”Orphan Black”: Science Fiction With a Whedonesque Sense of Humour
Clones. That’s what it’s about, something of which we will be made aware pretty early on. One of them becomes a witness to another one committing suicide, during the opening scenes in the pilot episode of a show that we started following in our household through one of these increasingly popular streaming platforms, from where virtually all real TV drama seems to emanate, or at least is distributed these days. When the last, concluding moments of the first season are over, it’s obvious that the showrunners have decided there’s more to tell. And indeed, they’ve also managed to create a demand for it.
Science fiction. Simply put. Although with a palpably present time-oriented framing, high pulse rate and a dark, sometimes bordering on sinister sense of humour which helps the show avoid the possible risk of ending up being too serious, distanced and aloof. ”Orphan Black”, produced by BBC America and created by two distinguished gentlemen called John Fawcett and Graeme Manson, is definitively not a strictly kitchen sink realist type of drama (even if you might spot a dirty kitchen sink, literally, now and then). Initially I do experience some issues with the whole ‘suspension of disbelief’ required to really ‘get it’… Just a little. You know – some reactions by the characters involved, when confronted with distinctly life-threatening situations and profoundly life-changing intel, might seem slightly… Off. Not sufficiently connected to the real world most of us inhabit. But I get over it rather quickly. It’s not difficult seeing the upside to just ‘get with the program’, ‘go with the flow’ and accept the show’s reality as presented. The personalities as they are. The constantly forward-moving and generally unpredictable plot. Because it pays off. There’s something Joss Whedonesque at work here, which should appeal to fans of, say ”Firefly”, even in the absence of anything resembling spaceships.
But a lot also boils down to how a certain Tatiana Maslany succeeds with her mission. Her missions. Already in the first episodes we’ve seen her personify a handful of characters, although some of them really rapidly, due to the nature of the plot. Let me reveal: there will be more. And if you like, you can amuse yourself by analyzing exactly how some scenes were planned, staged and executed. Look for some basic information about that on Internet Movie Database and Wikipedia. We’re talking about the numerous occasions where clones interact in a seemingly seamless and natural (though not always peaceful and amicable) way, with two or more characters played by the same actress. Body double, several takes and layers in what’s referred to as a ”very time-consuming process” are apparently part of the modus operandi. And it all looks strikingly natural and credible under the circumstances.
If the drama itself wasn’t so absorbing, these achievements wouldn’t amount to a whole lot anyway. But it is. The contrasting characters; including the clones in the shape of Maslany as well as the supporting cast. They click. Above all, the axis around which all else revolves, the streetsmart small time crook Sarah, who seems to have a rather flexible idea of ethics and the whole right and wrong thing. Watching her own double, or at least in that moment, someone so eerily resembling herself it could have actually been her, throwing herself in front of a passing train, Sarah’s first immediate instinct is to grab hold of her possessions left in the platform, and in the process just accidentally taking over her life. Just for a while, to get a kickstarter making it possible to start a new life, but of course it will get more complicated than that. Not least because now she has to act the part of a traumatized policewoman, the mysterious look-alike who for some reason couldn’t go on living. But the situation keeps changing and the wheels turn so fast that Sarah’s own quite well-developed survival instincts really get put to the test on a frighteningly frequent basis. In order to be able to see another day at all…
The only thing Sarah knows about her childhood is that she doesn’t know anything about her biological parents. She’s been raised by a British woman, who’s now in custody of the young daughter Sarah hasn’t quite shown the capacity to adequately care for. Yet. Our increasingly fascinating antiheroine’s main sidekick is the likewise orphaned, openly gay ‘brother’ Felix. There you have another potential character cliché – the theatrical, flamboyant, always talkative and ‘funny’ gay friend, you know. And Felix might be all of those things, but somehow actor Jordan Gavaris takes the opportunity to do something interesting with it, casually delivering sarcastic comments while specializing in (if often really reluctantly) saving Sarah and other acquaintances when they’re in trouble. Which, given the circumstances, happen virtually on a daily basis. While also contributing immeasurably to the entertainment value on the whole.
So, what does the show tell us about the technological advances and groundbreaking, controversial experimental science, ethical dilemmas and the value of human life? These questions have to, almost by definition, get incorporated into a concept like this one. And so they do, although not in a preachy, predictable manner but rather inserted in passing. The way the show is constructed and executed demands that we get some answers now and then to the questions which in the spirit of ”Lost” arise constantly along the way, but also that not all plot threads are followed to their logical conclusion and explained too quickly. You must, as the famous mythological storyteller, the Persian queen Scheherazade of ”One Thousand an One Nights”, create a demand for more. As I said in the beginning, they do. And there is. More.