Val-El on trial as the El Family watches.
Photo: Syfy

Krypton promises to show us a side of Superman’s homeworld that we’ve never seen before. While it does offer a fresh take on the history of the El family, there was still a lot of déjà vu to be found in the Syfy series’ pilot episode, which debuted last night.

The opening moments of Krypton start with voiceover narration from Seg-El, Superman’s grandfather, in a message eventually meant for his grandson Kal-El. He says that the House of El will eventually lead a revolution against tyranny. We see that tyranny in action with the execution of Seg-El’s own grandfather Val-El (Ian McElhinney), whose assertion that life exists elsewhere in the universe amounts to treason. In the city-state of Kandor, the governing council is ruled by the Voice of Rao, a creepy robed figure wearing a mask with three faces. For daring to suggest that Krypton isn’t alone in the universe—and in danger from off-planet entities—Val-El is sentenced to death and The House of El is stripped of its rank, all of which is witnessed by Seg-El—whose name becomes Seg as a result.

Rasmus Hardiker as Kem and Cameron Cuffe as Seg-El.
Photo: Syfy

Fourteen years later, a grown-up Seg-El (Cameron Cuffe) is in a bar fight, where people have wagered to see how long he can last against a pair of attackers, while mysterious onlooker in Earth clothes watches as they fight. Although Seg takes plenty of punches (and dishes plenty out), he stays long enough on his feet that he and his friend Kem (Rasmus Hardiker) collect their winnings and heads home. He lives with his parents in humble circumstances, which is emphasized when the camera pans up to show the gleaming spires above, where the better-off Kryptonians live.

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The scene cuts to a facility where Kandor’s members of Sagitarii security forces are engaged in training. Leading the class is General Alura Zod (Ann Ogbomo), who calls out her daughter Lyta (Georgina Campbell) to spar. The future grandmother of General Zod easily kicks her daughter’s butt and demands she ask for mercy; when Lyta does so, Alura announces says Sagitarii never ask for or give mercy and stabs Lyta in the hand. Harsh.

Seg, joined by Kem, goes to the judicial chambers to give his father the medicine he forgot at home. There, a trio of terrorists from an organization called Black Zero are being sentenced to death by councilor Daron-Vex (Elliot Cowan), the same man who exiled Val-El. When an observer in the courtroom starts to power up a bomb embedded in his arm, Seg spots it and tackles him, giving soldiers in the room time to shoot the man’s forearm off. Later in Daron’s chamber, as Seg watches his dad fetch a drink for the councilor, Vex offers him the opportunity to bind—the Kryptonian equivalent of marriage—with his youngest daughter Nyssa (Wallis Day) as a reward for his good deed, as well as a spot in the Science Guild, meaning Seg would no longer be “rankless” and live in the impoverished depths of Kandor.

Wallis Day as Nyssa-Vex.
Photo: Syfy

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Walking home with Kem in the rundown Rankless ghetto, Seg punches a Sagitarii asshole who was hassling a homeless man in the path of the Voice of Rao’s procession. Other Sagitarii, including Lyta-Zod, show up and break up the fight, and she drags Seg to an alley where they kiss and chat. Yep, despite being engaged to bind with fellow cop Dev-Em (Aaron Pierre), Lyta is romantically involved with Seg-El, too. After they part ways, Seg gets braced by that mysterious onlooker from before, who explains he is Adam Strange (Shane Sipos) from Earth. Adam then explains The Series Premise: he’s traveled 200 years back through time to reach Seg-El because someone in his present-day wants to prevent Superman from ever being born. Adam starts wincing in pain, then hands him a sunstone crystal like the ones from 1978’s Superman: The Movie, and fades away into thin air.

Seg goes home and relays the encounter to his dad, who is clearly unsettled and takes the Sunstone himself, explaining Seg can’t be seen carrying around the symbol of an erased house, especially with the possibility of getting a rank back. Seg is confused, and his father clarifies that Daron-Vex’s offer of re-ranking only extends to Seg and not his parents. Seg says that he just won’t take the offer, which his parents balk at. They quarrel a bit but Dad reminds Seg he needs to go to the genesis chambers. Seg sneakily takes the sunstone back and walks out, and parents talk about a secret that they’re keeping from him.

The scene shifts to the Genesis Chambers where Nyssa-Vex and Seg get blood samples taken and watch a creepy video of what their child’s expected life would be. Nyssa comes off all ice-queen, telling Seg that her father is using the re-ranking offer to Seg as a political play to prove that “even a dreaded El can be co-opted and brought into the fold.”

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Aaron Piece as Dev-Em with another member of the Sagitarii.
Photo: Syfy

Later, Seg and Lyta are in bed, discussing how their life paths have them destined to wind up with other partners. Walking back home after the secret humping, Seg gets stopped by two Sagitarii. One of them finds the sunstone during a pat-down which leads Seg to punch him and go on the run. The chase continues, with blaster fire discharged at Seg, until a medium-sized spaceship piloted by his mom touches down right in front of him.

As they speed through the city, mom Charys-El (Paula Malcomson) takes her son to his grandfather’s (ahem) Fortress of Solitude, where Seg sees where Val-El did his research. Charys tells Seg that Val had learned about Brainiac’s destructions of other world and that Krypton is in danger—and most importantly, they have to continue Val’s work for the good of Krypton.

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They rush back home where Sagitarii are about to bust in. Charys makes Seg hide and the cops breach into their home. She takes the blame for stealing the skimmer ship and then says she serves Black Zero so she’ll get arrested. We see her next in a glass tube of imprisonment with Seg looking forlornly at her. General Alura Zod walks in and has Seg hustled out, telling Charys that she’ll get a good death if she confesses everything she knows about Black Zero.

In the courtroom scene that follows, Charys screams that Val-El was right and that life exists elsewhere in the cosmos. When Daron-Vex presses her to find out who else was in the skimmer with her (scanner indicated she had a passenger) to the Fortress, Seg’s dad announces it was him to keep them from suspecting his son. Dad pulls a gun from one of the Sagitarii, forcing Alura to shoot him; Charys runs to his side, picking up the gun and getting killed as well. Daron-Vex yells at Alura Zod for preventing Seg’s parents from being questioned further, and she storms out—leaving Daron to be startled by Creepy Three-Face Rao dude, who says nothing. Outside, Lyta gives Seg a hug and apologizes for, y’know, her mom killing his parents.

Later, Seg returns to the Fortress, where Adam Strange shows up again and promptly gets socked in the jaw by Seg, blaming Adam for his parents’ deaths. In his grief, Seg says he needs to finish his grandfather’s work so his parents didn’t die for nothing. Then the Earthman pulls out a familiar red cape—Adam has brought it to Seg from the future, explaining to him that it’s disintegrating as time gets rewritten, and once it’s fully destroyed his grandson will never become Superman and the greatest hero in the universe. He then elaborates on the threat of Brainiac and how the super-advanced AI collects cultures from across the galaxy, destroying the native planets they come from in the process. Brainiac is coming to Krypton, Adam says, and Seg may not be able to stop it but he needs to try at least.

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Krypton doesn’t quite feel alien enough. The environmental designs and imagined technologies are some of the most intriguing parts of Krypton but they don’t do enough to disguise the familiarity of the show’s English accents, royal intrigues, factional tensions, and predestined lifepaths. That formula so widely promulgated in Game of Thrones is clearly part of the show’s DNA, so much so that an alien planet just comes across as Earth with different set dressing and fashion sense. I’m reminded of John Byrne’s 1986 re-imagining of the Superman mythos in the Man of Steel miniseries and how alien Krypton felt in terms of appearances and attitudes. Krypton needs more of that energy—briefly glimpsed when Nyssa-Vex talked about carrying babies in the womb as a weird, antiquated practice—if it’s ever going to soar.

I do like how this series sets up a rebellious El legacy, though, because it’s something that feeds the mythos. Even if the House of El gets restored ranking by the time that Jor-El is born, that legacy sets up an element of distrust for the Els and a possible reason why people won’t believe Superman’s dad when he says that the planet’s going to explode. Basically, something like “those Els, they crazy!”

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Speaking of crazy, Seg does a lot of hotheaded punching in the pilot, which is presumably intended to signal how much maturing he has to do and where his grandson will get his propensity for fisticuffs. He’s usually punching the right people, but that impulsiveness could also become a turnoff as a character trait. But I do like the inversion at the heart of Krypton’s pilot, where Seg-El has to live up to his descendant’s legacy. Cuffe does a decent job being empathetic, snarky, and shocked when needed. But hotheadedness aside, nothing about Seg feels significantly different than, say, the version of Clark Kent from Smallville.

There’s obviously plenty of room for things to evolve, but it’s going to take some clever approaches to world-building and the entire cast of characters for Krypton to generate any sense of surprise. So far, Alura Zod is the most interesting character because she seems like she might torn between doing her duty as leader of the Sagitarii and wanting some kind of happiness for her daughter.

Ian McElhinney as Val-El
Photo: Syfy

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Assorted Musings:

• I hated the killing of Seg-El’s parents. It smacks too much of Batman’s origins and the latter-day preponderance of parental death as a motivator for superheroes. It would’ve been interesting to see these Els as a family all working towards a common goal and having Seg motivated by a more pure altruism.

• A good comedic bit happens when Seg asks what the hell Mysterious Dude is wearing, which are modern Earth clothes. This includes a Detroit Tigers hat—an homage to Detroit native Geoff Johns, president and chief creative officer of DC Comics, co-chairman of DC Films, and a man who rarely seen without a baseball cap on.

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• I also wished they’d called Val-El’s hideaway facility something other than the Fortress of Solitude. Making that moniker something passed down through the centuries is an understandable instance of tapping on the lore but also makes it seem like the Fortress is grandpa’s summer home. “Hey, Clark, what you doing this weekend?” “Oh you know, gonna go to the Fortress and polish the statues a bit…”