The Science of Orphan Black: Fanciful, Fearsome, Educational

Orphan Black. BBC America. Tatiana Maslany. 2014

Sometimes, little-known cult television shows are secret, sparkly gems that blow minds. For me, that show is Orphan Black. Although I wasn’t expecting much from yet another science fiction series, I was pleasantly surprised at how it delved into a thought-provoking story of relatable characters and real emotions from genetically engineered humans in previously unexplored possibilities. Since its first season in 2013, it has gained praise from multiple audiencesfrom science fiction enthusiasts applauding the accuracy of genetic engineering to women celebrating the diversity of the show’s female characters, all skillfully played by Canadian actress Tatiana Maslany. All these elements come together to produce a series that deserves a whole lot more recognition than it already receives.

Creators Graeme Manson and John Fawcett have made a conscious and successful attempt to retain scientific realism in the show by working with science consultant, Cosima Herter, who also inspired the clone sharing her name. While Herter has acknowledged that the most obvious inaccuracy in the show is the possibility of human clones running around, she also finds some very realistic scientific elements within the series. In fact, Herter asserts that the potential or capacity to create such highly developed clones is definitely based in reality and it is because of this that our story unfolds.

The creation of the Leda and Castor clones is based on the process of somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), which is the most common strategy used in cloning. In this process, a somatic nucleus is implanted in an egg cell whose own nucleus has been removed. After the egg cell has been inserted into a surrogate womb, it is stimulated with a jolt of electricity and begins to divide. It is then capable of creating an adult organism that is genetically identical to its parent donor. Unfortunately, this difficult process has many downfalls and is highly prone to fail, especially in the prospect of cloning humans. And even if a human clone were to successfully develop and be born, there’s no guarantee that it would live a life without complications, as seen in Cosima’s illness and most of the clones’ inability to conceive. Because of this, it doesn’t seem like we’ll be seeing any successfully cloned humans any time soon.

Tatiana Maslany as Cosima in Orphan Black
Tatiana Maslany as Cosima Niehaus in Orphan Black

The controversial cloning of the first animal Dolly the sheep in 1996 resulted in a moratorium on human embryo cloning. However, Herter believes that research into reproductive cloning is likely to continue, even if it’s not made public, as it’s illegal in North America. This is represented all throughout the Orphan Black storyline where investigations and experimentation are conducted by multiple antagonists, including a clone herself, Rachel Duncan. As a ruthless and corporate professional raised by the geneticists who created the Leda clones, Rachel heads Dyad and attempts to collect information from the other clones, including Sarah and her daughter, Kira. Of course, this raises multiple real world questions about ownership of clones and whether or not a corporation like the Dyad Institute has the right to “own” their lives.

Another concept within the realm of cloning that also allows for the immense diversity of characters is the nature versus nurture prospect. While all five of the original Leda clones were created from the same gene, they all appear to be products of their upbringing, as evidenced by vastly different personalities and lifestyles. Although Sarah and Helena are “mirror-image twinsor identical twins who do everything, from parting their hair to holding their fork, the exact opposite of one anotherthey could not be more different. Each clone has been affected by their independent childhoods, making them their own person.

As the recent third season of Orphan Black revealed, the Castor clones were raised in the military together under Dr. Virginia Coady, completely self-aware. In this environment, and knowing who they are, definitely affected their personalities and demeanor growing up. Predictably, these military brats seem cold, unfeeling, and threatening since they were raised around experiments and top secret information, as evidenced in the maniacal Rudy. This applies to all Castor clones aside from Mark. Although it wasn’t clear in the show exactly when Mark took up the Prolethean lifestyle, it definitely had an effect on his personality and upbringing. Still distrustful and dedicated to his mission, Mark seems to show more emotion and care more than his brothers in falling in love with and marrying Gracie. As a result, Mark burns off the Castor tattoo on his arm, symbolizing the end of his affiliation with Project Castor and the military he grew up with.

Unlike the Castor clones, the Leda clones grew up separately in different lifestyles, raised by different people, even in different countries. They only became self-aware later in their lives after a European clone, Katja, contacted Beth about others of their kind. The Castor clones, on the other hand, are all very similar as they were raised in the same environment, but since the opposite is true for the Leda clones, it’s no surprise that we find such a huge variety of women throughout the show (supporting the nurture side of the debate).

However, this isn’t to say that both sets of clones turned out the way they did solely because of their environments growing up. After all, how can we say it’s only because of how Cosima was raised that she’s gay? Or that Tony is transgender only because of his genetics? No, it’s simply because humans are complicated. We grow up taking in details from our environment as well as from our genes. And though it’s true that there is no one gene that programs us to love men or women more, our genetic makeup does play an important role in what makes us our individual selves. So, although our favorite Leda clones are drastically different, they’re still connected and genetically similar in a way that we see through their actions all throughout the series.

As a fan of all things science fiction, I must admit that Orphan Black initially caught my attention with its promise of cloning and mystery. But what really made me stay for the ride was the careful dedication to even the smallest scientific details that ultimately made the show feel like a true story with very real people. Hopefully this remains constant through the fourth season next year, since we hit a major story arc with the reveal of the original Leda, but considering how well-written and engaging the third season was, my hopes are high. To my clone club fans out there, make sure you catch up on the fun and re-watch episodes on BBC America with DirecTV or Comcast. Maybe you’ll learn something you may have missed before. Considering the great amount of time spent on telling a story with such complexity and detail, I wouldn’t be surprised if new clues emerged.

4 thoughts on “The Science of Orphan Black: Fanciful, Fearsome, Educational

  1. Minor correction: Cosima’s last name in the show is Niehaus. Herter, as you’ve already pointed out, is the character after which Niehaus is named, but in given name only.

  2. Science nerdery for the win! I fell out of watching this, but am looking forward to picking it back up. I think cuz it is such a complicated story that it is better suited to binge watching.

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