BBC America launched the Canadian sci-fi series Orphan Black in March, and I got immediately hooked. Last night both the show and the Beeb gave me mild disappointments, neither one entirely unexpected.
First, the big disappointment: Doctor Who star Matt Smith announced he's leaving the series after this year's Christmas Special. Four years as the 11th (12th?) Doctor is a lot when you're a talented 27-year-old actor. His departure was inevitable, of course, but he'll be missed.
Now Orphan Black. The first nine episodes built up Sarah Manning's world as she discovered she was one of at least eight clones (all of them played by brilliant Canadian Tatiana Maslany), possibly more, somehow connected to the mysterious Dr. Aldous Leekie (Matt Frewer).
The series has entertained me every week, with consistently solid writing and directing, and even taking Maslany off the league table for a fair comparison, above-average acting. Then last night happened. I still really like the show, don't misunderstand. But series creators Graeme Manson and John Fawcett had too much to do in 46 minutes, which, while predictable, was still a little disppointing.
Before I go into details (with spoilers), it's important to point out that stuffing a full season into 10 episodes, and needing to set up the next season, is challenging for any writer. Sometimes writers take shortcuts. Sometimes they have bad days. Manson did his best, but a couple of things didn't work for me at all, and took me out of the story.
Cosima and Delphine discovering the hidden message
Near the end of the episode, Delphine and clone Cosima realize that the DNA watermarks hidden in each of the clones's genomes may contain real information. Now, I understand that most people haven't a clue about DNA, or how it works, requiring some Basil Exposition action; but these two characters have Ph.D.-level biology skills.
Cosima and Delphine would know that DNA has only four possible base pairs the way a software developer would know that 1 and 1 is 1. In a synthetic DNA sequence, that gives you either two or four possible values for each base pair, depending on whether you care about which side of the strand a nucleotide is on. (If you care, you can get 2 bits out of each base pair. Trust me.)
This means you can use DNA to store binary data. This is treated as a revelation. But it's obvious. Not only is it obvious, it's been done.
So what annoyed me? The scene's emphasis. It's not shocking that the clones have watermarks; it's shocking that someone was able to do this to their DNA in 1983.
The clones' reactions to the hidden message
The same scene concludes with Cosima and Delphine discovering that the synthetic DNA sequence encodes a text snippet implying that the clones are patented. From this Cosima concludes that they're property, which motivates Sarah and Paul to bolt from their meeting with Rachel Duncan.
Two things bothered me: first, as a matter of law, people can't be property. The UK abolished slavery in 1833, the U.S. in 1865, and Canada never allowed it as an independent nation. So even if the clones' DNA could be patented, that would not make them "property" in any way.
Also, even if the clones' DNA could be patented, they're all 28 or 29 years old. Patents taken out before 1989 in Canada have 17-year lifespans; in the UK it's 20 years. So the clones' DNA would be in the public domain at this point, regardless.
But human beings can't be patented; only processes based on human DNA can be patented. The question of whether fragments of human DNA can be patented is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court with a decision expected this month.
Notwithstanding everything I've just written, in order to get a patent, you have to file a public patent application. So, it's 1983, and you're about to implant at least eight clone embryos into unsuspecting surrogate mothers, some of whom will go on to believe that the resulting children are their own biological offspring. And you want to file a written patent application with the USPTO?
My conclusion from all this is that the clones were so worked up by this point—Sarah has to be on her last nerve, and well along the road to serious PTSD—that none of them stopped to think, "how the hell does the evil corporation intend to enforce this patent?" The corporation doesn't intend to enforce the patent; they intend to continue their illegal and unethical research, which requires the clones' cooperation. The fewer idiots in this plot, the better the chances that everyone gets what he or she wants.
Which leads me to:
Why did Paul and Sarah bolt the interview?
Again, I have to accept that Sarah is so far out of her depth and so stressed out that she would have trouble counting to 20 in one try, let alone working out the best way to gain tactical advantage over Leekie. Remember, she's just lost her birth mother and killed her "twin" sister. After being attacked by said twin. Probably with a nasty concussion, a cracked rib or two, and other injuries. Still, Paul knows who's in the room they're heading to, because he was just in it. He's armed, and so is Sarah. What does he suppose the two lawyers will do to them once Sarah signs the agreement? (An agreement which, because it's predicated on an illegal premise, is completely unenforceable.)
The last minute of the season, then, became an idiot plot, leaving only one question: who would abduct Sarah's daughter? I wouldn't suspect Leekie, if he's not an idiot. He's going to need Sarah's cooperation if he hopes to derive any useful information from Kira.
Predictions for Season Two
All right, Manson and Fawcett got a little hurried in the last few pages of the script. But now I think it's possible to see the larger pattern. Here are my guesses:
- Sarah and the other clones were created to be super-soldiers. All of them have displayed above-average intelligence, adaptability, and some degree of sociopathy. They're also physically stronger than they look, and seem to heal a lot faster than normal people. Kira, certainly, has some strange characteristics. And with the military already aware of them—where did Paul come from, after all?—there's a clear path through that garden.
- Mrs. S. escaped with Kira when Leekie's people tried to take them.
- Detective Deangelis is working for Leekie. Art, though, is pretty much who he appears to be, and will make good on his promise to protect Sarah.
- It's a long time until next spring. But I'm looking forward to Season 2.
I like Orphan Black. The season finale got me thinking and speculating about what will happen next—a sign of a good story. So, naturally, I've pre-ordered the Blu-Ray, so I can see what I missed during the first pass.