Extending Life in Orphan Black
How long do you want to live? If it were possible, would you want an extra twenty years? How about forty more? What about doubling your lifespan? Or, why not just shoot for immorality? Maybe that’s going too far. Besides, isn’t mortality the point? If we were immortal, then the moments we experience with each other wouldn’t be so precious anymore. That’s the gift of mortality – knowing that any moment could be our last, knowing that the people we love move in and out of our lives at the whim of fate, knowing that everything ends so it can begin again. Still, an extra ten years wouldn’t be so bad, would it?
Extending life is the main theme of Orphan Black’s season five premiere, “The Few Who Dare.” The episode’s narrative focuses on a remote island village called Revival (a cross between Lost’s Dharma village and H.G. Wells’ Island of Dr. Moreau) where inhabitants are forcibly living “off the grid” under the guidance of a man named P.T. Westmoreland, who is supposedly 170 years old. Westmoreland founded the science of Neolution, engaging in genetic engineering and self-directed evolution – because why wait millions of years to advance humanity when you can just splice some DNA, re-sequence some genomes, or enhance the physical body through surgery? Neolution’s main project on Orphan Black, of course, has been cloning.
Known as Project Leda and Project Castor, the idea was to create an array of experimental clones (all miraculously played by Emmy winner Tatiana Maslany – seriously, they’re so fleshed out it really seems like each clone is embodied by a different actress) and everyone from the government, the military, and opportunistic fertility corporations have participated in what at times has seemed like a massive scientific conspiracy against the protagonist of the show: Sarah Manning.
Sarah’s a British clone who’s also a twin (Sarah’s also sort of the sister of Mrs. S, the woman who raised Sarah in South London, because Sarah happens to be cloned from Mrs. S’s mother, Kendall Malone, a woman who has both female and male DNA – because when Kendall was an embryo she happened to absorb her twin brother in the womb). And, Sarah is the only clone so far who’s been able to conceive and give birth – she has a daughter, Kira, who seems extremely special (to the point that Kira’s been kidnapped a few times by various baddies). However, Sarah’s twin, Helena, has been pregnant for three seasons (forcibly, by a religious cult known as Proletheans who inseminated her back in the second season) and her pregnancy is thus special, too. Make sense so far?
Right, it’s a bit confusing at times, but what season five seems to be doing (probably because it’s the final season and things need to start wrapping up) is consolidating the story into one grand narrative that pits Sarah, Helena, and their clone sisters (Alison and Cosima are the main two, but there’s at least five more) against Westmoreland and his nefarious followers who are now being led by Rachel, an evil clone who’s been Sarah’s enemy since the first season. As Rachel announces to the group, “The fruits of nearly 200 years of Neolution science are now within our grasp. And we, here, shall drink from the fountain first.”
Indeed, as “The Few Who Dare” illustrates, everything that’s happened over four seasons seems to boil down to the ability to extend life. As Delphine (Cosima’s lover and fellow scientist) says to Cosima: “Think about it. If you want to genetically improve the human race, life extension is the first principle.” Sounds good, right? In theory maybe, but history’s shown us that dabbling in genetic engineering, no matter how well-intentioned (because extending life necessarily entails the elimination of disease), often requires morally and ethically questionable experimentation … on humans. But that doesn’t stop us from trying, as the very real science of transhumanism demonstrates.
According to a Guardian article published in 2015 and written by Zoë Corbyn, hedge fund manager Joon Yun launched a million-dollar prize “challenging scientists to “hack the code of life” and push human lifespan past its apparent maximum of about 120 years.” Yun has teams of scientists experimenting on rats, and Yun is not alone in his quest. Human Longevity, Inc. (founded by tech entrepreneurs Craig Venter and Peter Diamandis) is developing anti-ageing drugs, while Google’s Calico is reverse engineering “the biology that controls lifespan.” As Corbyn writes, Calico recruited Cynthia Kenyon, “a scientist acclaimed for work that included genetically engineering roundworms to live up to six times longer than normal, and who has spoken of dreaming of applying her discoveries to people.” Corbyn notes that several tech billionaires are pouring their own time and money into defying ageing – such as PayPal’s Peter Thiel, Oracle’s Larry Ellison, and Russian internet mogul Dimitry Itskov, who wants to create “a digital copy of your brain turned into a low-cost, lifelike avatar, which doesn’t age.”
Returning to Orphan Black, while the title of “The Few Who Dare” comes from a line in Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s poem “Protest,” it nevertheless reflects (and perhaps romanticizes) the efforts of transhumanist philosophy as the wave of the future – an inevitability that we’ll all embrace someday. This matches Ronald Bailey’s explanation of transhumanism, which he describes as a “movement that epitomizes the most daring, courageous, imaginative and idealistic aspirations of humanity.” In defending transhumanism, Bailey rhetorically asks: “isn’t human history (and prehistory) all about liberating more and more people from their biological constraints? After all, it’s not as though most of us still live in our species’ “natural state” as Pleistocene hunter-gathers.”
Bailey cites all sorts of advancements – from fire to agriculture to writing to electricity to antibiotics and vaccines – as evidence that our species has always progressed itself beyond a natural state, and this includes our lifespan, which according to Bailey has tripled since the Stone Age. It certainly makes you wonder how a Stone Age human would’ve responded if he’d been told that someday he’d live to 75 instead of 25. Would it be the same reaction we have when we’re told that we might surpass 120? Still, Bailey, like all transhumanists, has a point. He isn’t wrong in observing the advancements of humanity and perhaps adding a few more decades isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds (it’s more than possible, it’s almost a certainty, one we might not even recognize). Even the anti-transhumanist Francis Fukuyama acknowledges the appeal of transhumanism.
As Fukuyama writes: “The human race, after all, is a pretty sorry mess, with our stubborn diseases, physical limitations, and short lives. Throw in humanity’s jealousies, violence, and constant anxieties, and the transhumanist project beings to look downright reasonable. If it were technologically possible, why wouldn’t we want to transcend our current species?” Fukuyama’s point is that, like the advancements of history, we’ll slowly accept whatever transhumanism offers, not realizing the moral costs (perhaps that’s already happened with our willingness to become one with our Smartphones and tablets). As Fukuyama concludes, “Nobody knows what technological possibilities will emerge for human self-modification. But we can already see the stirrings of Promethean desires in how we prescribe drugs to alter the behavior and personalities of our children.” For Fukuyama, the problem with transhumanism isn’t the technology itself but the hubris guiding it. As he sees it, the antidote to transhumanism’s hubris is humility. And, as he warns, “If we do not develop [humility] soon, we may unwittingly invite the transhumanists to deface humanity with their genetic bulldozers and psychotropic shopping malls.”
One of the interesting hallmarks of Orphan Black has been its ability to illustrate transhumanist issues, like life extension and cloning, without directly engaging them in an academic or didactic debate – no one really adopts a position like Bailey or Fukuyama. The focus has always been more on the clones and developing their characters and relationships rather than on evaluating transhumanist science. On a show like The 100, you’d get an argument. On Orphan Black, you get a Jason Bourne thriller, with clones running for their lives barely stopping to eat, let alone debate morality. This is where Orphan Black is more like Lost, where there never really was an argument between the Oceanic 815 survivors as to whether Dharma’s experiments (or Ben’s) were ethical – all that mattered was finding a way off (or back on) the island. This is because, for Lost, being with the ones you love outweighs anything else. Who cares about crazy science so long as you can spend your life (or your eternity) with the people you care about?
Orphan Black illustrates the same message, suggesting that the point of human nature isn’t about extending life through science, it’s about extending life through relationships. Even if Silicon Valley successfully finds a way to double or triple our lifespans two things still remain: time and death – they may be prolonged but they won’t be eliminated. Will we be satisfied or will we want more? Will we waste the extra decades transhumanism gives us or will we make the most of every moment? Through the illustration of the clones’ lives, Orphan Black seems to suggest that we shouldn’t waste the decades we’re already gifted with.
For example, Cosima’s been dying since season one from a genetic malady as a result of her being a clone. Yet, she’s managed to find love with Delphine and to connect with her clone sisters in a meaningful way. Helena began as an assassin, brainwashed by a sect of Proletheans to kill all the clones (she was so evil and psychotic that Sarah actually shot her at the end of the first season). Eventually, Helena developed a bond with her clone sisters that goes beyond blood – she’s essentially become everyone’s guardian angel instead of angel of death. Alison has grown from a paranoid, dysfunctional suburban housewife (who hit a low point when she sort of accidentally killed her neighbor and then committed herself to mental treatment) to being able to find the strength (thanks to the clone sisters) to move on with life.
Then we have Sarah, who’s had a rough life drinking, drugging, abandoning her daughter (she’d left her with Mrs. S for ten months), and getting mixed up in the grifter’s life of petty crime (and she almost committed suicide last season). But, with a little help from her friends and clone sisters, she’s become the hero of the show and the responsible leader and protector of her little clone family, doing whatever she has to do to keep everyone alive and safe. It’s what she does in “The Few Who Dare,” as she improvises a tourniquet (because her leg was stabbed), fights off a human-animal monster, and survives in the woods determined to find Cosima – she does, in the Revival village.
Indeed, none of the clones should have made it this far and if it weren’t for the strength of their bond, they’d all have likely died alone in their own self-destructive way (or as the result of one of the nefarious groups of people so keenly interested in hunting them). To be fair, while Sarah, Helena, Cosima, and Alison have survived, Beth (suicide), Katja (murdered), and Jennifer (disease) didn’t make it. And, the fates of M.K., Tony, Krystal, and even Rachel are yet to be determined, as are Kira and Helena’s unborn baby.
What Orphan Black illustrates, then, is that extending life isn’t really about adding years, it’s about creating moments out of the years we have with the people we love, that’s what keeps us going, extending our lives every day in countless little ways. Transhumanism may be inevitable and Fukuyama’s moral concerns may be justified, but what seems to be more important for Orphan Black is not that we embrace or fear whatever the future holds, but that we simply face it together. Welcome to Clone Club.
Edwardo Pérez, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Tarrant County College Northeast.
Bailey, Ronald. “Transhumanism: the most dangerous idea?” Reason.com, 25 Aug 2004.
Fukuyama, Francis. “The world’s most dangerous idea.” Foreignpolicy.com, 23 Oct 2009.
Orphan Black, Seasons 1 – 4, BBC America.
Orphan Black, Season 5, Episode One “The Few Who Dare,” BBC America.