Review: Orphan Black

Ever feel like you’re having difficulty keeping characters straight? That could have been a problem in Orphan Black, a new BBC America scripted series based on the premise that a set of cloned women are being hunted down and killed, except that despite the fact that all the characters look the same, they’re rather distinctive. Thankfully. Because I don’t know about you, but I have enough trouble telling the often bland characters of current television apart when they look different, and when I heard the premise for Orphan Black, I started to sweat bullets at the very thought of managing everyone in my head.

From red-headed German to frizzy-haired avenging angel, the reiterations of the same face on Orphan Black are all on a collision course with bioethics, science fiction, and the boundaries of the imagination. Set in Toronto, the drama takes viewers across the city as the women search for answers and try to decide who they can trust with their secrets, and their lives. The body count, needless to say, is high.

And the show has been raking in the buzz as fans in the US and abroad start picking it up; the only surprising thing is that it’s taken this long for many viewers to clue in. With Tatiana Maslany in the leading role, Orphan Black was action-packed from the very first episode, and it demanded audience attention from the start too as Sarah (our leading character) was quickly plunged into a bizarroworld filled with women who looked just like her and schemes stretching far back into her DNA and past. It was hard not to like the show from the very start, and it seems that Orphan Black may be reaching a tipping point in terms of fan conversations that’s attracting new readers by the droves, at last.

The concept is a fun one, and it’s well-executed. Maslany is incredibly talented when it comes to accents and presentation, and her chameleon nature is backed well with hair, makeup, and costume support to genuinely turn her into a cavalcade of different women with each episode. At times, I’m reminded of the brilliant conceit of Alias, where half the fun was watching Jennifer Garner play totally different women each episode in the earlier seasons. It’s a brilliant showcase for this young actress’ abilities, and makes me think we’ll be seeing much more of her in the years to come if she’s already this talented in such a difficult series of roles.

As Sarah gets dragged deeper and deeper into the drama in the first season, a labyrinthine plot begins to emerge around her and the surviving clones. Despite herself, and the urges in her nature that make her want to cut her losses and run while she still can with the resources she has, Sarah finds herself sucked into the drama and allied with the clones who have managed to find each other. She becomes a central part of the conspiracy herself as she assumes the identity of one of the dead clones, Beth, who was a police officer before she committed suicide from what appeared to be a combination of stress and external pressures. But even that scheme starts to collapse, forcing Sarah and her sisters into a life of trying to stay one step ahead of the people who are hunting them, including their very creators.

With a brilliant supporting cast, Orphan Black is filled with strong, distinctive, and memorable characters, including Sarah’s foster brother Felix (Jordan Gavaris) and Beth’s partner Art (Kevin Hanchard). While the clones take centre stage, the men in their lives struggle to navigate the world around them, and always find themselves several steps behind as the clones hide things from each other and themselves. In Orphan Black, the lines start to blur as viewers what makes people individuals, and where the lines lie when it comes to nature, nurture, socialisation, and ethics.

I have a soft spot for science fiction that plunges into bioethics (as for example in my love of Regenesis, another fantastic programme set in Toronto), and while we haven’t seen much bioethics yet on Orphan Black, I’m hoping for more, especially with the tease at the very end of the first season’s final episode when the show revealed that the clones carried patents, making them intellectual property. The very storylines would seem to demand an exploration of the ethical, political and scientific issues here, with viewers being expected to accept that it was possible to clone human beings as early as 1984, and clearly the murders are leading us in the direction of a plot that may be related directly to the bioethical implications of cloning a human being.

Is this about biology, politics, religion, or a combination of all three? Are the clones an abomination or something more complex, entitled to rights and autonomy of human beings even as they push at the boundaries of what the world thinks of as scientifically possible and acceptable? While Orphan Black is obviously focused on action (and what delightful action it is), it’s also asking some important questions that are becoming especially pressing in an era when cloning and other reproductive technologies are real logistical possibilities tangled in their own legal and ethical web.

After all, while cloning a human being is not legal, that doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t be done…or hasn’t been already.