Genetic Crossroads

The intersection of biotechnology, reproduction and society

Orphan Black: The Best Show You’ve Never Seen

A BBC America television series about clones is seriously good

Human cloning made a media comeback in the last year, with news of three different research groups making embryonic stem cells out of embryos cloned from adult cells, only 17 years after the technique worked to create Dolly the sheep. The scientists have stated clearly that these cloned embryos are meant for research and therapeutic purposes, and that they oppose any efforts to create human clones.

Forbes writer John Farrell isn’t buying it. In his view,

"The breakthrough also means that it is now just a matter of time before reproductive cloning is achieved. Probably within the next decade, as one scientist has told me."

As the Center for Genetics and Society has repeatedly asserted, it really is the time for that federal ban.

What might our unregulated Brave New World look like? BBC America’s television series, Orphan Black by Canadian director John Fawcett, nails it. Now into its second season, this show is seriously good, and starting to get some real recognition.

[SPOILER ALERT] It all begins when Sarah Manning, an English punk who has stolen her boyfriend’s cocaine stash so she can get money to take care of her young daughter, falls asleep on the train and wakes up to find herself at Huxley station. (The cultural references are copious so keep your eyes out.) She moves toward the only other person around, and is shocked to see a woman who looks exactly like herself, if only she were showered and wore a dress suit. Things get interesting fast, as the look-alike jumps in front of the next train, committing suicide before the two can share a word. Quick on her feet, Sarah grabs the purse her double left behind and runs, composing a plan to steal the cash and get her life back on track before anyone can know the difference.

It doesn’t quite work out as she hopes. Sarah soon finds herself deep in a world of secrets and murders that make her former life as an orphan on the run seem easy in comparison. After meeting three more women who look exactly like her, Sarah is finally let into the secret: the women are not long lost twins, but the result of an illegal medical experiment; they are clones. They look the same, but life has dealt them each very different cards. There’s a Ukrainian assassin raised by an ultra-religious group called the Proletheans who have taught her that clones are an abomination of nature, a lesbian grad student with dreads researching the clones’ genetic makeup, and an uptight suburban soccer mom who wears lululemon and funds the “clone club’s” efforts. It turns out that the one who killed herself was a pill-popping investigative cop.

Sarah’s original plan to take the money and run - with daughter (the only known offspring of a clone) and adopted brother (Felix Dawkins) in tow - slowly fades as she starts to unravel the mystery of her existence, and become entwined with the lives of her genetic identicals. The clones slowly realize that their origin story lies with a pro-eugenic scientific movement called Neolutionism, a group that boasts of its ability to self direct the evolution of humanity. The movement’s front man, the charismatic but not-quite-right Dr. Aldous Leekie, is a figure reminiscent of futurist Ray Kurzweil, and he’s got a following to match. In response to a reporter’s question about what his ideal human would look like, Leekie jokingly suggests “people with white hair and one white eye.” Not long after, a whole slew of “Freeky Leekies” pops up, “enhanced” to have those very characteristics.

Not wanting his precious clone creations to be far from reach, Leekie has assigned each clone her own “monitor,” people the women believe are their loved ones, but who actually track their every step. In the season one finale, it is revealed that his control goes further when Cosima (the grad student with dreads) cracks the code she found encrypted in each of their genomes. It turns out to be a patent held by Leekie and his obviously prosperous Dyad Institute.

In the real-world United States, “claims directed to or encompassing a human organism are ineligible” for patents. However, Orphan Black is deliberately ambiguous about where it takes place. Complicating the issue, the show examines the question, what does it mean to be human? The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit just ruled that cloned animals cannot be patented based on the notion that they are the genetic replica of naturally occurring organisms, but could even a tiny portion of synthetic DNA render one distinct?

Orphan Black certainly doesn’t shy away from drama or controversy, but it manages to pose the big questions without ever coming off as contrived. This is a memorable, unique series, and it seems likely that it will inform public opinion on human cloning for some time. Given the current technological media storm, we all ought to join the conversation. Orphan Black provides the perfect, fun excuse to do so.

Jessica Cussins is a researcher at the Center for Genetics and Society.

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