Review: Orphan Black 1×1 (Space/BBC America)

It's al' abou' clones, doncha know?

Orphan Black

In Canada: Saturdays, 9e/6p, Space
In the US: Saturdays, 9/8c, BBC America

Watcha cock! What a fine how-do-you-do this is, innit, doncha know. Chim-chiminey-cheroo, I’ve been watching a bit of the old Nervo and Knox of late and it came into me old noggin like that you’d like a gander at me discombobulations about what I done saw, like, innit.

Right now, I’m sitting in my beefeater uniform, inside a red phone box, with a Tower of London hat on my head, trying to get out of the strange state Orphan Black has put me into. A Canadian show that BBC America has mysteriously picked up too, it stars a bunch of Canadians pretending to be Americans, Germans and, above all, English people. You’d have thought, given the somewhat dodgy quality of the accents that BBC America might have steered clear of this show. But given BBC America – which confusingly is an umbrella network for everything from BBC1 shows to those plucked off Channel 4 and ITV, as well as some original content – is about as authentically British as the average US ‘pub’, apparently not – even fake Brits appeal to anglophiles, it seems, and Canadians are the next best things anyway.

Besides, o be honest, it’s also a show that would be right at home on BBC3.

Orphan Black is a little like the grown-up, nastier, but essentially still tame elder sister of Canada’s other ‘streetwise sci-fi/fantasy woman’ show Lost Girl. It stars Tatiana Maslany as Sarah… and Beck… and…, well, you’ll see. Sarah is one of those ‘streetwise’ girls who appear in very comfortable, escapist dramas, living on her wits (e.g. swallowing soap to make herself sick) in a way that anyone with an IQ higher than an amoeba’s would instantly spot as mildly criminal or at the very least very odd but no one on these shows ever notices as more than her having an odd day. She’s also ‘English’, with one of those glottal-stop laden attempts at Estuary accents that North American actors do and end up sounding like a spoof character on The Simpsons instead. She’s also capable, for no good reason, of doing a slightly more convincing but wobbly ‘American’ accent. And she’s a punk chick, because she wears a Clash ‘London Calling’ T-shirt. Like all we English people do. All the time. I’ve got one on under my Beefeater uniform right now, in fact.

Sarah’s on the run, but when she gets off a train in Unidentified North American City That Could Be In The US But Is Obviously Canadian, she spots a woman who looks exactly like her… and who commits suicide right in front of her. Sarah steals her belongings and assumes Beck’s identity. Somehow, despite Beck being a cop, having a live-in boyfriend, etc, Sarah gets away with it, but before she knows it, more women who look like her start turning up. And then there are the people who are shooting at her, too.

Yes, it’s sci-fi conspiracy series thriller time.

Here’s a trailer and the opening scene.

Sarah has always lived the life of an orphan outsider. But a clone is never alone.

Sarah hopes that cleaning out a dead woman’s bank account will solve all her problems. Instead, her problems multiply – and so does she. Experience a whole new side of BBC AMERICA with the channel’s next original scripted series, “Orphan Black,” the exciting and ambitious new addition to the Supernatural Saturday programming block. “Orphan Black” features rising star Tatiana Maslany (“Cas & Dylan,” “Picture Day”) in the lead role of Sarah, an outsider and orphan whose life changes dramatically after witnessing the suicide of a woman who looks just like her. Sarah assumes her identity, her boyfriend and her bank account. But instead of solving her problems, the street smart chameleon is thrust headlong into a kaleidoscopic mystery. She makes the dizzying discovery that she and the dead woman are clones… but are they the only ones? Sarah quickly finds herself caught in the middle of a deadly conspiracy and must race to find answers about who she is and how many others there are just like her. Orphan Black premieres Saturday, March 30, 9:00pm ET/PT, as part of BBC AMERICA’s Supernatural Saturday.

This suspenseful, sexy thriller also stars Jordan Gavaris (“Degrassi”), Dylan Bruce (“As The World Turns”) and Maria Doyle Kennedy (“Downton Abbey”). Orphan Black is executive produced by Ivan Schneeberg and David Fortier (“Being Erica”), Graeme Manson (“Flashpoint”), and John Fawcett (“Spartacus”). The drama is co-created by Manson and Fawcett, with Manson also serving as writer and Fawcett as director.

Is it any good?
Well, it’s better than Lost Girl, but TBH, that’s not saying much.

Most of the plot of the first episode concerns Sarah settling into her new life and slowly (very slowly) uncovering Beck’s secrets. However, the central dynamic of the show is Sarah and her relationship with her foster brother Felix (a very popular English name, particularly among the fostered. Oh yes.) or Fee as he’d like people to call him (presumably, people he’d like to hit him). Sarah and Fee and their never-ending glottal-stop onslaught try to survive life together, Sarah escaping from her boyfriend, who’s one of those ‘street’ characters you see in fantasy TV shows, who’ll deal cocaine and threaten violence, but cry a lot at funerals when their violent girlfriends die (i.e. implausible). Fee is very gay and is intended to provide the heart and humour of the show, despite being incredibly annoying.

Sarah spends most of the show turning up, not knowing things and despite obviously not knowing things and not even practising the signature of the woman’s whose credit cards she stole, somehow manages to implausibly wing it through security, life and a whole lot more. Because she’s so street. She does get a bit naked with Beck’s boyfriend, but doesn’t know how to convincingly act like a girlfriend, yet stupid boyfriend notices nothing. He doesn’t even notice that she’s faking her accent. Unless Beck was faking, too, of course. We, of course, notice that despite her new boyfriend’s hard bod, Sarah’s vulnerable and maybe Sex Meant More. Because she’s a Bad Girl… but she’s a Bad Girl With A Heart Of Gold. And therefore not that threatening to guys.

The first episode is something of a snooze. It’s obvious that there’s cloning going on – indeed, the trailer itself gives that away – but by the end of the episode, Sarah’s none the wiser, even after having met her second identical twin. There’s no real indication of why she’s been cloned, why there are clones around the world, or anything else. Most of the clones seem to have health problems or need medication, except for Sarah, so I’m sure that will be significant at some point.

And while there’s nothing wrong with not answering every suspenseful question in the first episode, the show doesn’t even set up many questions to be answered at this point. It merely gambles that being sci-fi, having the occasional bit of exposed female flesh and there being a serial conspiracy theory storyline promised, people will just naturally watch, even if the characters aren’t that engaging or are even actively annoying.

The production values are okay, if a bit cheap looking, the wobbly accents are very off-putting (the German one is very bad), there are few thrills or spills, none of the supporting characters is well or even slightly developed, and it’s as comfortable and as unstreet as Canadian sci-fi can get. It’s not the worst programme ever made, but by the end of the episode, you’ll have next to no reasons to watch the second.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.