This essay is part of our series Episodes, a column in which senior contributor Valerie Ettenhofer digs into the singular chapters of television that make the medium great. This entry revisits the pilot episode (“Natural Selection”) of BBC America’s award-winning sci-fi series Orphan Black.
You’re at a train station. It’s late. You’re almost out of money, and the last train of the night is moments away. After scrounging up some coins to make a call, you turn around and see them: someone who looks just like you. They’re dressed differently, and they seem upset. Then, before you know what’s happening, they jump in front of an oncoming train.
It’s a scene that’s at once frighteningly unimaginable and classically familiar. The setup would be right at home in an Alfred Hitchcock film or an episode of The Twilight Zone. Instead, it’s the opening scene of Orphan Black, the rip-roaring sci-fi thriller that ran for five seasons on BBC America, winning an Emmy and a Peabody and racking up dozens of other accolades. Conspiratorial, action-packed, and deftly interwoven with crucial exposition, the show has a hit right off the bat with its pilot episode, “Natural Selection.”
When faced with the uncanny situation above, most people would surely crack from fear and pressure. Sarah Manning (Tatiana Maslany) is not like most people. Before the title sequence has even made its first appearance, She has taken advantage of a gruesome situation, stealing her deceased doppelganger’s bag and all its contents. The leather-clad, disheveled young woman soon makes a beeline for her favorite bar.
The episode is written by series co-creator Graeme Manson, and the nimble script effortlessly drops in bits of complicated backstory without sacrificing any of its sleekness or charm. Sarah soon meets up with Felix (Jordan Gavaris, a series standout), her foster brother with impeccable makeup and an even better sense of wit. “How’s Vic the dick?” he asks her. “I hit him first this time…with an ashtray, so he’s a little blue,”
Sarah answers. We soon learn that she is on the run from her abusive boyfriend, hoping to flip some coke she stole from him so she can afford to take her daughter Kira (Skyler Wexler) back from her own foster mother, Mrs. S. (Maria Doyle Kennedy). She also tells Felix about the woman, whom they identify as Beth Childs. The suicide of a posh stranger who may have been Sarah’s long-lost twin is only of passing interest for the pair, who have other threats to worry about.
“Natural Selection” gives viewers a taste of the electric, mood-mimicking camerawork and lighting that will become episode director and Orphan Black co-creator John Fawcett’s signature. Meanwhile, episode editor Brett Sullivan (who previously worked with Fawcett on the film Ginger Snaps), imbues the series opener with a markedly high sense of energy thanks to quick cuts that mimic the plot’s fast-moving, conspiratorial energy.
The best use of their craft comes during a satisfying montage sequence about twelve minutes in. When Sarah and Felix find out that Beth had $75,000 in a brand new bank account, they decide to pull a con. In a thrilling sequence, Sarah becomes Beth. She watches home videos of the dead woman, again and again, masking her own East London accent and taking on Beth’s more formal Canadian cadence. She practices Beth’s signature, raids Beth’s closet, dyes her hair, and scratches the magnetic strip off her debit card.
Finally, as M.I.A.’s “Bad Girls” plays, she struts into the bank in full rich bitch attire in a moment of true transformation. It’s the first of a dozen different entertaining magic tricks Maslany pulls off throughout the series while playing several characters, many of whom are often disguised as other, identical characters.
Across the series’ five seasons, Sarah stays at the heart of Orphan Black, proving herself a scrappy survivor who’s willing to take big risks for a big payoff. She also clearly considers herself a bit of a failure: a mother who isn’t able to keep her daughter; a woman who isn’t able to escape her abusive ex. The seeds of this characterization are planted in this episode, which sees Sarah use reckless ingenuity to adapt to every twist and turn.
When she finds out she can get Beth’s money, she doesn’t hesitate to fake her own death, making Felix ID Beth so she can assume the dead woman’s identity for as long as it takes to steal from her. When she finds out that Beth is a cop set to testify at an internal affairs investigation, she asks for a bathroom break and chugs hand soap to make herself throw up in the middle of the interview. When Beth’s boyfriend Paul (Dylan Bruce) returns early from a business trip and catches on to her personality changes — Sarah is pretty rock and roll, while Beth was seemingly depressed — she goes with the flow and has sex with him on Beth’s pristine kitchen island to distract him.
The first episode — and indeed, the whole first season — manages to successfully masquerade as a comedy of manners when it’s not wearing a half-dozen other narrative hats.
The entire first season of Orphan Black is unparalleled in its mix of adrenaline, cleverness, and surprising sci-fi revelations. Upon rewatch, it’s striking that the pilot episode manages to be so excellent while not yet including several of the show’s signature characters — among them, funky lesbian scientist Cosima, pill-popping housewife Alison, and unhinged Ukrainian assassin Helena, all of whom are played by Maslany.
“Natural Selection” does the work of sewing seeds for the overarching plot of Orphan Black, which involves genetic cloning by shady corporations, but it fascinatingly chooses to remain a down-and-dirty crime thriller first and foremost. Sarah and Felix are too distracted by the promise of quick cash and a French exit to pay much attention to the stack of international birth certificates they find in Beth’s safe deposit box or the shady situation that led to Beth’s demise.
The first hint of the series’ clone plot comes in the episode’s pulse-pounding last few minutes, which involve even more quick changes than the rest of the hour. Comically over-the-top thug Vic (Michael Mando) has caught up to Felix, who has no choice but to put together a fake funeral for Sarah to throw him off the scent of their scheme. Sarah decides to watch her memorial from afar, peeking through binoculars from a parked car and phoning Felix to talk shit about the attendees. “It was always fight-or-flight with her,” Vic says emotionally, calling to mind the scientific principle that gives the episode its title.
Suddenly, things take a turn. Mrs. S and Kira, neither of whom Sarah has clued into her scheme yet, make an appearance at the funeral. “She can’t think I’m dead,” Sarah cries, losing the composure that’s kept her safe until this point. It’s a brief moment, but one that hints at Maslany’s ability to deliver a powerhouse emotional performance. A mother’s love will remain a constant throughline in the series, and we see it here for the first time when all the shenanigans fall away.
All of this would be more than enough to write into a pilot and call it a day, but Orphan Black wouldn’t be the propulsive series it is if it didn’t always turn the dial to eleven. Mid-freakout, a German woman who also looks just like Sarah hops into the backseat of her car. She’s got short red hair, a stylish fur vest, and a mean cough that leaves drops of blood in her tissue. Her name’s Katja Obinger, and she knew Beth. “Just one, I’m a few, no family, too. Who am I?” she riddles, a security question of sorts. When Sarah fails to answer, Katja clocks her. For a moment, it seems the ruse is up, but then a single gunshot, from a distance, tears through Katja’s skull.
The first episode ends on an adrenalized high note, with Sarah making a frantic escape from the mystery sniper. She drives Beth’s car while ducked below the dashboard as more shots ring out, ignoring the cell phone lighting up on the seat beside her. Orphan Black would go on to bring viewers forty-nine more episodes that explore themes like human autonomy, bioethics, fate, and the slipperiness of defining personhood. The series evolves from a Hitchcockian conspiracy thriller into a complex science fiction saga, and it has plenty of watershed installments along the way.
Despite all that, none of the episodes that follow “Natural Selection” are as singularly thrilling and propulsive as the gritty and stylish series opener, which establishes Orphan Black as can’t-miss television from its first moment to its last.
Orphan Black is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.