Sarah Manning (Tatiana Maslany) is a tough British orphan and single mother who gets by as a small-time con artist in Toronto. After seeing someone who looks exactly like her commit suicide, Sarah decides to assume her identity, only to discover that the woman, Beth Childs, is a police officer at the heart of a mystery: Sarah and Beth are two of an unknown number of clones in a secret science experiment called Project Leda, which includes fellow clones Alison Hendrix, an uptight suburban soccer mom, and Cosima Niehaus, a brilliant scientist. Alison and Cosima have been working with Beth to discover who is running the experiment and what is causing a mysterious respiratory illness that affects some of the clones.
Meanwhile, another clone, a Ukrainian assassin named Helena, is systematically hunting the clones. Eventually, Helena is brought into the fold with her “Sestras” — as she refers to the female clones — and they set out to discover the truth. Their allies include Sarah’s precocious daughter Kira (Skyler Wexler), her fiercely protective foster-mother Mrs. S (Maria Doyle Kennedy) and her flamboyant foster brother Felix Dawkins (Jordan Gavaris), as well as Alison’s bumbling husband Donnie (Kristian Bruun), Cosima’s girlfriend Delphine Cormier (Évelyne Brochu) and lab assistant Scott Smith (Josh Vokey), and Beth’s former partner Arthur Bell (Kevin Hanchard).
The faction running the experiment, the Dyad Institute, is backed by a secretive group called Neolution, whose aim is to take control of human evolution. Rachel Duncan, a self-aware clone raised at the heart of the scientific movement, is a cold, ruthless businesswoman who wants to be the head of Neolution. Her “mother” Susan Duncan, played by Rosemary Dunsmore, and “father” Ethan Duncan, played by Andrew Gillies, were the scientists who successfully launched Project Leda.
Throughout the five seasons, as the women get closer to the heart of the mystery, the danger increases. More Leda clones are introduced throughout the series, most notably M.K. or Mika, a flighty Finnish computer hacker who has penetrated Neolution, and Krystal Goderitch, a glamourous and oblivious beautician. The second season also introduces a group of male military clones known as “Project Castor,” played by Ari Millen.
Showrunners Graeme Manson and John Fawcett met while working on the TV movie Lucky Girl in 2001. Fawcett was impressed with Manson’s rewrite and the two decided they should work together on a future project. Fawcett had the title Orphan Black but no story to go with it. They kept coming back to the idea of a show about clones, with Manson consulting his friend Cosima Herter about cloning. Manson and Fawcett started working on a feature film, but after it went nowhere Manson suggested they try it as a TV series.
Manson and Fawcett eventually found partners in Temple Street Productions, which got Canada’s Space network and BBC America to sign on as broadcasters. Manson and Fawcett agreed to BBC America’s request that the main character be British, feeling that it would help distinguish Sarah from the other clones. The lead role(s) went to Tatiana Maslany, who had won a special jury prize for breakout performance at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and was named a rising star at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival.
With a budget of $2 million per episode, production on the series began in Toronto in October 2012 and proved to be highly complicated. The visual effects were so difficult that the effects team, led by Geoff Scott, had to build much of their own tech to get results. The production also relied heavily on an actress who never appears on screen: Kathryn Alexandre, Tatiana Maslany’s acting double, who plays the clone opposite Maslany in a given scene. “I could cry thinking about her,” Maslany said of Alexandre in a Screen Actor’s Guild Foundation interview. “She memorizes all of my lines, all of my blocking, my mannerisms, my impulses …. and gives it back to me with a performance I can play off.”
Orphan Black’s premiere on 30 March 2013 attracted 404,000 viewers, making it the highest-rated original series to premiere on the Space network. It averaged 513,000 viewers per episode, making it the No. 2 show on Space, and was renewed for a second season.
Orphan Black was met with wide acclaim. Tim Goodman of the Hollywood Reporter said, “It is, flat out, one of the most intriguingly entertaining new series of the year…” Jeff Jensen of Entertainment Weekly wrote, “There’s no better special effect on television right now than Tatiana Maslany playing a variety of clones…” In its first season, Orphan Black was named to several year-end Top 10 lists, including those of Time, Entertainment Weekly and The Hollywood Reporter.
Maslany’s performance was lauded even by those who had qualms with the show. Variety critic Geoff Berkshire felt the series’ “byzantine conspiracies” and “convoluted mythology” resulted in a “niche appeal,” but wrote that “One of the primary pleasures of season one was discovering the quirks of each new character and marveling at Maslany’s ability to play them all so effortlessly.”
The Clone Club
The series quickly earned a loyal and engaged fan base, which dubbed themselves “the Clone Club.” Young women in particular responded to the show’s themes of identity, feminism, inclusion, ownership, privacy and nature vs nurture. Diversity was also a major theme, with an underlying message of the show being that diversity is humanity’s greatest strength.
Season Three Changes
The series sparked so many discussions that, beginning in season three, Space launched a follow-up show called After the Black that aired immediately after Orphan Black and featured guest appearances from the cast and crew. Hosts and guests analyzed episodes, discussed theories and fan comments, and introduced exclusive behind-the-scenes information and sneak peeks. BBC America picked up After the Black in Orphan Black’s fourth season.
Also beginning in the third season, Maslany was made a producer on the show. She became involved in the writing process, including pushing to create a more fully-developed character for Helena instead of making her just a cold-blooded assassin, and helping the directors think of new ways to look at the story. For example, the character Krystal Goderitch was not supposed to be a large part of the clones’ story. She was supposed to appear in a security video only, but Maslany’s characterization was so interesting that they developed an entire story line around Krystal. As Fawcett told the Globe and Mail, “This is not a typical lead-actress collaboration.”
Comic Book Series
In 2014, IDW Publishing partnered with Boat Rocker Media (parent company of Temple Street Productions) to create a comic book series based on the show. The limited series included five issues, each one focusing on the backstory of one of the five main clones: Sarah, Helena, Alison, Cosima and Rachel. Written by Fawcett, Manson and Jody Houser with art by Szymon Kudranski, the first issue was released in February 2015.
A second five-issue series, Orphan Black: Helsinki, was released in November 2015. It focuses on the story of the clones in Finland and Veera Suominen’s (a.k.a. M.K.) escape from Topside. This series was written by Fawcett, Manson, Denton J. Tipton and Heli Kennedy with art by Alan Quah. It was followed by a third series called Orphan Black: Deviations, which features an alternative fictional universe in which Sarah prevents Beth’s suicide. Written by Heli Kennedy with art by Wayne Nichols, the six-issue series was made available in March 2017.
Orphan Black was one of the most critically acclaimed co-productions in Canadian television history. Its success led the wayfor expensive co-productions such as The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace. Orphan Black also broke ground by pushing technical boundaries into new territory, and by being the first science-fiction series to garner mainstream awards. The lack of an Emmy nomination for Maslany’s performance in the early seasons caused an uproar among fans and critics alike. When she won the Emmy in 2016, Maslany became the first Canadian actor on a Canadian show to win an Emmy for acting in a dramatic series.
Orphan Black also leaves a legacy of online engagement. Though the series never had the largest audience, its producers leveraged the show’s passionate cult following in innovative ways. They made fan-produced artwork a centerpiece of the show’s marketing campaign and incorporated fans’ suggestions on everything from dialogue to props into the series. In the era of peak-TV and online streaming, fan engagement became as important as ratings, and Orphan Black found a formula that proved highly successful.
- Best Dramatic Series (2014)
- Best Writing in a Dramatic Series (Graeme Manson) (2014)
- Best Direction in a Dramatic Series (John Fawcett) (2014)
- Best Performance by an Actress in a Continuing Leading Dramatic Role (Tatiana Maslany) (2014)
- Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Supporting Role in a Dramatic Program or Series (Jordan Gavaris) (2014)
- Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Supporting Role in a Dramatic Program or Series (Maria Doyle Kennedy) (2014)
- Best Performance in a Guest Role, Dramatic Series (Natalie Lisinska) (2014)
- Best Photography in a Dramatic Program or Series (Aaron Morton) (2014)
- Best Picture Editing in a Dramatic Program or Series (D. Gillian Truster) (2014)
- Best Production Design or Art Direction in a Fiction Program or Series (Andy Loew, Ian Brock) (2014)
- Best Dramatic Series (2015)
- Best Writing in a Dramatic Series (Graeme Manson) (2015)
- Best Direction in a Dramatic Series (T.J. Scott) (2015)
- Best Performance by an Actress in a Continuing Leading Dramatic Role (Tatiana Maslany) (2015)
- Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Supporting Role in a Dramatic Program or Series (Jordan Gavaris) (2015)
- Best Original Music Score for a Series (Trevor Yuile) (2015)
- Best Photography in a Dramatic Program or Series (Aaron Morton) (2015)
- Best Picture Editing in a Dramatic Program or Series (D. Gillian Truster) (2015)
- Best Production Design or Art Direction in a Fiction Program or Series (Liz Calderhead, John Dondertman) (2015)
- Best Achievement in Casting (Sharon Forest, Susan Forest) (2015)
- Best Writing in a Dramatic Series (Alex Levine) (2016)
- Best Performance by an Actress in a Continuing Leading Dramatic Role (Tatiana Maslany) (2016)
- Best Performance by an Actor in a Continuing Leading Dramatic Role (Ari Millen) (2016)
- Best Picture Editing in a Dramatic Program or Series (Matthew Anas) (2016)
- Best Original Music Score for a Series (Trevor Yuile) (2016)
- Best Achievement in Makeup (Stephen Lynch, Sandy Sokolowski) (2016)
- Best Photography in a Dramatic Program or Series (Aaron Morton) (2016)
- Best Dramatic Series (2017)
- Best Writing in a Dramatic Series (Graeme Manson) (2017)
- Best Direction in a Dramatic Series (John Fawcett) (2017)
- Best Performance by an Actress in a Continuing Leading Dramatic Role (Tatiana Maslany) (2017)
- Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Supporting Role in a Dramatic Program or Series (Kevin Hanchard) (2017)
- Best Picture Editing in a Dramatic Program or Series (Jay Prychidny) (2017)
- Best Original Music Score for a Series (Trevor Yuile) (2017)
- Best Photography in a Dramatic Program or Series (Aaron Morton) (2017)
- Best Production Design or Art Direction in a Fiction Program or Series (Liz Calderhead, John Dondertman) (2017)
Directors Guild of Canada Awards
- Best Television Series – Drama (2014)
- Best Direction – TV Series (John Fawcett) (2014)
- Best Picture Editing – TV Series (Stephen Lawrence) (2014)
- Best Television Series – Drama (2015)
- Best Production Design – Television Series (John Dondertman) (2016 & 2017)
Writers Guild of Canada Awards
- TV Drama (Will Pascoe) (2014)
- Best Writing in a TV Drama (Tony Elliott) (2015)
- Best Writing in a TV Drama (Russ Cochrane) (2016)
- Peabody Award (2014)
- Best Actress in a Drama (Tatiana Maslany), Critics’ Choice Awards (2013 & 2015)
- Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series (Tatiana Maslany), Primetime Emmy Awards (2016)