Aside from the Arrowverse, one of the ways DC Comics has handled the idea of adapting its characters to live-action television is by hooking audiences on the promise of seeing unformed versions of the company’s biggest heroes on a weekly basis from the comfort of their living rooms. Shows like Smallville and Gotham are, in essence, the promise of a Superman and Batman TV show, respectively, but without ever actually showing the Man of Steel or the Dark Knight in all their comic book glory. It can be frustrating for fans who are only tangentially interested in the goings on of a Midwestern teen with godlike powers or the criminal goings-on in the most dysfunctional fictional city this side of Springfield.
At first glance, that seems to be the case with SYFY’s newest series, Krypton. Telling a Superman-less story on Superman’s home planet initially reads like an interstellar Gotham, but this series does the formula one better, eliminating the chance of ever seeing a young Kal-El or Clark Kent by setting the series two generations in the past. That puts the focus on Kal’s grandfather, Seg-El (Cameron Cuffe), and relieves the series of a great deal of pressure with regard to the question of Superman. Yet in a clever twist that involves present-day Adam Strange (Shaun Sipos) traveling back in time to ensure Kal-El is born, Krypton becomes something more than a prequel series. It is supported by a surprisingly strong premise and cast of characters, the emergence of which allows the show to stand on its own.
Working in Krypton’s favor is, well, Krypton itself. The alien planet is far enough removed from Earth or the rest of the DCU that when a familiar face like Strange or a surprisingly comics-accurate Brainiac (Blake Ritson) pops up it means something. Though it exists within a familiar storytelling landscape, the isolation of the setting (both in terms of time and place) frees it from the many increasingly conventional trappings of a shared universe. Knowing the Flash isn’t going to whizz by on the streets of Kandor aids in anchoring the viewer in the various political and cultural goings-on within Krypton’s somewhat byzantine governmental system of houses, from which a disgraced House El has been booted on account of the radical beliefs of Seg’s grandfather Val-El (Ian McElhinney), who posited a malevolent force drifting through the cosmos would soon find the doomed planet.
Of course, Val-El was right. What he discovered in his research was none other than Brainiac and his massive skull ship skulking through the universe. Val’s persecution, then, on behalf of Daron-Vex (Elliot Cowan) and Krypton’s ruling class, carries with it hints of Galileo’s conviction on heresy and even present-day scientists’ battles with climate change deniers. Though it’s a nice touch, the way in which science can challenge institutions is not really the focus or the intent of Krypton. Instead, the series is far more interested in building a complex mythology around the planet’s various houses, with Vex at its center, Zod as its military, and El on the verge of being remanded to the ash heap of history.
In that regard, series creators David S. Goyer and Damian Kindler have taken aim at using Game of Thrones as the show’s most obvious inspiration, both in terms of the narrative’s aspirational breadth and its tone. And for the most part, it works. So much so that it doesn’t take long to find yourself engaged in the fall of the House of El, the scheming of House Vex by both Daron and his daughter Nyssa (Wallis Day), or the brutality of House Zod, as seen by the tense relationship had by Lyta (Georgina Campbell) and her mother Alura (Ann Ogbomo). Much of that has to do with the way Krypton reduces Superman to a footnote — an incredibly important footnote, but still — and how swiftly the pilot episode moves to not only set up Seg’s journey but also establish Krypton as a place with a story to tell, one that actually strengthens the planet’s pending legacy rather than relying on it or an increasingly boring dependence on superpowers entirely.
Much of that is made possible thanks to the supporting cast, nearly all of which has nothing to do with either the future Big Blue Boy Scout or the pending arrival of Brainiac. Seg’s parents, played by Paula Malcomson and Rupert Graves, enjoy an easy relationship with their son, one that adds to his eventual maturation and struggle over the decisions he will eventually have to grapple with -- even when the most important decision is not Seg’s to make. Similarly, the romance between Seg and Lyta is like Krypton itself: it finds surprising weight in its approaching doom and the chance that it might all go a different direction should Strange’s plan inadvertently fail. That small wrinkle, the chance that knowing one’s fate will cause them to alter it allows the series to operate with stakes that other prequels simply do not have.
Krypton distinguishes itself through an implicit awareness of its own relatively short episode count. The show moves at an impressive clip, so much so that Adam Strange has already explained Seg’s destiny to him before the pilot is half over. Moreover, the series demonstrates a willingness to blast through its initial set up to get to the story by making some surprising choices with regard to the survival of characters one would presume to be major players in the series. The tendency to kill off seemingly important characters on what looks to be a whim is one of the worst habits television has acquired since Game of Thrones premiered, and the deaths here don’t carry nearly as much weight, but some of that can be forgiven on account of how the show uses character death as a way to keep the series from slipping into ponderousness.
To its credit, Krypton wants to be more than either a superhero series or a mere Superman prequel. It proves as much by wisely eschewing superpowers for a more ambitious drama about legacy, class dynamics, and the allure of power. It’s not always successful and it’s not nearly as smart as it thinks it is, but Krypton earns plenty of points for its lofty ambitions and its ability to retool the tired superhero prequel concept into something that can stand on its own.
Krypton continues next Wednesday with ‘House of El’ @10pm on SYFY.