Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Orphan Black and the New Face of Canadian Science Fiction

Tatiana Maslany stars in Orphan Black, on BBC America and Space

If you love TV and live in Toronto (as I do), watching American television can often be a frustrating experience. As thrilled as I am that Toronto has established itself as the go-to site for American-produced film and TV, it is often impossible to watch an episode of a favourite series without feeling that the city is being slighted, an “always the bridesmaid, never the bride” feeling which gets called up whenever a signature Toronto location is passed off as a generic street in “Pick Your City”, USA. to single out just one recurring example, see the numerous uses of Daniel Libeskind’s striking crystalline extension to the Royal Ontario Museum in the background of scenes set in Chicago or DC. It is therefore especially gratifying when those norms are shaken up.

This past Sunday, Orphan Black aired its first episode, and on April 21, Showcase’s hit time-travel drama Continuum premieres its second season on Canadian airwaves; both shows are not only produced and filmed in Canada, but (with an appalling deficiency of that renowned Canadian humility) are also set here as well.

With Fringe, Alphas, and Eureka’s recent departures, there are barely any original science fiction series on the U.S. networks – TNT’s Falling Skies and SyFy’s always delightful Warehouse 13 are the only current exceptions. (There is, interestingly, no immediate shortage of fantasy stories: Grimm, Games of Thrones, Supernatural, True Blood and any of that long and growing list of vampire and werewolf shows are in constant rotation.) I won’t speculate on the reasons for the lack of success U.S. networks have had with science fiction shows in the last few years, even following up on the popular and critical successes of Battlestar Galactica and Lost. Whatever the causes, American viewers and cable networks have had to look beyond their borders to find new science fiction storytelling: across the pond to the UK (Doctor Who, Misfits, and the recent Utopia) and, perhaps most surprisingly, north to Canada. With two ambitious and entertaining series, Continuum and now the extremely promising Orphan Black, we are perhaps entering a minor golden age of Canadian science fiction programming.

Tatiana Maslany in Orphan Black
Co-created by writer/director John Fawcett (Ginger Snaps) and writer Graeme Manson (Cube), Orphan Black is an all-Canadian production. It airs on Space in Canada and BBC America in the U.S. and is distributed worldwide by BBC International, but it is neither British nor American, nor would I add, is it pretending to be. Promoted by BBC America as its second original series (the first, last summer’s Copper, is also filmed in Toronto but the city stands in for 1860s New York City), Orphan Black is the first which speaks, perhaps, to a whole different side of Toronto.

Still, some American critics seem to be stubbornly confused by the location of the show, even hallucinating NYPD logos in the place of the variation of the Toronto Police symbol clearly deliberately chosen by the show’s set designers. (The round logo in a police station is identical to TPS’, minus the word “Toronto” at the top, and I’m honestly not sure how it could be mistaken for the triangular NYPD one.) Admittedly, Orphan Black’s opening scene – set in a fictional Huxley Station (a clever nod to Aldous Huxley and his Brave New World), lays the groundwork for this confusion, but it is difficult to miss the colourful Canadian money, the plane tickets explicitly landing in Toronto’s Pearson Airport, birth certificates naming Toronto suburbs, and Ontario license plates lining the street.

To add to the potential confusion of an American viewer, while the two leads are both Canadian (the Saskatchewan-born Tatiana Maslany, Heartland, and Ontario-born Jordan Gavaris, Unnatural History) their characters originally hail from England. The British accents (which to an ear trained only by my longstanding affection for British television sound remarkably solid) introduce a fun mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar, but it might on those terms alienate American (or even some Canadian) viewers.

The ten-episode first season promises to deliver an extremely thick plot. Sarah Hawking (Maslany) is a streetwise survivor who grew up in an English orphanage and foster care before moving with her foster mother (Maria Doyle Kennedy, The Tudors and more recently Downton Abbey) and Felix (Gavaris), her foster brother, to Toronto as a young teen. Returning to Toronto after nearly a year’s absence, she is an inadvertent witness to the suicide of Beth Childs (also Maslany), a woman who bears a remarkable resemblance to Sarah herself. A lifelong outsider who has learned that the only way to get what she needs is to take it, Sarah walks away with the Beth’s purse – containing the phones, keys, and identification necessary for taking over the dead woman’s identity. Never intending to do more than steal enough resources to run away with her young daughter and leave her life in the city behind, Sarah quickly finds herself immersed in mysteries beyond her understanding: most prominently, the question of why she and Beth seem to be identical physical matches for one another. Beth herself is a police detective with a suspicious amount of unexplained cash in the bank, caught up in a departmental inquiry for a questionable line-of-duty shooting of an unarmed civilian. By the end of the pilot episode, Sarah is contacted by the German-born Katya (also Maslany), who was previously in contact with Beth: Katya too looks shockingly, in fact identically, like both Sarah and Beth.

Jordan Gavaris in Orphan Black
The clone mystery, which must have begun by at least the mid-80s (judging from the ages of Sarah and her doubles) is not explicitly spelled out in the pilot episode. The promotional campaign notwithstanding (Toronto’s Yonge subway station is plastered floor to ceiling with Maslany’s face, and I feel like I couldn’t pick up a newspaper this past weekend without seeing a clone pun in a headline), this week’s pilot contented itself with telling the smaller stories, letting the viewer enter into its world alongside Sarah, and keeping the potential complexity of the plot to come largely in firm check. There is a welcome slow burn to the story so far (especially refreshing in this post-Lost era of gratuitous plot convolution), and I’m grateful for knowing as little as I do about what is to come. Revelations of a dark conspiracy certainly lurk around the next corner, but no clue has been given yet to the players or their long game. But one thing of note is that so far both of the doppelgängers encountered by Sarah are somehow broken: Katya appears ill, apparently with La Traviata-style symptoms of consumption, and Beth was heavily medicated for an unknown but probably psychiatric illness.

Though the plot of Orphan Black promises to be a labyrinthine doozy, it is clear from the pilot that character will also be at the forefront, and perhaps even the very idea of character. Sarah demonstrates herself to be a survivor and a doer more than a thinker, more invested in the short term and inclined to making choices without attending to the longer-term consequences of her actions. We meet her on the run from the abusive, sleazebag, drug-dealing boyfriend who she recently ran out on – a brick of his cocaine in hand – after hitting him with an ashtray. Taking over the life of her lookalike, Beth, is itself a spur of the moment decision, and you can actually see her making decision after decision in the show’s first hour, plainly without thinking much beyond the next move or two.

Sarah is an appealing young lead – especially in her interactions with Felix, who is her only real confidant and friend. Gavaris’ Felix brings a lightness to the sometimes melodramatic proceedings (“It’s you, with a nice haircut,” Felix remarks when Sarah first shows him a photo of Beth.), and his consistent enthusiasm and affection for Sarah helps keep her someone you can root for despite the poor decisions she keeps making. But the season will rise and fall on how compelling, and distinct, Maslany can make the other versions of herself.  (Of the nine main characters listed on the show’s website, four are played by Tatiana Maslany – with no doubt more on the way as the show progresses.) In the alternative dimension storyline of Fringe’s middle seasons, Fringe explored questions of the sources of character and personal identity – over the course of its run viewers met viewers as many as five variations of Walter Bishop (each portrayed by the incomparable John Noble) and at least three importantly distinct versions of Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv). Torv’s ability to differentiate each Olivia from the other, in ways more profound and subtle than hair length and colour (via slight mannerisms, posture, or at times simply a timely wry smile), was a large part of what kept Fringe’s storylines so compelling, despite a potentially confusing and ever-shifting narrative.

Tatiana Maslany (left) and Tatiana Maslany in Orphan Black
We have yet to really get to know Sarah’s other genetic siblings, but fortunately Maslany’s Sarah is already a formidable anchor for the story, and hopefully up for the regular task of acting opposite herself in convincing ways. In this first hour, though, we only really get a brief glimpse of Beth, by way of a video Sarah’s finds in the dead woman’s home, and our one interaction with the German Katya – played by Maslany sporting a dollar store Run Lola Run wig and speaking broken English in an accent more Russian-sounding than German – was one of the more patchy moments in the pilot. Still, Katya’s arrival moves the plot forward quickly and more than sets up some revelations soon to come: namely that Beth was already aware of the doppelgängers and may well have already woken up a hornet’s nest of trouble with her investigation.

After years of directing episodes of other writers’ scripts (from Xena: Warrior Princess to Rookie Blue), John Fawcett is finally controlling his own material. He and Manson co-write every episode of the show’s first season, with Fawcett himself directing the first two hours.  Fawcett has already proven with Ginger Snaps (2000) that he can mine a story for its dark and fleshy core – drawing out that part of speculative storytelling that shifts from metaphor or allegory into something true and deeply human. In this era of romanticized teen vampires and werewolves, the werewolf story Fawcett tells in Ginger Snaps is more impressive than ever. At the time that I first saw Ginger Snaps, only Joss Whedon had achieved anything comparable, with Buffy the Vampire Slayer: telling stories of female adolescence, pain, power, and individual strength through the lenses of fantasy.

From a plot description of Orphan Black, you may be hard-pressed to distinguish it from last season’s CW’s now-cancelled Ringer (starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, who takes over her twin sister’s life after an apparent suicide). I tried, and failed, to stay engaged by Ringer, with its manufactured intrigue and soap-opera-y plots – but already in this first hour, Orphan Black points in a number of new directions: a larger and more complicated cast of characters, a dark sense of humour, and the feeling that the show will be taking its universe seriously. The simple fact of a near-unlimited number of genetic doubles out there in the world leaves the story open in potentially remarkable ways. The intersecting lives of different women – all genetically identical, but with wildly diverse upbringings – can compel Sarah, and viewers, to call into question much that we, out of existential necessity, often take for granted: the role that our personal histories play not only in what we may believe, but who we essentially are.

Orphan Black airs Saturdays at 9pm ET on Space and BBC America. Its second episode airs on April 6. 

Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.


  1. Love the premise and you can already see the layers upon layers they are adding into it already. Glad that Toronto is Toronto no matter what the police insignia wants people to think especially when the opening shot had the base of the CN Tower in view. One thing that bugs me is that everywhere I've read about always states its a BBC America show but never mention its a joint production that traces its roots to Canada. I guess you take what you can get, just glad that it's been getting critical acclaim so far. Loved the post man.

  2. I just watched the first episode again. There is no reference to NYPD that I noticed, but I do recall when Sarah hands in Beth's shield that it was similar to NYPD, but I'd have to watch that episode again.

    It seemed to me that Sarah said Elizabeth's last name as Child when she read her license, not Childs. I noticed this the first time I watched it because Felix said Childs. Mistakes with character names seem to be common in pilots. Now for the shit/shyte word. Sarah said shyte when speaking to Felix. But when she's playing Beth & is being shot at in the car she keeps saying shit. She would have reverted back to her natural accent under stress which in this case is Sarah's English accent, so that is wrong.

    @clickeric - being that I saw BBC America I figured it was just some shows that were being made by the BBC but were trying to get away from the strong English accents & idioms so that Americans would be more interested. After seeing that the plates said Ontario I then said, oh Canada, so glorious & free, excuse me, I said oh, Canada as in North America. What was intended by BBC America is still unbeknownst to me.

  3. I'm British: we say it either way, but I suspect if I were being chased and shot at I would use the shorter form too!