The Fantastic Tele-Vision Machine: Orphan Black

(I apologize, somewhat, for the hyperbolic title. I’ve been reading a lot of golden-age science fiction and the semantics tend to be a little bit contagious. Then again, one should never apologize for reading golden-age science fiction)

About five minutes into the third episode of the Canadian TV series Orphan Black, the main character, Sarah Manning, exclaims, “They’re not me… they’re completely different people.” She is absolutely right, and that is one of the reasons I let myself get sucked into this thought-provoking modern science fiction series.

Without spoiling anything that’s not in the first episode, this series kicks off when a street hustler of sorts watches someone who looks exactly like her jump in front of  a train. By the end of the first episode, we’ve met another ‘twin’ and a few more questions. And while human cloning is a well-travelled road in the world of science fiction,
this show doesn’t slip into the tropes that usually indicate lazy writing, lazy thought, and half-assed production values.

It helps that the acting (particularly by the lead, and the man playing her foster brother) is absolutely spot-on. Tatiana Maslany does manage to pull off several different characters, and even manages to play them convincingly against each other, something even some great actors like Peter Sellers had trouble doing. (I love Doctor Strangelove… but that scene where the doctor and the President are talking is very nearly painful to watch.) No, what sucked me into this show was something much deeper than just its production and acting.

By the time you’re an episode or two into it, you’ll notice that none of the characters are written alike. Not even kind-of alike. In most fiction about clones, the characters are eerily the same, much like the legends of twins separated at birth but still living parallel lives. In fact, there will usually be a scene (or two or ten) where this trope (they’re different! but they’re the same!) is pulled out and beaten to death. But in the real world, twins (and by extension, clones) don’t work that way. Even twins raised in identical circumstances often have wildly different lives. It’s logical to assume that genetically identical individuals raised on different continents would be completely different people. Orphan Black tackles this head-on. Other characters are more like Sarah Manning than her twins are. Add to that the fact that there are many more parts to this story than the central problem, and you have an entertaining and thought-provoking piece  of television.

Next week I’ll come back with more non-USAnian movies to look for, but for the rest of this Labor Day Weekend, I’m going to immerse myself in Orphan Black‘s version of Toronto (not much different from the Bay City-Saginaw-Midland of Michigan where I grew up) and wonder about how many identically different people there are wandering around my city.

Production: 4/5

Story: 4/5

Acting: 5/5

WTFs: So far, 3/5, but I have the sense that it’s building up to something big. Let’s hope it pays off.

Availability: I found the first season at Couch Tuner. It’s also available on demand at Amazon and iTunes.

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