Smallville: The Complete First Season Review
Lana Lang: “So, what are you? Man or Superman?”
Clark Kent: “I haven’t figured it out yet...”
So begins the “Early Adventures of Superman”. Long before he’d don those legendary tights and a cape, the Man of Steel was living the life of a teenager; albeit one with superhuman abilities. As his body developed, so did his alien powers. As Smallville opens, Clark Kent cannot fly. He can’t burn objects to a crisp with his vision, and he has yet to master the ability of seeing through walls. With the pain of puberty, comes enormous power, and overwhelming responsibility. Herein lies the key to Smallville’s success; Alfred Gough and Miles Millar had the common sense to meld the Superman legend with the clichés of teen drama. It’s a stroke of genius, and it’s hardly surprising that the show has become a roaring success. Season 1 is hardly its strongest hour, but it places the foundations for what is, currently, the best on-screen Superman since 1978’s motion picture.
Originally created by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, the Superman comic was groundbreaking; pretty much establishing the modern comic book rules, and providing DC with its most well-known character. During his conception, it was fairly easy to see the real-life parallels that influenced Shuster and Siegel. A tale about a stranger coming from an alien world, and using his unique gifts to help others, it was clearly a riff on the immigration-heavy America of the 1950’s. It was a revolutionary time. A time of change. In the guise of Supes, the creators had all they needed to comment on their society. Over the course of the comic’s history, Clark Kent would struggle to hide his identity, and get by in a world that was a million light years from home. Little did they know, that the character would continue to go strong in the 21st Century...
After The New Adventures of Superman drawed to a close (thankfully), the time was right to resurrect the character in a brand new light. Gough and Millar took the chance. Smallville is great viewing for one reason - it establishes the history we already know, but offers new and exciting twists on old material. The setting and circumstances are retained - we did, after all, see much of Clark’s origin in the original film - but widens the tale to intriguing levels. Here, relative newcomer Tom Welling takes over the reigns from the late (and sorely missed) Christopher Reeve, and gives the role a fresh-faced charm. From the first episode onward, we get to follow the immortal Clark Kent from his farm boy beginnings to his ever-rising status as hero to humanity. We’ll see him fall in love, deal with dozens of new foes, and worry about passing Math. It’s a far cry from the bookish, Daily Planet geek that we all know and love so much. And this is what makes Smallville so compelling.
Like the best shows, Smallville puts character development first. Though it isn’t just Clark who gets the glowing treatment - the writers have fashioned a great group of personalities here, which are aided no end by a pretty solid supporting cast. The beautiful Kristin Kreuk takes on the form of Lana Lang - Clark’s true love before the infamous Lois Lane appeared. The chemistry between her and Welling is one of the shows strongest points (though like many shows, the love angle is dragged out beyond belief). Adding to this teenage angst is Chloe Sullivan (Alyson Mack), Smallville High’s journalist, who holds a secret attraction to our hero. The young cast is rounded out by Pete Ross (Sam Jones III), who has been Clark’s friend for life. Will he discover Clark’s true self?
But it isn’t just the teenagers who grab the spotlight, since the series is blessed with a cast of accomplished veterans. Gough and Millar decided to reduce the age of Clark’s Earth parents, which was a wise call. John Schneider and Annette O’Toole, as Jonathan and Martha Kent, have got the roles down to a fine art - no doubt drawing on their own experiences of parenthood. Their compassion for Clark is clearly portrayed, and their dismay at his abilities allow for many moments of humour. O’Toole certainly knows the universe, after playing Lana in Superman III. Ultimately, the pair give some much-needed warmth to the show, which is largely absent elsewhere.
Which brings us to Lex Luthor, played to near-perfection by Michael Rosenbaum. Adding him to the show may go against the comic’s mythology, but the dynamic between him and the young Clark is too intriguing to pass up. Sent to monitor the LuthorCorp plant in Smallville, Lex has been exiled from Metropolis by his father, Lionel (the sublime John Glover). At this point in his life, Lex is filled with good intentions, and even grander ambitions. Rosenbaum is a joy to watch in the role - cool, calculated and imposing - a distinct contrast to Gene Hackman's exaggerated portrayal. After an accident brings Clark into his life, his perspectives change; growing ever more interested in Smallville’s unusual history. A victim of the meteor shower that brought Clark to Earth, Lex lost his hair as a result (a fact which Rosenbaum had no trouble in pursuing). The character provides many of the shows classic moments - particularly those confrontations with his twisted father. When Rosenbaum and Glover share the screen, there’s an electric atmosphere; an uneasy relationship that grows deeper and more troubled as the series progresses. And there’s tension too, as we wait for Lex’s descent into madness...
Like many establishing seasons, these 21 episodes have their problems, but the foundations are carefully laid. Clark’s abilities continue to develop, and he has yet to uncover the history of his doomed planet (for the first year, they’re “meteor rocks”, not Kryptonite). The producers have great fun with the conventions, with Welling permanently donned in red and blue, and even the school mascot sports a yellow “S” on it’s chest. With trips to Metropolis, and several references to the Daily Planet, most comic geeks will feel a twang of excitement throughout. All of this is grounded by Clark’s doomed romance with Lana, and his immense guilt (the meteor shower killed her parents, something Clark feels responsible for). The writers continue to send the character through umpteen battles and internal conflicts, shaping his destiny, so to speak. In most respects, it is difficult for Superman fans not to be hooked.
Picking faults in this season is easy, and every critic agrees. The meteor contamination that Smallville suffered, causes a varying degree of mutations, changing just about everyone that comes into contact with those green rocks. Clark fights everything from shapeshifters to electro-charged school students, providing a repetitive “Freak of the Week” formula. It’s all very enjoyable (the effects budget is huge, providing some memorable action), but it isn’t until Season Two that the writers introduced deeper story arcs. That said, the series continues to grow stronger, and there is much fun to be had.
1.01 Pilot • Every show needs a strong pilot, and Smallville has a pretty great one - establishing the main story and characters in a simplistic, yet interesting way. It begins nearly 20 years ago, when the meteor shower lays waste to most of the town, bringing the infant Kal-El to Earth. Brought up as Clark Kent, his foster parents decide to tell him of his origins, now that he’s a teenager. Keeping his abilities a secret, he is forced to help Lex when his car spins off the road, granting him a new “friend” in the process. Directed by X-Files veteran David Nutter, the "Pilot" is stylishly put together (the opening meteor shower benefits from some pretty impressive CGI). Gough and Millar also plant many of the seeds that form the rest of the season - Lex’s interest in Clark after his rescue; the fact that meteor rocks hurt him, and that his love for Lana is planting him in trouble with her boyfriend Whitney (Eric Johnson). With some nice moments of sly humour, and clever foreshadowings of the future, the first episode is one of the better instalments from this season.
1.02 Metamorphosis • The meteor rocks are continuing to affect the towns population, including a certain insect fanatic, who takes on bug-like tendencies after being attacked by his swarm. Unfortunately, he wants to mate with Lana. Clark must save her, without revealing his powers. Meanwhile, Lex holds Lana's Kryptonite necklace in his possession, and ponders what to make of the strange stone.
1.03 Hothead • Clark and his father come to a stand-off, as he joins the school football team. Scared to death that Clark will accidentally harm his team-mates, Jonathan must deal with his son’s new-found independence. Lex is also battling the wishes of his father, as they tussle over the control of LuthorCorp. Still, their troubles seem petty when the team’s coach takes on pyrotechnic abilities, using his fiery rage to win at any cost...
1.04 X-Ray • Is Lex really a bank robber? It doesn’t appear so. Clark must confront a new “Freak of the Week”, that can shapeshift into any person she wishes. Luckily, Clark is developing that trusty X-ray vision.
1.05 Cool • After a student falls into Smallville’s frozen lake, the Kryptonite at the bottom of the water manages to preserve his life. However, he must now extract heat from his surroundings - and that includes sucking the life out of his friends! Meanwhile, Clark continues to get closer to Lana, but their “date” is brought to a halt when Chloe’s life is placed in jeopardy.
1.06 Hourglass • As part of a school work experience program, Clark meets an old blind lady at the retirement home. But she isn’t normal - she can see into the future, informing Clark that someone close to him will die. Trouble arrives in the form of another rest home resident, who uses those little green rocks to return to his youth...
1.07 Craving • You are what you eat! One of Pete’s friends has been using the essence of Kryptonite to lose weight, but it leaves her with a craving she cannot satisfy.
1.08 Jitters • An old employee of LuthorCorp (guest star Tony Todd) holds the building and a group of school students hostage, after his health decreases from Kryptonite experiments. Lionel tells Lex that these experiments are nothing more but the “mad man’s” fiction, but a little digging around by Clark uncovers a secret level to the building. What else is Lionel hiding?
1.09 Rogue • In one of the best episodes to date, Clark's secret identity is uncertain when corrupt cop Phelan witnesses him save a civilian in Metropolis. Tracking him to Smallville, he tries to blackmail Clark into helping him with his sordid agenda. Clark gains the upper-hand, but doesn’t count on Phelan framing his father for murder. With the Kent farm at stake, he tires to bring Phelan to justice. Meanwhile, Kelly Brook guest stars as Lex’s new tryst...
1.10 Shimmer • Lex’s life is in danger, when a teenage girl with the power of invisibility, takes a dislike to his new romance; sparking a series of hauntings around the mansion. Will Clark find the culprit?
1.11 Hug • A powerful business magnate arrives in town, able to convince anyone to do his bidding. Clark is shocked when he persuades Jonathan to sell the farm, and must think fast to stop Smallville from slipping into his grasp...
1.12 Leech • Clark tries to save his friend Eric (X-Men’s Shawn Ashmore), who is struck by lightning when attempting suicide at Smallville gorge. However, the lightning bolt transfers Clark’s super powers to Eric, who proceeds to misuse his new-found strength.
1.13 Kinetic • Lex’s mansion is robbed by criminals who use Kryptonian tattoos to move through solid objects; later recruiting a reluctant Whitney. Naturally, Clark is on the case, but his friendship with Lex is strained when he questions his motives.
1.14 Zero • Two histories collide, when Lex is stalked and kidnapped by an old enemy, and Chloe digs too deeply into Clark’s “adoption”. He must protect his identity once more, and face Lex’s dark past in Metropolis.
1.15 Nicodemus • A strange flower has odd consequences for Jonathan and Lana, who begin acting differently. After researching with Chloe, Clark learns about the “Nicodemus” flower, which causes the infected to go insane. He must race against the clock before the toxin kills them both...
1.16 Stray • Lex receives a job offer from his father, but understandably, is hesitant to accept. Meanwhile, the Kents help a little boy named Ryan, who is on the run from his devious foster parents. However, Clark soon realises that Ryan can read people’s minds, blowing his secret identity.
1.17 Reaper • A man is killing the elderly residents of Smallville by turning them into ash; all through his touch. Clark has to find a way to defeat him, but soon has more troubles on his plate, when Lex’s investigation into his family is revealed.
1.18 Drone • Clark tries out for Class President, but faces strong opposition from a rival, who is killing the candidates by controlling a swarm of deadly bees. It’s another day at Smallville High...
1.19 Crush • Lana’s relationship with Whitney takes a further beating, while a school student develops the deadly art of telekinesis.
1.20 Obscura • Lex continues to question his surroundings, upon discovering that a spaceship landed during the meteor shower. Meanwhile, a serial killer has kidnapped Chloe, but a freak accident allows Lana to see through her captor’s eyes.
1.21 Tempest • In the final episode (a cliff-hanger), Clark discovers the missing key for the space ship, but a reporter has seen Clark’s powers, threatening to expose him. His plans are cut short when a series of tornadoes hit the town. Rushing to rescue a stranded Lana, Clark can only stand by and watch as the tornado engulfs her car...
Warner Bros. award Smallville's first season with a technically impressive 6-disc set. Fans will certainly be pleased with the sheer quality on display - few TV sets look or sound as good as this.
The Look and Sound
All 21 episodes are transferred in anamorphic widescreen (1.77:1), which really showcases Smallville's high production values. The colours are rich and vibrant, and detail is high throughout. It could have been sharper (there are light instances of compression), but the clarity never falters. Those iconic reds and blues leap from the screen. For a TV show, Smallville surprises with its gorgeous visual sheen, which only gets better with each subsequent season.
Likewise, the 2.0 sound mixes are no slackers, with plenty of activity to keep bass junkies happy. The sound design really gets into the comic book vibe - explosions, slow-mo, distortion, and enough incidental sound effects to provide an immersive experience. Even the music sounds spectacular, with Remy Zero's theme tune projected forcefully. Still, there's no getting around the fact that these are 2.0 mixes. Indeed, 5.1 tracks would have been better, but they do the job perfectly.
Like the Man of Steel himself, these are pretty fantastic. Cut to the theme music, an animated montage of the characters grace the screen, in high resolution primary colours. Easy to navigate and very pleasing to the eye, the menus come anamorphically-enhanced.
Like most TV sets, the material here is sparse, but certainly entertaining. The recent sets have more to offer, but I was left satisfied by the material, which is split between the first and last discs.
The first is on "Pilot", with executive producers/co-creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, and director David Nutter. Informal and chatty from the get-go, this is one of the rare tracks that I'll listen to again. They comment on the obvious areas, such as their fear in bringing a new Superman to the screen, the decision to feature Lex, and how they discovered their cast. Gough and Millar come across as very nice guys, with a clear passion for their work and the character. Nutter offers more technical insight, particularly the filming/creation of that meteor shower. Interesting.
The second and last commentary is for the following episode "Metamorphosis", which features Gough and Millar on their own. It was clearly recorded in the same sitting, with Nutter leaving early on. Their enthusiasm is maintained, with some amusing anecdotes along the way; especially their thoughts on the "sophisticated" special effects.
Several cut scenes are present, for "Pilot" and "Metamorphosis". Nothing really memorable, but worth a look.
Interactive Tour of Smallville
Clearly intended for newcomers to the series rather than long-time fans, this is pretty useless, but fun while it lasts. Move along an animated map of the town, to access video footage of various Smallville locations. Included on the tour, are the usual haunts of Smallville High and Lex's mansion.
And last, but not least...
A nice addition to that DVD staple, we get to see storyboards from the original episode, with comparisons to the eventual footage. It's worth a look, and shows the sheer amount of time put into this series. All in all, the extras are sure to appease Smallville fans.
Exciting, fun, and full of promise, the Superman legend continues to be redefined for new generations. Fans of that enduring comic will love Smallville - an action series with the production values to fully realise its potential. Fans will already own this box set, but newcomers are advised to take a look. An ideal taster for greater seasons to come...