especially true for Krypton, Syfy’s pre-Superman prequel series. The show has to deal with the fact that all of its characters are doomed, and its eventual endpoint was first established 80 years ago. It also has to deal with the inevitable comparisons to DC’s other current superhero-prequel series, the lackluster Batman show Gotham.
Welsh has risen to that challenge by abandoning the serialized monster-of-the-week structure of DC’s other live-action TV shows, in favor of turning Krypton into a space opera. Living under their native red sun, Rao, none of the Kryptonians have any powers, and even time-and-planet-hopping superhero Adam Strange (Shaun Sipos) is grounded by malfunctioning technology. Aside from a few coy nods to Supergirl plots like a Daxamite blade being sold in a market and a prisoner being held at Fort Rozz, Krypton largely eschews its comic-book roots. What could easily have been a parade of battles against Superman’s space-faring rogues’ gallery is instead an exploration of the society that birthed him — and like any good science fiction, it’s an excuse to look at real-world problems through a different lens.
The show’s version of Krypton is far from the shining utopia it’s usually imagined to be. It’s remarkably unclear whether the planet still has more than one city left — it’s mostly comprised of frozen wastelands. That’s presumably why so many people are crowded into the slums of the domed city of Kandor, where those who aren’t lucky enough to be members of one of Krypton’s great houses eke out meager existences scavenging, working as underlings to the elite, or sometimes just relying on the kindness of their friends and neighbors. Krypton has no evidence of racism or sexism. (In the latter case, it presumably helps that marriages are arranged, reproduction is handled through artificial wombs, and there’s no functional division between genders.) But socioeconomic divides are harsh.
Superman’s grandfather Seg-El (Cameron Cuffe) is a pretty bland protagonist, but he has a unique pedigree that lets him move freely between the elite world and the underclass: he was born into one of the great houses, exiled to the Rankless after his grandfather was executed, then brought back into the science guild, thanks to the political machinations of the House of Vex. The upper echelons of society are filled with Game of Thrones-style intrigue that doesn’t feel cliché because the show executes it so well. Seg sees Daron-Vex (Elliot Cowan) as a villain, but he’s been quietly playing a long political game with the goal of uniting the guilds and the Rankless against the theocratic tyrant known as the Voice of Rao. Will the new world order put Daron at the top? Sure, but it certainly seems better than the status quo.
Even more refreshing is Daron’s relationship with his daughter Nyssa (Wallis Day), who fills the role of Cersei to his Tywin Lannister, but is much more competent than the queen of the Seven Kingdoms. Nyssa manipulates both her father and Seg by being willing to take risks and make allies in ways that neither man foresees, and she does it without using sex as a weapon. She’s empowered because she has other important women to work with, most notably military guild leader Jayna-Zod (Ann Ogbomo) and her daughter, Lyta-Zod (Georgina Campbell).
In the five episodes of the show provided for critics, the ancestors of Superman’s nemesis are the most compelling characters, and the center of its best-developed plots. They provide an examination of what it means to be an honorable soldier under a corrupt leader. That theme plays out dramatically when the military forces are ordered to search a district full of Rankless for members of a terrorist group that tried to assassinate the Voice of Rao. Lyta’s romantic relationship with Seg gives her sympathy for the Rankless, who her peers view as scum at best, and automatic terrorist sympathizers at worst. Lyta has to challenge her superior to a death match just to ensure that the raid is handled humanely, and that still isn’t enough to create real change in her faction.
The Voice of Rao’s status as a political and religious leader also lets the show’s creators examine the role religion plays in an advanced civilization. Krypton appears to be in the grips of a culture war, with the elites respecting the Voice because he’s powerful, while the Rankless genuinely revere him as the representative of a god, the bringer of light and hope. The show’s upcoming fifth episode, “House of Zod,” takes that conflict to a new dimension with a glimpse at one of the other faiths forced into hiding when Rao was declared the one true god of Krypton. Those conflicts haven’t gotten much screen time yet, but they’re one of the show’s many seeds that have the potential to sprout into something fascinating.
Another one of those seeds is the way Krypton avoids the prequel problem, by introducing a time traveler who wants to ensure Superman never exists. Adam Strange tells Seg that the Superman of our contemporary time period sent him to save Krypton from Brainiac, the supervillain who famously shrunk Kandor and added it to his collection of cities. It’s an unlikely plot thread: if Krypton was saved, Superman wouldn’t exist. He needs the second part of Morrison’s abbreviated origin story, a rocket that will send him from his doomed planet to that kindly couple, who raise him to believe in truth, justice, and the American way. Strange and the Kryptonians can certainly agree that they should fight Brainiac, but the need to save Krypton so it can be destroyed on schedule two generations later is likely to be a sore spot for the series. If Superman actually knew Strange was planning on paying his ancestors a visit, he’d likely ask him to save Krypton at all costs, even if it would deny the world its most powerful superhero.
How that conflict plays out in the second half of the first season will depend on the creative team’s ability to follow through on their best ideas in this show, as opposed to how much time they devote to their worst ones. The writers are commendably willing to dive into social issues, but so far, they’ve handled them clumsily. The third episode, “The Rankless Initiative,” has overt references to the police killing of unarmed black New Yorker Eric Garner, and features an enforcer murdering a civilian, then covering up the death with lies and familiar “I feared for my life” rhetoric. But the points the episode makes about police brutality are undermined by the heavy-handed resolution that sees good cop Lyta arrested for treason after stopping her subordinate from killing more unarmed civilians. A more honest version of those events would show Lyta dealing with the fallout after her colleague is exonerated of wrongdoing, and facing the challenges of leading a team that believes she doesn’t place them first. Meanwhile, a lot of questions could be raised about the institutional issues that led to Krypton’s class divides, but they’re mostly hand-waved off in a way that makes the world feel like a clumsy hybrid of Gattaca and Divergent.
Perhaps the show’s biggest missed opportunity is in its portrayal of Brainiac. It’s hard to fault the creators too much — they did go back to Superman lore for this version of one of its greatest villains. And while he comes across as a sort of Borg king who uses probes and nanites to assimilate unique elements from around the galaxy, those choices are rooted in the comics, not in Star Trek.
But the series could have done so much more with the version of Brainiac from Superman: The Animated Series, where he’s a Kryptonian supercomputer who contradicts Jor-El’s findings that the planet is doomed because he wants to focus on saving his own programming, rather than devoting his processing power to coordinating a planetary evacuation. The series could have mined a rich vein of concerns about putting too much faith in artificial intelligence. And if Welsh and company wanted a mind-controlling villain for the first season, they could have dug a little deeper into Superman’s rogues’ gallery to find Despero or Starro. Either alien would also provide the same conflict, in terms of entrenched Kryptonian interests who would rather dismiss science than acknowledge they aren’t alone in the universe.
In an interview with The Verge, Welsh said he has at least five years of material for Krypton, so it’s possible a version of that arc will eventually play out. After all, there has to be some justification for the intergenerational Cassandra story currently going on in the House of El. But even if it doesn’t, Krypton has already provided some great surprises and promising world-building. The titular planet may be doomed, but with the right focus, the show could actually thrive.