Outlander, Ovaries, Orphan Black…and Battlestar Galactica

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Orphan Black kind of came and went for me this summer. I watched it avidly, if sometimes skeptically, with the growing belief that this was the rare television show that would benefit from a longer season. By the time this one really started to hit its stride (and get over its unfortunate episode-length experiment in bad drag costuming), it was done.

I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed in sum. I’m not entirely sure that rapidly expanding the world, or the clones therein, was the best idea for a show that’s never had the greatest grip on its central conspiracy and all the scientific-military-industrial entities pulling its characters’ strings. And much as I love the characters and the ever-amazing Tatiana Maslany, I do think Orphan Black is undercutting its original thriller grit by refusing to kill off any of its main clones. Cosima should probably be dead; Helena, lovable child psycho that she is, never should have been resurrected from last season.

I say that even without considering how much both characters had to do with the Women and Their Ovaries plotlines of this season. But that, along with the haphazard effort to expand the menace without fully thinking through the explanations, became part of why this season of Orphan Black reminded me so much of Battlestar Galactica. There was also the obvious (genetic doubles impersonating each other and tricking humans), the superficial (casting Michelle Forbes, or Cylon Aaron Doral, as heavies); the tangentially-explored (tensions between religious extremists, scientists, and those who tried to keep a foot in both camps); and the ovary-centric, with the show spending much of its time this season on fights over women’s bodies and reproductive abilities, and the ownership thereof. That last is an area that most recent serious scifi seems to wind up trying to explore, rarely very successfully; from Scully on X-Files to poor angel Kara Thrace, some lady on any prestigious scifi show always seems to be getting her eggs carved out of her body by pleasantly malevolent scientists.

I’m not condemning Orphan Black for going there. It’s an obvious story destination, especially for a show about clones who happen to be women. And it’s exploring these topics at a pretty relevant (and horrifying) time. But Sarah Manning’s more than just a womb, as she would be the first to tell you; I’d like to see Orphan Black do more to remember that.

I’d especially like to see that given its status as one of the only purveyors of hard scifi TV right now. Orphan Black isn’t really spaceships and robots; its clones are deceptively human, and it might not obviously appeal to the  Battlestar Galactica crowd. But it’s the closest thing on the air right now to scifi over fantasy, especially in this era of Comic Book Everything and Game of Thrones and Outlander.

That last, of course, comes straight from Battlestar Galactica creator Ron Moore, who’s managed to find a show that allows him to fully indulge in his love for slow-mo mysticism (complete with a pseudo-Celtic soundtrack recycled from almost every meaningful Adama Menfolk conversation ever. Hi there, Bear McCreary.) Half an episode into Outlander and heroine Claire is also despairing over her unused womb, so it looks like we’re right on the ovaries track. That’s not really Moore’s fault; it’s true to the tiresome book, and in one episode, he and actor Caitriona Balfe managed to make Claire much more compelling than I found her in the source material. But - robot angels in Times Square and the other sources of my BSG PTSD aside — I’m a little wistful that Moore has turned his attention to something so much more on the fantasy end of the TV spectrum. 

Sure, if you want equity of pulpy television adaptations of mediocre fantasy series, Outlander serves as a potentially promising feminist answer to Game of Thrones. But as someone who’s alternately bored and angered by the Saga of the Rapes of Westeros, I’m finding it hard to care very much about the slightly more female-friendly version. I don’t really need another show illustrating how much it sucked to be a woman sixty years ago, or three centuries ago, especially not when I’ve got plenty of prestige dramas already covering that territory. For all of its occasional inconsistencies, at least Orphan Black has bigger ambitions, and somewhat more subtle things to say about the modern injustices of being human while female. It’s also really the only scifi series on TV right now, and it’s held down by a bunch of women. All due luck to Outlander, but I’ll be waiting for the return of Orphan Black, and hoping it gets some company from other forward-looking TV shows. 

Cloud Atlas, Battlestar Galactica, music and Korean robot martyrs

Cloud Atlas the movie has a lot more soul than Cloud Atlas the book. Unfortunately, it’s stuck in a paradox of accessibility: to like or even understand the movie, you probably have to have read the book, and if you liked David Mitchell’s chilly and intricate ruminations on How We Are All Connected, you might not appreciate Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings reducing all of those grand intellectual thoughts into love stories.

But wow, I did. Tykwer and especially the Wachowskis actually made me care about the characters by turning Mitchell’s vague reincarnation tales into stories of lovers losing and finding each other through the ages. Some of that effort didn’t always work out - poor combover-scientist Tom Hanks got about 45 seconds of chatting with investigative-journalist Halle Berry before deciding he was in love with her, and then dying. But adding romance to the post-apocalyptic Hanks-Berry story worked a lot better than I expected, and the Jim Sturgess-Doona Bae relationship just got me. I loved that the Wachowskis gave us that emotion to hang onto, that they emphasized the importance of Adam Ewing’s wife and gave that couple the happy ending in the past to make up for their tragic ending in the future. I also liked the decision to make the Sonmi/Hae-Joo relationship sincere rather than to stick to the novel’s plot and have him manipulating her, with her knowledge. Sturgess and Bae were just ridiculously sweet and sad together, and while I spent the movie waiting for his duplicity to be revealed, I’m glad that it ultimately didn’t exist.

The Sonmi storyline also reminded me of one of my favorite scenes from Battlestar Galactica — a scene also involving an android, played by a Korean(-American) woman, with a complicated love life and a martyr complex. The beginning of Galactica's first-season finale, “Kobol’s Last Gleaming,” shows the android Sharon shot by her human lover after he discovers the truth about her. That couple eventually gets their happy ending, but not before death and other tragedy comes to some of the Sharon characters.

What made that Galactica episode memorable is how that scene is intercut (sound familiar?) with several other simultaneous stories, while a fugal piece of music (sound familiar?) plays over it all. I’ve been listening to the Cloud Atlas soundtrack on Spotify nonstop since leaving the movie - it’s addictively, beautifully, maddeningly repetitive and keeps the stories alive in a way that the book never did. I haven’t listened to a piece of pseudo-classical music this intensely since Galactica aired that episode and handed the entire opening sequence over to Bear McCreary’s Passacaglia. Which is still in heavy rotation on my iTunes, because every time I hear it I think of Lee’s fight and Kara’s betrayal and Boomer’s attempted suicide while her clone fights with her lover, because that piece of music actually managed to transform what was otherwise a decent episode of a good sci-fi TV show into something that’s still memorable and inventive, years later. The movie adaptation of Cloud Atlas has the same striking effect on me - it might not be a commercial success, but it’s unexpectedly touching and memorable. 

The awesomeness of this 4-minute Battlestar Galactica recap/critique cannot be overstated. “Press ‘A’ to forget this plotline entirely!”