Orphan Black, Season One: ‘Variations Under Domestication’

Since I’m on the LonCon panel to discuss the Hugo Best Dramatic Presentation: Short Form nominees I thought It might be helpful to get my thoughts in order. And in the case of Orphan Black, actually get around to watching the show. That always helps.

Orphan Black, Season One: ‘Variations Under Domestication’

As I sit back having finished the first season of BBC America’s Orphan Black, my only question about its Hugo nomination is: why that particular episode?

It’s not a bad episode – far from it. It demonstrates the implicitly feminist strengths of a series with such diverse, strong female characters. It’s a showcase for the bewildering versatility of lead actor Tatiana Maslany, who single-handedly plays most of those characters. And it wryly juxtaposes suburban black humour and urban conspiracy thriller. It’s impressive, frankly. But so, to a greater or lesser degree, is the rest of the season.

The premise is outlandish; classic conspiracy territory. British petty criminal Sarah Manning stumbles across the suicide of a woman who is her perfect double, and assumes her identity in order to scam money. In doing so she gradually comes learns that she is one of a number of identical clones scattered across the globe, clones whose identity is closely guarded – and secretly monitored. As the conspiracy deepens she forms an uneasy alliance with some of her fellow clones, and learns that someone is killing them.

Identical twins played by the same actor is something TV occasionally finds irresistible, from Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Ringer to the Fugitive-esque Two starring Michael Easton (anyone else remember that?) One of them is usually ‘evil’, of course. In SF, leaving aside androids, short-lived duplicates and parallel universes, there are a few examples of recurring doppelgangers played by the same actor1. During the course of Farscape, Crichton gets duplicated and shares the limelight with his twin for quite some time, while Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Tom Riker survives to recur briefly in Deep Space Nine. The raft of identical human-like Cylon models in the modern Battlestar Galactica are increasingly treated less as monolithic foes and more as individuals with different agendas. It’s always dangerous start a non-exhaustive list like this, and it’s impossible to list all the examples. Suffice it to say that these series tend to compare and contrast their identical characters, whose differences are based on their divergent experiences. It’s the classic nature vs nurture debate, but I’ve never seen it embraced as ambitiously as in Orphan Black.

What’s interesting about Orphan Black is not just the impressive number of different clones, but that (unlike Battlestar Galactica) they are all clones of one person, and are treated as complex individual characters in their own right. Their identity doesn’t revolve around being a clone or twin, even though their lives are irrevocably changed by it. The characters’ even prefer to avoid the word ‘clone’ in favour of ‘genetic identicals’, which acknowledges their shared genetic heritage without the connotations of unthinking uniformity. This humane and humanistic approach is arguably why the series succeeds so well, because in focusing on the people who are the subject of the seeming conspiracy, and by making them real, it remains grounded even when featuring such pulpy elements as sinister watchers and sort-of-albino assassins.

The lead character is Sarah Manning: British, spiky, dissolute, but also capable, resourceful, intelligent. She’s a grifter trying to get out of her old life through one last ‘score’, and to win back her young daughter from her Irish foster mother in a thread that is sympathetic but largely avoids mawkishness. She’s supported by her gay British foster brother Felix (Jordan Gavaris). The combination of British lead characters and a lack of sentimentality makes the series often feel more like British TV than Canadian or American.

Sarah allies herself with two other main clone characers, her urban London aesthetic thrown into sharp relief by these very different individuals. Cosima is a scientist completing a PhD in (conveniently for the plot) Evolutionary Developmental Biology, or ‘Evo-devo’, and is busy unravelling the science behind the conspiracy. Alison is an amusingly prissy suburban ‘soccer mom’ whose knowledge of the conspiracy challenges her meticulous family world. They’re already ahead of Sarah in their investigations and they rapidly develop into joint leads as the first season progresses. The other clones are mainly bit parts, the exception being bleached Ukranian psychopath Helena, an antagonist as different from the others as they are from each other. She’s perhaps closest to the cliche of the ‘monstrous’ clone, often genetically damaged or doomed to a short life, like Picard’s clone Shinzon in Star Trek: Nemesis.

Central to the conceit is of course convincing the audience that each clone is different despite being played by the same person. The ace in the hole is the show’s star Tatiana Maslany, whose body language and accent shift as chameleonically as her clothes, make-up and hair. Maslany’s versatility is simply dazzling, creating distinct characters who are immediately identifiable from their posture and attitude without saying a word. She’s abetted by effective use of body doubles, split screen and clever staging to create an almost seamless impression of her characters interacting, talking, even pouring drinks into each others’ glasses; visual effects that go out of their way not to call attention to themselves. I can only imagine the rigors of filming such scenes (or indeed the punishing schedule involved in filming a series where you play many of the lead roles).

When the characters don’t literally share the screen, something they do less often than you might suppose, they’re often playing games of identity, pretending to be one another for a succession of reasons. This is of course one of the big temptations of dramas featuring identical ‘siblings’, and Orphan Black embraces it: Sarah for Beth, Alison for Sarah, Sarah for Alison, Helena for Sarah (for Beth). It’s implausible that the characters should share the actor’s facility with accents (explained away by acting lessons in Alison’s case) but fascinating to see the boundaries between the characters blur in this way. It’s also risky, as to some degree it exposes all of the characters as skilful performances rather than unique individuals, but fortunately the character building is solid enough to withstand this meta playfulness. If I have a quibble with the accents it’s that Canadian actor Maslany’s British accent occasionally slips into an Australian-sounding twang, but that’s a pretty minor complaint.

It’s a sad fact that on US TV drama (and much other drama besides) leading female characters still tend to be limited to one, maybe two, out of an ensemble of men, and tend to slot into a few ‘types’: driven professional (cop, FBI, lawyer), mother, caregiver. In doing so they wind up having to be ‘kick-ass’ because there are so few women in the cast that the representation of all women rests on their shoulders. I’m overgeneralising, and there are exceptions like The Good Wife, but the degree to which TV drama is still male-dominated is quite significant. In making its clones so numerous and yet so diverse Orphan Black creates a programme that not only revolves around female characters but presents them in more varied roles than are traditionally seen in US television. It can allow them to be more than just the token ‘strong’ woman and allow them to be flawed, complex and interesting in ways often reserved for men. The ways in which Sarah’s brand of flawed anti-hero co-opts redemptive territory normally reserved for male characters is discussed fascinatingly by Foz Meadows here: http://fozmeadows.wordpress.com/2014/05/09/gender-orphan-black-the-meta-of-meta/). Alison remains sympathetic despite her numerous quirks and a much darker streak; treatted here as layers of complexity rather than a defining fall from grace that in many US dramas would irredeemably tarnish the character. Even Helena, initially monstrous, twisted, malignant, is treated humanely by the series. Brainwashed, seemingly sick, she both hates her sisters and yearns for the family they represent, emerging as conflicted and even sympathetic despite her brutality.

Now it’s true that Tatiana Maslany is also young and classically attractive, and in that sense the series is working within TV norms that demand male standards of beauty from women, but since almost all the female characters look like her (and given the evident success of her casting) I think this is forgiveable in the light of the show’s other boundary-pushing aspects. There are other female characters: Sarah’s foster parent Mrs. S. (Maria Doyle Kennedy), archetypal female TV cop Angela Di’Angelis (Inga Cadranel) the various suburbanites surrounding Alison, and of course her daughter Kira (Skyler Wexler). But with the possible exception of Mrs. S. it’s the clones who dominate.

This variety of personalities amongst seemingly identical clones highlights the most overt theme of the series: nature versus nurture. The show wastes little time in coming down firmly on the nurture side of the debate. Despite their shared genome all the clones are extremely different in temperament, personality, mannerisms and weaknesses (except, perhaps, a certain recklessness that may have more to do with TV storytelling than characterisation) although it’s clear that beneath it they share a similar steely strength. Cosima even differs from her ‘sisters’ in being gay, and her lover Delphine (Evelyne Brochu) sets out the series’ stall: “As a scientist I know that sexuality is a spectrum, but social biases codify sexual attraction, contrary to the biological facts.” Although there are reasons within the story for not taking Delphine at face value, it does seem to be assumed that sexuality can be mutable, derived from both genetic nature and socialised nurture. The series is very open in its depiction of sexuality, with Sarah’s brother Felix being gay (in a very TV friendly ‘camp’ way perhaps, but still joyously embracing his own sexuality) although there are no trans characters, at least in the first series. Sexuality is neither judged nor sensationalised in the series. Like the preponderance of female characters, it simply ‘is’.

All of which is not to say that Orphan Black is plausible. It’s a complex conspiracy thriller for a start, a genre prone to over-elaborate machiavellian schemes that are a far cry from real covert conspiracies. And the human clones date from the 1980s, which is perhaps pushing the technology – then again, what is SF for if it’s not allowed to push technological boundaries? When Sarah Manning stumbles across one of the clones at the exact moment of her suicide it’s a massive coincidence, but I’ll let that go since it’s presented as such and it’s the trigger for the entire series. The fact that she’s then adept enough to impersonate a woman, Beth, whom she’s never met, one with a different accent and demeanour, a lover and work colleagues, and a job as a police officer… suspension of disbelief is required. Numerous TV police procedurals may have convinced us that cops only talk about cases at work, but in reality the in-jokes and personal chatter in a job would surely mark you out immediately as an imposter, even if your patent lack of training didn’t. Cutting against this is the fact that the suicidal Beth was already on anti-depressants and behaving unusually, and of course the simple fact that most people would be far more likely to conclude that you’ve gone off the rails than that you’re an identical imposter. And of course even genetically identical twins aren’t truly identical. Dwelling too much on the impausibility is to miss the point, however. Orphan Black works within a genre of SF thriller that relies on such contrivances and what it does within that genre is inventive enough, different enough and well-crafted enough to earn the suspension of disbelief. It more than repays the audience’s complicity.

The series is so serialised that each instalment is difficult to judge in isolation. The Hugo nominated episode ‘Varations Under Domestication’ (the title, as with all the episodes in the season, is from Charles Darwin’s ‘The Origin of Species’) is only one chapter in an ongoing story. Other episodes are arguably stronger. So why this episode?

The plot (if you don’t want to know the plot, look away now) chiefly concerns the collision of Sarah and Alison’s worlds, juxtaposing urban Sarah and her brother with Alison’s picket fence existence. Sarah and Alison’s awareness that they are under observation begins to bite. Sarah warily circles her increasingly sympathetic monitor Paul (Dylan Bruce), while Alison decides that her husband Donnie (Kristian Bruun) is behaving suspiciously and, her perfect life unravelling, whacks him with a golf club, ties him up and tortures him in the basement — just as she’s due to host the neighborhood ‘pot luck’ party. Still with me? The stupidly complex web of mistaken identity, humour and danger is really the point. The set up is pure farce, as the increasingly drunk Alison alternately interrogates her husband and plays hostess. Streetwise Sarah winds up having to impersonate the uptight Alison, and Felix gets drafted in as a hilariously out of context gay bartender. Meanwhile Sarah’s criminal ex-lover Vic (Michael Mando) and monitor Paul both track her down to Alison’s house, injecting the risk of violence and exposure. The ‘B’ plot (‘C’ plot?) features third clone Cosima attending a public talk by charismatic futurist Dr Leekie (Matt Frewer) who seems to be involved in the conspiracy and hints at deeper mysteries.

It’s a good showcase for the series, highlighting the performances and bringing various story threads together. The characters pursue their own agendas, and everyone is flawed. Paul is caught between his attracton to Sarah and being beholden to his masters, lovestruck Vic thinks Alison is just Sarah running a scam, and Sarah is barely navigating the chaos with one eye on survival and the other on reclaiming her daughter. Alison’s behaviour is imprudent at best, but the collapse of her domestic routine uncovers a steely desperation beneath her manicured exterior. Cosima suspects she’s being played, but her attraction to Delphine and her curiosity about Dr Leekie draw her in.

I might personally have nominated the propulsive season finale ‘Endless Forms Most Beautiful’ (from the final sentence of ‘The Origin of Species’) in preference to this episode, but there’s no denying that the device of the potluck party makes it memorable in an often serialised drama. It’s the series being essentially itself, reaping the rewards of its well-drawn characters. It’s also a great example of why Orphan Black is unlike anything on TV at the moment. Although we’ve seen SF conspiracies before in the likes of The X-Files, and we’ve seen suburban black humour in the likes of Desperate Housewives, we don’t normally see them interwoven as we do here, a piece of narrative split-screen every bit as seamless as watching Alison and Sarah interact. It’s miles away from the usual ‘evil twin’ fare, and miles away from the usual armies of clones who populate science fiction.

My money is not on this episode to win the Hugo award given the juggernaut competition from Doctor Who and Game of Thrones, but I’m very glad to see it, or indeed anything from Orphan Black‘s first season, nominated.

1 For the purposes of talking about Orphan Black I’m interested in identical doubles who interact. I’m therefore excluding the use of clones to cheat death where the clone succeeds the original, like Carson Beckett In Stargate Atlantis, and clones played by different actors, who tend to be treated as a Jekyll-and-Hyde cracked mirror, like Judge Dredd‘s clone Rico. There’s a whole other science fiction trope of monotypical cloned races like the Asgard in Stargate: SG-1, the Sontarans in Doctor Who, or the clone troopers in the Star Wars prequels. And those are different again from genetic hybrids (for example in Dark Angel, Stephen Gallagher’s Chimera, or Ripley in Alien Resurrection (who, okay, happens to look like Sigourney Weaver as well.)

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