- Nothing is sacredPatenting life in Orphan Black
The political theorist Hannah Arendt famously opens The Human Condition (1958) by lamenting the lack of attention sf has received, despite its being such a rich 'vehicle of mass sentiments and mass desires' (2). While it has taken more than half a century, critics have finally caught on to what the ever-prescient Arendt noticed in the years following the Second World War, when sf was emerging as a mass genre. If sf typically registers mass sentiments and desires, however, the most sophisticated examples manifest a keen critical acumen that is not just exemplary, but also analytical. Orphan Black registered the anxieties and desires of its moment and, at its best, brought them into view for inspection.
Taking episode titles from Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, the first season in particular explored the implications of modernity's most compelling creation story and its legacy in some deeply held convictions about life and the human. The season one finale, 'Endless Forms Most Beautiful' (1 Jun 2013), summons the lyrical last paragraph of Origin, which ends with a magnificent cosmological meditation:
Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.n.p.; (emphasis added)
Evolved: in the first edition, this is the only variant of the word that would write Darwin's work so indelibly into history. He knew he was crafting a scientific creation story that for so many would dangerously rival the one with which they had been raised. He would capitulate in the next edition–to his public, to his wife, perhaps even to some aspect of himself–adding another breath to that final paragraph: 'having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms' (n.p.; emphasis added). But 'evolution' had already ignited the human imagination, with a dream of harnessing its powers. The magnificent [End Page 366] sestras–patented, hunted, haunted–were born of that never-ending dream, but whose? And with what implications? These are the questions with which the season ends.
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'Endless Forms Most Beautiful' concludes with a series of intercut scenes in which Cosima and Delphine (Evelyne Brochu) discover the clones are patented, Sarah and Helena meet their birth mother and learn they are 'natural twins', and Alison stands by and watches her 'best friend' Ainsley choke to death. Interweaving the campy with the dramatic, these scenes draw out the convictions about life and the human that impart a speculative quality to the scientific and a mythic quality to the everyday. They show how the wonder of science can bleed into fanaticism, with the scientific Neolutionists rivalling the religious Proletheans in their extremism, and they demonstrate the especially dangerous corruption when science goes corporate.
During this dramatic season finale, Cosima calls Sarah to warn her against signing the contract the Dyad Institute has offered. 'It's a patent', she blurts. 'We're property. Our bodies, our biology, everything we are, everything we become belongs to them. Sarah, they could claim Kira'.1 Such is the dilemma [End Page 367] of Orphan Black: what are these entities, these experiments, that Dyad has deposited throughout the world? And to what rights are they entitled? As fans with legal expertise quickly noted, the patent may not have been legally sound, but it remains an intriguing plot device that crystallises a fundamental dilemma of biotechnology: the ostensible ambiguity of laboratory-produced life in the context of a multi-billion-dollar industry.2 Cosima gives voice to a concern that has been echoing throughout patent law at least since the...