Ailsa Bristow watches Canadian sci-fi cloning drama, Orphan Black and finds a striking affirmation of the feminist adage "biology isn’t destiny"
NB: This review contains spoilers for the first three episodes of Season one (no longer available on BBC iPlayer).
The stereotype that women don’t watch sci-fi bores me as much as the next geek-girl feminist. But sci-fi as a genre undeniably has something of a shaky history when it comes to feminism. It’s not that strong and complex female characters don’t exist in science fiction (the excellent Battlestar Galactica springs to mind as being chock full of them), it’s just that all too often women characters seem to fall somewhere on the “slutty nemesis” to “damsel in distress” spectrum. This makes Orphan Black, currently airing on BBC 3, a welcome addition to our screens.
Orphan Black introduces us to Sarah (Tatiana Maslany), a street-smart young woman with more than a few skeletons in her closet. She is immediately identifiable as a troubled youth: headphones in, punk clothes, casual swearing. The viewer is primed for a gritty issue led drama. But the show rapidly flips our expectations, as Sarah encounters her mirror image – a high-heeled sleeker version of herself – who takes off her shoes, folds her suit jacket and jumps in front of a train. As Sarah makes the fateful decision to take her doppelganger’s bag from the scene of the suicide, she dives into a world of identity crises.
Sarah assumes the identity of the dead woman, police officer Beth Childs, in the hope that access to some ready cash and a new name can help her shake off her abusive drug dealer boyfriend – “Vic the Dick” (Michael Mando). But in playing the part of Beth – getting tangled up in a disciplinary hearing at work and a rocky relationship at home, Sarah is soon in deep over her head. It also seems like Beth isn’t the only lookalike out there. As Sarah encounters more doubles – German Katja, soccer mom Alison, scientist Cosima – the truth emerges: these women are clones. (It is still not yet known who the original is.) More worryingly, after Katja is murdered in Sarah’s car, it looks like someone is trying to kill the clones, one by one.
The thriller premise of Orphan Black – trying to figure out the mystery and watching Sarah as she struggles to maintain her cover as Beth Childs – is only half the fun of the show. Perhaps more intriguing for a feminist sci-fi fan is the show’s portrayal of complex female characters. Each of the clones is played in a star turn by Canadian actress Tatiana Maslany and, as a group of characters, they represent a startling range of ways to ‘be a woman’. In a cultural landscape where getting one complex female character into a show is deemed a massive victory for all womankind, a show where they abound is nothing short of extraordinary.
Sarah herself is tough and resourceful, not always on the right side of criminal or even ethical. As a child, she was orphaned and shuffled round foster homes, before eventually being adopted and emigrating with Mrs. S (Maria Doyle Kennedy) and her foster brother Felix (Jordan Gavaris). Mrs. S is currently caring for Sarah’s own daughter, Kira (Skyler Wexler), who Sarah desperately wants to get back and start a better life with.
Sarah seems to be destined to be the ‘main’ clone, at least as far as the audience is concerned, but this doesn’t mean the other versions are cardboard cut-outs. There’s Beth, who may be dead but is very much an ongoing presence in Sarah’s life. In impersonating Beth, Sarah begins to uncover her part in a fatal shooting, her problems with mental health and a boyfriend who isn’t necessarily as perfect as he seems from afar. Next up are tight-laced gun-toting Alison and easygoing dreadlocked Cosima, an evolutionary biologist. Together with the now dead Beth and Katja, these women have been working together to try and uncover the mystery of their shared genetics – and why someone might be trying to kill them off, one by one.
Given their shared DNA, the diversity represented by the clones is a striking affirmation of the feminist adage “biology isn’t destiny”. Sarah jokes to Cosima: “If we’re genetically identical… do you get that little patch of dry skin between your eyebrows?” However, the show makes clear that these women are individuals, whose backgrounds, upbringings and choices have brought them to where they are. None of the clones are straightforwardly likeable or relatable in a conventional sense and each woman seems set on following an agenda that isn’t entirely clear yet. Yet, far from being alienating, it actually feels refreshing to encounter a cast of female characters released from the obligation to be either paragon or demon.
This diversity offers more than just a showcase for the undeniable acting talents of Maslany, whose ability to create a whole host of unique characters is stunning. Through the nuance and complexity of the show, we see all kinds of lifestyle choices being presented on an equal footing and the show doesn’t position any of the options as necessarily better or worse than the others. The contrasting styles of motherhood of Alison and Sarah are a good case in point.
Sarah is a single mother who admits to abandoning her own child. Despite her desire to be reunited with her daughter Kira, she feels that she hasn’t been the best parent and that she needs to act more responsibly in the future. Alison, meanwhile, is raising adopted children in a more traditional married home – but her controlling approach is amusingly contrasted with the more liberal attitudes of Sarah and her brother Felix, who has Alison’s children cross dressing (and loving it) by the end of a babysitting session. Crucially, the show condemns neither woman and offers little judgement on Sarah’s apparent past failures as a mother. Sarah is presented to us as a flawed and often ruthless character who is unashamedly sexually active and also a devoted mother. The show presents no conflict between these sides of Sarah’s personality and our desire to see Sarah get Kira back isn’t compromised by her actions. When motherhood in popular culture so often seems to represent the death of any ambition, personality or, indeed, sex drive on the part of the mother, it is encouraging to see one who retains her agency.
Orphan Black‘s premise allows this smart show to grapple with intriguing questions on biology, freedom, reproduction and fate without ever taking an overtly political stance. It’s precisely this kind of freedom – to take a subversive skewed glance at the world around us – that makes sci-fi so appealing. This show’s modern, non-judgemental low-fuss approach to sex, sexuality and motherhood, along with its portrayal of powerful women, means it will no doubt endear itself to many a feminist viewer.
A synopsis of episode four of Orphan Black (containing spoilers) can be found here. You can catch episode five of Orphan Black on BBC iPlayer until 9.44pm tonight (Friday 18 October), with episode six soon to follow after it has been screened on BBC 3.
Provisional cover for forthcoming European DVD release of the first season of Orphan Black (released 14 August 2014). This shows the outline of eyes, a nose and a mouth (possibly Tatiana Maslany’s) against a white background, with the beginnings of a repeat (one eye, half a nose and half a mouth) on either side. The white BBC logo in a purple rectangle is in the top right hand corner, with ‘ORPHAN BLACK’ in the centre below (with the bar in the H possibly evoking a DNA strand) and ‘SHES ONE… OF A KIND’ in the centre just below that (all in black capital letters).