How does one BBC show get the most milage out of one amazing actress? Make her play half the cast, that’s how! The BBC has been pulling ahead as the place to find great science fiction television, and it’s latest contribution—put up for our viewing pleasure with none other than Doctor Who—does not disappoint. Orphan Black brings you the adventures of Sarah, a British punk grifter, who discovers she’s not not the orphan she thought she was. She’s got a host of doubles out there and they’re all looking for answers. And so are we!
Let’s take a look at the many faces of Orphan Black and how it stacks up against other clone-heavy shows.
Send In The Clones—Meet the Ladies of Orphan Black
From the beginning, Orphan Black throws us into a very modern-looking normal world in which Sarah is a poor grifter trying to make enough money to get back her daughter, Kira. She wants to run off someplace with her foster brother Felix and her kid to restart their lives. Too bad she’s witness to a woman jumping in front of a train—a woman who looks just like her! Coincidence? Probably not. And that’s the name of the game in Orphan Black. Just what is a mystery and what is a coincidence and what has been set up by whatever shadowy organization created the clones themselves. Sarah has to find out, all the while pretending to be the dead woman Beth so she can investigate as a police officer.
Yeah, it’s that complicated.
Good thing all of the clones are so different from each other. There’s Sarah herself. Then there’s Beth, the dead cop, who seems to have been a neurotic mess before she jumped. Through her investigation, Sarah also meets Alison, the uptight soccer mom and Cosina, a genius IQed grad student. Then there’s “the German,” a dyed-red fur wearing girl, and Helena, a dyed-blond religious zealot. The list could get longer but for now, that’s who we’ve met. And each has her own individual story, personality, and role to play in this complicated science conspiracy. Why these women were cloned and how they were placed where they were is at the heart of the story, and together the clones must discover their history before something bad happens to them all.
The heart of Orphan Black is the Clone Club aka the Clone Scooby Gang Sarah forms with Allison, Cosina and Felix. Together they form the bravery (Sarah), brains (Cosina), cash (Allison) and comic relief (sorry Felix!) that make up the heart of Team Clone. Actress Tatiana Maslany does triple- and sometimes quadruple-duty an episode playing every permutation of clone, sometimes playing one clone pretending to be another! Some of the most memorable scenes from the show involve Sarah pretending to be police officer Beth, or even soccer mom Allison having to pretend that she’s Sarah. (The term “reverse Eliza Doolittle” came up and was brilliant—once again, thanks Felix!) It’s this incredible performance that makes the whole show so engaging. Maslany makes each clone seem unique down to body language, accent and tone of voice and the technical team behind Orphan Black makes the scenes where there are two or even three clones in the room at the same time look seamless.
Other Clone-Heavy Shows
So how does it rate against other shows with multiples of the same cast member in a clone-off? The biggest comparison one could make with the clone storyline is obviously Battlestar Galactica. In BSG, a single actor or actress played multiple versions of the same Cylon model, sometimes in the same scene. Many of those Cylons developed very different personalities based along the same archtypical models—a Six (played by Trisha Helfer) would always act similarly to other Sixes and so on. The characterizations of Cylons were never too far away from the original model’s style to really differentiate them too much from one another. This was a purposeful choice, as it was meant to indicate that these Cylons all came from the base type and were only permutations based on differences in programming and experience.
A similar model was used for the clone troops in the Star Wars: Clone Wars animated series. Yet in many ways, the clone troopers from Star Wars are closer to the ladies of Orphan Black than to the Cylons of BSG. In the series, though the troopers all came from the DNA of a single original person, it is their experiences as grown soldiers that develop them as individuals. Some of the most interesting episodes in that series centered around the differences in the troopers, their interpersonal relationships with one another, and the different choices they made. In the end, the troopers were treated more like individuals than the Cylons of BSG ever were.
All three shows, however, tackle a very basic concept—can a clone be an individual? Is it nature that makes them similar or nurture which sets them apart? Can a Cylon model “copy” be different than the others of their line? Is a clone trooper any different than the others that stand beside him? And are the women of Orphan Black, scattered across the world in some kind of bizarre experiment, really all that different from one another? This is a question that Orphan Black takes head on and succeeds where others may have only grazed the surface of the issue.
Orphan Black—How Does It Rate
In comparison to other clone-heavy shows, Orphan Black goes right to the heart of the nature versus nurture debate. By making the clones all so very different, the show highlights the impact that their individual lives have had on their development. Through Sarah’s eyes, we see the women start to compare their similarities—such as a penchant in a few for mental instability and unusual intelligence—and then also clock their serious differences. It is by developing each of the clone women as individual characters with their own rich inner and outer lives that we get a more nuanced story about what makes us unique as people than many other clone shows have done before.
So why were the clones created? Will Sarah ever get away with her daughter to someplace warm and peaceful? And will Felix ever have to stop putting up with this craziness in his life—or at least get a front door lock for his apartment so people will stop barging in? The show is only five episodes in and already gathering steam to be a science thriller with plenty of mysteries to solve. One thing is for sure—as long as Tatiana Maslany can figure out how to do new accents and keep straight just who she’s playing when, Orphan Black might be the show to give us a great discourse about cloning while still being loads of fun.
Shoshana Kessock is a comics fan, photographer, game developer, LARPer and all around geek girl. She’s the creator of Phoenix Outlaw Productions and ReImaginedReality.com.