Orphan Black, a BBC America television show created by Graeme Manson and John Fawcett, follows a cast of female clones reconciling their identities as products of an illegal human cloning project. Throughout its five seasons, originally airing from 2013 to 2017, the show engages in a wide range of contemporary conversations regarding genetic testing, the ethics of experimentation, and female identity and representation.

From the start, the narrative of Orphan Black operates according to fictional versions of scientific beliefs and histories. For example, Neolution, the organization responsible for the clones, is a clear reference to the transhumanism movement. Championing “self-directed evolution,” the Neolutionists want to enrich human life through genetic modification and biotech experiments, as actual researchers and transhumanists do (Renstrom). Moreover, the show makes explicit and fictional references to The Human Genome Project and other milestones in the history of genetic testing, as well as to various institutions and scientists who helped advance such research (Lepore). A considerable portion of the narrative revolves around uncovering who started this all and why. While the plot of illegal human cloning is a fantastical extension of genetic experimentation, the concerns of Orphan Black are hauntingly real.

These ideological and historical references fuel the show’s central question of the responsibility of the clones’ creators. The villains in Orphan Black are the scientists (or pseudoscientists) that merely want to play God (Renstrom). They seek ultimate control over themselves, their technologies, and their human subjects. With  advances in real life technology such as CRISPR, the show’s interrogation of who can edit and control DNA and human bodies feels not only timely but necessary. At the end of season one, Cosima, one of the clones, learns that encrypted fragments of their DNA sequences are patents. This discovery triggers the overarching plot line of the series: the fight for the clones’ freedom. While their general bodily autonomy is at stake, there is extra focus on reproductivity, which speaks further to sharp contemporary issues. The clones are infertile by design, ensuring their female bodies are “good” and not subject to excess change. The anomalous fertile clones, Sarah and Helena, are then vulnerable to increased danger throughout the entire series. The show’s questioning of who has the right to control reproduction is both blatant and emotionally gripping as the two are constantly hunted.

Yet, perhaps the real legacy of Orphan Black is its insistence on the multiplicity of female experience. Questions of female identity and representation have been increasingly at the forefront of contemporary fiction across media and genre. Orphan Black uses SF tropes to add to this discussion. The show presents a collection of identical female bodies with unique identities in order to suggest how all women are connected both because of and despite individual experience. On the surface, the five main clones represent familiar archetypes: the grifter, the suburbanite, the scientist, the murderer, the corporate villain. Yet as the show continues these become irrelevant labels. In “The Unruly Clones” Staci Stutsman explains the clones “are neither victims nor strong women. They are both, and one does not necessarily negate the other.” (Stutsman, 87). The nuances of the clones’ identities emerge further as they and their bodies are constantly in transition (Bastién). For example, the sick clones, including Cosima, undergo devastating physical changes, demonstrating the vulnerability of human bodies. Additionally, all of the main clones undergo emotional character development as they learn about themselves and their branching family. The most playful examples of the clones in flux are the scenes in which they swap identities, illuminating the performative nature of identity itself. Together, these various instances of transition or change exemplify the complexity of female identity in honest, innovative ways. Ultimately, Orphan Black asks: what does it mean to be a mother, a sister, a woman? There is no one answer, the show boldly claims.

 

Bibliography

 

 

Bastién, Angelica Jade. “The Grand Feminist Legacy of Orphan Black.Vulture, 15 August 2017, https://www.vulture.com/2017/08/orphan-black-series-review.html

 

Lepore, Jill. “The History Lurking Behind ‘Orphan Black’.” The New Yorker, 16 April 2015, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/the-history-lurking-behind-orphan-black

 

Manson, Graeme and John Fawcett, creators. Orphan Black. Temple Street Productions and

BBC America and Bell Media’s Space, 2013.

 

Nussbaum, Emily. “Cheaper by the Dozen.” The New Yorker, 28 April 2014, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/04/28/cheaper-by-the-dozen

 

Renstrom, Joelle. “Orphan Black Was Never About Cloning.” Slate, 13 August 2017, https://slate.com/technology/2017/08/orphan-black-was-never-about-cloning.html

 

Stutsman, Staci. “The Unruly Clones: Tatiana Maslany’s Melodramatic Masquerades in Orphan

Black.” Journal of Film and Video, vol. 68, no. 3-4, 2016, pp. 83-103.