Orphan Black (2013-2017) is an exceptional Canadian television series. Temple Street Productions made 50 episodes in conjunction with BBC America and Canadian channel Space, the series showcases the exceptional acting talents of Tatiana Maslany, who won a Best Actress Emmy award. What makes her performance so unprecedented and unequalled is that she plays not one but several different characters, with different idiosyncrasies, mannerisms, accents and outlooks in such a way that each is instantly identifiable, not only from their portrayal but also purely from their body-language and posture.
Paul, Beth's husband: What did you do to your hair?
Sarah, impersonating Beth: Uh, nothing. I got it cut.
Paul: It's longer...?
Orphan Black is a drama that audiences enjoy more the less knowledge they have of what is to come. To avoid spoilers, the plot summary below only covers the basic premise, which is established within the first three episodes.
Sarah Manning is an orphan street-living con-artist who has mucked up her life and wants a fresh start. She longs to reconnect with her young daughter Kira and escape from her abusive drug-dealing boyfriend, Vic (Michael Mando). Kira1 had been left with Sarah's own foster-mother, Siobhan Sadler, who is often called 'S'. Wanting enough money to fund the fresh start, she has stolen a stash of drugs from her boyfriend and initially plans to flee with her daughter before he finds her. Yet when waiting at the train station she witnesses a suicide that gives her a whole new chance for life.
At the station Sarah sees a well-dressed woman who looks exactly like her kill herself by jumping in front of a train. Sarah takes her handbag and, learning the woman was named Beth, decides to impersonate her long enough to empty her bank account. Sarah has Felix her foster-brother identify Beth's corpse as Sarah so that Vic will believe she is dead and stop hunting her.
Shortly after she begins to impersonate Beth she learns that Beth was a detective and that a serial killer has been murdering other women who look exactly like her. She also is contacted by two more women with her face, scientist Cosima Niehaus and housewife Alison Hendrix. They reveal that they are all clones, created by people unknown for purposes unknown, implanted worldwide in women who believed they were receiving standard fertility treatment. The clones were intended to be infertile and studied by the forces behind the experiment, however the street-living Sarah has so far escaped detection. How will whoever is behind this react when they learn of the existence of her daughter Kira?
For Sarah and her 'sestras2', their very lives are a mystery inside a riddle wrapped in an enigma. Who is behind it all, and who is actually behind them, and which nameless faction is really secretly in charge? Who can be trusted, with what and for exactly how long? Where, if anywhere, can they go to be safe?
Elizabeth 'Beth' Childs
Veera 'MK' Suominen
|} Tatiana Maslany|
|Felix Dawkins, Sarah's foster brother||Jordan Gavaris|
|Siobhan 'Mrs S' Sadler, Sarah's foster mother||Maria Doyle Kennedy|
|Donnie Hendrix, Alison's husband||Kristian Bruun|
|Detective Arthur 'Art' Bell, Beth's detective partner||Kevin Hanchard|
|Kira Manning, Sarah's daughter||Skyler Wexler|
|Scott, Cosima's friend and co-worker||Josh Vokey|
|Delphine Cormier, Cosima's love-interest||Evelyne Brochu|
|Paul Dierden, Beth's husband||Dylan Bruce|
|Mark Rollins etc||Ari Millen|
|Gracie Johanssen||Zoé De Grand Maison|
|Dr Virginia Coady||Kyra Harper|
|Professor Susan Duncan||Rosemary Dunsmore|
|Dr Aldous Leekie||Matt Frewer|
Tatiana Maslany had previously played the Virgin Mary for the BBC mini-series The Nativity (2010) and had also been in Temple Street's drama Being Erica (2009-11). Maria Doyle Kennedy is primarily a singer but had played Catherine of Aragon in The Tudors (2007-10). Matt Frewer has enjoyed a long, varied acting career but is probably best known for playing AI character Max Headroom (1984-8).
In 2001 John Fawcett proposed a plot idea to his friend Graeme Manson about a girl seeing her doppelgänger commit suicide right in front of her, which would be the opening sequence. The partners were determined to avoid all the terrible clone clichés and chose to approach the idea of cloning from a fresh new direction, while still inspired by Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and The Island of Doctor Moreau by HG Wells. Manson said,
The moment I began to think and research more about clones, and used our science consultant Cosima Herter, in that respect, I started to get excited about the nature/nurture aspect of the story, the deeper themes and questions of body autonomy.
After developing the series at the Canadian Film Centre the idea attracted the attention of small Canadian production company Temple Street, however they needed to attract a larger partner. BBC America were keen to be involved as were Canadian channel Space, part of Bell Media, who agreed to co-produce.
In order for the clones to interact, for scenes containing two clones Kathryn Alxandre would play Maslany's body double. She would play whichever clone that Maslany is not playing to begin with and then the two actresses would swap clothes and characters and perform the other side of the scene.
Traditional split-screen filming has previously been used to have the same actor appear on screen twice, once on the left and once on the right, with the camera locked in one position. Orphan Black was determined to break this approach and in order for more than one clone played by Tatiana Maslany to appear in the same scene, a computer-controlled Technodolly was used. This, a computer-controlled telescoping-arm-mounted camera crane, allowed the camera to replicate the same camera moves over and over again so that the camera could follow Maslany's performances as if there were two different actresses interacting rather than Maslany playing both roles. This involves mechanically planning beforehand where each character will be at all points during a scene. The length of the scene, timing lines are said and places stood all have to be identical in every take.
Initially a storyboard is created and both Maslany and her double Alexandre rehearse the scene and especially the points with the clones interacting. Maslany then plays the character that the camera is following first with her double(s) playing the other clone(s), filming not only Maslany in that role with the double but also on her own without any other clones present. Tatiana and the doubles change costumes and hair, which typically would take an hour, and return to play the other half of the scene, listening to the earlier-recorded audio for timing reasons. Maslany would then perform with her double and also solo. All the information would then be composited in a computer. If, for example, the scene involved Alison passing Sarah a cup of tea, although Maslany would play both characters it might be her double Alexandre's arm holding the teacup seen in the final shop. This was made even more challenging with the crew determined to film some clone scenes in 'one-shot', meaning an entire scene filmed in one continuous take from a single camera's viewpoint.
Orphan Black was filmed in and around Toronto. The series had ten standing sets at Revival 629 Studio, which is more than normal for a show of the size. One of the main sets was the combined Hendrix house, garden and garage set. One of the challenges was that this had to be built on a raised platform to allow scenes to be filmed in which the garage floor is dug up and something buried beneath, while cars also needed to be seen driving in and out to complete the illusion that it was a real garage. The garden, complete with fake grass, used frequently changed trees with hidden pots which meant that trees with different amount of leaves could be brought in to portray different seasons. Bluescreen4 and highly controllable lighting helped to convince the audience it was a real, outdoor garden with different lighting conditions depending on time of day and season.
One of the reasons to have most outdoor scenes filmed in a studio was because of the complexities involved in filming one actress play multiple characters, and the sensitivity of the equipment used to create the illusion that there are multiple identical clones. When Maslany played more than one character it took an hour to change costume and hair; scenes filmed outside can change weather and lighting conditions during this time, making it difficult for the two sides of the scene to match. Also on an early shoot they discovered that the technodolly was not waterproof during rainstorms.
Some location filming took place, predominantly in scenes where Maslany only needed to play one character. Bridgepoint Hospital and neighbouring Don Jail were used to be the outside of the Dyad Institute and in the final series Toronto's Valley Halla estate was used as the location for the Revival village, having also been used earlier in the series.
The character of Cosima was named after the show's scientific advisor, Cosima Herter. The show's story takes place over a period of a few months yet it took five years to make. Skyler Wexler who plays young Kira Manning continuously had the same set of clothes taken apart and rebuilt in order for them to keep fitting her as she was growing.
The series is a remarkable achievement, recognised by Tatiana Maslany winning the 2016 Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama for her performance5. Maslany plays multiple characters, however it should be emphasised just how nuanced each character is. So for example the character of Alison acts a certain way most of the time but has different expressions and mannerisms when angry, drunk, aroused and/or performing amateur dramatics etc that are all in keeping with her as a character. The same holds true with the other characters. Maslany does not merely give the same sort of performance with different hair style and clothes for each character, every facet of her performances changes, from the way they hold their hands, roll their eyes, angle they hold their head and several other subtle changes.
This is made even more complicated by the plot which involves Sarah and the other sisters having to frequently impersonate each other, either as part of their investigation or as their lives requires them to be in two places at once. So Tatiana Maslany plays Sarah impersonating Beth, Katja, Alison, Cosima, Tony, Rachel, Krystal and MK. Helena impersonates Sarah and Alison and Helena also impersonates Sarah impersonating Beth. Alison pretends to be both Sarah and Beth. Rachel impersonated Sarah and Krystal while Krystal has been mistaken for Rachel and Sarah. Cosima was forced to impersonate Alison when Alison got drunk and MK pretended to be Sarah disguised as Rachel.
When this happens Maslany in effect plays two different characters at the same time, portraying how one character would view another. Maslany described the process by saying,
It's fun for all of us to be off with it a little bit… Sarah's version of Rachel [is] not as impeccable and not as pristine and not as elegant. She struggles to walk in her shoes, her hair's not quite right, she's not comfortable in her skin. And Alison [as Sarah] is a little too clean, a little too community theatre. Her hair is curled in a very done way and her makeup's a little too stagey. So it's fun to play with those little mistakes.
There is more to the series than simply Maslany's performance, remarkable as it is. The plot is full of twists and turns that keep viewers watching, but importantly the viewers' questions are answered – often with more questions until the final series. As the plot progresses it feels that layer after layer is being peeled away and that the sestras are making progress, rather than merely going round in circles to keep the programme running. The underlying theme of whether our identity is determined by nature or nurture remains key, with the characters all proving remarkably different due to their diverse backgrounds, despite being genetically identical.
The series also showcases a number of strong female characters, not all of whom are played by Tatiana Maslany. Unsurprisingly the series has attracted a cult following, particularly among the LBGTQ community where the confident, clever and caring character of Cosima has especially been singled out as a positive role model. Yet a television series of this quality really is for everyone6.