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Orphan Black emphasizes the science in its sci-fi with a disturbing chapter on eugenics

Cosima (Tatiana Maslany) meets her maker.
BBC America

Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for May 7 through May 14, 2016, is "Human Raw Material," the fifth episode of the fourth season of BBC America's Orphan Black.

It was only a matter of time before Orphan Black had to address eugenics.

BBC America's series about human clones has never shied away from the trickier questions surrounding its premise. From the very beginning, Sarah Manning (Tatiana Maslany) and her sister clones (Tatiana Maslany) have fought for the right to be their own people, going up against the nefarious interests of the scientists who created them, a religious cult that considers the clones to be abominations, and the body-enhancement groupies, a.k.a. Neolutionists, circling them all.

After taking several confusing detours in its third season, Orphan Black has gotten back to basics in season four, delving into the science of how the clones were first created and exploring what their existence could mean for the future of humanity.

And in "Human Raw Material," the show presents a slick series of farcical cases of mistaken identity (an Orphan Black specialty), as well as one of the most viscerally disturbing scenarios it's produced to date. The scientists who created the clones are sponsoring a company named BrightBorn, whose business is to help couples conceive the most perfect child possible.

In order to master their gene-editing techniques, though, BrightBorn conducts tests on surrogate mothers. And as clone Cosima discovers when she accidentally witnesses an awful, eye-opening BrightBorn birth, far from every experimental baby is "perfect." Some — or maybe even most — of the resulting infants are little more than botched test results … with a pulse.

It's a uniquely horrifying revelation, even for a show that's made a habit of revealing horrifying things every week. But it's also a smart one, because Orphan Black is one of the only shows on the air that could tackle the personal, scientific, and societal implications of eugenics with any kind of depth.

Orphan Black makes huge existential questions deeply personal

Krystal (Maslany) gets a lesson in self-defense
BBC America

Outside of the many ethical questions it involves, human cloning would be an enormous scientific breakthrough, and it's fittingly treated as such on the show. But Orphan Black also humanizes the science of cloning by telling its origin story through the perspectives of the clones themselves. Maslany has played over 10 different clone women and one transgender man, each with their own distinct personalities and places within the show's larger mysteries.

At its best, Orphan Black tells stories with huge implications — whether scientific or philosophical — on the most personal of levels. Very few questions are hypothetical, because the clones have to confront and answer them at every turn.

Throughout the series, clones have been monitored, tracked, kidnapped, impregnated, tortured, and killed. They've been continuously experimented upon, treated as lab rats in the race to perfect and evolve the human race.

But they've also managed to fight back against their status as products of science. They've outwitted their impossibly huge adversaries, and used their value as bargaining chips when their many enemies backed them into seemingly impossible corners. They've found safe spaces and made temporary, vulnerable homes there. They've beaten the odds of capture, containment, and death, time and time again, thanks to their sheer will to find freedom.

And as I've written before, it's significant that the lion's share of Orphan Black's storytelling is so focused on the ownership of women's bodies in such an intimate way.

Between the astonishing rotation of characters Maslany plays regularly, the show is always exploring what it means to be a woman who is both valued for and reduced to her body. Sarah and Allison fight for the freedom to live with their families free from corporate oversight. Cosima, struck with a genetic defect that has resulted in a fast-acting autoimmune illness, is fighting for her life. Questions of what it means to be human, a woman, or some miracle of science are what drive the entire show.

For proof, you don't have to look any further than this episode.

"Human Raw Material" shows there's no escaping the science in Orphan Black's science fiction

Susan Duncan (Rosemary Dunsmore) meets one of the clones she helped created
BBC America

As with every Orphan Black episode title in season four, "Human Raw Material" is a reference to the work of Donna Haraway, a professor in the "History of Consciousness" Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a scholar whose seminal essay A Cyborg Manifesto discusses the future of technology in explicit terms of feminism and identity.

Haraway's work often returns to the idea that cyborgs represent the natural melding of living organisms and manmade machines, opening up the possibility of a post-gender world. "Human Raw Material" in particular appears to refer to a passage in Haraway's Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, which specifically discusses the possibility of eugenics in human engineering.

Technically, Orphan Black is science fiction. But the show is purposefully set in a present-day world that looks and operates just like ours. Its most threatening villains are corporate suits who see the clones as a business opportunity. Hard questions of biology are inevitably woven into every mystery of the week, forcing both the characters and audience to face questions they'd rather never have to consider.

And so in "Human Raw Material," when Cosima infiltrates BrightBorn to see that unspeakable birth, its implications are personal and enormous, all at once. As Cosima stares at the baby — uselessly stretching its webbed feet and struggling to breathe due to its caved-in face — she knows she's staring at the kind of science that brought her and her fellow clones to life. It's the kind of science that could change the course of history, and it scares her to her core.

This scene leads to one of the episode's best moments, which doubles as one of the most significant in the show's history. Cosima gets to confront Susan Duncan (Rosemary Dunsmore), the woman behind BrightBorn's technologies, who, not coincidentally, created the clones in the first place. She rips Susan for her insistence on "eliminating certain genetic risk factors" when the process yields such horrific results. Cosima finds herself almost lost for words as she asks how in the hell Susan could ever even consider editing lines of gene code when it can cost so much in human life.

Then, much to Cosima's and viewers' surprise, Susan counters Cosima's outrage with a terrible but tempting choice. Cosima can stick with her current plan to keep crucial information out of the hands of companies like BrightBorn by carefully guarding the original clone genome sequence. (It's a long story.) Or, Susan offers, Cosima can join the company, pool resources, and have a much better chance of finding a cure for herself and every vulnerable clone like her than she would ever have on her own.

As a viewer, it's easy to sit on the couch and say that Cosima should stick to her principles, and dismiss the idea that she could ever collaborate with people who would bring countless "failed" human experiments into the world. But what if she could use their resources to help people? And the more pressing, frightening, and alluring question: What if she could change the course of human history?

If it's not already clear, Orphan Black is incredibly ambitious. It doesn't always stick the landing; a surplus of side plots and complex explanations frequently threatens to derail the entire show. But there are few series out there that would dare to discuss heady issues of feminism and agency in such a blunt and terrifying way. Orphan Black's eagerness to do so is genuinely thrilling, especially when it results in an episode as challenging and thought-provoking as "Human Raw Material."

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