The pilot for Syfy’s upcoming Krypton, which debuts in a little under a month, shows tremendous promise and successfully gives audiences something to invest in, in spite of its core premise being “here are stories that took place on a dead world.”
The Krypton seen in Man of Steel, a fully-realized techno-dystopia based in large part on the ‘80s reboot given to the world by writer/artist John Byrne, is not completely the basis for the world of the show, but it is clear that they share a lot of DNA.
The series is set 200 years (that's Kryptonian years) before the destruction of the planet, and follows the exploits of Superman's grandfather, Seg-El (Cameron Cuffe) as he and Earth-born time traveler Adam Strange (Shaun Sipos) work together to save the planet from Brainiac. The Collector of Worlds is coming to destroy Krypton early, Strange explains, so that Seg's grandson Kal-El is never conceived and Superman never makes it to Earth.
A big part of Krypton’s appeal will be its world building, which has been conceived down to meticulous detail.
Like Marvel’s Asgard, it applies an old-Europe-style caste system, but with a futuristic twist. “Can you believe our ancestors used to carry babies in their wombs?” One character asks in the pilot, mystified. In another scene, a super-computer reveals the name, appearance, and future skills of someone’s prospective baby based on a thumb prick.
There is little in Krypton that you have not seen before in some science fiction or fantasy movie, although the configuration of the elements is new, and it makes for a fun and exciting world populated by interesting characters.
The regular-Joe aspect of Seg’s family is undermined not just by the sense of destiny granted him by being Superman’s grandfather, but by a family tree filled with visionaries and radicals. When the daughter of Val-El calls out, as seen in the trailer, “Val-El was right!” it has a suitably Shakespearean feeling to it.
The low-fi look and feel of the Rankless District, where Seg and his family live, lends to that feeling: this is not a world where the lower class are entertained by cheap TVs and widely accessible public parks.
That lends the high-tech gadgets seen in the ranked parts of Kandor City, where everything is clean and gleaming and everyone wears a crisply-pressed uniform bearing the seal of their family or guild, a quality that is deceptively otherworldly. The Rankless district is actually where things don’t resemble our everyday world, but since Seg is our point-of-view character, the mind of the viewer quickly acclimates to the setting, which is reminiscent of early seasons of The 100 or The Walking Dead. Breaking from his point-of-view for a trip uptown, the creature comforts of the guildsmen feel alien.
There are a number of little touches that particularly work in the show’s favor: a high priest represents a generation of change: after years of worshiping a pantheon of gods, Krypton reduces down to one — but it is one of the existing gods, meaning that there are remnants of other philosophies around. He has companions with facial tattoos featuring his scripture.
There are elements of Krypton that feel familiar -- either from Man of Steel or just from science-fiction movies in general. Metallic walls, shot through with flourescent light, would be at home as easily on the Waverider of DC's Legends of Tomorrow as on Krypton. As mentioned above, there is a dystopian feel to the Rankless District that fans of The 100 could find familiar.
On the other hand, there are visually-spectacular touches that differentiate Krypton from other shows, and from other portrayals of Superman's homeworld. Its skylines have the same general feel, inspired by comic artists like John Byrne and Mike Mignola, as do those of Supergirl -- but they are far more detailed and textured, betraying the necessity here of having Krypton be a living, breathing place and not just an echo of the past.
Energy-based weapons and such have minor visual distortions to the shot when used. This gives a kind of weight to their use that “blasters” often lack.
Seg is incredibly likable, in no small part because Cameron Cuffe has a Han Solo smirk and a Christopher Reeve smile. His earnestness lends some of the more intense emotional beats in the pilot absolutely heartbreaking, with the biggest weakness being that he seems to struggle with genuine anger.
Eliot Cowan, who plays Kandorian administrator Daron Vex, is a character who is tortured, and feels like a character who has a possibility for redemption in spite of actions in the pilot that seem unforgivable.
And the women of Krypton make it soar. Seg is trapped between his love for Lyta Zod (Georgina Campbell) and the impossibiity that relationship presents politically and culturally. And Vex's daughter Nyssa (Wallis Day) feels like she has all the makings of the most complex, interesting character in the show. Day's combination of charm, strength, and pitch-perfect facial acting makes her feel like a force to be reckoned with more even than her father, who nominally wields much of the pilot's power.
Another important element of the series is the score, by Pinar Toprak. It plays, much like the Richard Donner Superman movies does, as a relatively straightforward action score, foregoing alien-sounding instrumentals in favor of strings and brass of a "hero score." The effect is, like so many other things, to downplay the alien-ness of Krypton in general and Seg in particular, making them easier to relate to on the audience's own terms.1comments
The look and feel of the world communicate that you are "elsewhere," but emotionally the pilot tells you in every way possible "these are people you want to like." And it is effective.
Krypton premieres on March 21 on Syfy.