Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: BBC America’s Orphan Black

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Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going. 

Science fiction on television is usually a hit-or-miss proposition. Sure, you’ve got your Battlestar Galacticas, your Losts, and your Fringes, but you’ve also got your Sanctuarys, your Revolutions, and your whatever the hell Syfy thinks it’s doing with endless Ghost Hunter marathons. TV is the birthplace of a lot of great SF, but it can also be a graveyard. Orphan Black was born, screaming and healthy, on the airwaves of BBC America. It just finished out its second season, which means it already has more episodes than Firefly will ever have, which is a tragedy. Stretching the baby metaphor way too far, what happened with FOX and Firefly is this: Joss Whedon gave birth to the baby that would cure cancer, and FOX smothered it in the cradle with a pillow because FOX does not like anyone to have nice things (poor poor Arrested Development was smothered by the same villain).

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These are bad people, and they do bad things.

BBC America started out as a vehicle to get Doctor Who stateside (along with other British shows), but it is branching out into original programming with Orphan Black. The series is spearheaded by a Canadian development team, which, before you think “Canadian SF?” please realize that Stargate: SG-1, arguably the most successful straight-up SF show ever, was filmed out of Vancouver. Orphan Black takes place mostly in Toronto, the lead actress is Tatiana Maslany, and she is amazing.

Following is a brief discussion of the plot, and there are some spoilers. I do not think I spoil anything past episode three or four, but it is impossible to give a précis of the show without spoiling something. At the very start of the show, we meet Sarah Manning, a woman who grew up in London, moved to Toronto, and is generally just in some deep shit. She is trying to flee an abusive boyfriend, scrape together enough cash to get out of her situation, and retrieve her daughter (whom she abandoned) from her foster mother. She makes a phone call on a train platform which hints at some of these problems, then right after she hangs up she sees someone who looks exactly like her, crying, walk up to the edge of the platform and throw herself in front of a train. Without thinking too much, Sarah grabs her purse and runs, planning to steal her identity and clean out her bank account. She is successful with this, but it is a definite frying pan/fire situation, as she discovers that she is one of an unknown number of clones and that someone is assassinating them one by one. To solve this problem, she bands together with the other known clones (again, no idea how many there are total), and attempts to uncover their pasts and the ultimate goal of the organization that created them. There, done, and I didn’t even mention anything that happened past episode three.

One of the main features that makes this show so great is the virtuosity of its lead actress, Tatiana Maslany. There end up being about four main clones that engage in solving the mystery of their existence, and Maslany plays all of them. They are all completely different, fully realized human beings. A lot of this is due to the writing and the costume departments, but most of it is pulled off by Maslany’s talent. She can, through very subtle modifications in body language and vocal inflection, create completely different people. This would be impressive if it was just “oh hey, I filmed a scene as this clone, but now I am filming a scene as this one,” but she plays different people all talking together in the same room at the exact same time, and she also plays different clones pretending to be other clones. If that last one is confusing phrasing, keep in mind that Sarah Manning, the main clone, is a grifter, and that she is really good at deception. The whole show starts out with her stealing the suicidal Beth Childs’ identity. She pulls this trick multiple times with multiple clones, and watching her play Sarah Manning playing another clone badly, messing up the accent ever so slightly here and there, is really entertaining. If you don’t quite get why I’m so impressed, please watch this:

They don’t even rely on goatees!

What-the-fuck-is-happening English con artist Sarah, uptight Canadian housewife Alison, and laid-back stoner American grad student Cosima all meet in episode three, and they all are differentiated by preoccupations, responses to stress, body language, and voice. Not only that, they are all filmed together, which means that Maslany is exhaustively filming each scene multiple times, at least once for each clone. Again, she is amazing. Bravo.

Aside from the great character trickery, this show is really strong in a lot of other areas. Its plotting is tight and suspenseful, perfectly balancing the line between suspense and payoff (unlike Lost, which held payoff until the final episode and fucked up royally). I started this series on Monday, and I finished in the early morning hours of Wednesday (as in 3 a.m.). I did not stop watching until it was done. There are only twenty episodes at this point, so it is still at the level where you could make it a fun marathon, one that would end before feelings of self-loathing set in. It also does right by its SF roots. It does not use SF for cheap one-off episode ideas or plot spackle. Like the Deist’s clockmaker God, the showrunners set up an internally consistent universe, then walk away and let it play out according to the rules set up in the first few episodes. The SF elements of the show are also really powerful. The whole plot hinges on bioengineering, which if you’ve eaten corn, you have probably already interacted with a transgenic organism. This is the really exciting, tension-filled area of SF where all the issues involved could be problems we are dealing with in reality in the next twenty years. The show uses cloning to explore the concepts of identity and self-determination, but it also keeps character, suspense, and humanity at the center of each episode.

Battlestar Galactica and Lost are gone, Stargate SG-1 packed it in, and Firefly was brutally murdered before its time. In the year since Fringe wrapped, we’ve been in a dry spell for strong, original, appealing SF programming. Orphan Black is the monsoon that breaks the drought, and in a TV landscape where terrible SF is produced and cancelled all the time, and intelligent SF is also produced and cancelled all the time, while crapfests like Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory will seemingly just not die no matter how many anathemata I perform over pictures of Chuck Lorre, it is nice to see a powerful start and promising future from a show like this.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Image from here.

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