With the premiere of Krypton on SyFy this Wednesday night, the network is returning to its roots. Like, all of its roots.
Starring relative newcomer Cameron Cuffe as Seg-El, the twentysomething super-grandfather to a future Superman, Krypton is SyFy’s attempt to build out a mythology for the annihilated home planet of Earth’s most storied superhero—a mythology which has, until now, been fairly spare. In the diffuse, high-Kryptonian light of the Kandor City’s sleek Guild elite, the execution of this mythology makes the show feel like an heir to Battlestar Galactica. In the lower-budgeted half-light of the planet’s grubby slums, it becomes a dystopic dead ringer for the gritty camp of a Warehouse 13 or Sanctuary.
The mythology itself has promise, but even by the end of the five episodes provided for review, neither tone ever really manages to gain dominance over the other. So, since SyFy seems to want to have its prestige martial intrigue cake and campily eat it, too, I guess I’ll have to go ahead and review each.
Though Krypton draws the lines of a world two centuries before and a universe away from the superheroic symbolism of Superman’s stylized S-shield, Krypton thrives on symbology. The pilot opens with that same stylized S-shield flapping proudly on the red cape of an elderly man walking alien-lit corridors, layered like the inside of a paper wasp nest. We quickly learn to reframe our understanding of that S-shield, though, as Seg-El’s voiceover identifies the man as his own grandfather, and the S-shield as the House of El’s family crest—a crest which is promptly and physically stripped from the chest of Grandpa Val-El (Ian McElhinney) and the rest of his family as he refuses to submit his family and scientific work to the regime of Rao, the old Kryptonian God of Light/new Kryptonian overlord. And thus, with four quick rips, one of the most identifiable symbols of pure-hearted heroism is transmuted into a symbol, instead, of the violent intersection between pride, corruption, legacy, and elite exclusivity inherent to any society built on a system of rank.
This symbology quickly becomes the core of the series, manifested not just in the shamed but prideful impoverishment Val-El’s family suffers as a result of his refusal to kowtow, but in the desperation with which the poor rankless watch the ranked Guild members who rule on high, the fear with which those ranked Guild members stalk their luxuriously low-lit halls as they contemplate the prospect of displeasing Rao and losing their rank, too, and the unyielding certainty with which they all fight to uphold their family’s honor.
Telling this kind of story effectively is difficult to pull off, but Krypton knows well enough to show rather than tell, and sells the reality of the world by putting its set and costuming department to work from the very start and employing strong, consistent design—the serious, subtle elegance of all the dozens of family crests adorning the chests of everyone in Kandor City; the spinal decoration on all jackets, in Kandor City and the slums, driving home the idea of Kryptonians as both a species alien to our own and as a people not born to back down; the early establishment of artifacts and rituals related to death and grieving, which are handled as respectfully as if they were the funeral pyres or wakes of Earth; the carefully drawn, self-evidently complex martial dueling tradition and costume of the Saggitarii guard corps.
More so even than the design elements, though, it’s the performances put in by the series’ three lead women—Georgina Campbell as Seg’s secret lover, the morally dogged Saggitarii guard, Lyta-Zod; Ann Ogbomo as Alura-Zod, the unrelenting General of the Saggitarii and Lyta’s mother; and Wallis Day as the scheming sylph Nyssa-Vex, Seg’s arranged match and daughter to the man who sentenced Val-El to death—who lift the intense honor drama of Krypton high enough to be considered a potential heir to Battlestar Galactica. Day slays every scene she’s in with chilly calculation cut through with hidden emotional warmth. But it’s Campbell and Ogbomo, playing mother and daughter locked in constant professional, emotional, and deadly ideological tension, who are the most compelling. Ogbomo’s facial acting alone is worth the price of your time, as she manages somehow to convey the perfect, untranslatable balance of intensity and pathos in response to every word Lyta speaks, every boneheaded move Seg makes, and every deadly moral impasse she faces as the weapon arm of Rao.
If these women’s footsteps are the ones Krypton ends up following, this series will be one to invest in now.
You may have noticed an alarming lack of discussion of Seg-El as a protagonist in the prestige review above. This is because whatever show Lyta, Alura, and Nyssa are on, it is rarely Seg’s. While his origin story—having his El family crest torn from his 10-year old chest, moments before watching his grandfather be walked off a cliff—and subsequent forced return to the Ranked fold at his grandfather’s murderer’s command is sufficiently Shakespearean, the way he brawls and bluffs and runs around helping the helpless with his bartending best friend Kem (Rasmus Hardiker) in the streets of Kandor City’s slummy stone tubes is enough to get Jafar’s contemptuous line “You were born a street rat, you will die a street rat, and only your fleas will mourn you!” stuck in your head on a loop.
Seg’s story is all dirty-faced camp, is what I’m saying. And that judgment isn’t helped by the Superman ex machina appearance of Adam Strange (Shawn Sipos), genius Earthen scientist in control of zeta waves who has zapped himself across space and time to convince Seg to find Val-El’s Fortress of Solitude and step up to help save Krypton—and thus, Superman’s future existence—from total destruction in the maw of the planet-eating Brainiac.
Yes, this is a comic book story! And the boys are all dryly fun together, even when their adventures are weirdly dissonant to the high drama happening up in Kandor City proper between all the women who actually have core values and political agendas they’re fighting for.
But neither fun nor bro chemistry goes a long enough way to make up for the unevenness this aspect of the show gives Seg’s own story, at least in the first five episodes. Seg, as a character, is too often a cipher—not given any skills or interests outside of avenging his family, promoted into the ranks of the Vex clan but left Guildless and thus a non-contributing member to Kryptonian society, barely ever in the company of Lyta, the one character who could be his best bridge to relevancy. Ultimately, or at least so far, he is little more than a handsome body for big plot twists and new characters to bounce off of.
The campy side of the show, too, shines light on the world-building holes the prestige side hasn’t gone far enough to fill in. The family crests and death rituals are great, but in general, the shape of Kryptonian life, beyond the simple fact that the rich get richer while the poor die in squalor, isn’t entirely clear. Is there daylight? From how many suns? Are there trees or animals literally anywhere, or are the barren frozen tundras Val-El’s Fortress of Solitude is hidden in the only kind of wilderness the planet has to offer? Does everyone not in a Guild live in the columnar slums, or are we only seeing the two extremes? Is Kandor City the planet’s only city, or just its capital? Is there an air and space force that travels beyond the planet’s atmosphere? If there aren’t trees or animals or suburbs or spaceflight, why not? How can a society technologically advanced enough to gestate babies in glowing tubes and foresee their entire life story with DNA markers not have nature to nurture their souls long enough to achieve that, or the imagination and exploratory drive to have gone into the stars?
There are a lot of questions, is what I’m saying. And for a show coasting on camp, that’s fine! The main character on Killjoys learned last summer that she was born a fully-formed pre-teen out of the psychic goo of her doppelgänger’s own brain. That left so many unanswered questions, but none of them mattered. Dutch was born in a goo bath! Her doppelgänger is evil and unpredictable! It’s all very fun!
But until we know if Krypton is that kind of show for sure, it’s impossible to say whether or not not having any or all of the answers to these many unanswered questions is something that will bring down the show’s potential Battlestar Galactica greatness, or whether the logic of Seg’s world will end up being as irrelevant to our enjoyment as understanding the mechanics of the psychic goo in Killjoys is.
So, here’s the deal: I’ve seen the first five episodes of this strange new sci-fi joint. And while I still have no idea which path the show will ultimately take, I’m genuinely ready to keep watching. At the very least, the Zod warrior women and Nyssa will make it all worthwhile.
Krytpon premieres Wed., March 21 at 10 p.m. on SyFy.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.