Throughout its first season, SYFY’s Krypton has made good on it status as a Superman prequel series by attempting to establish a sense there are real stakes that other similar stories may not have. It’s a problem for prequels in that they’re on a closed loop. Whatever story is being alluded to has already happened, and the result is essentially narrative math — that is, the job of the writers is to make sure it all adds up to the story everyone knows. But Krypton aimed to cheat the prequel game by making use of a familiar and disruptive narrative device: time travel.
Krypton may outwardly concern itself with Kal-El's grandfather Seg-El (Cameron Cuffe), but this is actually Superman’s story. Krypton may not actually have the Big Blue Boy Scout on its call sheet, but every minute of the show is about him. That much was made clear when the series introduced Adam Strange (Shaun Sipos) and a slowly disintegrating cape that was worn by Superman himself. Strange’s role was clear: he was there to ensure Kal-El would be blasted off to Earth to fulfill his heroic destiny. And in doing so, Strange became a proxy not only for the audience, but also for the show’s writers’ room: He there to double check Krypton’s narrative math, and insist the show has actual stakes.
Like most comic book stories, believing there are stakes and that anything that happens actually matters in the long run requires a considerable leap of faith. But it’s a leap most audiences are willing to make. Just look at the box office take of Avengers: Infinity War and Deadpool 2, a pair of films whose relationship with the concept of stakes is dubious at best. Both films include McGuffins that allow characters to fiddle with time, to take a mulligan instead of settling for the “L.” In its own, no less convoluted way, Krypton is doing the exact same thing, only it’s using the presence of time travel to create the illusion of weight and dramatic stakes.
All season long, Krypton has concerned itself with the pending arrival of Brainiac (Blake Ritson), a malevolent artificial intelligence/hoarder who obsessively collects civilizations across the universe. Because we’ve seen him do battle with Superman we know his attempt to bottle Krypton’s Kandor is sure to be postponed, at least until Seg’s kid has a kid and the planet eventually blows up. As watchers of television, we know pretty much the same, since the SYFY has already given Krypton season 2 the green light. So what’s a prequel series to do?
Krypton’s biggest selling point is one that it’s not in any hurry to actually sell itself on. It too requires viewers take a giant leap of faith, and in doing so may find themselves able to watch the show with a less cynical eye. What if this prequel series gets bumped off its prescribed path and therefore is given the freedom to forge an entirely new one? The likelihood of that happening may be slim to none, after all, the show has gone to great lengths to introduce a time traveling Zod (Colin Salmon) and Kryptonian baddie Doomsday (in addition to the series’ primary antagonist, Brainiac), characters whose importance is inextricably tied to the existence of Superman. But as far as selling points for a prequel series goes, even a ‘What if?’ as thin as this is better than nothing at all.
That ‘What if?’ was the show’s entree into the world of meaningful stakes from the start. But the season 1 finale, ‘The Phantom Zone’, twists the notion just enough that ensuring the legacy of the House of El becomes something much larger, something with the potential to rewrite Superman’s past entirely and see him supplanted by Zod.
Never mind the paradoxical problems associated with stories involving time travel, the abrupt about-face is interesting (if not as bold as the series needs it to be), mostly because it undermines and ultimately truncates the biggest plot point of the entire season. Brainiac’s arrival on Krypton doesn’t result in a battle royal between him and a weaponized Doomsday, but instead shuffles Seg and Braniac off the board, all while positioning Zod as the series’ next Big Bad -- an autocratic leader who abolishes the societal caste system to fill his army’s ranks with unwilling conscripts.
Just like his grandfather has, there’s little doubt Seg will return from his trip to the Phantom Zone, and it’s equally likely his green-skinned abductor won’t be far behind. Bringing back Val-El (Ian McElhinney), from what viewers were led to believe was his death (sure, this falls under the protective umbrella of ‘no body, didn’t happen’, but come on), doesn’t bode well for the insistence that anything that happen on the show actually matters. That’s also true of Nyssa’s (Wallis Day) discovery that she’s a clone or the episode's CGI coda that ostensibly unleashes Doomsday.
That’s not to say this series isn’t fun to watch. It is. But the pleasure in watching Krypton doesn’t come from there being a comics-accurate Brainiac or "way more accurate" Doomsday, or in how it attempts to raise the stakes while tracing a path to the eventual existence of Superman. It’s in knowing nothing’s at stake and in discovering the degree to which the series itself knows that to be true. Nothing is done that cannot be undone. Whatever is written can be unwritten, over and over again. One way or another, and through countless ‘What if?’ detours, this story will probably get back to an infant Kal-El crash landing in a Kansas cornfield. As far as season 2 is concerned, Krypton doesn’t need higher stakes, it only needs to embrace the notion of what’s possible when nothing matters.
Krypton will return for season 2 in 2019 on SYFY.