Sunday, 19 June 2016

Orphan Black - The Dark Side of Science


It took me a while to get around to watching this series, though I must admit that my TV watching habits have been pretty sparse of late (probably because there are a lot of other things that I would prefer to do than sit down and stare at the idiot box after I get home from work). Okay, I am watching TV as I write this, but it happens to be a football match and my team is getting absolutely smashed so I doubt I will be watching for much longer (though for some reason, whenever we are watching a sporting match a part of us seems to have this belief, however misguided, that our team will do something extraordinary and pull the mother all all comebacks).

Anyway, this isn't a post about how bad my football team happens to be playing in this game (or even for the season) but rather a look at Orphan Black, a sort of techno-thriller than has been running for three seasons now (and it looking at going for its forth). Mind you, I had heard about it a few years back, namely because a friend of my recommended it to me, however it simply sat at the back of my mind until recently when I decided to sit down and watch all three seasons (though not all at once).

Anyway, here is a Youtube trailer (for the first season):


Pull TV

I've probably mentioned this in a previous post but TV series seem to be going the way of the old soap operas these days. I say this because when I was growing up a TV series would simply be a collection of forty to forty-five minute episodes in which the story was confined to the one episode. However the soap operas differed because the story would stretch over multiple episodes, or even multiple series. Mind you nothing all that much happened in these episodes meaning that if you missed one then you didn't miss any important plot point (because there weren't any plot points).



However as the entertainment industry has evolved so have the nature of series. These days series have gone from self contained episodes to a point where the entire season composes of the story and the individual episodes aren't necessarily self contained, but simply are a part in the entire story (with cliff-hangers to keep you coming back). One of the reasons for this is because the medium have become much smaller, such as the DVD where an entire season could simply sit in a box the size of a small book. Another reason is the development of the internet, meaning that one can simply stream the entire season down from a site like Netflix.

This development is what is known as Pull TV. Pull TV is where the viewer gets to choose what they want to watch as opposed to Push TV, where the TV networks dictate what you are to watch. Mind you, what the networks play isn't necessarily determined by the network but rather by the viewership, which in a way is quite democratic, however that tends to mean that the less popular shows tend to relegated to late at night, or dropped all together. However, these days one doesn't have to stay up late to watch their favourite shows.

Mind you, entertainment has been moving this ways since the development of the home video recorder. What the video recorder meant was that if there was nothing all that interesting on television (and is there ever) then one can either go to the video store, or even go to the collection on their shelves, and watch something else instead. However, with the rise of Pull TV, despite the rise in the number of TV stations on offer, people simply do not want to be dictated what they are to watch anymore.

Synopsis

As I mentioned at the start this is what one would call a techno-thriller, however the series begins as sort of a mystery. Mind you, as the series progresses more and more becomes revealed to the point that by the time you get to season two a lot of the mystery has been revealed and it simply begins to settle into one of those dark science-fiction thrillers where the protagonists are trying to either stay one step ahead of the angonists, or simply trying to live a normal life. Mind you, it wasn't as if it was a bad show - I did watch the first three seasons, and will probably watch the next one - it is just that there wasn't much about the show that made it any different from similar shows I have seen in the past.

Anyway, Orphan Black begins when the protagonist, Sarah Manning, gets off a train in an unnamed city (though I suspect it is probably either Montreal or Quebec City (the trains look like the ones you see in Montreal). Anyway, after trying to unsuccessfully tee up a meeting with her daughter (she had run away, leaving her daughter with her adopted mother Shoiban) she see a woman that looks remarkably like her, who places her handbag and jacket on the ground and proceeds to jump in front of a train. Seeing an opportunity, and also noticing that everybody on the platform seems to be a little distracted, takes the handbag and promptly disappears.


What Sarah discovers is that Beth, the woman who committed suicide at the railway station, is actually her sister - sort of - they are clones. Soon enough she begins to be introduced to the other clones, expect there is a problem - somebody is killing them off. However the show then progresses as her 'Clone Club' begin discover that they are being watched over by people in the pay of a large biotech corporation, and they find themselves at odds with the corporation as they attempt to free their lives from it's clutches). However, it doesn't end there because they then discover that a further experiment, one in the military, involves male clones.

Since the series has been going for three seasons now I will look at how the show progresses through each of them:

Season One: Sarah's Mystery

As I mentioned, the show begins with Sarah witnessing the suicide of a clone named Beth, and since Sarah has a few enemies in the city she decides to take Beth's identity (particularly since Beth looks exactly like her). However it turns out that she may have bitten off more than she can chew since it quickly becomes apparent that not only is Beth a cop, but she is also in the middle of a disciplinary hearing. However, it isn't just Beth's partner that is interested in here because she is also being contacted by the other clones - one a German who appears to be sick, but doesn't last long because she is shot by somebody.

The first season basically sets the scene, but also brings out the some of the major protagonist. Mind you, Beth's partner Art is one of those cops that seems to be very dogged in his determination to get to the bottom of any mystery, and this mystery is one big mystery, especially since it starts to become obvious that there are multiple people who have the same fingerprints that Beth has. Mind you, Sarah can't keep her secret for too long because it is pretty clear that she is not Beth, and soon is found out not only by Beth's boyfriend Paul, but also by Art.


We also meet Helena, another clone who grew up in a convent in the Ukraine, but has been trained to be a professional killer. In fact she is in the company of an unnamed priest who is encouraging her to kill the clones, people he considers as abominations. However despite Helena's demeanour, and the fact that she is a cold killer, she develops an attachment to Sarah, whom she refers to as her sister. Mind you trust is not a huge commodity when it comes to Helena, but we begin to see this develop as the show progresses. Still, there is something sitting at the back of our mind that makes us wonder if she will, at some point, revert to her old ways.

Season Two - Dyad and the Prolethians

Okay, the themes that are developed in this season began in the first season, and that includes the biotech corporation that happens to be behind the clones - Dyad. The corporation has let the clones out into society but under the watch of some minders. Mind you, the minders have no idea what they are doing, or who they are watching - all they know is that they are involved in some sort of experiment. However as the season progresses more begins to be revealed as the minders are exposed to the reality of the situation (though I don't think Donny realises what he is involved in until season three).



Much of the season involves the clones attempting to escape from the clutches of the Dyad Corporation, though there is a side plot and that is the religious group known as the Prolethians. This is interesting because most religious groups that appear on television tend to be decisively anti-tech. However the Prothelians don't fit that mould. In fact they are not only embracing the cloning technology, they are attempting to reproduce them through their own methods. However it is Helena (no doubt due to her religious connections in the past) that becomes a prisoner of the Prolethians. Mind you, through this season there is this guy, Mark, that seems to stand silently in the background but becomes more important in the next season.

Season Three - Male Clones

At the end of season two it seemed as if everything had been sorted. Helena has been freed from the Prolethians and their laboratory has been destroyed. The mover and shakers at Dyad are either dead, or incapacited (though from what we understand they are dead). Mind you, even though Rachel has been neutralised and Dr Leaky has been killed (quite by accident mind you), we hear of another group within Dyad called Topside who happen to be the real movers and shakers. However, even though everything seems to be sorted we then learn of another group - Castor - who have been developing the male clones, and are a sector of the military.



So, what we have is the clone club going up against the military, but since Helena was kidnapped by Castor much of the season has Sarah attempting to rescue her. However we are also aware that the female clones suffer a genetic disease that originates from the lungs, while the male clones suffer from a similar disease that originates in the brain. As such they are attempting to locate the original subject which they believe holds the key to curing the clones, but also continuing the experiment.

One interesting thing is that the book "The Island of Dr Moreau", does play an role in this series, though that probably has a lot to do with the idea of creating genetic creatures, and improving the human race through such experiments. In season two we had met one of the scientists that was heading up the original experiment, and he was one of the keys to attempting to solve the genetic problem that has resulted in Cosima developing a potentially fatal disease.

Clones

I probably should spend some time looking at the various clones, which are all played by Tatiana Maslany. Mind you, the way technology has developed has made such as show possible where the main actor plays not just two characters, but multiple characters who will appear in the same scene at the same time. Mind you, ever since the eighties where they were creating twin movies starring the same actors, using the same actor in multiple roles has sort of become second nature, but Orphan Black seems to have gone quite a ways beyond that.

Anyway, each of the clones has their own story, and their own plot lines, so it would probably be good to look at each of them individually (though some I have already dwelt on it a bit so will try not to go other the same ground I already have).

Sarah

We've probably said a bit about Sarah already, namely because she is the main character and, at least in the first season, most of what happens is seen through her eyes. Anyway, she is unlike the other clones in that first of all she didn't have a monitor namely because she was smuggled out of the program as a baby and then handed over to Soibhan, who appears to be some sort of Irish revolutionary. If anything she is the black sheep of the family, getting caught up in the criminal underworld when she had grown up and also having a baby. However this is the clincher - she has had a baby. As far as anybody was concerned the clones were all infertile, however this doesn't seem to be the case with Sarah. I'm not sure if it has been made entirely clear why she is different to the other clones (though I probably missed that bit), but she definitely is.

Helena

It turns out that Helena is Sarah's twin sister, which is probably why she developed a strong attachment to her early on in the show. As it is revealed, Sarah's mother had twins and gave one to the state and one to the church. Like Sarah, Helena is also one of the forgotten clones and had slipped under the radar of the Dyad group. Also, like Sarah, she didn't have a monitor. However, having grown up in a different environment she is vastly different to Sarah. Interestingly she seems to always have these dark shades under her eyes. Also she happens to be an incredibly ferocious warrior, yet it isn't really revealed where she learnt to do what she does.

Beth

Beth only appears for a brief period right at the beginning, but unlike the other clones that only have a brief appearance, Beth's character has an impact long after she is gone. In fact as the first (and even second) season progresses we actually learn quite a lot about Beth. For instance we know that she had been seeking out the other clones to assist her in fighting Dyad, but we also know that she had been investigating the Prolethians, despite the fact that her partner Art had very little idea as to what was actually going on (though due to his doggedness as a detective he ends up uncovering the secret). We also learn that her boyfriend Paul is also her minder. The other interesting thing about Beth is that it becomes pretty clear that she is quite unstable mentally, taking a cocktail of prescription drugs to keep her functioning (which inevitably doesn't work). Mind you, this isn't surprising considering that not only is she a cop, she is also trying to work out this situation with the clones in her spare time. The one thing that isn't answered is where she got that $70,000 from.

I should touch on a couple of people that are initially in Beth's life but then jump over into Sarah's life (especially since she has stolen her identity). The first is Art, Sarah's police officer partner. The thing with Art is that it becomes clear that he is quite trustworthy, especially when he uncovers the truth about the clones. Not only is he one of those cops that always seems to be able to dig out the truth, he is also very loyal to his partner. This is probably why, in the later episodes, everybody who is attempting to get in contact with the clones turns up at Art's place unannounced.

Paul is Beth's romantic partner, though it becomes apparent that their relationship is on the rocks. Mind you, this puts Paul into a bit of a bind considering that he is also her minder. However, like the other minders, he doesn't know the full story, he only knows that he is being paid to keep an eye on Beth and to report back to Dyad, for whatever reason. Okay, Paul isn't the type of person not to ask questions, except that they have something on him - he was a mercenary in Afghanistan and got into quite a lot of trouble. Paul is one of those characters that we are not really quite sure whether to trust or not. At first he seems to be onside but then suddenly it is revealed that he is also in bed with the antagonist. Further things are also revealed about his past, and who he really is, as the show progresses.

Cosima

Cosima is the geneticist of the group and the one who tries to translate all of the science-techy part of the show into a way that we, the average sci-fi geek, can understand. She begins as a university student who is lured by her monitor, Delphine, into a group known as the neolutionists, a group of scientists that believe that they can through genetics they can push humanity's evolution. Their entry into the show comes through a scientist who heads up the Dyad group known as Dr Leaky. There is also this guy that has grown a tail, however his participation in the show is relatively short lived has he finds himself on the wrong side of Helena's fury.

Cosima is also gay, and this comes to the fore when she makes a move on Delphine, and Delphine is then ordered to take advantage of that. Okay, Cosima knows who Delphine is and why she has taken an interest in her, but it is clear that her emotions have overwhelmed her common sense. However, this relationship provides Cosima an entry into Dyad so that she can continue her research. Of course it isn't always a two way street, and it is clear that Dyad always holds the upper hand. Even when Rachel is put out of the picture, there are still forces within Dyad that keep us on our toes.

Alison

The plot line involving Alison and her husband/monitor Donny seems to produce some form of comic relief. She is the house-wife that lives out in the suburbs, and even has two adopted kids to create the impression of the average American middle class family. Mind you nothing is all that average about this family since they are involved in the illegal genetic experiment involving the clones. However the events that seem to be playing out in Alison's suburbia (and once again we are never actually told where they are, just that this is suburbia) seem to be a world away from the conspiracies that are unveiling in the inner city.

In a way Alison seems to provide some sort of escape from the horrors of the innercity, yet suburbia never seems to be too far away from what is unfolding elsewhere. The drug barons still have their claws reaching out here, first with Victor and then with Alison buying Ramone's business off of him. Sure, the monitors play their parts, however we are never actually sure who the monitors are, and this creates a sense of paranoia that hangs over the place for at least two seasons. It is clear that Alison is the reluctant participant as she simply wants what most middle Americans want - to live a quiet life in the suburbs raising their families.

Yet there is something really likeable about both Alison and Donny, if only for the comic relief. It is out here that the mistaken identities really come into play. Sure, Donny is eventually let in on the secret, but the community that Alison has built around her means that she is much more out in the open than some of the other characters, yet she has to keep this dark side of her a secret. As such the comedy of errors, in true Shakesperian fashion, really comes into play here.

Rachel

Rachel is one of the antagonists of the show, and in a way seems to be one of those people that always comes back. At one point we are lead to believe that she has been dealt with, however it becomes pretty clear that she is still lurking around, yet has succumbed to part of society that punishes weakness. This is one of the ideas of the modern world where power is strength and strength is power. Sure, she might be a woman, but she is an incredibly powerful woman sitting at the head of the Dyad group. Yet all isn't as it seems in the murky world of the military-industrial complex. While one may sit at the head, they are other shadowy figures that seem to be able to wield and awful lot of influence.

Another way that Rachel is different is because she was actually raised by the scientists that originally headed up the experiment. In a way she was raised as their daughter, and has many memories of this time as their daughter. However she is also sterile like the other clones, which sets Sarah and Helena apart from the others. However, despite this cold hard exterior, the exterior of the modern corporate ladder climber, it is those family memories that soften that exterior.

Biotech - The Dark Science

For some reason biotechnology has always been pictured as one of those dark sciences, one of those places that humanity shouldn't tread. Sure, you can study it at university, and there are a number of companies out there that are working in the field, but unlike other sciences there seems to be this limit that many of us feel that we shouldn't cross. For instance when the first sheep (Dolly) was cloned the American government under Bill Clinton immediately enacted a ban on human cloning. Yet there are other areas, such as invitro-fertalisation and cancer research that receive significant amounts of funding.

I suspect that one of the reasons that we shy away from this science is because of the idea of messing with the building blocks of life. Genetically altering babies can be considered a huge breach of the law because we are messing with the lives of people who have no way of saying no. Then there is this idea of eugenics, where the scientists selectively breed humans so as to create a stronger and more capable species. This has an effect of scaring us since it has the potential of creating a master race. Star Trek has explored this idea in the two incarnations of Kahn, a human that had undergone eugenics treatment and had then gone to war against the unaltered humans in the belief that he was superior to them.

Yet there are other areas of science that we seem to be blindly charging into without any concern as to the effect that it might have on the world around us. For instance genetically altered crops could have a significant impact upon the security of our food supplies. If GE crops are created that are infertile, and that the only source of the seeds is through a company that means that the company has a monopoly on our food supply. However, if cross pollination occurs (as it does) it means that it could end up wiping out the fertile strains leaving us with no way of growing these crops outside of the company (and what happens if they run out of seeds).


Then let us consider computing power. The question of AI and machine learning makes us wonder whether we are blindly heading towards a time when machines will rise up against us as they did in the Terminator series. Sure, Isaac Asimov postulated the three laws of robotics, however then suggested that these three laws could end up working against us with the machines, who are charged to protect humanity, decide to become humanity's overlords. While the movie I Robot may have completely butchered Asimov's original books, it still raises the idea that a robot charged to protect humanity will suddenly decide to become a dictator that controls humanity all for the purpose of protecting humanity.

This of course doesn't even take into account nuclear power, a spectre that has been hanging over us ever since the first bomb was detonated in the New Mexican desert. For the first time in history we suddenly had the ability to be able to complete annihilate ourselves (though the black plague did a pretty good job), and the problem hasn't gone away with the collapse of the Soviet Union. In a way it seems to have become worse, especially since there is always the threat of some radical insurgent group that could get their hands on one. Okay, some say that the whole idea of possessing nuclear weapons is as a deterrent, yet that doesn't mean that one day somebody might actually use one.

Separate Identities

One final thing that I wish to touch upon is the idea of clones being identical. Another idea the show explores is that while the clones may have all come from the same batch, each of the clones have their own personality. There is some idea that clones mean that when we die we can have an exact duplicate come and take our place so that we can continue living. That obviously doesn't take into account the idea of our consciousness and that once we die our consciousness goes with us (meaning that it won't be transferred over to the clone). However the other thing that is suggested is that our identity is not just determined by our genetic make up, but also by our environment.

All of the clones have an identical genetic make up yet the female clones were all released into society, with monitors present to record how they develop, and they have all developed differently. Alison is the middle class housewife who is drastically different from Cosima, the PhD candidate, who in turn is different from Beth, Rachel, Helena, and Sarah. Sure, Rachel knows her identity, and maybe that had an affect upon her cold exterior. Yet, once again that is all apart of the experiment. All the others worked out they were clones, while Rachel was told about her origins right from the beginning.




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Orphan Black - The Dark Side of Science
by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me.

1 comment:

  1. There is actually compelling evidence that genetics isn't everything. Technically speaking, identical twins (who split from a single zygote) have identical DNA - and yet are completely different people. Presumably it is some combination of environment - and perhaps other factors we haven't discovered yet. Interesting to think about in any case.

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