I’ve been binge-watching season one of the Canadian sci-fi drama Orphan Black recently, and I felt a pleasurable frisson when I heard a familiar voice speak in the middle of episode six. That voice belonged to Matt Frewer, who plays Dr. Aldous Leekie. It was just too, too perfect.
Frewer’s voice made me happy because he played the roles of Edison Carter and Max Headroom in the British TV series Max Headroom. The subtitle of the series pilot was “Twenty Minutes into the Future.” Max Headroom was more satire than sci-fi, and it took its cues from the cyberpunk genre. The idea that a human consciousness could be downloaded into a computer is not really that’s immanent now, much less in 1987.
Unlike Max Headroom, however, Orphan Black really does seem to be set twenty minutes into the future. The premise behind Orphan Black is that a powerful biotech company called Dyad has successfully cloned humans and has placed several of them in various locations to observe their development with the help of human monitors whose job it is to watch the clones. The series opens when the clones are adult, and though genetically identical, they have radically different lives and personalities.
The initial hook of the show is that one of the clones (Sarah) witnesses the suicide of a woman who looks just like her, and because she’s on the run, takes the identity of the victim. Gradually she learns of the existence of the others, of Dyad, and of a religious group (the Proletheans) that are trying to shut down the experiment by assassinating all the clones. The Proletheans believe the clones to be an abomination.
While Orphan Black sometimes relies on tropes from thrillers and cop shows, it always manages to pull in enough relevant cultural material to keep viewers intrigued. Corporate power, bioengineering, transhumanism, religious fanaticism, personal identity, the surveillance state — all these and more become fodder for addicting TV show. And while the plot lines occasionally stretch credulity, the technology never does, and so the world of Orphan Black seems like one which actually might exist.
The show is also fun from the perspective of watching an actor really get a chance to stretch. All of the clones are played by a single actor, Tatiana Maslany. Maslany variously plays, often in the same scene, the tightly wound Sarah, Alison the Stepford wife, science geek Cosima, and the psychopathic, Ukrainian-raised cultist Helena, and the manipulative Dyad exec Rachael. She’s a pleasure to watch and has recently been nominated for a SAG award and a Golden Globe, among others.
A warning: season one is available for free if you have Amazon Prime. However, season two (and the as yet unreleased season three) are pay-to-stream. So if you get hooked, like I did, you’ll have to shell out a few bucks to find out what happens next.