Note: Since this post is supposed to be a general introduction to Orphan Black, I’ve attempted to minimise detailed spoilers.
Easily one of the most distinctive new science fiction shows since the conclusion of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009), Orphan Black is a techno-thriller created by Graeme Manson and John Fawcett, produced by BBC America and Canada’s Space channel, and which originally aired in the spring, but is now available to watch in Britain for the first time. With a vocal cult following in North America, the show’s central appeal, and its main strength, is in the phenomenal performance (or, rather, performances) of Tatiana Maslany in a break-out role (or, uh, roles) for the Canadian actress.
The premiere begins with orphan, grifter and general ne’er-do-well Sarah Manning (Maslany) returning to an unidentified city with mixed intentions: to make things right with her young daughter, Kira, and sell a package of cocaine she procured from ex-boyfriend Vic (Michael Mando), with the intention of raising the money to begin a new life with her child as well as her loyal foster brother, Felix (Jordan Gavaris). When Sarah encounters Beth Childs (also Maslany), a seemingly wealthy suicide who looks exactly like her, with Felix’s aid she steals the dead woman’s identity, but gets much more than she bargained for as the con throws up unexpected and dangerous complications.
Maslany doesn’t quite get to display the full range of her powers in this first episode, with Sarah’s doppelgängers flitting only briefly in and out of the story here at the start. However, this does serve to ground the more uncanny elements of the show thoroughly in Sarah’s experience, as she falls down the rabbit hole of Beth Childs’ unraveling life, and begins to uncover the threads which will lead to the secret tying the two of them together.
What the first episode does showcase, then, is the show’s other central strength: the rapid, and thrilling, escalation of its plot and the use of expertly constructed narrative set-pieces which ratchet up the tension and prove earlier on that the show doesn’t need to rely on violence for engaging action (though both this and later episodes have their share). Through ever more precarious improvisations in her disguise as Beth, as she attempts to hide the deception from key figures in the dead woman’s relationships, both professional and personal, Sarah finds that every victory only leads her to become more entangled in the complexities of a stolen life. Eventually, Sarah’s decisions further endanger her relationship with her daughter, and put her own life in peril.
Like even the most illustrious of its predecessors, there are times throughout the show’s run so far where the more absurd elements of its emerging mythology threaten to displace the human drama, but the concrete foundation of its plot turns and revelations in the experiences of the central characters, and in Tatiana Maslany’s performances in particular, prevent it from becoming too disconnected from its audience. For while the murky world of Orphan Black is based around hidden conspiracies, weird science and secrets cults, its story hinges on something more elemental and essential: the fractious relationship between the deliberate choices people make, and the uncontrollable factors which influence them – empowering and limiting their actions in equal measure.
Virtually everything that happens in the premiere emanates from the choices Sarah makes, beginning with stealing the handbag of a woman who stepped in front of a trains, yet she is also increasingly trapped both by her own choices, past and present, and by a greater history which she is on the cusp of uncovering. At the end of the show’s first hour, the stage is set for a fascinating season of television which confronts the variances of nature and nurture, and explores the eternal, irresolvable conflict between pre-determination and free will – not in abstract fashion, but in the material and immediate concerns of Sarah and those like her, despite their extraordinary circumstances.
Orphan Black premieres on BBC Three on Friday 20th September with a double bill at 9:00pm, but the first episode is currently available on iPlayer.
 That’s not including the inessential 2010 Battlestar Galactica TV Movie The Plan, which unfortunately only served to show that there really was never much of one at all.
 With no effort made to disguise the CN tower, the city in question is implicitly Toronto, where production of the show takes place, yet it is an inexplicably Americanised version, most notably reflected in a depiction of police hierarchy which shares more with fictionalised depictions of American police departments in other TV shows than it does with the actual Toronto Police Service.
 Speaking of Orphan Black‘s murky world, the capturing of Toronto’s bleak skies and its elegant but cold modern buildings serves the show well in establishing a distinct texture and tone, which is at once both mundane and totally alien.