The idea for “Orphan Black” had been on Graeme Manson’s mind for more than a decade before any network picked it up. At first, it didn’t seem viable — since it was too long for a feature film.
“Our earliest note on the idea of the show at that time was a feature film and that was, like, 2001,” Manson said in a phone interview with TheWrap.
But what turned it around was the onset of serialized television in the early 2000s, mostly on networks like HBO.
“We kept having to put it down until television started to change,” Manson said. “We were watching ‘Six Feet Under’ and ‘The Sopranos’ and then we’re, like, maybe… if people are actually going to make serialized shows again, maybe this is where this belongs.”
“Orphan Black” — the story of a woman who finds out that she’s a part of a cloning experiment and seeks to unravel the mystery of her birth — is about to launch into its final season on BBC America. And it all started with an idea. It’s a scene that most people remember from the pilot. The woman, Sarah Manning, is standing on a train platform when she sees her doppelganger. The two make eye contact before the doppelganger throws herself in front of a train.
“The concept for [co-creator John Fawcett] and I was one we wrestled with for a long time and couldn’t let go of,” Manson said.
The show itself was a tough sell to networks, however. Because “Orphan Black” is about clones, it would need one strong actress to play every role. The series also delved into some dense topics, such as science, genetics and transhumanism. Even outside the content itself, both Manson and Fawcett had little experience running a show.
In around 2008 or 2009, the duo had pitched it to a number of networks in both Canada and the U.S. All said no. Almost a year later, BBC America said it would pick it up and put it in a prime time slot: right after “Doctor Who.”
At the time, BBC America was just starting to get into original scripted content. It’s big claim to fame was how it would re-air shows from its UK counterpart. “Orphan Black,” therefore, became one of the networks’s flagship original programs, utilizing its sci-fi concept and strong lead.
“‘Orphan Black’ was only the second they ever launched,” BBC America President Sarah Barnett told TheWrap in a phone interview. “I think it just sort of became the frontrunner because of its absolute audacity and because it felt so completely fresh.”
As a feature, the story wasn’t as fleshed out. Barnett said Fawcett and Manson conceived the show as five seasons, but Manson says that developing the show concerned transferring the characters and breaking down the concepts at its core, which added to the story. This included, obviously, the subject of cloning. “Orphan Black” uses a lot of real-world scientific theories to shape its events and add some plausibility to the scenarios.
“We really dug into the hard cloning, but [also] coalesced the themes of nature vs. nurture and body autonomy and really realizing how deeply feminist the show had to be or else it would be missing a real terrific chance,” Manson explained.
The show finally premiered in 2012 — approximately 11 years after it was conceived. They found a lead in Tatiana Maslany, who finally won an Emmy in 2016 for her work, along with a well-rounded cast. Manson said they found Maslany after what he called an “arduous” two-day audition process. The decision to cast her was unanimous among a room of over a dozen executives.
“Orphan Black” is a unique show, combining hard science fiction with character drama, humor, and tragedy. However, it wouldn’t have existed without the shows that came before it.
“TV can be really badass now and weird and screwed up,” Manson exclaimed. “We can do this sort of idea of a mash-up of tones, which is one of the things that John and I really wanted to do.”