Serviceable Sci-Fi Spinoff Orphan Black: Echoes Doesn’t Break Much New Ground

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Serviceable Sci-Fi Spinoff Orphan Black: Echoes Doesn’t Break Much New Ground

The original Orphan Black was truly groundbreaking sci-fi television. Featuring an unbelievable performance from Emmy winner Tatiana Maslany, who played anywhere from four to eight characters in a given episode, the series was a taut conspiracy thriller that also explored themes of sisterhood, found family, and scientific ethics. It was addictive and felt genuinely fresh and unexpected in a television landscape that desperately needed more genre shows like it. 

Now, seven years after the original series concluded, the spinoff series Orphan Black: Echoes arrives in a much different media environment. Prestige genre shows abound, from HBO’s House of the Dragon to Netflix’s The Witcher and AMC’s own Interview with the Vampire, and Tatiana Maslany has moved on to, if not bigger, at least greener things as She-Hulk in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Elon Musk is out here trying to put chips in people’s brains. And in the wake of a global pandemic, the idea of vast medical and scientific conspiracies certainly doesn’t feel quite as far-fetched as it used to. Does a show like Orphan Black: Echoes still have something meaningful to say to today’s audience? 

The answer to that question is a mixed bag. Part cautionary tale, part mystery series, and part tragic lesbian love story, it’s a show that has many excellent parts. But its pieces don’t entirely come together to form a satisfying whole. As television shows go, honestly, it’s fine, if generally unremarkable television. But fans of the original Orphan Black are likely going to be disappointed that it never quite manages to reach the heights of its predecessor. 

As much a sequel as it is a spinoff, Echoes takes place in Boston in 2052, several decades after the end of the original. Echoes (pardon the pun) of the parent series abound in dialogue, in set dressing, and through several of the characters we meet. Thanks to the discovery of the LEDA clones, human cloning is now illegal everywhere, but that hasn’t stopped technology from advancing to the point where things like 4D printing of organs for transplants are possible. 

This time around, the story follows Lucy (Krysten Ritter), a woman who wakes up disoriented in a random room unable to remember who she is. Confused and frightened, she demands answers from an unnamed doctor (Keeley Hawes) who’s hovering nearby, before discovering that she is a “printout,” an artificial person created using the same human-tissue-printing-method and copied from an existing (and unidentified) medical scan. After breaking out of the medical facility in which she’s being held, Lucy disappears, ultimately managing to build a life for herself in a rural community where she stays off the grid and finds a family in landlord Jack (Avan Jogia) and his deaf daughter Charlie (Zariella Langford). 

But when her past comes back to haunt her—in the form of an unidentified thug trying to drag her back to the lab that made her—Lucy sets off on a journey to find out who she is, where she came from, and why she keeps having a disturbing nightmare about a younger version of herself covered in blood and holding a knife. Along the way, she discovers another printout, a moody teenager named Jules (Amanda Fix), who grew up thinking she was adopted after her parents died in a car crash, and the questions about who created this technology and what they’re trying to do with it intensify. Particularly when the pair are repeatedly brought back into the orbit of the scientist that Lucy met when she first woke up. 

Despite this information being readily available online (and in Entertainment Weekly’s summer preview article about the show, as well as our own summer TV roundup), we’re technically not allowed to tell you the name of the character Keeley Hawes is playing. But suffice it to say, Hawes’ character is the linchpin around which much of Echoes’ emotional narrative revolves, and it is her arc that is the show’s clearest and most impactful, for both good and ill. (You’ll find yourself both repulsed and moved by her choices in turn, and this character’s controversial decisions will likely drive much of the conversation about this show and the ways it fits into the original’s legacy.) 

Hawes, for her part, is excellent and given plenty of meaty material to work with, though many viewers will likely wish Echoes had gone further in exploring her character’s connection to the original series in terms of the choices she makes in this one. Weirdly, it’s Ritter who’s given the least to do here, despite being marketed as the series’ lead. She tries her best, but honestly, there’s only so much she can do with a character who’s literally crafted as a blank slate and saddled with a blah romance to boot. There are moments where it feels as though she’s simply being asked to play a version of Jessica Jones without the superpowers or alcoholism, and she deserves better. 

Thankfully, if Echoes has a breakout star in waiting, it is Fix, whose snarky, bitchy Jules is a breath of fresh air whenever she’s onscreen. Her journey of self-discovery has a more visceral, angrier edge than Lucy’s does, and she’s one of the few Echoes characters who’s genuinely fun to watch. Fix and Ritter also have great chemistry with one another, a warm vibe that lands somewhere between sisterly and parental, and the pair get some of the best banter in the series. 

As premises go, despite being set in the future, Orphan Black: Echoes isn’t a show that’s breaking a ton of new ground. Printouts aren’t all that different from clones, after all. The series pokes at some slightly different ethical issues, mostly around eugenics and memory, particularly the threat of losing your sense of identity to a disease like Alzheimer’s. The twist that the printouts we meet are all of different ages is also an intriguing adaptation of the original Orphan Black formula, though the series primarily uses it to delve into all-too-familiar questions of nature, nurture, and whether we’re predestined to be the people we become.  And while Lucy’s origins are surprisingly heartbreaking and emotional, the show’s larger conspiracy plot isn’t all that interesting. (Basically, billionaires shouldn’t be allowed to control high-tech anything, is what I’m saying.)

At the end of the day, Orphan Black: Echoes is perfectly serviceable science fiction. Its pace is brisk, its twists are generally exciting, and its story is not quite as convoluted as its predecessor’s. (Which, let’s be honest, is a good thing in some ways!) But is it the spinoff that OG Clone Club members were likely hoping for? Probably not. And that’s a real shame.

Orphan Black: Echoes premieres Sunday, June 23d on AMC, AMC+, and BBC America.

Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV

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