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TV Review: Orphan Black

19 May 2014
Appeared in BioNews 754

One of the many pleasures of Orphan Black is discovering how many distinct people the talented actress, Tatiana Maslany, can portray in a single scene. If you want to watch this show without spoilers, I will tell you only that it is a fast-paced, nail-biting thriller about human cloning, and urge you to stop reading immediately and go watch season one.

A quick summary of season one: Sarah Manning is on the run from her criminal past when a woman who looks exactly like her commits suicide in front of her eyes. Stealing the woman's identity on an impulse, Sarah ends up in more trouble than she could have imagined.

In a world where human cloning is considered science fiction, one bioscience company thirty years ago created a number of genetically identical embryos, hired surrogate mothers to bring them to term, and then hid the children amongst the general population as orphans. Their purpose: unknown. But three of the children, now women, have found each other, and they want answers.

Sarah and her 'genetic identicals' – no clone progenitor has yet been identified – are all very different women who share only intelligence, competence and a quick temper. Some, like brittle 'soccer mom' Alison, only want a safe life. Others, like dreadlocked scientist Cosima, want to understand why they were created, and are willing to compromise ethics and safety to get information. Although they are genetically identical, Sarah, Alison and Cosima's different priorities test their alliance to the limit. Sarah is however the only one of the eight clones so far encountered who can have biological children: a significant plot point.

As the series goes on it becomes clear that the 'cloning' process is not without consequences. Some of the clones are falling ill, and nearly all are infertile. There are some hints that this infertility may be a deliberate act of control - when your genome is someone else's intellectual property, reproduction is a dangerous infringement. The science behind the plot is carefully plausible, though advanced (and illegal).

The shadowy eugenics institute that created the clone-siblings clashes with an even more terrifying group of religious extremists in a battle for control of the clones' lives. The women have a choice between enemies who treat them either as experimental subjects to be monitored or as unholy abominations. The plot raises questions about agency, consent, control of personal genetic information, the harms of non-invasive research and the nature of family: biological, adopted, found or absent.

Having gained enemies and lost trusted allies, Sarah is now fleeing these powerful forces, trying to find her kidnapped daughter and avoid both the company that created her and the extremists who want her dead. The second season of Orphan Black will be one to watch.

The second season of Orphan Black is now showing on BBC Three.

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