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John Doyle: Orphan Black tries to end smartly

The final season of the Canadian-made science-fiction series that made the world in awe of Tatiana Maslany starts by making sense. This is good. Somewhere along the way, the only thing that made sense was awe of Maslany in all her multiple roles.

Orphan Black (Saturday, Space, 10 p.m.) returns for its fifth and final season and in the first few episodes available for review, it looks more character-driven and less laden with vastly complicated backstory and mythology. It is, for a start, a thriller. That was promised in a teaser for this end-season, with Helena, one of Maslany's many clone characters, promising, "I will cleanse them from this Earth." She's got a knife and it's several of the other clones she has in her sights.

Starting into Orphan Black at this point is a tricky journey. But, it's possible. Fair warning, though – apart from Maslany's outrageous multiperformances, the series became a crock of ridiculous sci-fi indulgences. The acting, apart from Maslany's work, descended into heavy-breathing wheezing of bromides and the script became a series of silly twists followed inevitably by chase scenes. But, it got some praise and Maslany won an Emmy, so potential viewers might well be enticed into it by the publicity. So here's the story, such as it is.

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See, three decades ago, a genetics company, Neolution, did a clandestine release of human clones, males and female. The males, called Project Castor, seemed to be a military project. The females, Project Leda, were released and sprinkled into the general population but monitored. These women had no idea about their origins. Things continued clandestine until Sarah (Maslany), a young woman with criminal tendencies, accidentally stumbled upon the fact there were women who looked exactly like her.

On her journey to find out about herself and her "sisters," Sarah had to learn more about the nefarious Neolution and discovered their shadowy parent companies, Dyad and Topside. Worse, she came upon the existence of the Proletheans, a religious outfit determined to wipe out the clones.

At its heart, when it sticks to substance, the series is about nature versus nurture, the roles into which women are forced and, in the matter of nurture, about motherhood.

It's motherhood that is the engine of the first new episodes. The season opener has an injured Sarah on a mysterious island attempting to find and rescue Cosima (also Maslany) from something or other. There are many small children in the plot, which guides everything toward Sarah's determination to be reunited with her daughter, Kira. This isn't going to be easy because Rachel (Maslany, of course) has become even more sinister and eventually makes it clear that Kira has been kidnapped and held to be studied by some group or other that Rachel is now aligned with.

There is considerable violence in the second episode as the various clones are killed off and this is a relief of sorts – Maslany can be confined to playing two or three versions of the central character and the plotting becomes less an exercise in showboating and more concerned with characters worth caring about.

As usual, and if you are familiar with the series, you know it's coming: Sarah induces her foster mother Mrs. S. (Maria Doyle Kennedy) and foster brother Felix (Jordan Gavaris) to help protect Kira (Skyler Wexler), but violent complications ensue. Felix delivers some good lines in his characteristically caustic style.

Here's the thing about about Orphan Black – the first episode of this final season has a character saying, "I don't get it, you were saved by a 17-year-old man?" and the other characters answering, "The science is real." It's beyond ridiculous. And that's the key element: It's all utterly ridiculous and delivered in a heightened, madly hyperbolic style.

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Yes, the series has some serious intentions. It is feminist in tome and attitude, and touches upon issues of of how women are pigeonholed into specific roles. But it touches very lightly on these themes. It's a series that promised so much, set the bar high and then failed to deliver. The initial praise and fan intensity it received seemed to lead everyone involved to overestimate the show's worth. It started smart, received international recognition and eventually disappeared up its own rear end. For all its merits, it never belonged on a list of the best of contemporary TV.

The plot makes some sense in the final season, but it's trying too hard, too late.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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