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A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘Orphan Black

The rest of Orphan Black / (Follow-up: A few more thoughts on TV series)

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I have now gone through the rest of “Orphan Black” (cf. a recent post)—the overall quality* was high enough to offset the unfortunate story developments. However, while I would recommend the series, it also manages to make every error in the book when it comes to the story lines. For parts of the latter seasons, I had the feeling that the makers watched to much “Lost”** in their spare time. This includes an island (usually referred to as “the island”) with evil researchers, a surprise village, and a monster running around in the woods… The introduction of a 170 years old character, as the evil master-mind, almost had me stop watching—this would have moved the introduction of (still) sci-fi level break-throughs to a ridiculously early time, and in a manner not compatible with previous impressions of the world of the series. To boot, having the evil master-mind be so old, brings nothing to the series***. Fortunately, it turned out that this supposed Methuselah had simply stolen the identity of the (long dead) original founder of his movement and had thereby exaggerated his age by a-hundred-or-so years. Another great annoyance was the entirely unnecessary introduction of some form of low-grade ESP ability in the daughter of “Sarah”.**** It added nothing to the development of events, brought no benefit, and forced the introduction of a fantasy element in a sci-fi series*****.

*Especially Maslany’s acting, but there are also quite a few other competent actors involved, the interpersonal relationships are often developed and investigated in a manner that captures the viewer, and there are a number of funny scenes (notably around “Alison” and “Helena”) that complement the darker sides of the series and increase the entertainment value considerably.

**Another series that would have been better off with less intrigue, fewer competing parties, and whatnot. The supernatural aspects were mostly a hindrance. There is so much that could have been done with just having a plane crash on a deserted island, had the makers had more courage.

***But note that this might have been different in another series or type of series, e.g. a vampire show.

****Really, what is with this obsession with giving children super powers?

*****The fewer “leaps of faith”, assumed deviations from actual reality, whatnot, that is needed in order to make a TV series (film, book, …) plausible (while achieving the intended effect) the better. Having both unrealistic technology and magic in the same work is just unnecessary: We can have flying cars through technology (“Back to the Future”) or through magic (“Harry Potter”), but having both is just silly. A good illustration is the question of languages on different planets or in different time periods: There are sci-fi series who silently assume that everyone everywhere speaks modern U.S. English (e.g. “Stargate”)—except foreigners on Earth it self… There are others who resolve the issue through some type of unrealistically strong translator (e.g. “Doctor Who”) that through some mechanism can translate virtually any language in a transparent manner, leaving the impression that everyone speaks modern U.S. English. The latter require one single unrealistic assumption; the former unrealistic assumption after unrealistic assumption after unrealistic assumption.

The series would have been far better off cutting out three-quarters of the intrigues and secret organizations, having the main target of the clones being simply finding the needed cure, and otherwise focusing mostly on characters, situations, and relationships.*

*Not because these are necessarily the most interesting or entertaining things a TV series can do—one of my current favorite series is “Ash vs Evil Dead”: No, because these are where this particular series had its strengths, and because playing to those strengths would have made it that much better. (I stress, however, that there is nothing wrong with a bit of variety: The strengths should form the bulk, but “seasoning” with someone else is perfectly fine. With “Orphan Black” too much time was wasted on a weakness.)

A particular positive thing was the extensive flashbacks in season 4 (?) that gave more background information, especially regarding “Beth” (the police-woman clone, who committed suicide at the beginning of the series first episode). More: This provided new perspectives, notably with “Beth” moving from a weak-seeming character, who caved in the face of adversity, to a heroic character, laying down her life in the protection of others.

The last episode of a series is often the hardest to make, and suboptimal results are common. With “Orphan Black” (whose last episode I watched less than an hour ago) this was so: The antagonists are defeated in an almost anticlimactic manner half-way through the episode to leave room for an extended epilogue.* This epilogue was satisfying in that closure was reached and there were happy endings (almost) all around; however, it was also too cheesy and gave me the impression of something just thrown together, rather than something carefully crafted. It also manages to throw in another unnecessary error—too many clones. With several hundred clones world-wide, the likelihood that they would have gone undiscovered is small, due to factors like the birthday problem or the Bacon number: People meet by chance, people know people who know people, people land in papers, …, and the more clones are involved, the less likely it becomes that there are no common “birthdays”. (A similar criticism can be directed at the confluence of clones in the one local area; however, here there were a number of coincidental meetings and whatnots, and it would only have been a matter of time before such coincidences would have led to public attention.)

*There is nothing wrong with an extended epilogue, per se. The problem is rather that the antagonists put up so weak a fight that a) the final showdown was hardly worth watching, b) the epilogue (in some sense) came too early. By analogy, consider an evening-filling boxing event where the concluding main fight ends with a first round knock-out.

As an aside, another area (in addition to “tabula rasa”, cf. the original post) where “Orphan Black” is potentially dangerous is the negative take on eugenics: Eugenics does not only bring opportunities, but could actually turn out to be a necessity to rescue humanity from disaster. Every time eugenics is associated solely with mad scientists (evil master-minds, Nazis, whatnot) in fiction, the prejudice in the broad masses increases and its civilized use becomes the less likely.


Written by michaeleriksson

April 6, 2018 at 2:05 am

A few more thoughts on TV series

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I recently got my hands on the first few seasons of “Orphan Black”—and was initially very impressed: A novel concept, wonderful performances* by Tatiana Maslany, and characters put into interesting situations (see excursion below). Series like these prove that it is not necessary to just dust of the same old idea or franchise to squeeze out a few extra dollars. (Cf. previous posts, e.g. [1].)

*She plays a handful of central characters, and another handful of less central, that are clones, managing to bring over so different personalities and traits that, looks aside, they might as well be played by different actresses. She even, on several occasions, plays one clone pretending to be the other in a manner in a realistic manner, actually hitting A-pretending-to-be-B. (Similar scenarios often end up with an actor/actress playing this almost exactly as either A or B, or sometimes trying to do a realistic A-pretending-to-be-B and failing badly.)

However, approaching the middle of the second season, I am less enthusiastic, the series having lost some of its initial strengths and entered several hackneyed conspiracy and intrigue lines. The Dyad institute might be unavoidable, seeing both that its works are central to the premise of the show, including explaining why there are clones, and that some type of antagonist is needed. The Proletheans, on the other hand, are just unnecessary. Similarly, what is the point of turning “Mrs. S” from a more-or-less regular foster parent into an extremely shady, possibly criminal, possibly terrorist, character, with involvement in the clones’ early history? Why not try the novel idea of not having every second character have a “surprising” dark past?

This is paralleled by my very recent watching of the fifth season of “Grimm”: While never a candidate for an all-time great, it remained quite enjoyable while it focused on the “monster of the week” format and the exploration of the series mythology. However, it had had long excursions into global intrigues and whatnot, and with the fifth season this area exploded—as did the cliches. We now have a state of semi-war between various parties, the hero’s former girl-friend going “Dark Phoenix” and working for a secret organization, several secret organizations, an extremely powerful magic child causing trouble,… The destruction of the “Wesen Council” is not only a hackneyed destruction-of-the-potential-saviors/-allies-in-advance, it also very closely parallels the specific destruction of the “Watchers’ Council” on “Buffy”. The events of the penultimate episode took me to the point that I did not even bother watching the last episode—and will not bother with the concluding sixth season. A particular weakness, committed by many other series, is the explosion of the number of originally rare beings (here “wesen”*), to the point that it would be virtually impossible for “civilians” not to be aware of them, had they existed in reality.

*One point that annoyed me from the start: This German import, roughly “being”, is invariably pronounced like the word “wessen” (“whose”). Foreign pronunciations can be hard, but when one specific term is used several-to-many times per episode, the minimal effort of just once asking someone proficient in German for feedback is not too much to ask. (Virtually all German words used in the series are mangled or semi-invented, but most are used in just one or several episodes, and most are used by speakers who, in a real-life scenario, could not be expected to know better. “Wesen” is mispronounced even by the wesen themselves and even by purportedly German characters.)

Not every series has to deal with dark conspiracies, threats to the world as a whole, insurrections against the current order (be it by the antagonists or the protagonists), … Indeed, most series would be a whole lot better if they were left out!

Similarly, not every new season needs to up the stakes, invent greater threats, whatnot.

Similarly, there is no need for a series to continually reinvent it self: Most reinventions work worse than the original and even those that do work well risk alienating the original fan base. Usually*, it is better to stay with a single great concept. True, this can eventually lead to viewers growing tired of and abandoning a series, but nothing lasts forever. Good new ideas that do not fit the original format can be explored in a new series, while the original series runs its natural course at full quality.

*Doing a quick brain-storming, I actually could not name a single exception of a major and lasting change in concept/premise/setting/… that had a positive net-effect. (But I am certain that they do exist. The list of smaller changes causing an improvement, e.g. a strong new supporting character, is considerably longer.) The closest I came up with was “Chuck” and the addition of intersect-provided physical abilities. These made for both many interesting plot developments and a lot of entertaining action scenes; however, I still consider the earlier series more interesting and enjoyable. A case could possibly be made for some of the developments on the various “Stargate” series.

Excursion on “interesting situations”:
As I realized watching “Orphan Black”, one of the things that I appreciate the most in fiction is protagonists being put in (in some sense) interesting and unusual situations (mostly based on their own frame of reference). “Orphan Black” e.g. has the main protagonist among the clones see another clone die—and take over her identity with no previous information. Ensuing experiences include having to get through a hearing about a lethal shooting committed by her police-woman alter ego and trying to keep parts of her “old” life going in parallel to the “new” life. This applies in particular when learning and personal development are involved in variations of the “Bildungsroman” theme. A somewhat recent example is the movie (I have not read the book) “Divergent”: I was fascinated by the heroine’s move from the highly specialized faction she was born in into another and her efforts to cope in the new environment, including having to hold her own against people who had lived in that environment since childhood. Unfortunately, this part of the movie was not explored in the depth I would have preferred—having to leave room for conspiracy and insurgency… A similar trend is seen in “Counterpart” (mentioned as “very promising” in my recent post on “Back to the Future”): Two alter egos (or counterparts…) from different realities meet each other and eventually switch places. Early on these situations are at the core of the series; by now, still in the first season, conspiracies and whatnot dominate.

In all fairness, it could be argued that the use of an “interesting situation” also borders on the hackneyed in the genres I tend to watch/read the most. Consider e.g. how the likes of Bilbo/Frodo or Luke Skywalker are torn out of an idyllic existence for great adventures, how any amount of earth humans are transplanted to unknown worlds (most notably in the “Narnia” series), how the ignorant-of-magic Harry Potter finds himself in Hogwarts with minimal preparations, or, looking at some of my posts on fiction, e.g. the early events of “iZombie”, “Grimm”, and “Orphan Black”. However, this is a point where I am willing to give a lot of leeway—not only because I enjoy the situations, but also because they have a narrative advantage of being able to explain a new world to the viewer/reader without jumping through hoops: Explain the world to the protagonist and the audience receives the same information.* To boot, many of these situations are radically different from another, while e.g. fictional conspiracies have a great degree of fungibility.

*There are examples of doing it otherwise that work well. An extreme case is the “Malazan Book of the Fallen”.

Excursion on (dis)similarity of alter egos: A common problem in fiction is that alter egos are far further apart from each other than they realistically should be. This has narrative advantages; however, it is also potential danger in that it misleads the broad masses on topics like personality development, perpetuating the outdated “tabula rasa” models and their highly negative political influence. “Counterpart” does a reasonable job in that the differences between the main protagonist and his alter ego are small enough to be explained by different events and developments in their lives. “Orphan Black”, on the other hand, shows so extreme differences that the clones basically have no more in common than a group of randomly selected individuals—something considerably less realistic than human cloning.

Written by michaeleriksson

March 29, 2018 at 12:31 am

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