This review contains spoilers.
Orphan Black is a scifi television series created by BBC America. The show takes place in Toronto, Canada and features as its main character Sarah Manning, a British punk rocker sort of girl who has predictably fallen in with the wrong crowd. The show starts with her on a train platform with the sense that she’s running from something and trying to come home.
After a frustrating phone conversation, Sarah is shocked to discover another woman on the platform who looks just like her, and even more shocked when that other woman walks in front of a moving train. This is a powerful first image that evokes so many questions that seem to have no possibility of being answered. After all, the woman with the answers has just leapt to her death. We find out very quickly that Sarah is adept at thinking on her feet and a bit prone toward ruthlessness when she snatches up the purse of the woman who has just committed suicide in front of her.
Sarah then seeks out her foster brother, Felix Dawkins, who is a wonderfully built character that helps give life to Sarah’s backstory. The two have a playful sibling relationship that brightens even the darkest of subplots (and there are a great many very dark subplots ahead).
In many ways, Felix acts as the embodiment of Sarah’s conscience. For example, when he finds out she stole the look-alike’s purse, he confronts her. He also tries to convince Sarah that her plan to impersonate Elizabeth Childs, the woman who killed herself, is wrong, but Sarah isn’t so good at taking advice. She wants to take Beth’s money in order to leave town to escape a violent ex and start over making a nice life for her, Felix, and Sarah’s daughter Kira, who is currently in the care of their foster mother, Mrs. S.
All of this sets up the arc of season one very well for us. Felix sums it up nicely, “Sarah, who is Elizabeth Childs?”
The answer to this question the biggest spoiler that I’ll offer you, although it is revealed by the second episode. (Turn back now if you don’t want to find out!)
Sarah and Beth are clones. There are also a handful of other clones you’ll meet throughout the first season. Finding out how and why the clones were created, and who’s trying to kill them, is the engine that drives Orphan Black forward.
Tatiana Maslany plays all the clones and at first glance this seems like a recipe for generic and boring characters, but the reality of the show couldn’t be farther from that assumption. Each clone has her own voice, her own mannerisms, even her own walk, making them all distinct and vibrant. To me, this is a triumph of both writing and acting working together brilliantly. There is never a moment when you confuse neurotic stay-at-home mom Alison with tough-as-nails street urchin Sarah, not even when they try, failing miserably and often hilariously, to impersonate each other.
As you can imagine, this creates all sorts of great plot points regarding the nature versus nurture debate. Why are the clones so different when their DNA is the same? The overall message here is that free will is a big deal, bigger than any biological imperatives that might be associated with our genes. The clones are the people they are because of their personal experiences rather than some abstract dictated by genetic accident.
The science, unlike many television shows and movies in the science fiction genre, is eminently accessible. There is very little jargon, and concepts necessary to the plot are explained well. This may actually be a drawback for more biology savvy viewers. That said, the science, as far as it goes, is fairly correct and definitely not groan-worthy.
For those who might be afraid the science talk weighs down the pacing of the show, fear not. There are exciting action sequences and brain-twisting conspiracies to be found further down the road that help to balance things out. The pacing of each episode is good, and the plot and subplot arcs are strong. In fact the only real criticism I can come up with is that the cinematography isn’t the prettiest for a sci-fi show. There’s a real lack of WOW special effects that are the usual touchstone of the genre.
One of my favorite things about Orphan Black is the degree of character development for the main character throughout. Sarah starts out being not very likeable. Our first introduction to her is in fact watching her steal the identity of a woman who has just killed herself. She’s at best unprincipled and at worst a little sociopathic. But she grows so quickly beyond that narrow view. Sarah’s character arc is complex and wonderful, and I challenge you to not like her by the end of the first season.
There are a lot of smaller things to like about this show as well. The lines from Darwin’s On the Origin of Species as episode names really tickles my biology fangirl buttons. The dialog is all very good, with an impressive collection of accents. Finally, there’s a sex-positive message that is rarity in shows featuring female leads. Every character from promiscuous Felix to the mysterious Mrs. S owns their own sexuality.
Above all, the feminist themes of Orphan Black are strong: women, even genetically indistinguishable women, can be anything they want to be, from a housewife to a detective to a biologist. The array of characters Maslany plays is in itself a celebration of the diversity of women. The interesting ideas about identity and individuality that are presented throughout the first season, and continue on in ever-more fascinating twists after that, are powerful and thought-provoking. Later on there are even more fascinating plotlines regarding personal privacy and a woman’s right to her own body that transcend the usual and delve pretty far into the surreal and terrifying.
My advice: If you haven’t watched Orphan Black yet, do! Season Three just started so there’s still time to catch up before the finale!
Images found at BBCAmerica.com.