Monday, September 21, 2015

Box Set Blues: Orphan Black

Our current series of Dissecting Worlds is due to contain a couple of episodes looking at artificial people; ranging from droids and replicants to uplifted successor species, which has been a huge subgenre of Science Fiction since, oh that Frankenstein book that started it all. You may have heard of it. Along the way it's given me the push I needed to start on the often recommended Orphan Black, a Canadian show funded by BBC America, and it seems mostly ignored by the BBC over here, given that they're about to burn off it's third season in the middle of the night on a channel so few people watch they're talking about shutting it down. Seriously, what the hell, BBC? Anyway, thats a rant for another day. For now, the first two series are on Netflix, and here's why you should be watching it. 

Orphan Black starts by introducing us to Sarah Manning (Tatiana Maslany), a loft-dwelling grifter with a troubled private life and estranged daughter, seeing a woman who looks strikingly like her commit suicide. In fact, she looks enough life her, that Sarah sees a chance to walk into a new life, convinces her adoptive brother to help her switch identities, and it's that one big score that changes your life forever, right? Except that it's not that simple; the dead woman is a cop, and not only that she's not just like Sarah by chance, because they're clones. And there are more of them. Soon Sarah is dragged into danger and conspiracy, slowly picking away at the truth about her origins and her sisters. Much of the rest is deep spoiler territory. 

Straight off the bat Orphan Black does a couple of smart things. For a start, Sarah is brought into an existing story, so we already have several clones in contact and the story wastes little time in getting going. We have Beth, the dead cop, Alison, the suburban housewife, Cosima, the scientist, and Helena, the serial killer and perpetual wildcard. All of these characters are slowly teased out over the series, growing from fairly archetypal starts to fully formed characters. Maslany's performances are the key to this - you can tell them apart even when disguised as each other, which is a neat trick - and she full deserves the awards she's been nominated for over the last few years. 

In fact, in a lot of ways Sarah becomes the least interesting character in the show despite still being at it's centre. She's the most what she seems, so has the least to unpick, and the tendancy of the show to use her daughter Kira as motivation for her makes her feel less complex than say, Helena or Alison. Cosima too suffers slightly from being more a plot device than a character, but season 2 puts more work into her and she benefits from that. Surrounding the clones is a great supporting cast, that are allowed to drift in and out of episodes as needed, and those actors too deserve credit for creating visibly different bonds with different clones. 

On top of this is a pacey, witty conspiricy drama about bioethics, religion and corporate power with a heavy subtext about the commodification of women and their bodies.  It twists around in interesting ways, and never stops moving forward, introducing and discarding factions as needed. It manages to pull out some solid surprises along the way too, with characters unexpectidly reappearing or being more than they seem, without ever feeling like it was stretching. Seriously, this is a great show and we have torn through it pretty quickly. It can be hard to seek this out in the UK, but if you can get your hands on it, I thoroughly recommend it.