The Robots of Orphan Black

Throughout pop-culture history, clones and robots have served similar purposes, exploring anxieties about class and labor.


Orphan Black is a sci-fi conspiracy show, and as such, it's filled with secret plots, secret counter-plots, subterfuge, and improbable twisting revelations. But the most improbably twisting revelation of them all is that everything you know about the clones played by Tatiana Maslany is false. Sarah, Allison, Helena, Cosima—they're not really clones at all. They're robots.

Fear not; this isn't some sort of diabolical spoiler that will ruin your enjoyment of the third season. The fact that the clones are robots is simply a genre observation. Ever since robots as a concept were invented, they've been analogous to clones, and vice versa. Robots prompt people to question whether this thing that looks like them is a physical object, or whether it’s in fact a person. And since robots in science fiction are so often workers, the question of their humanity has from the start also been a question about class—about how people treat those workers, or robots, or the clones of Orphan Black, laboring on their behalf.

The term “robot” entered modern usage when it was coined by the Czech writer Karel Capek in the 1920 play R.U.R. The story imagined its artificial servants not as metal men of nuts and bolts, but as biological products, much like clones. Domin, the robot-factory manager in the play, cheerfully gives a tour pointing out "the spinning mill for nerves. The spinning mill for veins. The spinning mill where miles and miles of digestive tract are made at once." These first robots were fleshy, goopy beings that grew like biological critters. In the play, robots are basically human bodies borne of mechanical production and process. Looking back, Domin's creations are more akin to Orphan Black's protagonists than they are R2D2.

The robots are like the clones in another way as well—both are owned. In Orphan Black the clones discover, to their horror, that their DNA is patented; they're the intellectual property of the shadowy Dyad Institute. Similarly, in R.U.R., the company (Rossum's Universal Robots) owns the robots. That arguably makes them slaves, depending on whether you see the robots as living beings or as manufactured objects—and the play leans toward the former.

Initially in R.U.R., robots are certainly treated like cheap, disposable toasters—Domin is willing to dissect them on a whim. But over the course of R.U.R., it becomes clear that the robots do have consciousness, which means enslaving them is a moral evil. And because they’re workers, that evil takes the form of capitalist exploitation. Capek was not a communist (a fact he helpfully clarified in an essay titled "Why I Am Not a Communist"), but R.U.R. has at least some conflicted sympathy for a worker’s revolt. Domin is the mad capitalist as mad scientist, dreaming of conquering the world through technological production "I wanted man to become a master!" he bellows in one scene. But being a "master" turns out to mean that someone else has to be a slave. The robots learn that lesson quickly enough, and decide that, given the choice, they'd rather be masters themselves. They even use language that echoes the Communist Manifesto: "Robots of the world! Many people have fallen. By seizing the factory we have become masters of everything!" When the robots have taken over the means of production, it means the end of humanity is at hand.

Robots, then, originally expressed anxiety about industrialization and class oppression. As technology expands, workers become cogs—but how long will they be cogs before they grow angry and decide to make their masters finally, painfully, pay? Robot stories have continued to tease at and worry about this question up to the present, as have stories about artificial intelligence. You can see it in Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, for example—and in the Terminator series, where the Skynet apocalypse mirrors R.U.R.'s robot revolution.

Likewise, Orphan Black's clones are also property — though not exactly the same kind of property as the R.U.R. robots. The clones aren't slaves; they don't work at menial tasks, as the robots do in R.U.R. Allison is a suburban soccer mom; Cosima is a genius scientist, Beth Childs is a cop, Rachel is an executive, while Helena and Sarah are in their own ways marginalized quasi-criminals. The clones aren't enslaved and put to work; they don't form a coherent working class.

Yet, the clones are still controlled. Each clone has a monitor, a person who’s often the clone's significant other. Monitors aren't supposed to interfere with the clones; they just gather information on behavior and facilitate secret nocturnal testing. In R.U.R., the robots were valuable as workers; in Orphan Black the clones are valuable as data—though both the purpose of that data, and why it is valuable, are murky (at least so far.) This murkiness means that Orphan Black is much less class-conscious than R.U.R is. Karel Capek's metaphor of robots as working-class slaves was deliberate. Orphan Black's mentions of intellectual property and its paranoid invasive monitoring system, on the other hand, aren't especially coherent or clearly thought through.

The fact that Orphan Black doesn't directly address class, though, seems meaningful in itself. As the U.S. has de-industrialized, it's become harder to see a solid working class—harder to make out all those laboring robots. Class is more diffuse, and harder to grasp.

Robots build things, but the clones in Orphan Black provide value just by living their lives and being monitored—like users clicking links on Facebook. One repeated gimmick on the show is to have the clones talk to each other via video chat, so you can see Tatiana Maslany in several roles together on a single small screen inside the screen. It emphasizes the way the clones are almost collectibles; an assortment of iconic dolls to be enjoyed for their differences within a familiar brand. Dyad is both the producer of the clones (whom it created) and the consumer of the clones (who it collects and observes and plays with). Instead of a clear line between managers and workers, there's a cloud of relationships in which managers and workers and products all blend together. The clones are like people monetized on social networks; valuable because of how they can be used rather than because of what they do.

As a result, a direct sense of class injustice is replaced by paranoia. Is Sarah's foster-mom a spy? Is Allison's awful nosey neighbor actually a monitor performing tests on Allison in her sleep? The mechanisms of power are all hidden; you can't see the strings. In R.U.R., the robots need to learn that they're human, and deserve dignity, in order to revolt. In Orphan Black, the characters need to learn that they're being used—and that, despite their apparently disparate lives, they're owned by the same people. Only when the clones understand their similarity can they fight back. Helena initially is manipulated into killing other clones, while Allison wants to ignore them and just get on with her suburban life. Eventually, though, as they get to know each other and what's been done to them, they choose solidarity and resistance. Orphan Black may bill itself as a story about clones, but in its own way, it, like R.U.R., is calling for robot revolution.