Orphan Black Was Never About Cloning – Slate Magazine

Posted: August 14, 2017 at 5:43 am

From the opening scene, questions of identityboth existential and scientificprovide the shows narrative thrust.

BBC America

This article contains spoilers about the series finale of Orphan Black.

After five seasons of clone cabals, the BBC America/Space series Orphan Black has come to a mostly happy end. Yet an ellipsis follows wrapping of the show, hinting at bigger questions that transcend the characters storylines. Orphan Blacks conspiracies, camp, and Tatiana Maslanys riveting performances as a dozen different clones make it easy to overlook its prescience and profundity. From the opening scene in which Sarah Manning sees her clone kill herself by stepping in front of a train, questions of identityboth existential and scientificprovide the shows narrative thrust. Who created the clones? How? Why? How much control do their creators have over them? The shows final season provides answers while raising questions that transcend science fiction. What role should ethics play in science? Do scientific subjects have the right to self-determination?

If you stopped watching a few seasons back, heres a brief synopsis of how the mysteries wrap up. Neolution, an organization that seeks to control human evolution through genetic modification, began Project Leda, the cloning program, for two primary reasons: to see whether they could and to experiment with mutations that might allow people (i.e., themselves) to live longer. Neolution partnered with biotech companies such as Dyad, using its big pharma reach and deep pockets to harvest peoples genetic information and to conduct individual and germline (that is, genetic alterations passed down through generations) experiments, including infertility treatments that result in horrifying birth defects and body modification, such as tail-growing.

In the final season, we meet the man behind the curtain: P.T. Westmoreland, who claims to be 170 years old thanks to life-extension treatments such as parabiosis (transfusions of young blood). Westmoreland wants to harness the healing powers of the particular LIN28A gene mutation found in the fertile clones kids. (Real-world studies suggest that while LIN28A mutations are linked to cancer, its RNA-binding protein promotes self-renewal of embryotic stem cells.)

Westmorelandultimately discovered to be a fraud who assumed the original Westmorelands identity after he diedpersonifies one of the shows messages: that pseudoscience and megalomania can masquerade as science. Just because someone has a genetic sequencer and a lab coat doesnt mean hes legitimate, and just because someones a scientist doesnt mean hes ethical.

Orphan Black demonstrates Carl Sagans warning of a time when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few. Neolutionists do whatever they want, pausing only to consider whether theyre missing an opportunity to exploit. Their hubris is straight out of Victor Frankensteins playbook. Frankenstein wonders whether he ought to first reanimate something of simpler organisation than a human, but starting small means waiting for glory. Orphan Blacks evil scientists embody this belief: if theyre going to play God, then theyll control not just their own destinies, but the clones and, ultimately, all of humanitys. Any sacrifices along the way are for the greater goodreasoning that culminates in Westmorelands eugenics fantasy to genetically sterilize 99 percent of the population he doesnt enhance.

Orphan Black uses sci-fi tropes to explore real-world plausibility. Neolution shares similarities with transhumanism, the belief that humans should use science and technology to take control of their own evolution. While some transhumanists dabble in body modifications, such as microchip implants or night-vision eye drops, others seek to end suffering by curing human illness and aging. But even these goals can be seen as selfish, as access to disease-eradicating or life-extending technologies would be limited to the wealthy. Westmorelands goal to sell Neolution to the 1 percent seems frighteningly plausibletranshumanists, who statistically tend to be white, well-educated, and male, and their associated organizations raise and spend massive sums of money to help fulfill their goals. Critics raise many objections to transhumanism, including overpopulation and the socioeconomic divide between mortals and elite immortals, which some think might beget dystopia. Researchers are exploring ways to extend the human lifespan whether by genetic modification, reversing senescence (cellular deterioration with age), nanobots, or bio-printed tissues and organs, but in the world of Orphan Black we dont have to speculate about the consequences of such work.

The show depicts the scientists dehumanization of the clones from its first scene, when Beth, unable to cope with the realities of her cloned existence, commits suicide. When another clone, Cosima, tries to research her DNA, she gets a patent statement: This organism and derivative genetic material is restricted intellectual property. It doesnt matter that Cosima is sick or that shes in love. Shes not a person: Shes a trademarked product, as are the other clones.

Orphan Black warns us that money, power, and fear of death can corrupt both people and science.

The shows most tragic victim is Rachel, the evil clone. Shes the cautionary tale: Frankensteins monster, alone, angry, and cursed. The only one raised with the awareness of what she is, Rachel grows up assured of her own importance and motivated to expand it by doing Neolutions dirty work. Westmoreland signs a document giving Rachel sovereignty, but later she sees computer files in which shes still referred to by her patent number. Despite her leadership, cunning, and bravery, even those working with her never regard her as human. Her willingness to hurt her sisters and herself shows what happens to someone whose experience of nature and nurture is one and the same.

We, the viewers, also dehumanize Rachel by writing her off as one of them. When she lands on the side of her sisters, she does so not out of morality but out of vengeance. At the end, Westmoreland, the closest thing she has to a father, taunts her: its fitting you return to your cage. All lab rats do. But her childhood flashbacks suggest she doesnt want others to experience what she has. When Neolutionists take 9-year-old Kira from her home at gunpoint, Rachel initially supports the plan to load Kira with fertility drugs and then harvest her eggs to access her mutated gene. But when Kira gives Rachel a friendship bracelet (and perhaps her first friendship), Rachels haunted expression suggests that beneath her usually unflappable demeanor, shes still a frightened little girl. When Kira asks, Who hurt you? Rachel responds, They all did.

Whether motivated by retaliation, morality, or both, Rachel helps save Kira and takes down Neolution. Yet its unclear whats left for her as shell never be welcomed into Clone Club. Her last act is to provide a list of clones around the world so Cosima and former Dyad researcher Delphine can cure them. Rachel gives the clones control over their livesand in so doing, asserts control over her own.

Ultimately, Orphan Black is all about choice. Theres much in life we cant choose: our parents, the circumstances of our birth, our DNA. Its no surprise that a show that espouses girl power (the future is female is both spoken and seen on a T-shirt in the final two episodes) dwells on the importance of choice. The finale flashes back to Sarah in front of Planned Parenthood debating whether to have an abortion. Reckless, rough Sarah surprises herself (and Mrs. S, her foster mother) by deciding to keep the baby. Years before she learns how many decisions others have made about her body, she makes a decision for herself.

On Orphan Black, denial of choice is tantamount to imprisonment. That the clones have to earn autonomy underscores the need for ethics in science, especially when it comes to genetics. The shows message here is timely given the rise of gene-editing techniques such as CRISPR. Recently, the National Academy of Sciences gave germline gene editing the green light, just one year after academy scientists from around the world argued it would be irresponsible to proceed without further exploring the implications. Scientists in the United Kingdom and China have already begun human genetic engineering and American scientists recently genetically engineered a human embryo for the first time. The possibility of Project Leda isnt farfetched. Orphan Black warns us that money, power, and fear of death can corrupt both people and science. Once that happens, loss of humanityof both the scientists and the subjectsis inevitable.

In Carl Sagans dark vision of the future, people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority. This describes the plight of the clones at the outset of Orphan Black, but as the series continues, they challenge this paradigm by approaching science and scientists with skepticism, ingenuity, and grit. The lab rats assert their humanity and refuse to run the maze. Freedom looks different to everyone, Sarah says in the finale. As she struggles to figure out what freedom will look like for hershould she get her GED? Sell the house? Get a job?its easy to see how overwhelming such options would be for someone whose value has always been wrapped in a double helix. But no matter what uncertainties their futures hold, the clones dismantle their cages and make their own choices, proving what weve known all alongtheir humanity.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.

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