Orphan Black

Orphan Black

Orphan Black unites two of my favourite things: Canada and Science Fiction. Created by Graeme Manson and John Fawcett (who also wrote for Being Erica) the show follows hustler Sarah Manning as she gets plunged into a world of government conspiracy, genetic mutations and clones.

With the start of Season 3 last week, I thought I would outline some of the major aspects of Orphan Black that make it, I would argue, one of the best TV creations in recent years.

It goes without saying that the show has a pleasing aesthetic, not that everything is visually beautiful, but in the sense that even the violence and negative experiences of the characters are portrayed on screen using effective camera work and an apt soundtrack. It also has fantastic moments of wit and lightness as well as the heavy stuff. It all flows together from the pacing of the show’s writing to minute detail in a single scene, and this attention to the macroscopic and microscopic elements of a show pay off.

The plot of the show is way too complex (and still unfolding) to do justice to here, so instead I’ll explore the underlying themes of the show. Identity and selfhood are constantly interrogated by each of the characters, as one would expect from a show about clones. The show challenges how we define ourselves, what defines an individual and how much control and freedom that individual possesses. The idea of identity is greatly explored, sometimes humorously and often disturbingly, through the clones playing each other. One clone often masquerades as another, usually to garner secret information, and this is a clever way of exploring the idea of the self. If the audience are unaware that someone isn’t who they claim to be, the show drops subtle visual and aural clues about something being ‘off’, which is super effective.

The plot revolves around government and bureaucracy, demonstrating the power struggle and hierarchy of institutions. This sense of control and manipulation pervades the lives of the clones themselves, but also those who become entangled in their lives. Clones are ‘monitored’, given an illusion of complete freedom and sometimes kept ignorant of their status as a clone. The disturbing levels of government interference for profit and scientific progress are reflected through the individuals, subverting archetypes of ‘mad’ and emotionally distant scientists and Frankensteinian creature ‘abominations’. Orphan Black reminds us that every institution is composed of individuals and it is the outcome of their choices that shape events.

Cosima, the scientific smart cookie of Clone Club

Whilst wars are waged in board rooms in these institutions, the struggle for control is more tangible and immediate in the lives of the clones. With the military a strong and oppressive force as the arm of the bureaucratic politics, the characters are often faced with torture and capture. As well as the government, the army and scientific bodies, clones have to contend with a group of religious fanatics! Controlling their own lives goes from the insidious acts of free will and choice in how they live their lives to fighting to keep that very life itself. Furthermore, having been created with a purpose, the clones struggle with the fact they have never been free and must re-define who and what they are, or what they have the potential to be.

Helena, made violent and unhinged through misguided religious doctrine

The clones go through heaps of stuff together, and it’s unsurprising that the dynamic between all of them shifts throughout the show. The idea of trust and secrets, choosing with whom to share it and what information should be kept to oneself, is a constant balancing act. A support network is created by constantly reassessed and tested by the protagonists, and self-consciously referenced to as ‘The Clone Club‘. Each protagonist has their own social sphere and trusted people close to them, but the clones have an affinity with one another. This relationship is portrayed as different or unique, even if that relationship is detrimental to both the clones.

Sarah and Kira, the only known biological offspring of a clone

Season One’s episode titles are taken from Darwin‘s ‘On the Origin of Species‘; Season Two’s are from the works of  Sir Francis Bacon and Season Three’s titles are from President Eisenhower‘s farewell address. This is a nice touch, emphasising political agenda and the cost of scientific progress, and the often dichotomous relationship between the two. The allusions to Charles Darwin are apt for the show, debating the age old argument of nature versus nurture.

Tatiana Maslany plays all the clones (alongside her underrated acting double Kathryn Alexandre), and she is a fantastic actress. In fact the entire cast is extremely strong, portraying complex and flawed characters, and I’m super pleased to see the homosexual (as well as heterosexual) relationships handled tactfully on screen, and normalised as just one aspect of the character’s lives. There is a fantastic supporting cast, to name just a few: Michiel HuismanEvelyne BrochuMaria Doyle Kennedy and child actress Skyler Wexler. And major kudos to the accent work for everyone, especially Jordan Gavaris!

The team pride themselves on the show’s research, with an emphasis on plausibility and accuracy regarding the moral quandaries and technicalities of genetics and cloning. As well as having a cracking cast, Orphan Black is thematically rich, visually stunning and well written. I look forward to watching the show continue to unfold.

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