Smallville - Episode: "Rosetta" (2003)
Character Name: Dr.Virgil Swann
Episode: Rosetta 2.17 #175066
Reviewed by Dawn Jones (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Character: Dr.Virgil Swann Episode: Rosetta 2.17 #175066
What do you associate the name Christopher Reeve with? One answer is perhaps the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation and activism on behalf spinal cord research. But long before this association, as a young established theatre actor, Reeve auditioned for a once in a lifetime opportunity to become the first actor to portray an American icon on the big screen. The answer is of course, Superman. The role of Clark Kent/Superman in Richard Donner's Superman: The Movie propelled Reeve to stardom, and a further three Superman movies made in the 1980s ensured Reeve's name was synonymous with the Man Of Steel. So it was only fitting that Reeve's guest appearance on the TV series Smallville was publicised with the tagline, "A Legend Returns..." after all, it marked Reeve's first return to the Superman mythology since Superman IV: The Quest For Peace in 1987.
Of his appearance in Smallville, Reeve modestly states, "I just thought it would be fun. It's a very welcome relief from politics and medical research." In 2001 Smallville aired for the first time on the WB Television Network. Produced by Al Gough and Miles Miller, the show focuses on the teenage years of Clark Kent living with his adoptive parents Jonathon and Martha Kent in Smallville, Kansas as he deals with the perils of growing up and discovering his 'super' powers. Smallville is ultimately about characters whose destiny we already know, but the fun is in watching Clark Kent's journey towards the point where he leaves his adoptive parents and his childhood and teenage years behind to become Superman. This is of course exactly what the TV series does, and this episode, titled "Rosetta" marks a key turning point in the series as Clark learns of his origins for the first time. According to Reeve, "The story of Clark Kent is a very important piece of American pop culture. It's about hope, it's about what friendship means, it's about leadership, it's about discovering yourself. All those things are very relevant to every generation." In an interview with TV Guide, Reeve described his character Dr. Virgil Swann, "I play a scientist who has given most of his life to advanced astronomy and looking out into the solar system. I discover some information that is very relevant to Clark, and I bombard him with email and phone calls to get him to come to New York. Finally he does, so he's going to learn some things about his character." However before being contacted by Dr. Swann, Clark has to cope with strange dreams that lead him to the Smallville Caves, which are engraved with symbols (actually Kryptonian writing). The following day Clark is called by the octagonal key hidden in his barn. (Much like the green crystal in the Kent's barn that called Clark in Superman: The Movie) Clark places the key into the octagonal slot in the cave wall causing a release of energy from the wall into Clark himself. When Clark accidentally burns a Kryptonian symbol on his barn wall using his laser beam vision we discover that the energy released from the cave walls has given Clark the ability to read the Kryptonian symbols as he reveals to his parents Jonathon and Martha that the symbol burnt into the barn means, "Hope." In Nothing Is Impossible: Reflections On A New Life Reeve explains why Superman is a symbol of hope, "When Lois asks Superman, "Who are you?" he replies "A friend". That makes him above all else, a symbol of hope. In the face of adversity, hope often comes in the form of a friend who reaches out to us." Upon seeing the Kryptonian symbol burnt onto the Kent's barn, Dr. Virgil Swann (Reeve) contacts Clark by email claiming that he has some information for him. Suspicious of his motives, Clark asks his friend Chloe (Smallville High School newspaper editor) to investigate. Investigate she does, and discovers that Swann is a well respected and established scientist who is described by Scientific American as the, "Man of Tomorrow," a reference to the early Superman comic tagline. Chloe also discovers that Swann was Time magazines "Man Of The Year" in 1977 - the year that Reeve was cast in Superman: The Movie. A mock up cover of Time with Swann on the front cover (actually a 1970/80s photograph of Reeve himself) is seen in the episode. Reeve was also depicted on a mock Time cover as Superman in Superman IIIand graced the cover for real in August 1996. Clark eventually decides to reply to Swann's emails asking him what it is he wants. Swann sends an instant message to Clark containing the Kryptonian symbol from the Kent's barn with the correct translation of 'Hope' typed in English below. He also tries to reassure Clark stating, "I am a friend." Again this is a reference to the scene in Superman: The Movie discussed earlier. After Virgil sends him his address Clark finally decides to go and meet him.
And so we come to the all-important scene between Reeve and Welling. Naturally this is my favourite part of the entire episode, not only because of Reeve's appearance, but also because of its brilliant execution by Reeve and Welling that is also aided by some clever camera and editing techniques. The camera focuses on Clark as we see him enter the office of Virgil Swann, which is full of statues, globes and various scientific looking objects. Having called out a "Hello?" he is about to give up and leave quietly asking himself, "What am I doing here?" When a voice off camera replies, "Looking for answers I assume." This is a pivotal moment and the camera technique of continuing to focus on Clark so that the TV viewer can only see Clark's reactions and not what he is reacting to creates a great atmosphere of suspense. Clark slowly walks further into the room adding to the anticipation when finally the camera pans to Dr. Swann sitting behind his desk as he says, "Hello, Clark. I've been expecting you." The two finally meet and Swann tells Clark what he has discovered. Scared of Swann's theory about his identity he tells Swann, "I'm sorry doctor. I'm not who you think I am," and starts to leave. However, Swann, confident that his theory is correct states, "If you can live with that decision, so can I. But if you walk out that door, it'll never be open to you again. And you'll never know the second part of the message." Again this is a great technique by the scriptwriters to create yet more suspense by having Swann only now reveal that he has yet more information. Swann promises Clark that once he knows his theory is right it will never leave the room. He shows Clark the second Kryptonian message which Clark translates and reads aloud, ""We will be with you Kal-El for all the days of your life." What does this mean?" Swann replies, "I'm not sure, but one thing I've learned about science is the value of patience." To anyone who follows Reeve's persistent efforts in raising money to fund scientist searching for a cure for paralysis this is a poignant line from Swann that could well refer to Reeve's own experiences. Having just proved his theory Swann advises Clark, "You won't find the answers by looking to the stars. It's a journey you'll have to take by looking inside yourself. You must write your own destiny...Kal-El." A complete transcript of the episode can be read online here.
In the final two scenes of "Rosetta" there is some great music to add to the atmosphere. The music being the instantly recognisable and fantastic John Williams score for Superman: The Movie. Naturally any Reeve fan will love hearing this as Dr. Virgil Swann reveals his findings to Clark. Also worth noting is music played in the background in a scene with Clark and Lana. The Devoted To Smallville website interprets the lyrics in the song as a reference to their relationship. I also think that the lyrics are relevant to the relationship developed in the episode between Dr. Swann and Clark. The song written and performed by British band Coldplay is titled The Scientist which is clearly descriptive of Reeve's character. Similarly, the following lyrics from the song could easily be interpreted as representing Swann's actions and intentions. The lyrics "I had to find you, Tell you I need you, Tell you I set you apart" are descriptive of Swann's bombarding of emails to Clark. "Tell me your secrets And ask me your questions Oh let's go back to the start," could refer to the scene in which Swann and Clark finally meet. Again, this verse: "I was just guessing, At number and figures, Pulling your puzzles apart, Questions of science, Science and progress, Do not speak as loud as my heart," is descriptive not only of Swann's actions in spending years studying to decrypt the Kryptonian messages, but also of his character in his wish not to expose Clark, but to merely seek the truth. Finally, the chorus of, "Nobody said it was easy, No one ever said it would be so hard," is descriptive of Clark's feelings upon discovering the nature of his arrival on Earth and his concern over the message left by his biological father in the spaceship. You can view the full lyrics to this song on the Sounds & Songs page.
Smallville has proved to be a ratings success and has since been signed for four seasons. Gough has stated that it is the first hour of Superman: The Movie that was part of the inspiration for the TV show, "I think it was so memorable when Jonathon Kent [Glenn Ford] dies. You really feel for Clark, you invested in him as a person rather than a superhero. That is what we hope to get across in the series." Reeve described the series to the Associated Press stating, "What they did was take the segment of 'Superman I' on the farm and draw it out into a series," says Reeve. On the Smallville segment of the movie, Reeve added remembering scenes with young Clark "kicking a football into outer space and racing beside a train. He has all these powers and doesn't know why." The producers of Smallville are clearly fans, or at the very least influenced by Reeve's Superman movies. What else could explain the decision to cast Annette O'Toole who played Lana Lang, the Smallville sweetheart to Reeve's Clark Kent in Superman III. In the Smallville TV series however, O'Toole plays Martha Kent, mother to actor Tom Welling's Clark Kent. In the Pilot episode of Smallville Lex Luthor, played by Michael Rosenbaum and a main character in the series, is seen asking Clark, "Do you believe a man can fly?" It's hard not to interpret this line as a friendly reference to the tagline for Superman: The Movie which famously stated, "You'll Believe A Man Can Fly!" In fact, even before the Pilot episode had aired, Gough revealed in an interview with KrytponSite in April 2001, that he would love to get Reeve and others from the Superman movies on the show: "We'd love to write a role for Christopher. I think it would just be really cool. Another thing is to find people like the Jimmy Olsen from the movie. It's fun to do that. I remember when I saw the Superman movie; the Lois Lane from the old George Reeves series [Noel Neil] was Lois Lane's mother on the train. We're always looking for interesting casting ideas. There are a lot of [famous] Superman fans out there, so hopefully, if they watch the Pilot and like what they're seeing, they might be willing to be a part of the show."
So how did Reeve's guest appearance come about? According to Gough, whilst writing the episodes for season 2 he knew he had an ideal character for Christopher Reeve: "We knew we had this character Dr. Swann, who's going to give Clark a big piece of information about his origin. And we called his agent, and you know, introduced ourselves, pitched him the idea and said, "Would Chris have any interest? I don't know how he feels about being involved with Superman anymore."" After hearing that Reeve was a fan of the show, Gough talked to Reeve direct, "We had a wonderful 45 minute conversation with him and sort of pitched to him the character...not only in the episode, but also in the series because every hero needs a wiseman. And that's really his role in the show, and it's sort of a passing of the torch from one generation of Superman to the next." Asked by TheWB.com how long he had been a Smallville fan, Reeve replied, "I was a little sceptical until I saw a few episodes. The writing and the special effects are remarkable. In 1977 [the year Reeve's Superman movie was made] it would have taken us weeks to film what Smallville does in a single day." As part of the agreement between Reeve and the Smallville producers Warner Bros allowed an infomercial on behalf of the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation to be shown immediately following the airing of Reeve's episode. Clark Kent actor Tom Welling and Reeve featured side by side appealing to viewers to, "Help conquer paralysis" by, "Calling the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation at 1-800-225-0292 or visiting the website at ChristopherReeve.org." The shooting of Smallville normally takes place in Vancouver, but Welling and Reeve's scenes were shot in New York in order to accommodate Reeve's busy schedule. A press conference with Welling and Reeve also took place in New York at the time of shooting which you view online here.
Before the Reeve movies, Superman had existed in comics since 1938, appeared on radio in the 1940s and on TV in the 1950s. Since the movies, Superman has continued in comics and on television. 1988 saw the debut of Superboy starring Gerald Christopher, followed in 1993 by Lois & Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman on ABC lasting for four seasons and starred Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher. There have also been numerous Superman cartoon series on TV but the latest 'live action' TV show is of course Smallville. Asked if Dr. Swann will become an integral part of Clark's life Reeve said, "Well let's see how I do on this one first. If I bomb - that will be the end of it. However right now, according to the script, the door seems open." Writer and producer Al Gough has stated the same thing. Dr. Swann could return if he wanted to. Welling has stated that he enjoyed working with Reeve. At the time of shooting the episode he told TV Guide, "To me, Christopher as a person is just tremendous. We also have a really heavy scene coming up today, so in a sense, it's both nervousness for the scene and in terms of what's going on. It's like the ultimate experience." Smallville's Lex Luthor, Michael Rosenbaum admitted to being jealous of Welling's scenes with Reeve. He told KryptonSite, "I have to admit that I'm a little jealous I don't have any scenes with Mr. Reeve. I think it would be pretty cool to have the older Superman meet the new Lex Luthor. I'm certainly honoured to have him on our show. If the ratings don't explode with that episode, I would be surprised". The ratings did explode gaining 8.7 million viewers on its first broadcast on February 25, 2003. Of course, Reeve's guest appearance was a major scoop for the Warner Bros Television Network for his episode aired during the all important February Sweeps. Maybe, if we're lucky, Reeve fans will get to see Dr. Swann in a future episode, and if Rosenbaum's lucky he'll get his scene with Reeve. The 1st season of Smallville is due to be released on Region 1 DVD soon, and if we get lucky again, so too will season 2 complete with Reeve's episode.
If you would like to make a donation to the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation please click on the image below.
The Scientist - Coldplay
From the album A Rush Of Blood To The Head
NOTE: This song was played in the episode of Smallville titled 'Rosetta' and guest starring Christopher Reeve. The song can be interpreted as being descriptive of Reeve's character in the series, Dr. Swann.
Come up to meet you, tell you I'm sorry
You don't know how lovely you are
I had to find you
Tell you I need you
Tell you I set you apart
Tell me your secrets
And ask me your questions
Oh let's go back to the start
Running in circles
Coming up tails
Heads on a silence apart
Nobody said it was easy
It's such a shame for us to part
Nobody said it was easy
No one ever said it would be this hard
Oh take me back to the start
I was just guessing
At numbers and figures
Pulling your puzzles apart
Questions of science
Science and progress
Do not speak as loud as my heart
Tell me you love me
Come back and haunt me
Oh and I rush to the start
Running in circles
Chasing our tails
Coming back as we are
Nobody said it was easy
Oh it's such a shame for us to part
Nobody said it was easy
No one ever said it would be so hard
I'm going back to the start
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