Season two of Orphan Black, a fun, fast-paced sci-fi show, starts on BBC Three this week, so let’s have a look at its stellar first season.
While on her way home to reunite with -and hopefully regain custody of – her daughter after almost a year away, our heroine Sarah, a rebellious punk with a criminal record and a murky past, notices a woman crying on the train platform. The woman takes off her high heels and her purse, puts them on the floor and glances at Sarah – they look identical. Without even blinking at this surprise, the woman turns away and walks right in front of an oncoming train. In the ensuing panic, Sarah does what any reasonable person would do – nick the woman’s stuff and run off.
And so begins Orphan Black, a fast-paced twisty-turny science-fiction drama anchored by a jaw-dropping performance by newcomer Tatiana Maslany, which we’ll get to in a minute.
Sarah pretends to be Beth to get Beth’s money – yeah, Sarah’s not the most likeable protagonist in the world – but quickly finds herself drawn into a complicated, crazy, and increasingly confusing series of events as she discovers who Beth was, what she did in the past, why she decided to kill herself and why she didn’t even flinch when confronted by her exact double.
Sarah also uses Beth’s suicide as a way of escaping her old life by making it seem like Sarah was the one who killed herself. Sarah does this with the help of her brother Felix, a man with the name of a cat, who isn’t too pleased with her actions but goes along with it because, hey, family.
As if that weren’t enough to deal with, Sarah also struggles to regain custody of her daughter Kira and deal with Vic, an old flame who’s involved in some dodgy dealings.
Sarah quickly realises that stealing Beth’s identity wasn’t the best idea, as she finds herself completely out of her depth, constantly caught in dire situations, always one mis-step away from everything falling apart. This is what makes Orphan Black so exciting and tense. The show delights in shoving Sarah into a tight corner and watching how she reacts. Beth’s colleagues and boyfriend notice that something’s a bit off, but can’t quite tell why. She’s convinced Vic that she’s dead, but he’s telling everyone else she knows, too, including her daughter. And as she scrambles to sort everything out, she’s contacted by another woman. Another woman that looks just like her. Except she has red hair. And she’s… German? What? What the hell is going on?
I said earlier that Tatiana Maslany gives a jaw-dropping performance, but I should really have said performances. She plays a range of different characters in Orphan Black, each one looking, sounding and behaving completely differently to each other. It’s like Anna Torv’s work in Fringe taken up to 11. In the first three episodes (of ten) alone, she plays American cop Beth, German redhead Katya, English punk Sarah, uptight American mother of two Alison, relaxed science geek Cosima and unhinged Russian Helena.
When the characters share a scene, I had to keep reminding myself that they’re played by the same person. Okay, the hair and wardrobe departments can take some credit for this, but each character has their own specific mannerisms, verbal tics, posture, even the way they walk and interact with other characters is different. Sarah and Felix have a completely different rapport to Alison and Felix.
It is staggeringly impressive work, especially when the characters have to impersonate each other. An early highlight of the series is watching Alison attempt to impersonate Sarah, with Felix helping to transform a jittery, middle-class American mum into a rude English rebel. Alison copies Sarah’s voice and her mannerisms, but she’s slightly off, just enough so that you can tell that it’s someone impersonating someone else.
Lesser actors would crumble under this Herculean task of playing several characters, often in the same scene, often impersonating each other. Luckily for us, Maslany is up to the challenge. If she wasn’t we wouldn’t care about the characters, we wouldn’t be able to tell them apart, and the show would be a failure..
Speaking of lesser actors, whoever plays Beth’s boyfriend Paul is terrible. TERRIBLE. The one weak link in a generally-great cast, it immediately becomes clear that he wasn’t hired for his acting ability. During one climactic confrontation scene, he was clearly supposed to sound angry and betrayed, but somehow managed to sound bored and monotone instead, even when yelling at the top of his lungs. Good job. Well done him.
Vic is played by the same person who played Vaas in Far Cry 3, and it’s odd hearing that distinctive voice coming from an actual person.
Sarah’s brother Felix is her moral support and the show’s camp comic relief. His reactions to Sarah’s insane situation and his scenes with the rest of the cast provide some welcome laughs during a manic, tense rollercoaster of a series.
This show rockets through plot at an unbelievable pace. It is the television equivalent of a friend telling you a really good story, but he can’t wait to get to the next good bit so he eagerly speeds through the exposition and skips over all the dull bits, barely giving you a chance for you to catch up and understand what’s going on. It’s one hell of a ride, and it’s a lot of fun.
If you’re looking for a good, fun sci-fi drama, if you were a fan of Fringe (which was awesome) or Dollhouse (which I haven’t seen, but seemed similar to this), then give Orphan Black a try.
Orphan Black season one is on DVD now. Season two starts on BBC Three on Wednesday, at 9pm.