"BBC America’s Orphan Black: Clones and Cultural Anxieties at the Intersection of Cult and Quality Television" by Heather Duerre Humann
Dr. Heather Duerre Humann teaches in the Department of Language and Literature at Florida Gulf Coast University. She is the author of the book, Domestic Abuse in the Novels of African American Women: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2014), and she has published articles, essays, and reviews in African American Review, Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, South Atlantic Review, Studies in American Culture, Obsidian: Literature in the African Diaspora , Journal of Popular Film and Television, Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, and elsewhere. Email:
The Canadian science fiction television series Orphan Black, which debuted in the U.S. on BBC America in March, 2013, stars Tatiana Maslany as Sarah Manning and several of her sister clones, all born by in vitro fertilization. Through the various characters Maslany plays, as well as through many of the episodes’ plot lines, the series revisits the age-old debate of nature versus nurture while also raising provocative and timely questions about agency, identity, and human rights in the 21st century. A show with many of the hallmarks of both quality and cult TV, Orphan Black is a television program which addresses on a fundamental level what it means be human. As part of this project, the television show offers a lens for fans of the series to view urgent current debates and, for this reason, Orphan Black proves to be an important cultural product. Yet, as a popular television series, Orphan Black also highlights and reflects our cultural preoccupations with identity and individualism, both of which are being challenged at the same time as new spaces and technologies are made available through which we can explore and express ourselves. This paper therefore offers an analysis of Orphan Black with an eye toward demonstrating both the series’ engagement with 21st century controversies and its continued focus on multiplicity, a concept which has gained new significance in the 21st century due to developments in reproductive and cyber technologies.
The Intersection of Cult and Quality Television
Orphan Black occupies a unique position among contemporary television programs: the show exists at the intersection of quality and cult TV. According to Robert J. Thompson, who defines the characteristics of “quality television” in his book Television’s Second Golden Age,the denotation quality television gets reserved for programming that breaks rules by defying standard parameters and creating new narrative territory. A hallmark of quality television is that critics praise it for being “unlike anything they’ve ever seen on television.” Indeed, according to Thompson’s definition, quality TV provokes the boundaries in terms of both its content and genre: the subject matter tends toward the controversial and quality television resists easy generic classification by mixing older genres together.
Orphan Black, frequently hailed by critics as “groundbreaking,” exists as a shining example of quality television. Not only has its star, Tatiana Maslany, succeeded at the unprecedented task of playing a dozen (and counting) different characters within the same show, but the production of the series involves intricate filming, particularly in the frequent scenes featuring Maslany playing multiple parts (for these scenes, the production team films the scene numerous times using motion control cameras mounted on dollies to replicate the movement between each shot). The show’s emphasis on technique highlights the production team’s commitment to quality, and Orphan Black’s sophisticated visual style marks it as quality, as well. As Jonathan Bignell argues in “Seeing and Knowing: Reflexivity and Quality,” design aspects work to set quality television apart: “mise-en-scene and the foregrounding of visual style are not only markers of quality in terms of production value, but also perform seeing and knowing as meaning-making activities carried out for and in television” (Bignell 166). Not only does the series push the limits in terms of technique, but Orphan Black also provokes boundaries in terms of its thematic concerns by addressing a range of prescient and timely controversies including human cloning, stem cell research, reproductive technologies, and the patenting of DNA. The show also includes a transgender character, Tony, also played by Maslany (thus, again pushing boundaries in its representation). Referring to the existence of Tony, J.M. Suarez describes Orphan Black as groundbreaking because of “the almost casual way in which sexuality and gender is presented.”
Though Orphan Black fits the definition of quality TV, the show has such a large cult following that many critics have also categorized it as cult TV. For example, writing for the Hollywood Reporter, Tim Goodman praised Maslany for helping “rocket BBC America’s Orphan Black to cult status as one of television’s most compelling genre series,” and Ed Stockly, writing for the Los Angeles Times, describes Orphan Black as a “cult science fiction thriller.” Fans of the series have started a rather large and active Facebook group called “Clone Club” (full disclosure: I am a member of “Clone Club”), which describes itself as a “big family”; the group invites discussions and sees itself as a place to share thoughts about the series. As evidenced by this Facebook group and the large amount chatter on this and other forms of social media about the series, Orphan Black seems to have tapped into cult fandom.
Far from being incidental, the role played by fans of Orphan Black does much to mark the show as cult television. As Matt Hills persuasively argues in his book Fan Culture, in our digital age—and thanks, in part, to social media sites—fans today are different from their predecessors. Indeed, as Hills emphasizes, there is an emerging discourse of cult fandom that can be harnessed in new ways in the 21st century because of social media and the internet (xi). Taking this point even further, Mark Jancovich and James Lyons, who also discuss the relationship between cult TV and fandom in their anthology, Cult TV, the Industry and Fans, describe a new category of cult television that came about in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The reasons behind the rise of this new category remain complex (changing industry norms, actors’ relationships with fans, and various other factors all contribute its emergence), but, as Jancovich and Lyons highlight, recent iterations of cult fandom prove to be markedly different in recent decades.
As a popular science fiction series that transcends genre, Orphan Black has tapped into this new form of cult fandom at the same time as the show also has proved to be quality television. Existing at the intersection of cult and quality television, Orphan Black presents a timely and prescient exploration of concerns such as agency, autonomy, and human rights. By responding to a cultural moment through its engagement with 21st century practices (such as cloning, IVF, and the patenting of DNA) and through its inclusion of controversial characters (such as the transgender character, Tony), the series appeals to viewers who are interested in seeing contemporary debates play out on screen. At the same time, however, the series also addresses our collective anxiety about becoming multiple as a consequence of the new spaces and technologies now available through which we can explore and express ourselves.
Orphan Black, Multiplicity, and Cultural Anxieties
The initial mystery that begins the series gets introduced when Sarah Manning (Maslany) sees her doppelgänger, Elizabeth “Beth” Childs (also played by Maslany), commit suicide at a train station. From this point forward, the plot of Orphan Black gets propelled by a series of questions relating to cloning and Manning’s realization that she is one of many clones, so, from its inception, Orphan Black has been—and remains—a television show about multiplicity. Though the series proves engaging because of quality acting, engaging storylines, good writing, and impressive cinematic technique, the television show has also, importantly, tapped in to a cultural moment: in Orphan Black, we see both the promise and potential dangers of multiplicity.
This aspect of Orphan Black is in keeping with a recent trend; indeed, storylines that center on twins, doppelgängers, or (in the case of Orphan Black) clones have gained popularity in recent years and many 21st century television programs feature doubles (whether they be twins, clones, doppelgängers, or some other form)1. What Orphan Black has succeeded in doing is to not only raise provocative questions about individuality and agency but to push the boundaries about what these issues mean to a 21st century audience.
Society’s fascination with—as well as anxiety about—multiplicity has its roots in numerous medical, scientific, and technological developments that have made possible in the 21st century things which just decades ago were the stuff of science fiction. Though many believe we are still years away from successfully cloning humans, the cloning of animals has been practiced regularly since 1996 when Dolly, the infamous sheep, was born2. Among humans, fertility treatments are now quite common; not only have they become affordable in recent years, but the practice has also become more normalized. One result of this is that we have seen a spike in number of twins (and other multiples) born. Indeed, thanks to what has been dubbed the “IVF Effect,” there really are more twins nowadays, a phenomenon that has been widely reported. In an April, 2014 Atlantic Monthly article, Alexis C. Madrigal notes that there are about a million so-called “extra” twins, a fact attributed to a handful of factors, chief among them being an increase in infertility treatments, specifically in-vitro fertilization and ovulation stimulation medications.
In Orphan Black, there are actually both twins and clones featured—Sarah and her sister Helena are identical twins born from the same mother and, in fact, they are mirror images of each other (Helena’s heart is on the right side of her body), and there are also an unspecified number of characters who are clones. While twins are becoming more commonplace in our society, clones are still a thing of, if not science fiction, at least fringe science. In this sense, Orphan Black both relies upon the long-popular trope of television twins3 while also pushing the boundaries through the inclusion of the many characters who are clones. Through these characters and the dilemmas they face, Orphan Black features an extended meditation on identity. Not only do we see, time and again, these characters asserting their agency, individuality, and human rights, but Orphan Black pushes us to consider evolving legal and ontological concerns: If you can patent a gene, what’s to stop scientists or corporations from patenting a whole person (which is what happens in Orphan Black)? What does it mean to be human in a post-human world?
After Sarah witnesses Beth’s suicide, she slowly unravels the mystery surrounding her and her sister clones’ origins. Over the course of Seasons 1 though 3, Sarah discovers that she was created as part of a scientific experiment code-named, Project Leda, wherein there were created an unspecified number of female clones, the majority of whom were born in 1984 to various women by in vitro fertilization4. As more information gets revealed about Project Leda and the individual clones, we learn that the clones share certain personality traits, for, as Cosima (one of the clones) notes, they all have a tendency to be impulsive and make rash decisions, but beyond a few core traits, the clones vary greatly and, cumulatively, they represent a wide spectrum of experience. Environment seems to play a role in the clones’ divergent experiences and lifestyle choices, but the show also allows other potential explanations for why their personalities differ.
Sarah Manning, the first clone we are introduced to, and the one the series follows most closely, is a small-time grifter. She was raised in a foster family and struggles to raise her own daughter, Kira. Sarah (to date) is the only one who has so far been “successful” in her fertility (though in Season 3, it is revealed that Helena, Sarah’s twin, is pregnant). In fact, in Season 2, Ethan Duncan (a scientist involved in the cloning project and a man who raised Rachel Duncan, another of the clones) tells Rachel that the clones were all “barren by design.” Beth Childs, the second clone we learn about, is now deceased, but she worked as a police detective. Allison Hendrix is a suburban Toronto housewife who is involved in community theatre and married to Donnie; with him, she is raising two (adopted) children. Sarah labels Allison a “soccer mom,” but Allison’s suburban life is far from idyllic. She struggles with substance abuse, cheats on her husband with her neighbor Aynsley’s husband, she helps her husband cover-up a crime he committed (Donnie shoots and kills Dr. Leekie, a scientist working for DYAD, and Allison helps him hide the body), and she has a role in her neighbor’s Aynsley’s death (though the show portrays Allison as rather sympathetic, she’s also a bit scary).
Helena, who is introduced as a serial killer (she is, at one point, hunting down and killing other clones, her sisters), presents as quite formidable, but she becomes a sympathetic figure, as well. Both victim and avenger, Helena eventually forms a strong bond with Sarah (her twin sister and “mirror image”) and she starts to work with her other “sisters,” as well. Helena, however, is not only a hunter, but she’s being hunted—by several different factions, it seems—and Season 2 ends with her captured and in a precarious position which she spends the first part of Season 3 trying (ultimately successfully) to escape. Cosima Niehaus, another clone, is a scientist who studies genetics. When we are first introduced to Cosima, she is a Ph.D. student studying microbiology at the University of Minnesota, but she eventually starts working at DYAD institute. Rachel Duncan (who was raised by Ethan and his wife) is financially well-off, but ruthless (going as far as ordering the extermination of several of her sister clones) and barren (which she’s quite unhappy about). She works as high-ranking executive within the Dyad Institute. Beyond these women, the core group of clones, which remain the focus of Orphan Black, there are several other known clones, both alive and deceased (these include Katja, Danielle, and Jennifer, to name just a few) and the series suggests that more still could be discovered as new episodes are released.
As the clones described above demonstrate, though these women are genetic identicals, they have taken very different paths in their lives—and the range of their experiences is something the clones themselves remain acutely aware of. For example, at one point in Season 25, Helena acknowledges the diverse paths she and her sister clones have taken when she weaves a narrative that combines elements of her past with details some from her sisters’ life experiences. Helena, having momentarily eluded one group of would-be-captors (religious extremists called the “Proletheans”), visits a bar, where she meets a young man named Jesse. She likes Jesse, so during the evening they talk, drink, arm wrestle, dance, and kiss (Helena goes as far as to call him her “boyfriend”). During their evening conversation, Helena tells Jesse the following:
Helena: In Ukraine, I was police detective. I shot many criminals.
Jesse: Ukraine, huh? I’ve never been further than Sioux Falls, myself.
Helena: Then, I was brilliant scientist, but I quit to be with my family.
Jesse: Oh, come on. Don’t tell me you’re spoken for.
Helena: Divorced. After rehab drinking problems. But now, I am with my sestra, having adventures.
Most of the details she reveals to Jesse in this exchange aren’t actually about her own life; rather, they are about her sisters’ lives. The part about living in the Ukraine is an actual detail from her life (as is the bit about “having adventures” with her “sestra”), but the other details correspond to other Project Leda clones: Beth was the detective; Cosima is the brilliant scientist; and, the reference about quitting a career to be with family is a nod to Allison, as is the mention of spending time in “rehab.” So, though while much of what Helena tells Jesse is an elaborate fiction, it is a fiction made up of details from her sister-clones’ lives. Her narrative here is worth exploring for she reveals the interconnectedness between the clones. She also speaks of a wide range of possibilities in terms of women’s experiences, and she points to how different environments and life choices can shape one’s path. In sum, this conversation highlights the promise and potential of multiplicity, which I contend, is one of the show’s themes.
But, why specifically does multiplicity resonate with a 21st century audience? In her book, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (1995), Sherry Turkle began an important critical conversation about the concept of multiplicity by addressing how “every era constructs its own metaphors for psychological well-being” (255). Personality traits that may have held much appeal in decades past may no longer be as socially valued today as they once were, a point Turkle highlights in the excerpt below:
Not so long ago, stability was socially valued and culturally reinforced. Rigid gender roles, repetitive labor, the expectation of being in one kind of job or remaining in one town over a lifetime, all of these made consistency central to definitions of self. But these stable social worlds have broken down. In our time, health is described in terms of fluidity rather than stability. What matters most now is the ability to adapt and change—to new jobs, new career directions, new gender roles, new technologies. (Turkle 255)
Since the time Turkle published this seminal work in 1995, scholars and cultural historians have further explored these concerns—and the relationship between humans and technology. For example, Elaine Graham (2002), Jonathan Bignell (2000), Timothy Taylor (2010), and those working in the emerging field of Media Archaelogy (like Jussi Parikka), have both built on and further refined some of Turkle’s theories from the 1990s. Moreover, in the years since Turkle published her study, technologies have changed and grown, and consequently, our relationship with technology has shifted, even when compared to Turkle’s time.
For many of us, the 21st century offers a great deal more opportunities to reinvent ourselves, but in order to adapt to our new roles and rapidly advancing technologies, those of us living in the 21st century need to be able to play different parts—indeed, we often pride ourselves on being multi-faceted. Due in part to the accessibility of technology which makes available social media, it is relatively easy to try on new identities—as often as we please. Indeed, through technologically-mediated social networking sites (Twitter, Facebook, Vine, and Google+, to name just a few), professional networking sites such as Linked-In, and the growing popularity of blogs and personal web sites, we have the opportunity to actively construct the identity (or identities) we want others to see. Put simply, technology is largely responsible for this new freedom to try on new identities, a point which Graham emphasizes: “Cyberspace affords a much greater freedom to create new selves” (Graham 191). Human engagement with technology promises new freedoms and potentials, yet there are myriad complexities to consider, as well.
The relationship between human beings and technology is fraught with a range of challenges, possibilities, and even potential problems, in part because as we develop and create new technologies, those same tools have the power to change us—in good ways and bad. To be sure, using various forms of technology to try on different identities offers far more than simple entertainment. Given these tools, many of us are, in a sense, becoming multiple. This freedom is fundamentally altering how we see ourselves because the technology we use is working to change us as human beings, just as we change technology. It is hardly a radical idea that this is one potential effect of technology since, as Graham and others (such as Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour) have observed, “we have always been mixed up, co-evolving with our tools, living a hybrid presence,” and “the rapid intensification of new technologies over the past fifty years” has simply worked to “accentuate this realization” (Graham 228). Timothy Taylor pushes this argument even further in his book 2010 The Artificial Ape: How Technology Changed the Course of Human Evolution, where he claims that “we did not somehow naturally become smart enough to invent the technology on which we critically rely and that has removed us from the effects of natural selection. Instead, the technology evolved us” (Taylor 9).
Others have made similar contentions about technology and, in recent years, the emerging field of media archaeology has begun to consider new ways to view technology and its relationship to our culture. For example, in What is Media Archaeology? (2012), new media theorist Jussi Parikka addresses technology and its connection with other discourses. He explains, “technology does not just determine arts, science does not just determine technology, and art is not only creation and contemplation of beauty. They all work in a co-determining network of historical relations” (Parikka 69). Thus, the many recent technological developments that allow us to explore different identities have altered—and continue to effect—how we see ourselves.
Many of us view this change as positive and one full of potential, but it can serve as a source of anxiety for others—especially since the effects are so pervasive. For all of its promise, multiplicity can also function as a source of tension because, despite the many benefits that it may promise, “multiplicity is not viable if it means shifting among personalities that cannot communicate,” a point Turkle emphasizes. Indeed, as she makes clear, “multiplicity is not acceptable if it means being confused to a point of immobility” (Turkle 258). The difficult question which remains then is, “How can we be multiple and coherent at the same time?” (Turkle 258). This question is one of the many concerns the television show Orphan Black addresses. Through its characters—primarily the Project Leda clones—and plot, Orphan Black underscores how questions related to identity have become even more complicated in recent years (largely because of contemporary technological advances). The power that computers and other forms of technology affords us to be multiple also opens up new spaces for us—indeed, there is plenty of room for promise as well as new anxieties.
Orphan Black responds to these anxieties while also pushing audiences to consider what it means to be human in the early 21st century. In our era, a fundamental part of being human is our ability to adapt, change, and remain flexible, qualities which are mirrored (and also beneficial) in the many virtual realms (social networking and media, online gaming sites, and the like) that are so prevalent today. We have become, as Kenneth Gergen calls us in his book The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life, the “possessors of many voices” (83). But, as he asks, “what are the consequences of the multiply populated self?” (Gergen 83). There are clear benefits to this model of multiplicity; there are real challenges, as well. Indeed, as Graham notes, “identity in a cyberworld is fluid and negotiable” (191). This fluidity can cause a “decentering” of self, an effect which may be welcome by some individuals, but which may operate as a source of tension for others. Graham explains that “while the self may be ‘decentered’ and multiple, participants tend to resolve this as being an enrichment rather than a dissipation of identity” (Graham 191). Yet, for all of those who welcome the transformative abilities of this type of technology, there are others for whom it is the root of much anxiety, one born out of the fear that there “is no ‘self’ behind the expressions and performances of identity” (Graham 193). The tensions alluded to by Graham and Gergen are precisely what Orphan Black addresses through the Project Leda clones.
The clones themselves remain acutely invested in demonstrating their autonomy, identity, and individuality, and, especially in Season 3, viewers of the series see them struggling but also speaking out against those who would seek to use, abuse, or label them. Indeed, even the promos aired prior to the release of Season 3 could be characterized as showing the Project Leda clones taking an especially strong stance against any such efforts. Stills feature Tatiana Maslany, as several of the clones, asserting: “I am not your toy” (Allison); “I am not your weapon” (Helena); “I am not your experiment” (Cosima); and “I am not your property” (Sarah). Through these proclamations, Allison, Helena, Cosima, and Sarah exhibit their individuality at the same time as they assert their agency by demanding their fundamental human rights. It is worth noting, though, that paradoxically, through these statements (from the promo stills), they are simultaneously refusing to be labeled by DYAD or any others who want to lay claim to them, while also highlighting how others have typically perceived them.
Allison, who feels like she’s been played with, refuses to play along any longer. Helena, who has been weaponized by religious fundamentalists and who has been captured by a paramilitary group (she escapes their custody before we fully comprehend what they had intended to do with her), refuses to be used any longer. Cosima, a scientist herself who has now fallen ill, refuses to be further experimented on. In the case of Cosima, she’s also responding to her past treatment by Dr. Leekie. Going back to Season 2, Cosima once had a conversation with Dr. Leekie where he revealed that he saw her as a subject worth examining. Leekie tells her, “You could be on the cover of Scientific American.” Cosima, however, reminds him that they don’t put scientists on the cover, to which Leekie pointedly replies, “Well, every rule needs to be broken.” Leekie’s remarks suggest that he sees Cosima as more of a scientific experiment than a scientist. To him, she is the scientific breakthrough, rather than being the scientist who makes a breakthrough. In the case of Sarah, DYAD sees her as their property. They want to lay claim to her body and her daughter Kyra (she is unique among the clones since she has had a healthy pregnancy resulting in a healthy child). In fact, during Season 2, Rachel has gone as far as to attempt to steal one of Sarah’s ovaries by forcing her to undergo an involuntary, and medically unnecessary, oophorectomy, but Sarah escapes.
Although different individuals and diverse forces—sometimes ones with competing or contradictory ideologies—have attempted to control Allison, Helena, Cosima, Sarah, and the other Project Leda clones, they share in common a desire to strip these women of their autonomy in favor of using them for their own designs. Yet, by speaking up for themselves and banding together, the Project Leda clones assert not only their agency and identity, but they also demand human rights and to be seen as fully and functionally human, despite their origins. In this way, the television series makes a bold statement about what it means to be human in our increasingly post-human world.
Through the various scenarios the clones of Orphan Black encounter, the television show offers a lens for fans of the series to consider current debates related to politics, women’s bodies, religious extremism, and gender identity (to name just a few of the series’ concerns) and, for this reason, Orphan Black proves to be an important cultural product. Yet, as a popular television series which exists at the intersection of quality and cult TV, Orphan Black also shines a light on our cultural preoccupations with autonomy, personal freedoms, and individualism, all of which are being challenged at the same time as new spaces and technologies are made available through which we can discover and express ourselves.
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1 Contemporary examples can be found in the television series Fringe (2008-2013), Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009), The Lying Game (2011-2013), and Ringer (2011-2012), all of which I discuss in my article, “Multiple Selves: Representations of Twins, Doubles, and Doppelgängers in Contemporary Television Programming,” which appears in Studies in American Culture 38.1. A number of other examples exist, as well, including General Hospital (1963-Present), a popular American television soap opera, which includes twin sisters Rebecca Shaw and Dr. Emily Quartermaine; All My Children (1970-2011), another decades-long American soap opera featuring storylines built around twin sisters, Marissa and Arabella; and, the Lifetime Television movie Deadly Sibling Rivalry (released in 2011 and directed by Hanelle Culpepper), which stars Charisma Carpenter as twin sisters Janna and Callie (this movie is modern day retake on the Bette Davis-Karl Malden thriller Dead Ringer of 1964). ↩
2 Dolly, a female domestic sheep, was the first animal to be cloned from an adult somatic cell, using the process of nuclear transfer. She was cloned at the Roslin Institute, part of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and the biotechnology company PPL Therapeutics, based near Edinburgh. ↩
3 A number of critics have discussed the popularity of twins in 20th century television and film. For example, Linda Ruth Williams points out that the “twins scenario is a common pairing for women in cinematic and literary noir” (354). Charles Derry makes a similar contention is his book, The Suspense Thriller: Films in the Shadow of Alfred Hitchcock, where he also addresses twins. ↩
4 Two quick caveats: in Season 2, we discover that there is actually one surviving clone who is much younger that the rest. Named Charlotte, she (unlike the others) wasn’t born in 1984; in fact, she is still a child. We are also introduced to a clone who is transgender. Tony (also played by Maslany) was born female, but always identified as male. ↩
5 This occurs in the episode entitled, “To Hound Nature in Her Wanderings” (Season 2, Episode 6), which aired in the U.S. on May 24, 2014. ↩