Orphan Black is a slick, sexy new sci-fi thriller premiering this Saturday on the Space network. The pilot episode is engaging, tense, and deftly paced, electing to merely hint at the series’ genetic bio-conspiracy underpinnings in favour of establishing character and atmosphere. This is a testament to the series’ confidence in its lead, rising star Tatiana Maslany (Grown Up Movie Star, Being Erica, Picture Day). Maslany plays Sarah, a British ex-pat and general lowlife on the run… but she also plays Elizabeth, a troubled young professional, as well as playing a mysterious German woman. And that’s probably not all. But we’ll get to that later.
The series opens with Sarah alone at a train station, returning to her old stomping grounds with one goal: getting back the daughter she was forced to give up for adoption. As Sarah makes a desperate phone call for help, she notices a young woman on the platform who also seems distressed. Approaching her, Sarah is shocked to discover that the woman is her exact double… and then shocked again as the woman walks directly in front of an oncoming train. As the police arrive, she grabs the woman’s purse, scrambling for answers. Sarah discovers her doppelganger to be a successful young woman named Elizabeth, but before she can focus on this bizarre coincidence, she’s already hatched a plan: She’ll assume Elizabeth’s identity, drain her bank accounts, and use the money to whisk her daughter off to a new life.
Helping Sarha in this scheme is Felix (Jordan Garvais of Degrassi TNG and Unnatural History), a roguish and cheeky street hustler who grew up with Sarah in foster care. He aids her in pulling off the scam, while helping her to avoid Vic (Michael Mando, The Killing) Sarah’s abusive drug dealing ex. Orphan Black’s pilot shrewdly focuses its efforts on Sarah’s identity thieving con, establishing her as solely motivated by creating a better life for her estranged daughter. While the questions of Sarah’s twin loom in the background, we see Sarah to be dogged, resourceful, and willing to go to some pretty unsavoury ends to get the money for her daughter, including sleeping with Elizabeth’s unsuspecting boyfriend (Dylan Bruce, NCIS) and inducing vomiting to get out of a dangerous interrogation.
In the role of Sarah, Maslany truly proves that she is a star capable of leading a complex, mature series. She effortlessly portrays the character’s wounded vulnerability and tenacity, even while slipping behind the guise of Elizabeth. The pilot only hints at the emotional wringer Sarah will be put through, as the series’ larger high-tech conspiracy plot unfolds.
While Orphan Black is non-specific about its urban North American setting, it does use its Toronto shooting locations to create a stark, atmospheric world for the series. This is the Toronto of modern-but-cold condos, dreary grey skies, and dingy back alley dives hidden from view. In the show’s opening moments a reference to “Huxley” train station is no accident – this is a brave new world full of lonely individuals so focused on their own problems that they ignore high tech privacy invasions all around them. While the show is an original series for Space, the production has a decidedly more BBC tone (its co-producer and distributor), more along the lines of a high-tech Luther or bleaker Sherlock. Utilizing slick, intimate camera work, Orphan Black sells its premise on magnetic leads and dialogue that truly crackles.
While Orphan Black’s pilot may appear short on action, the tense plotting more than compensates, hinting at much more explosive developments to come. It’s star, Maslany, displays well-honed chops and the confidence to take her character (characters?) to exciting places. With a full season order on the way, Space may have found its next anchor show.
Orphan Black premieres Saturday, March 30th at 9pm ET on Space and BBC America.