The science-fiction television drama “Smallville” premiered on “TheWB” (eventually to become CWTV) on Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2001, about five weeks after 9/11. The Pilot must have been filmed weeks before, that summer, in British Columbia, but the scene of meteors crashing into the town of Smallville, KS may have seemed terrifying then.
That sequence had been preceded by a brief prologue, introducing the loving couple (John Schneider and Annette O’Toole), the Kents, who would find baby Clark in a corn field and take him home and raise him as their own (a godsend, since Martha couldn’t have children). In that prologue we saw a boy Lex Luthor made bald for the rest of his life by the meteor exposure – a play on radiation fallout (or dirty bomb) fears?
Fifteen minutes into the Pilot, we’re shown a handsome teenage Clark, played by a youthful enough Tom Welling (then 24), gently arguing with his dad about not being allowed to play football because he could hurt other people. Tall and strong but lean and lanky, he actually looks more like a future baseball 100-mph fastball pitcher than a lineman or quarterback. He a freshman at Smallville High, apparently in ninth grade, and his legal records show him to be 14. He is tall and physically strong for his age, but very socially awkward. He is morally sensitive. He wonders if he is special or just different. No one can explain his unusual strength (although that does exist in nature, genetically, in some young men), or ability to heal, or “speed” – ability to teleport himself by altering space-time. Later, he will develop x-ray vision, which would allow him to scope people, and then heat vision, which could allow him to set things on fire telepathically (like Zak in “Revolution”). His father, upon questioning, finally tells Clark that he is an alien, and shows him the spaceship in the barn. It is quite a touching scene. Clark “speeds off”, upset, after saying “You should have told me.” Soon, he is somehow “disabled” and hazed in a notorious scarecrow scene (which some people see as an allusion to Matthew Shepherd), with the “S” painted on his smooth chest.
So this is to be the story of how the future Superman came of age, as a teenager. The series would run for ten years. But after the first three seasons, it seemed to lose focus and become more episodic. But the earlier years will filled with suspense. Season 1 ends with a tornado. In the middle of Season 2, Clark meets Dr. Virgil Swann, played by Christopher Reeve, now a quadriplegic from his own 1995 horsemanship accident, trying to decipher his origin from hieroglyphics. As his father Jor El and other forces from his home planet Krypton chase him, Clark faces a crisis at the end of Season 2. He fears his end is coming, and in one scene the “S” is burned into his chest as a scar (although it seems to be reversible). At the very end, Clark takes a motorcycle to Metropolis (usually shown by Vancouver, but in this episode the skyline of Kansas City MO was used), having invited Lana to come with him. The seasons ends with dramatic music (I think by Tchaikowsjy) as Clark rides to the city.
Clark usually has a moral compass that would make any parent proud, except when he is exposed to red kryptonite, which unmasks all inhibition and turns his usual kindness into a curious moral nihilism. He can be brought back by green kryptonite, which can cause him to lose all his powers. In fact, in another episode, he learns it is better to be “different” and have powers than be like everyone else. (Like it is better to marry than to burn?) In season 3, he starts working for the Metropolis Mafia (that is, Kansas City MO or Vancouver BC, interchangeably) and robs some ATM’s (which in more recent years has become a real crime problem), but then gets his moral compass back and returns home. At the end of Season 3, it seems as though he has to go back “Home” – to the Phantom Zone – for the summer.
I was living in Minneapolis when the series started, and had been laid off at the end of 2001, and was about to start my “second life”. Somehow, I saw a rerun of the Pilot over Christmas that year, I think while “home” in Arlington visiting mother. I became intrigued with the series. I remember seeing the finale of Season 2 the day before a successful job interview, still in Minnesota then. But I also remember watching it in May 2002 in a motel on a trip to talk about my own book and movie possibilities. Smallville became a fixture.
Logically, Clark should have entered college in Season 5, and that would have been a better track than the episodic plot that followed. Starting in 2004, Smallville had moved to Wednesday nights, at 8 PM ET, and I typically looked forward to watching it regularly in the middle of the 00 decade anyway, despite a weakening plot. Instead of college, Clark actually works for a professor Fine for a while, on his way to eventually becoming a journalist. Lois enters the plot during these years (having found him and “imagined him naked” at the start of Season 4 when he is back from the summer “abroad”).
Other devices from the comics come into the series, such as the Fortress of Solitude. Other kinds of kryptonite get mentioned, such as black, which gives Lex powers. There are all kinds of episodes with bizarre experiments, such as trading bodies. Other interesting characters are offered, such as Oliver Queen (Justin Hartley, after a body shave relative to the soap “Passions”), reporter Jimmy Olson (Aaron Ashmore), whose cognitive abilities as a mere human can match Clark’s, and another teenager who can fly played by Richard Harmon (who would later star in “Judas Kiss”).
TheWB and later CWTV had impressive websites, with video and discussion boards, for the show, which in the early years added to suspenseful speculation as to where the plot would go.
There were some “revelation” scenes toward the end of the series that were a bit homoerotic, but homosexuality as an issue was rarely mentioned. However, in one episode, when Clark did get to play football (and perhaps catch his own forward pass) he came to the defense of a gay classmate. The issue probably would have been covered more had the series aired only two or three years later in span. Nevertheless, the parallel between Clark’s being “open” about his extraterrestrial origin (despite appealing human appearance) and openness about sexual orientation would be obvious, and the series ended while the final steps in the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy were being certified. I think the show made a difference even in that debate.
Technically, the series was always broadcast in HD, and tended to use garish colors, lots of comic-book bright oranges and reds, which must have been achieved by manipulation of film stock.
Some individual episodes have some silly premises, such as when Clark and Lex exchange bodies. A few show flashbacks, such as when Jor-El visits Smallville in 1961, and a marque for “Splendor in the Grass”, one of my favorite classic films, shows.
Created by Miles Millar and Alfred Gough, the series was produced by Tollin, Robins Productions, which went on to produce the less successful “One Tree Hill“.
I went to graduate school at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, getting my M.A. in Mathematics in early 1968, and I always equated Smallville to Lawrence, which really does look like Smallville in the show.
I ask, does a real teen Clark Kent, who can teleport himself instantly, exist on Earth? Maybe. If so, I hope he goes to college.