When John Fawcett and Graeme Manson first set out to make Orphan Black, all they had was an idea Fawcett has originally pitched in 2001: A woman bears witness as someone who looks exactly like her jumps in front of a train. They didn't know she would be a clone, they didn't have anything planned beyond that simple premise. But the idea would eventually become the exhilarating opening scene of a series that has transfixed fans all over the world since its premiere in March 2013.
What they've developed over the course of nearly two seasons has evolved into an addictive mystery thriller that is progressive in its exploration of subjects and topics that most other TV shows tend to shy away from. In any given episode, Orphan Black might tackle feminism, the question of what it means to be human, the consequences of scientific experimentation, and the ongoing battle between science and religion—and it does so with a near-perfect balance of humor and drama. In this week's episode, "Variable and Full of Perturbation," the show introduced yet another clone—the eighth we've met since the series premiered—but this one is different. This one's name is Tony, and he's a transgender male.
Orphan Black already features a lesbian relationship and a gay character, so it should come as no surprise that a character like Tony was a long time coming for the series, which devotes a lot of screen time to issues of identity and regularly looks at the clones' similarities and differences. During a panel and screening of the episode at the ATX Television Festival on Saturday, Manson said that the idea for Tony came up near the end of Season 1, and was something that Orphan Black's creative team had been wanting to do for a long time. They knew they wanted to introduce a new clone in Season 2—something that both they and series star Tatiana Maslany take very seriously, because they want to really know their characters—and both Fawcett and Manson, as well as Maslany, all came to the same idea separately. "It was a very long process of creating and discovering that character," said Manson.
There was a lot of research involved. "It was a fun process, because it was super top secret," Fawcett said, noting that there were a lot of secret calls to the makeup trailer on his days off to see the transformation. "[Tatiana] kind of embraced that fearlessly."
Maslany, who has a lot of creative input when it comes to the characters she plays, was equally fearless when it came to the prospect of kissing her co-star, Jordan Gavaris, who plays Sarah Manning's foster brother Felix. Manson said the actors deserve all the credit for that scene, which played both awkward and squeamish. "It's definitely a little bit twisted," noted Manson, "but they were dying to do that." And although it might've played differently for viewers, Manson laughed about the scene because it was about more than just the kiss. "For us, it's so strange. It's not just that kiss with all its many layers going on. For us it's like, 'Jordan and Tat! They're kissing!'" Gavaris was "really excited, but terrified," Fawcett recalled. "We were all excited on that day when we knew it was all going to do down. And it turned out pretty good."
But underneath Orphan Black's humor—and you needn't look further than last week's "Knowledge of Causes, and Secret Motion of Things" to see an excellent example of how the show balances the comedy and the drama—this is a series that is unafraid to tackle subjects that no one else will touch. "We certainly didn't set out to make a feminist show," said Manson. "The themes of the show and the embodiment of Tatiana with all these characters made the theme."
But why don't more TV shows take these risks when Orphan Black makes it look so effortless and natural? "We realized the power of the themes that we were playing with," Manson said, "but to land them is difficult and to commit to them takes really good writers. And it takes your full attention."
Fawcett also added that they wanted to make characters that were truly believable. "Amidst all the absurdity of the premise, I think what was important for us was to create characters and situations that people can identify with and believe in. ... To me, all these weird, absurd premises go down so much better when you can believe in the characters and when you can invest in the characters. And that was just a really important aspect. We didn't want to make a cartoon."
Catch up on the latest episode of Orphan Black here.