- Orphan Black as protestA symposium on Orphan Black
To sin by silence, when we should protest,Makes cowards out of men. The human raceHas climbed on protest. Had no voice been raisedAgainst injustice, ignorance, and lust,The inquisition yet would serve the law,And guillotines decide our least disputes.The few who dare, must speak and speak againTo right the wrongs of many. Speech, thank God,No vested power in this great day and landCan gag or throttle. Press and voice may cryLoud disapproval of existing ills;May criticize oppression and condemnThe lawlessness of wealth-protecting lawsThat let the children and childbearers toilTo purchase ease for idle millionaires.
Therefore I do protest against the boastOf independence in this mighty land.Call no chain strong, which holds one rusted link.Call no land free, that holds one fettered slave.Until the manacled slim wrists of babesAre loosed to toss in childish sport and glee,Until the mother bears no burden, saveThe precious one beneath her heart, untilGod's soil is rescued from the clutch of greedAnd given back to labor, let no manCall this the land of freedom.– Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1914)
The contributors to this symposium are fascinated by intertextuality. Art speaks to art, often across genres and media, regularly across chasms of geography and time: forwards, backwards, every which way. The repetitions and the modifications matter equally. [End Page 359]
Dating from just before the First World War, Ella Wheeler Wilcox's poem 'Protest' functions as a kind of reverse inspiration for BBC America's Orphan Black (Canada 2013–17). Cosima Herter, the show's science consultant and a major force in its writers' room, enjoyed the responsibility of selecting sources for each season's episode titles, usually before the scripts were complete. In the final season, though, she chose 'Protest' after production was well under way, deciding that it encapsulated the spirit of the entire series. Certainly, this television thriller was very much about genetic engineering. But it was also a sustained, broadly informed, defiant manifesto against injustice, exploitation and other forms of suppression.
Over five seasons, Graeme Manson and John Fawcett's 'weird little show' told a story of women's lives upended by the discovery of their shared origins. The alternate history premise–the show's principal novum–was that around the time of the famous 1975 Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA (which placed various safeguards on genetic engineering), scientists secretly began developing human clones. Several decades after the female line's births in 1984, we meet the first of many clone characters, all masterfully portrayed by Tatiana Maslany and her acting double, Kathryn Alexandre: Sarah Manning, a grifter; Cosima Niehaus, a geneticist; Alison Hendrix, a soccer mom; and Helena, a clone convinced by a cult that her calling as 'the original' is to rid the world of her duplicates. The plot twists and characters developed from this foundation are many, but the series consistently focuses on the question of how the clones can gain independence from the various dark organisations that claim to own them.
Spreading its attention across the Canadian thriller's five seasons, this special symposium interprets Orphan Black through a diverse set of lenses: as a fictionalisation of contemporary genetics and synthetic biology, with attention to the questions these fields generate about legal status, citizenship and information access; as a feminist and queer intervention, with regular implications for present-day reproductive options and identity categories; and as a study in the history and philosophy of science, especially insofar as these fields engage with questions of religion and capitalism. In part because many of the essays herein decline to retreat into separate disciplinary silos, they may even engage members of 'Clone Club' who do not count themselves as academics. If 'Protest' insists that 'The few who dare, must speak and speak again', this is one effort to follow Orphan Black with yet another demonstration of solidarity.
These essays were completed near the one-year anniversary of the series' conclusion, and as I collected them and reflected anew on Orphan Black's significance, I happened...