Almost a month has passed since Orphan Black signed off for the last time with its series finale. Since then, there’s been a serious lack of clone drama and Cosima science quips filling our lives. But, if you’re like me and can’t get enough Orphan Black, there’s a new book released that sheds more light on the series we love.
Authors Casey Griffin and Nina Nesseth explore the science (and its background history) discussed throughout the five years of the show. From the clone disease to Rachel’s severed eye, The Science of Orphan Black: The Official Companion gets to the root of the mystery. We had the chance to chat with the authors about their book and their love of Orphan Black.
The Young Folks: Science seems to be rooted a lot in your lives. What about it makes you a passionate “geek monkey” for science?
Casey: My dad is a scientist, so I grew up with an interest in science. He would take me to work sometimes and then he would take us to science museums, or you know interesting places like that. And he would buy toys and books from that arena, so just from when I was a young age I always was interested in science. It varied what my topic of interest was right at the moment, from planets to dinosaurs – I did it all. At one point, I was going to be everything. I was gonna be Jane Goodall, I was gonna live with the panda bears, I was gonna be an archaeologist, I was gonna go to the moon. But, it was just this thing I was always into and science was a subject I was good at in school. Once I started, I worked in a lab in my last year of high school and that was like the first time I learned what it was like to actually be a scientist. It suited me really well, and I had a knack for it. It was something I felt like I was born for – it’s always been kinda there, even when I was following the path to be a plant scientist, a marine biologist and now in developmental biology, it’s just always been a part of me.
Nina: My passion for science is kinda rooted in the core of science – the discovery of it. (And we were talking about this earlier too, which is kinda funny.) The way that we’re constantly moving forward and just building upon previous knowledge, and even just like learning that previous knowledge isn’t as true as we once thought it was if you look at the history of science. Things that humans had as their holy grail of fact; often today that we wouldn’t even call fact at all or we’ve developed it so far.
My journey through science is very similar. I didn’t go through so many iterations, I went to school at first actually to become a teacher. I wanted to become a teacher, so I was taking Education, along with a general Biology degree, and then I said, “You know what…no. I don’t want to teach, that’s an awful idea! So, I’m going to just focus on Bio Medicine,” and then I got to my fourth year and then I was like, “Oh, I don’t want to go to Med School, and I don’t want be [sorry, Casey] in a research lab.”
Casey: Tsk Tsk. Because you wanted to make money. I get it. [Laughs]
Nina: Clearly, I chose the wrong path then. [Both laugh] I took a grad program in Science Communication, which focused on communication through mass media, through museum study, through exhibitry, and now I’m working in the Science Center and essentially teaching again. After all that, but in a totally different way, it’s not the formal classroom style. And I really, really care a lot about that Science Communication component, I think it’s really important and you’re starting to see a lot more importance placed on it in academia.
TYF: What drew you to Orphan Black?
Casey: I was reading an article in Entertainment Weekly that was all about the biggest Emmy snubs of 2013, and the whole article was pretty much about Tatiana Maslany. It was talking about how she was amazing and she played so many different roles in this one show, and I was like, “How do you play multiple roles in one show? That’s so weird. Let me check that out.” I started watching it, didn’t even know it was about cloning, but like the second she saw Beth on that platform, I was like, “Oh, this is a clone show.” So, I binged it in two nights and that was it. I was obsessed.
Nina: I’m like Casey. It did advertise (not in Sudbury) but Toronto, and I saw it actually advertised in the subways before it started, and then promptly forgot about it. “This looks cool,” but then I don’t have cable. [Laughs] So, I came in about midway between seasons one and two [Casey: Same], and very similarly binged it. It was really cool, not only from the technical aspect of the show because everyone involved is super talented, but seeing more than one compelling narrative for these characters. It’s probably the first show in a long time where I’d seen current science being represented, or at least attempted to represent it accurately, you see it a little more attempted in procedurals, like Law & Order and ER. In sci-fi, you usually get science inspiration that misses the mark – it sacrifices a lot for the narrative generally for TV. Orphan Black didn’t do that.
TYF: Why do you think science is an important and integral part to the conversation surrounding Orphan Black?
Nina: I think there are a few reasons. One being that the show takes its audience seriously – it doesn’t talk down to them. It’s willing to understand they’re intelligent audiences and they don’t need everything broken down and spoon-fed to them or dumbed down. And that people can appreciate intelligent science incorporated into a show, and if they don’t understand it all, people are more willing to learn about it than you think, and dig a little deeper.
Another reason why I think fans are super into it is, not only does it tie into current science and stuff that is happening right now in biotechnology, but it also feeds into the main narrative of the show, looking at so many ethical questions, agency and body autonomy, which are also very current just in general. Very relative topics today for women and for everyone.
Casey: I think the show also makes the science personal, and I think the audience gravitates to that. It’s not just something dragging along the storyline; it’s actively impacting characters and the viewers see how it impacts characters, but they can also see how stuff like that impacts them [the viewers]. I think making that personal connection helps them get into it.
TYF: How did you both get involved in writing this book?
Casey: It started with me on Tumblr when the second season was airing, and the science was a lot focused on the clone disease and the cure because that’s when Cosima was really sick. And nobody was talking about it on Tumblr. People would talk about like, “Oh, it sucks she’s sick,” but then they would talk about all the plotlines in such detail and then it was like, “Oh, and some science. I don’t know, whatever.” So, I figured that the science wasn’t being talked about because people weren’t getting it enough to feel confident to talk about it. I started posting OB Science Time and I would pick a topic or a character and talk about the science in a really simplified, broken-down way and people really responded toward that. Then Nina and I met.
We actually met first at a fan meet up and reconnected online as a result of the fan meet up. And right before season three started, (so the meet up was after season two and six months before season three) Nina had connections at The Mary Sue and she was like “What if I pitched this idea and we could write these science recaps?” and I said that sounds great. We started writing science recaps for all of the episodes for season three and right after season three, our agent emailed us and said, “I’m a literary agent and read your science recaps. I like them. I think it could be a book.”
Nina: What was really cool about that is it took a lot of waffling around. Casey was still in grad school and writing a book is a huge endeavor. We agreed that if we were going to do it, we were gonna do it together. And not one of us would run with the project on their own.
Casey: I wasn’t sure I’d have the time. We both waffled at some point and she’s like, “If you don’t do it, I won’t don’t do it,” and I was like, “If she doesn’t do it, I can’t do it.” No way would this work if I did it by myself.
Nina: We both bring different things to the table. Casey has specific knowledge about genetics and the crucial components of the show. I filled in a lot more about the history and knowledge about the brain. [Laughs] We would often riff off each other for finessing different science parts, and that sort of stuff, and getting our voice down. It was pretty much an all-or-nothing package, and we went for it.
When we wrote the book, we wrote it without the intention that it would be the official book, but it turned out that ECW Press, who picked us up and wanted to publish our book, had connections with the Orphan Black team. They were able to negotiate it to become the official companion, which is so cool because as fans of the show, that’s like beyond what we even imagined. We got to work with information and scripts from the Orphan Black team to kinda develop season five content, and that sorta stuff.
Casey: We got season five scripts months before it aired, which was exciting, but stressful. [Laughs]
Nina: And I had to just lie to everyone about it. [Laugh] It was awful because people would speculate.
Casey: I would read these posts on Tumblr of like speculations and be like, “Oh my God, no.”
TYF: Speaking of getting those final scripts, how did it feel to discover the revelations and endings as you were doing the research?
Casey: I was a part of the fan movement of OB Spec which was when a group of fans wrote their own version of season three and I was the person who did the science for that. But they would test their ideas on me by keeping me in the dark for a little bit and then showing me scripts, or parts of scripts, and getting my live reaction. They just watched me read on Skype and get my live reaction. It was a bit like torture, so I was used to Orphan Black revelations in that manner from OB Spec. So getting the scripts, it’s just what I did, it’s part of the norm. And it was very easy for me but it was so sped up. I missed some little details and when we got to the airing, I could not keep track of what happened when at all. It was weird.
Nina: I know for me, I read faster than Casey. [Laughs]
Casey: Yeah, I’m a slow reader and I had less free time. It was like days.
Nina: I had gotten into a routine where I would like close myself off. I wouldn’t even tell my fiancée about the scripts or what I was reading. I would lock myself in the bathroom, take a bath and read the scripts, which meant I would up end up crying in the bathtub. [Laughs] But, basically, it’s interesting because I do have a playwriting background as well, so I was able to appreciate from that. TV and movie scripts are different than play scripts. A lot of it was me kinda sitting and reading on the page and having to sit back and be like “Huh…” I’m going to have to see how this plays out on screen because it’s a very different direction you get in TV scripts. Some of the stuff was tough to visualize and looked way different on screen.
Casey: The whole Helena birth scene was like exactly how I had pictured it. But there were some other aspects where I was just like, “What?! No.”
Nina: And there were some scenes, where we know the cast does improvisions and they do some on-the-fly rewrites on set, so there were some scenes where we went into them expecting to see what we’d seen on page.
Casey: The scene of Rachel injecting Cosima was different.
Nina: Same with the Rachel flashback when she reveals she autopsied Miriam Johnson and she’s talking with Aldous Leekie – that scene has a few lines in common but other than that, it’s completely different. It’s interesting to see the contrast of the scripts we received and what ultimately ended up being the show. I don’t know, it felt like being spoiled but not fully.
Casey: Yeah, there was still stuff to see. It wasn’t just like we watched all the episodes way earlier. It was still exciting and something to look forward to.
TYF: From a science angle, was there a moment from the season five scripts that blew your mind from a scientific discovery or change in the plot?
Nina: We had a vague idea before season five even started – filming or being written – that the main topic would be longevity science. We had been in touch with Cosima Herter and she told us essentially the reveal of P.T. Westmoreland at the end of season four would tie into longevity science being the main thing. She and Graeme Manson had been looking into that. It gave us a long time to explore different avenues and different ways researchers had been approaching that topic.
Casey: The fact that it was lin28a this whole time they were looking at was exciting for me purely, personally because I work with stem cells a lot in my lab and it’s one of the factors we use to make stems cells out of like patient fiber glass and stuff. It was just interesting as it was a gene I was already familiar with and knew about it, so I thought it was cool. I was like, “Oh that makes sense. That would be the type of gene that would be involved.” That was really cool for me.
Nina: The big thing for me that got me stoked wasn’t so much the specific science, but that they were tying together the whole point of the LEDA project.
TYF: Were there any specific areas from the show that you knew you needed to talk about and delve deeper in this book?
Casey: The clone disease, for sure. That was what I feel started this all; if the clone disease hadn’t been there, I don’t know if I would be writing about it online. And also, the clone disease got everybody into the science because everybody cared about Cosima.
Nina: And because it was such a mystery, right? It’s a novel disease. It’s based loosely on a few diseases that exist, but not fully one disease or another that currently exists – it’s just borrowing elements from others.
Casey: That’s what got me excited in the first place because I wanted to figure it out. It’s like a mystery to solve and I was like, “How does this work? What’s happening? I want to figure this out.” [Laughs]
Nina: How are we going to cure this? [Laughs]
TYF: Because the clone disease (and its symptoms) is fictitious, there are parts in the book based on fact and history, but some are based on hypothesis and questions left up in the air. Was there a topic that you two had to debate on?
Casey: We would talk out a lot of the unknowns just for fun. Like, for instance, the maggot bots that was revealed in the season three finale, and so we had the whole hiatus. We didn’t know what they were. We didn’t know they were maggot bots; we were just like, “Ew, he spit a worm at her.” [Nina laughs] But we just talked about it because it was weird and different, and it’s one of those things where we threw up a million different ideas in the air and we ended up landing on the right one by accident.
Nina: That was so cool. We posted it and everything in our science recaps. We called it.
Casey: There’s actual proof that we called it. It’s published. Well, there was no debate on what needed to be talked about in the book, it was so easy. We’d like come up with the general topic, it was like the clone disease, and we knew we needed to talk about what the disease was, we’d have to mention Jennifer, and Charlotte, and why this person got it but not this person. We’d have to talk about why Sarah and Helena don’t have it. We’d have to talk about the cure, Kira, and Kendall, and the babies. So, it was never like a question about what to talk about, and maybe…I don’t remember any moment where the content was up in the air where we both had different ideas.
Nina: We have a lot of trust in each other’s knowledge (in our specific knowledge sense), which has been really handy in writing this book. I think the only topic that we kinda like…I know for me I banged my head against it a little bit is whether or not to try and explain Kira. Ultimately, I had to have a conversation with Cosima [Herter] about it. She had to remind me that the whole point of Kira is that she can’t be explained by science because some things, at this point, can’t be explained by science and that’s okay. That’s a fact…that is a fact of life and living. We don’t know everything and we might not ever understand everything.
Casey: But we can explain why the scientists are interested in her. We can explain why her bone marrow helped Cosima out a little bit. We can explain why she healed so quickly from the car accident, but we can’t explain why she can feel the emotions of the other clones and she knows them in her head and she can tell when they die.
Nina: I know a lot fans might be upset that we didn’t “science” that, because that’s a question we often get. But, I think it’s just important to know that science is a pursuit of knowledge and we don’t always have the tools to access that at the present time.
TYF: Which clone was your favorite to write about and delve deeper into?
Casey: Cosima! She’s always my favorite – she’s my answer to everything. She was the science and the scientist. As the person writing about the science, she was like the most interesting person because she was pursuing the knowledge, working on the knowledge and trying to come up with ideas, trying to learn. But she was also dying from the stuff. Her biology was interesting and her person was interesting. We could’ve written the whole book on her. Except for the fact that Sarah and Helena were fertile, she had almost every aspect of the science in her.
Nina: My favorite to write about for the book, which is interesting as my general stock response favorite clone is Alison, but for me it was most interesting to write for Rachel. I wrote a whole chapter about Rachel’s brain. (I didn’t write the whole chapter myself, but that was the chapter more in my field – we have some distinct parts where it’s more in one person’s field or the other and that was one that was definitely up my alley.) From an experimental standpoint, Rachel is interesting because she was the only clone raised self-aware in an otherwise double-blind, sorta-ish trial. She was experimented on more than the others as a self-aware clone and she’s just an interesting clone to think about. Arguably, one of the most interesting clones to really spend time sitting around, thinking about.
TYF: One of things I noticed in your book is that you included Q&A from fans. Is there a specific reason why you felt this inclusion was important to have in the book?
Nina: A lot of the Q&A were questions that were modeled off of questions that we received from fans either through recaps or Casey’s OB Science Time. They were important because a lot of them were very, very specific and it would’ve been tough to incorporate them into the actual body of the book. But if one person was asking this really uber-specific question then undoubtedly some other Clone Club member had also thought of it at some time.
Casey: A lot of the questions had been asked more than once, too. If people really wanted to know about this, we should talk about it. And yeah, as she said about it, a lot of it was totally off topic from the most part of what we were focused on, or it was really specific.
Nina: Or like, even when you gave specifics on epigenetics, people would still want to know specifically why Cosima wears glasses or, you know, why her boobs are bigger, according to Felix. [Laughs]
Casey: It’s cause she had a good push-up bra on. [Laughs]
Nina: Yes, it’s just important to tease that out.
TYF: So after reading the Official Companion book, what do you think will be the biggest takeaway your readers will have?
Casey: I hope people will kind of have a better appreciation for science in their everyday life, or how science can impact you. I mean, this is a very specific incident of science impacting these people directly, but there are things that can influence all of us, like these maggot bot type of things or these mutated babies. You start to think about that and what a single mutation (supposedly) in Kira does to her – it’s stuff that you can think about.
I talked to someone once who was suffering from some chronic illness and they said they were really relating to Cosima, obviously, because she was suffering as well. But also getting a better appreciation in the effort that goes into finding a cure. People don’t know how long it takes and how much work goes into it and so question why we still don’t have a cure for cancer or like a cure for whatever. And I think that definitely will have people see that you need to do this, and then do this, and this. I mean, granted in the span of the show it takes nine months, but in reality it would be more like fifteen years, at least.
Nina: I think the takeaway fans will have reading the companion will be that Orphan Black incorporated a lot of science – like more science than they probably thought – and with a lot of accuracy.
Casey: They didn’t gloss over. They didn’t dumb down. They didn’t take shortcuts. They just stretched reality for our pleasure.
Nina: I hope because of that people demand for more accurate science representation and more well-rounded scientist characters that aren’t just white men in lab coats. And also, demanding more great conversations. The science in Orphan Black introduced a lot of really challenging discussions about ethics and bio-ethics, and about the possibilities for biotechnologies. I think it’s important that science in television does that and introduces those challenging conversations.
Casey: I think Orphan Black did a really good job of presenting science. They definitely played up the negative aspects, like all the problems that would come with human cloning and all these manipulations, but they also put positive spins like with the clone disease and finding a cure – like what science can do. And I think that’s important. We need to talk about the tough subjects involved with science, but we also need to not hate science.
Nina: They were realistic about the risks, and they celebrated the successes.
The Science of Orphan Black: The Official Companion is available online and in book stores now.