SYFY’s jump into the DC universe takes a jump back in time to explore not really the origin story of its most famous superhero, but of his ancestors instead. An ambitious move, to eschew the draw of having a well known character to revolve around, instead developing a backstory for the world he ultimately came from.
We know the planet Krypton explodes, and we know Jor-El sends his only son Kal-El to Earth just before that, where he grows up to become Superman. But this isn’t about that exactly – we’ve seen that in a few different versions of the Superman mythos.
Instead, we are set a couple generations before those events, focusing instead on Kal-El’s grandfather, Seg (Cameron Cuffe), in his younger days. Seg’s own grandfather, Val-El, is declared a heretic and banished to the Phantom Zone, leaving the House of El disgraced and nameless. Seg becomes one of the Rankless – the lowest class of Kryptonians. He gets the chance to rejoin the ranks, but learns about his grandfather and what may happen after an Earth man from the future named Adam Strange (another DC comics character, played by Shaun Sipos), warns that someone is coming to change the course of history to prevent Superman from being born.
The show is set in the domed city of Kandor, the capital city of Krypton and one of nine city-states that exist in the remaining inhabitable areas of the planet after a previous catastrophe. In recent years, the democratic government has been overthrown by a theocratic form that revolves around the worship of the sun god Rao, who is embodied by the Voice of Rao, a mysterious figure who wears a six-faced golden mask. All other religions have been banned. Several guilds exist to maintain the functioning government and the members live the “high life”, literally, while the Rankless occupy the streets.
I think the tensions and power struggles between these factions may provide the compelling story here, while the backdrop of the “Back to the Future”-eqsue (come on, he brings Superman’s cape to Seg, which is slowly dissolving due to the potential changes in the timeline!) time travel story is a bit secondary.
Although I saw some elements which had not yet had completed VFX so it may change for broadcast, I found the apparent practical set design to be dark and in some cases cramped. The darkness is something I find in common with a number of SYFY shows – I don’t know if it is a cost-savings thing or what is going on – in establishing VFX shots Krypton appears to be sunny at times, but rarely does this appear on screen with the characters. For the “cramped” feel, I can best point to scenes in which a major religious event appears to be taking place, but it’s in a small cavern area with 20-30 people present.
One other aspect that I noted a bit was language. The show is filmed in Ireland, and the cast is primarily British – in fact, I couldn’t pick out an accent that wasn’t British or Irish except for Adam Strange, as Sipos is Canadian. This doesn’t normally raise any flags for me – I watch a lot of British TV – but in most cases the accents are very neutral to be consistently understandable to an international audience. The difference here is I’m picking up on regional variances a lot – I picked out the Northern Irish tones of Seg’s mother instantly, for instance. This actually might be an improvement – it shows some variation the culture perhaps.
Now aliens speaking English is not unusual in science fiction – it’s a huge convenience both for the production and the audience. The Kryptonians speak in modern English, including the current trend on cable television towards swearing. The only reason I mention this is that despite the language, they have troubles understanding a colloquial phrase by Strange, which smacked me with “We speak the same, but different” stick…
But anyways, overall I think there is a storyline I’m going to enjoy following, with well-done acting all around. I wish there was a higher budget that could show through in the sets especially. I have high hopes for the show regardless, and hope that it avoids the pitfall of beelining to the “obvious” storyline of saving Superman and concentrates on the “A” story of the politics and intrigue of a planet we are given the opportunity to learn much more about.