The origin story of Superman is so well known that Grant Morrison opened his All-Star Superman series by summarizing it in just eight words: "Doomed planet, desperate scientists, last hope." Krypton showrunner Cameron Welsh, who cites All-Star Superman as a From his favorite Superman stories, he has the unenviable task of trying to make the public really care about half of that story "the damned planet / desperate scientists". The prequels always fight to justify their existence, and that's especially true for Krypton, Syfy's Superman prequel series. The program has to deal with the fact that all its characters are condemned, and its eventual endpoint was first established 80 years ago. He also has to deal with the inevitable comparisons with DC's current series of superheroes and prequels, Batman Gotham's lackluster show.
Welsh has faced that challenge by leaving the serialized structure of monsters of the week of other DC real-time television shows in favor of turning Krypton into a space opera. Living under its native red sun, Rao, none of the Kryptonians has powers, and even the superhero in time and the planet, Adam Strange (Shaun Sipos) is punished by a technology that does not work well. Aside from some timid assents to the Supergirl plots like a Daxamite sword sold in a market and a prisoner held at Fort Rozz, Krypton largely avoids its comic book roots. What could have been a parade of battles against the gallery of rogues of Superman is an exploration of the society that gave birth to it, and like any good science fiction, it is an excuse to look at the problems of the real world through a lens different.
The version of the Krypton program is far from being the brilliant utopia that is generally believed to be. It is remarkably unclear if the planet still has more than one city, it is composed mainly of frozen paramos. Supposedly, that is the reason why so many people crowd into the slums of the vaulted city of Kandor, where those who are not fortunate enough to be members of one of Krypton's great houses are fed by meager existences working as subordinates. of the elite or, sometimes just trusting in the kindness of their friends and neighbors. Krypton has no evidence of racism or sexism. (In the latter case, presumably it helps that marriages are organized, reproduction is handled through artificial wombs, and there is no functional division between the genders). But socioeconomic divisions are hard.
Superman's grandfather, Seg-El (Cameron Cuffe) is a rather bland protagonist, but he has a unique pedigree that allows him to move freely between the elite and the lower class world: he was born in one of the great houses, exiled to the Rankless after his grandfather was executed, and then taken back to the science guild, thanks to the political machinations of Casa de Vex. The highest levels of society are full of Game of Thrones style intrigue that does not feel cliché because the program runs so well. Seg sees Daron-Vex (Elliot Cowan) as a villain, but has been quietly playing a long political game with the aim of uniting the guilds and the Rankless against the theocratic tyrant known as the Voice of Rao. Will the new world order put Daron on the top? Sure, but it certainly seems better than the status quo.
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Even more refreshing is Daron's relationship with his daughter Nyssa (Wallis Day), who plays the role of Cersei with his Tywin Lannister, but is much more competent than the queen of the Seven Kingdoms. Nyssa manipulates both her father and Seg to be willing to take risks and make allies in a way that neither of them anticipates, and does so without using sex as a weapon. She is empowered because she has other important women to work with, especially the leader of the military guild Jayna-Zod (Ann Ogbomo) and her daughter, Lyta-Zod (Georgina Campbell).
In the five episodes of the series for critics, the ancestors of Superman's nemesis are the most convincing characters and the center of their best-developed plots. They provide an examination of what it means to be an honorable soldier under a corrupt leader. That theme develops dramatically when the military forces are ordered to search in a district full of Rankless members of a terrorist group that tried to assassinate the Voice of Rao. Lyta's romantic relationship with Seg gives him sympathy for the Rankless, whom his peers see as scum in the best of cases, and automatic terrorist sympathizers in the worst case. Lyta has to challenge her superior to a fight to the death just to guarantee that the raid is handled humanely, and that still is not enough to create a real change in her faction.
The status of the Voice of Rao as a political and religious leader also allows the creators of the program to examine the role played by religion in an advanced civilization. Krypton seems to be in the middle of a cultural war, with the elites respecting the Voice because it is powerful, while the Scoundrels genuinely revere him as the representative of a god, the bearer of light and hope. The next fifth episode of the show, "House of Zod," takes that conflict to a new dimension with a look at one of the other religions forced to hide when Rao was declared the only true god of Krypton. Those conflicts have not had much screen time yet, but they are one of the many seeds of the series that have the potential to sprout into something fascinating.
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Another one of those seeds is the way in which Krypton avoids the problem of prequels, by presenting a traveler in time who wants to make sure that Superman never exists. Adam Strange tells Seg that the Superman of our contemporary time sent him to save Krypton from Brainiac, the supervillain who shrugged Kandor and added him to his collection of cities. It is an unlikely plot thread: if Krypton were saved, Superman would not exist. He needs the second part of the abridged history of Morrison's origin, a rocket that will send him from his planet condemned to that kind couple, who raise him to believe in truth, justice and American style. It is strange and the Kryptonians can certainly agree that they should fight against Brainiac, but the need to save Krypton so that it can be destroyed as scheduled two generations later is likely to be a painful point for the series. If Superman really knew that Strange planned to visit his ancestors, he would probably ask him to save Krypton at all costs, even if that would deny the world his most powerful superhero.
The way in which the conflict develops in the second half of the first season will depend on the ability of the creative team to carry out their best ideas in this program, as opposed to the amount of time they devote to the worst. Writers are willing to immerse themselves in social problems, but until now, they have handled them clumsily. The third episode, "The Rankless Initiative", has explicit references to the police death of the disarmed New Yorker Eric Garner, and presents an executor murdering a civilian, and then covering up the death with lies and familiar rhetoric "I feared for my life" . But the points that the episode makes about police brutality are undermined by the heavy-handed resolution that sees the good police arrested for treason after having arrested their subordinate to kill more unarmed civilians. A more honest version of those events would show Lyta dealing with the consequences after her colleague is exonerated from her wrongdoing and faces the challenges of leading a team that believes she does not place them first. Meanwhile, many questions could be asked about the institutional problems that led to Krypton's class divisions, but mostly they are shaken by the hand in a way that makes the world feel like a clunky Gattaca and Divergent hybrid.
Perhaps the biggest lost opportunity of the series is in his portrait of Brainiac. It's hard to blame the creators too much: they went back to the Superman tradition for this version of one of their greatest villains. And although it looks like a kind of King Borg that uses probes and nanites to assimilate unique elements from across the galaxy, those choices are rooted in comics, not Star Trek.
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But the series could have done much more with Brainiac's version of Superman: The Animated Series, where it is a Kryptonian supercomputer that contradicts Jor-El's findings that the planet is doomed because it wants to focus on saving its own programming, instead of devoting its processing power to the coordination of a planetary evacuation. The series could have undermined a rich vein of concerns about putting a lot of faith in artificial intelligence. And if Welsh and company wanted a villain to control their minds during the first season, they could have dug a little more in Superman's rogues gallery to find Despero or Starro. Any of the aliens would also provide the same conflict, in terms of entrenched Kryptonian interests that would prefer to discard science than to recognize that they are not alone in the universe.
In an interview with The Verge, Welsh said he has at least five years of material for Krypton, so it is possible that a version of that arc will eventually develop. After all, there has to be some justification for the intergenerational history of Casandra that is currently occurring in His House. But even if it does not, Krypton has already provided great surprises and promises of building the world. The titular planet may be doomed, but with the right approach, the program could thrive.