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Clones Are People Too: The Science and Science Fiction of BBC America’s Orphan Black


As BBC America’s Orphan Black heads into its second season, many critics have focused on Tatiana Maslany’s supremely impressive feats of acting and the many compelling female characters as the draw of the series. If you haven’t watched the show, you’ve still likely heard that the lead actress plays no fewer than seven distinct characters, just in the first season. However, Orphan Black also stands out as a piece of science fiction, and it does so in a very relevant manner. The series is a distinctly modern science fiction story and focuses on two crucial themes: individuality and gene patenting. By posing serious questions about humanity, Orphan Black serves as an effective analogue for real life events, which elevates its science fiction status. Read on to find out how the show is reflecting our society, perceived stereotypes, and why they’re way ahead of the sci-fi game.

[Editor’s Note: This article deals quite extensively with the first season of BBC America’s Orphan Black. Plot points are mentioned, and there may be some spoilers, which I will try to cover with spoiler bars. If you are extremely concerned about spoilers, seriously, go watch Orphan Black, you won’t regret it.]

I would like to preface my discussion with two disclaimers about my own bias and that of the material I’m discussing. Like any television show, Orphan Black’s science isn’t perfect, and it’s secondary to the plot. Most noticeably in Season One, more than an episode’s worth of drama is spent on the idea that the clones will all have the same fingerprints (some of the clones tend to be more violent than others). I have a clone (my identical twin), and I’ve tested. Google agrees with me. Identical genetics do not mean identical fingerprints.

Regardless of my bias on the topic of clone genetics, and regardless of Orphan Black’s occasional scientific misstep, the show’s scientific focus is, overall, refreshing and enjoyable. The show focuses on biology for its feats of futuristic fiction, not silicon and metal. In fact, the show’s clone premise is what makes it particularly modern. While we see a lot of sci-fi stories focusing on war, the consumption of our world by technology, or the exploration of aliens and other planets, Orphan Black focuses on humans, here and now, in a fantastic way. Sci-fi has a long and well-documented history of allegory, and Orphan Black brings that allegory into the present with an original story and unusual perspective.

Our favorite clones, Cosima, Sarah, Allison, Beth, and Helena (if you ignore her more violent tendencies), and our least favorite, Proclone, all have distinct personalities and ways of viewing the world. The show establishes a central idea that the genetics of the individuals are not the most important part of their personalities or sense of self. In Sarah and Helena’s final exchange this is as good as proven, with Helena shouting, “We make a family, yes?,” followed by Sarah’s gunshot-punctuated declaration of, “I’ve already got a family!” The clones choose who they want to be, and this can teach us just as much about other people as it can about people who share traits. For instance, the clones are given thoughts, feelings, and personalities independent of their identical genetics, let alone their identical gender. In this way, Orphan Black makes a modern statement on the tendency to generalize about a certain group, whoever they may be, based on a perceived set of traits.

The message of individuality in Orphan Black may seem to be an obvious one, but identical individuals tend to get lumped together as one character in many other stories. Even Harry Potter’s Fred and George Weasley are almost always together and are rarely given separate personalities. The clones, on the other hand, are specifically written to be different, but not complete opposites, another common trope.

By humanizing the many clones, Orphan Black helps give a face to people that corporations see as objects. The show’s science fiction takes a biological turn that the sci-fi genre isn’t known for. While other stories, including Jurassic Park and H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, could certainly be categorized as biopunk science fiction, very few television shows and movies today delve into the idea of biology. The biggest science fiction movies we see today are reboots of Star Trek and Star Wars, and similarly shiny action flicks like Pacific Rim. Meanwhile, gene splicing, genetically modified organisms (GMO), and “designer babies” continue to grow in importance. Orphan Black isn’t a sci-fi show based on exploration or invasion, two very 20th century themes. Instead, the show focuses on a new scientific frontier that has started affecting our everyday lives and decisions.

Globally, gene patenting has become a major debate, thanks to the spread of GMO foods and medical genetic research. This past June the United States Supreme Court ruled against patenting sequences of the human genome in Association for Molecular Pathology Et Al. vs. Myriad Genetics, Inc., Et Al. In the case, Myriad Genetics had patented two genes they had isolated that were identified as genes involved in increased ovarian and breast cancer risks. You may remember this making headlines thanks to Angelina Jolie‘s mastectomy announcement. Companies, like Myriad, that spend money to identify nucleotide sequences want to be able to patent those discoveries. However, the patenting allows for monopolies on illness treatments and allows companies to have exclusive access to portions of human DNA. As of June, companies like Myriad Genetics can’t legally copyright portions of DNA they have isolated in the human genome, but they are, according to the Supreme Court, allowed to patent synthetically created sequences of complementary DNA.

Orphan Black’s characters would be deeply affected by the Supreme Court’s decision, at least in the US. As it is, Orphan Black films in Canada and uses some Canadian currency and license plates but has no identified setting other than, generally, North America. Canada, unlike the United States, has not yet made a change to their gene patent laws. According to CBC News, the country is in something of a grey area regarding patents like those of Myriad Genetics. While Myriad’s patents are still in place, enforcement and changes in laws are both uncertain. This means the Dyad Institute, Dr. Leekie’s company within Orphan Black, could potentially have patented some segments of the clones’ DNA before the events of the series began, and those patents could even hold up in both the US and Canada to this day, if the sequences were synthetically created, like the cDNA in the Myriad Genetics case.

For Orphan Black, the question for the coming season is how to explain the clones, and their creation, as well as how to detail their rights under the law. The writers have the potential to take their examination of human rights and patent law even further next season, especially given the events of the season finale. The show already creates a web of conspiracy which forces its clones to confront the power the Dyad Institute has over them through violence and their own uncertainty. However, the genetics that affect the characters also affects their feeling of freedom as human beings.

The entire clone genome in the show could be synthetically created, a very science-fiction possibility. This option would be fascinating and would also allow the show to play fast and loose with the clones’ genes, illnesses, and traits. On the other hand, the clone DNA could be adapted from a preexisting human via the implant of an adult’s cell nucleus into an embryo, the process used to create the famously cloned sheep, Dolly. The distinction would greatly impact what the clones are able to do in future episodes.

The Dyad Institute has been performing tests on the clones for years without their consent, which is obviously illegal. However, their ownership of the clones’ genomes, established in the season finale by the patenting sequence of junk DNA that Cosima and Delphine decode, would, in fact, hold up to the law, assuming all the clones’ DNA was synthetically created. The company would have exclusive rights to study the clones’ genome, effectively placing Cosima under copyright infringement if she continued to study and apply her research without working with the Dyad Institute. On the other hand, if the clones are developed from a pre-exisiting human’s cells, then the Dyad Institute holds no right over their DNA. Currently Cosima has only stated that one sequence in the clone genome is synthetic, the patenting sequence reading “This Organism and Derived Genetic Material are Restricted Intellectual Property.” She has not acknowledged anything to suggest that the rest of the clone genome, in any of the known clones, is synthetic, regardless of the statement coded onto the DNA.

In the second season of Orphan Black, we know that Cosima will continue to study the genome, but not under the Dyad Institute. It is also clear that Allison has signed on to be studied and that the Dyad Institute thinks it has a right to the genetics of Sarah’s daughter, Kira. Let’s say that the patent written into the clones’ DNA does apply to all their DNA, and not just those nucleotides altered by whoever cloned them. According to U.S. law, the clones’ rights have changed since the last episode aired, since the Dyad Institute can no longer patent naturally occurring sequences of the genome. Plus, the patenting of the genome does not give the company the right to do whatever they want with the clones, regardless of whether or not the patent stands at all under current laws. In real-life terms, this would be akin to Myriad Genetics having the right to test any person they wanted for the BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 sequences they isolated, while in reality their patent only gave them a monopoly on isolating the genes, not free reign to perform tests.

The alternative would be that the clones are synthetic, in the way that the DNA created by scientists like Dr. Craig Venter, whom Cosima mentions in episode ten, is synthetic. Cosima’s mention of Dr. Venter implies that this might be the case, and in this instance, the Dyad Institute would be in a unique situation. If the genome is synthetically created, then the show asks whether the clones are really the property of the company that made them. How much should biology, and a person in particular, really belong to a company. What even constitutes a person? Orphan Black poses these questions in a real life climate with a constantly changing idea of what is and isn’t acceptable in terms of ownership of biology.

Orphan Black is a prime example of science fiction being used in the appropriate time and place, to ask questions that will apply to future discoveries. The BBC America show looks constantly forward, and other shows are following suit. Even the upcoming J.J. Abrams show Almost Human plans to take a look at humanity in cyborgs and half humans in the near future. As genetic and technological cures for illnesses become more common, both Orphan Black and Almost Human may have the fantasy and action to entertain and examine possibilities for the near future.

In the upcoming season of Orphan Black I would not be surprised to see, at least in Cosima and Allison’s stories, a greater exploration of the Dyad Institute’s claims to ownership, as well as a continuation of the exploration of individuality that is so dear to the series. As recently as Comic-Com this past July, creators Graeme Manson and John Fawcett talked to Entertainment Weekly about the upcoming season, saying that the new season “begins maybe two hours after the end of season one, and launches like a rocket right from there.” In the same interview, the pair revealed that there will be a focus on motherhood and sisterhood next season, indicating that they are invested in the relationships and decisions of their characters parallel to the science fiction aspects of the show.

This series has already proven itself capable of discussing important issues on a grander, science fiction scale. The story is an exaggeration, but a typically sci-fi one, and the show works as a thriller because it taps into some of our most basic fears as individuals. Going into its second season, the BBC America original will introduce more clones, more drama, and hopefully, will continue building on the biology that makes it so gripping.

(Supreme Court Case Information via Association for Molecular Pathology Et Al. vs. Myriad Genetics, Inc., Et Al, National Geographic)

(Canadian Patent Law via CBC News)

(images via BBC America)

Previously in Orphan Black

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