Pushing against the dearth of sci-fi television in most markets, and premiering just a few months before the disastrous Almost Human, Orphan Black should’ve failed just after the pilot aired. However, by rabid fandom on the Internet causing people to actually tune in on Saturday nights, the series has gone strong for two seasons and is ready to premiere its third. But is this good science fiction or is it a failure limping along until its inevitable end?
The Story So Far
Sarah Manning (Tatiana Maslany), a con artist and petty thief, on the run from her boyfriend Vic (Michael Mando), returns to her unnamed hometown to reunite with her brother Felix Dawkins (Jordan Gavaris) and her daughter Kira, and witnesses the suicide of a woman who looks exactly like her. Sticking to her criminal impulses, she steals the woman’s things and steps into Elizabeth Child’s life hoping this would be an identity worth stealing only to find herself in the life of a detective with a failing relationship and is being investigated for the shooting Maggie Chen while being hounded by Arthur Bell (Kevin Hanchard), Beth’s partner.
Sarah is then found by Katja Obinger, a deathly-ill German woman who, like Beth, looks exactly like her. Before Katja can explain what their connection is, she’s shot in the head. Digging into this woman’s life leads Sarah to find Cosima Niehaus and Alison Hendrix, more sisters in this growing family, and is told that she is a clone in a series of dozens and is both vulnerable to a deadly disease and the whims of an assassin. Though Sarah wants nothing to do with this family initially, Siobhan Sadler (Maria Doyle Kennedy), “Mrs. S,” her and Felix’s foster mother, withholds the opportunity for Sarah to reunite with her daughter Kira, effectively keeping her in the city.
As Art and Paul Dierden (Dylan Bruce)—Beth’s boyfriend—get closer and feel something is wrong with the person they know, Sarah comes across Helena, another clone who’d been killing off the others while under the guidance of a Christian cult disgusted by the development of science. And though she is both connected to Maggie Chen and hates her fellow clones, she feels a distinct kinship towards Sarah and it’s reciprocated as she helps Helena escape Art and the police.
Given the unofficial role of leader, Cosima becomes intimately involved with Delphine Cormier (Evelyne Brochu), a fellow scientist who’s been monitoring her and the other clones for Dr. Aldous Leekie (Matt Frewer), head of the Dyad Institute, the people responsible for the clones. Delphine and Cosima part on bad terms when it comes to light that the sisters’ health information had been stolen and given to Dyad. Paul is revealed to be involved with Dyad as well, working as a monitor for Beth, and he’s informed that Sarah is in her place and is ordered to bring her in. Despite having a possible war crime hung over his head, Paul learns of what Sarah and the others are involved in and agrees to help them escape Dyad’s clutches. Leekie, trying to contain the self-awareness of his subjects, contacts all the clones with a promise of leniency and protection if they work more closely with Dyad. All but Alison truly consider his offer.
Mrs. S presents Sarah with Amelia (Melanie Nicholls-King), a Black South African woman who turns out to be Sarah and Helena’s birth mother—she’d been hired as a surrogate by a wealthy couple that scared her so much she traveled all the way to London before giving birth to her girls. Believing they’re building a rapport, Amelia meets with Sarah in Beth’s home to discuss Mrs. S’ mysterious past only to discover that it was Helena in disguise, and is killed by her daughter in an act of revenge for leaving her to be raised by the church that’d abused her. In a final confrontation between the twins, Sarah, bereft at the loss of their mother, and using Helena’s reluctance to kill her, gains the advantage and shoots her sister through the chest.
After arriving in the city, Cosima develops symptoms similar to Katja’s respiratory condition, and with Delphine they delve deeper into her specific genome to learn what is wrong with them. This leads to the discovery of an ID tag (324B21) specific to Cosima, which turns out to be a code for a patent that copyrights her biology as property of the Dyad Institute. She quickly contacts Sarah to keep her from agreeing to Rachel Duncan’s (clone) terms, adding that Kira could be a derivative property of their patent on her and thus owned by Dyad. Sarah rejects Rachel with Paul as her ally, and the fight between clones and corporation reaches a new phase. But, despite her victory, Sarah returns to an empty home. Mrs. S and Kira missing.
Perhaps it’s my personal penchant for the “broken ones,” but I had nothing but sympathy for Helena throughout the season. I was able to forgive her fratricidal career not so much because of the abuse she’d endured, but because of her pitiable pleas to be connected with a sister she didn’t know existed. It’s much like seeing the human face in Frankenstein’s monster. She’d been played up as this obsessively-violent religious fundie only to be revealed as an infantile innocent who just wanted someone who didn’t want to use her. It’s the human side of sci-fi that makes it alluring, and Helena embodied that quite well.
Orphan Black is a story about clones getting to know others within this test-tube-and-syringe family, so the need for diversity among characters is essential. However, Alison Hendrix doesn’t offer much of anything to the series or her sisters and is a drag on the pacing of the story. Where Beth and Sarah provided the role of “operative,” taking care of the physical work of dealing with Dyad and its monitors, and Cosima explores their health in order to learn what can be done to save them, Alison provides nothing of benefit to the group. If anything, her antics detract from the more pressing central plot with time that could be better used exploring Helena’s long history or shedding more light on Rachel’s position of power.
Cosima started out as the group leader. She was the most invested in their biology and the only one qualified to make sense of it all. But it was clear that Sarah was to be the main focus, so she was pushed back to a support position the as the season progressed. It’s a shame since there’s a strong interest in the science that’s responsible for them, yet the scientist is pushed to the role of sidekick. Though I never expected Orphan Black to be a hard-sci-fi biopunk story, seeing Cosima go head-to-head with Leekie would’ve been an interesting thing to see rather than addressing each problem with violence and chase scenes. Variety is key, and Cosima could’ve provided a great change of pace here.
After seeing Katja at the end of the pilot it was clear to the audience what would be going on for the rest of the season, and the thrill of meeting clones had no effect. So with the surface science not so much a mystery, what’s left? Well, the bureaucracy. Seeing that 324B21 was a coded patent and that the women were little more than products for a company that has controlled their entire lives from shadows takes a logical yet rarely-taken turn. Unlike The Island of Dr. Moreau, where the experimental creatures are controlled, or Dark Angel where they are hunted to be quarantined from the general population, the sisters are commoditized in a way that suggests that there’s some legal backing for what Dyad has done and intends to continue. If that is the case, and Dyad owns them, agreeing to an arrangement or not, what recourse do the sisters have for freedom? The law has already sided with Dyad and these people have no humanity granted to them that their owners don’t approve of. It’s a thoughtful MacGuffin that could be a plot thesis all its own.
Of all the prefixed-punk genres cyberpunk and biopunk share the most similarities, one of the biggest being club and drug culture. Even in the biopunk classic A Brave New World (1932), there’s an obsession/appreciation for debauchery and drugs that makes that world possible, so when we get a glimpse of a transhumanist club in this biopunk world gathered around Dr. Leekie’s celebrity, I expected to see something keeping in line with the real body-modding community which has a home in the London, where the show is produced, and Canada, where it is filmed. What we got was a toned-down rave where kids with nose rings swayed off-beat to electronica. A great deal of the season’s second act takes place in around this setting, and the set dressing mattered a great deal to drive home the point that Leekie truly is the usher of a new age of human development. It was a missed opportunity.
Personally, the realm of human experimentation, cloning, and IVF processes hold a great deal of fascination. Another favorite of mine, Dark Angel, attempted a similar premise as this show. But while they relied on beauty with lacking talent skills, Tatiana manages to provide distinct performances for each clone that makes you believe she’s one of a set of quintuplets all acting on their own. Few actors display the range she has in one production, making her a chameleon that has a future as promising as that of Gary Oldman, another actor known for his ability to appear unique in every role.
Overall the show is strong. What I mean by that is when it dips to its least interesting points it still stands up in quality with shows boasting the strongest of fandoms. But despite its popularity and viewership, Orphan Black is a post-biopunk thriller that’s fast paced and intriguing. Though there are the common tropes of Canadian-shot TV shows that annoy—set in “Generica,” accents from Canadians missing their mark when playing Americans—there’s enough here to provoke thought on human experimentation and the lagging legal analysis of this area of science. So far there hasn’t been any attempt to “nerf” sisters by giving them powers or making them transgenic superhumans, which helps to ground the science further, making viewers wonder what-ifs about a science that could conceivably take place in our own world today.