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Tatiana Maslany is the star of a new sci-fi series Orphan Black. She plays a character who encounters a series of look-alikes. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Tatiana Maslany is the star of a new sci-fi series Orphan Black. She plays a character who encounters a series of look-alikes. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

How Canada is becoming the sci-fi nation Add to ...

Call it wall-cracking chemistry: At his audition for the part of Dyson on Lost Girl, Kris Holden-Ried read with Anna Silk, who had been cast as Bo, a supernatural sexual omnivore with a tendency to literally suck the life out of her partners, but who can also be healed by sex. The scene called for a big kiss. Holden-Ried had Silk up against the wall. When they were done, executive producer Jay Firestone pointed behind them: They had cracked the plaster.

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“They were so involved in the scene, they didn’t realize they did it,” recalls Firestone. Holden-Ried got the part.

Three seasons later, the chemistry continues to steam up the Faedom on Lost Girl, one of a current crop of shows that is taking sci-fi out of your parents’ basement and into the genre-defying almost-mainstream. No Dungeons & Dragons T-shirt required; this is not your geeked-out old-school science fiction. You could call these shows sci-fi mash-ups: complex in terms of categorization, they’re also compelling, cosmopolitan – and Canadian. Not just made in Canada.

There’s a distinction, of course.

Canada has a rich history of American shows coming up north to shoot. That’s particularly so in Vancouver, where The X-Files was a game-changer way back, and continues today with series like Supernatural. Along the way, Canadians went from staffing the American productions to creating their own. Now, shows such as Continuum, Lost Girl and Orphan Black are generating some out-of-this-world (or at least out-of-this-country) buzz and deals; even the cancelled Canadian series Sanctuary has recently struck a syndication deal. Fuelled by all that experience, by the rise of the specialty channel, and by Canadian-content requirements, Canadian science fiction is undeniably having a moment.

“There’s been great science fiction that’s come out of Canada,” says Thomas Vitale, executive vice-president of programming and original movies for Syfy, whose schedule includes both Canadian productions and such shot-in-Canada U.S. series as the big-budget Defiance, which was shot in Toronto last year and premieres on Monday (in Canada, on Showcase).

“They may not have been Canadian-created [shows] at the beginning, but we got really good at making them,” says Graeme Manson, writer and co-creator of Orphan Black, which recently premiered to effusive reviews. “Sure enough, we’re steeped in it; and sure enough, we’re going to start creating it and writing our own.”

Manson, whose past work includes Flashpoint, notes that, because of the versatility of Canadian TV writers – they do sci-fi, drama, comedy, features – these shows have a tendency to blur genre boundaries. Continuum is part sci-fi, part police procedural. Orphan Black is a sci-fi conspiracy-themed thriller. Lost Girl has elements of a buddy film, a rom-com and a crime procedural, as well as being a sort of supernatural adult fairy tale. Without necessarily watering down the elements that thrill the sci-fi base, these more genre-agnostic shows have the potential to appeal far beyond it.

Continuum, which begins its second season this month, follows Kiera (Rachel Nichols), a police officer in 2077 Vancouver who in the pilot is zapped back to 2012, along with a group of terrorists responsible for a deadly bombing. While trying to figure out how to return to her 2077 life – in particular her son and husband – Kiera also manages to join the Vancouver police department, and hunt for the escaped cons. With echoes of contemporary issues – Occupy, 9/11 – the show resonates beyond the sci-fi sphere.

“Yes, it’s science fiction, yes it’s about time travel, but it’s about where we are and where we’re going,” says actor Brian Markinson, seen most recently on Mad Men as Don Draper’s physician neighbour, but who’s also a sci-fi veteran with a long list of credits that includes The X-Files, Caprica, Supernatural and Sanctuary.

Continuum premiered last spring to record ratings for Showcase and went on to be the No. 1 rated specialty series of the summer in Canada. It was subsequently picked up by Syfy in the United States, where it has earned attention and some good reviews. Entertainment Weekly, for one, called it a “crisp, crackerjack series.”

“I’ve had many people say, ‘This does not look like a Canadian TV show,’” says Nichols, who is American. “And I didn’t really know what that meant, because I’m not Canadian.” ”

If there’s been a bump along the Continuum, it has had to do with the lag time in U.S. broadcast dates. Continuum began airing in May, 2012, in Canada, but not in the United States until January, 2013. The window will be shorter for Season 2 – not quite seven weeks – but that can be an eternity in the age of social media, particularly for rabid sci-fi fans, who also tend to know their way around a computer download (legal or not). At Syfy, Vitale says they’re aware of the scheduling issue, and hoping to ultimately fix it.

Lost Girl has also been picked up by Syfy. Shot in Toronto, the show was the most successful premiere in Showcase history when it debuted in 2010. The Season 3 finale airs Sunday in Canada; eight days later on Syfy. Season 4 goes into production in June, a few weeks after Silk, who is pregnant, has her baby.

Silk’s Bo is a succubus: a supernatural, strong but vulnerable femme fatale – living among humans and her own kind, the Fae. She has a best friend (Ksenia Solo) and love interests both male and female. “In the beginning, it was really hard to define what our show was. I can remember doing press, and I was, like, it’s an action-comedy-drama; I just had no idea what to call it,” says Silk. “A lot of people have compared us to Buffy, which I think is a really flattering comparison. Sometimes I say it’s like Buffy for grownups, because of the sexual content.”

The characters’ sexual freedom – including Bo’s bisexuality – is treated in a very matter-of-fact manner onscreen. But off-screen, executive producer Firestone says it did have an impact on how the show was made – and paid for. In Canada, where we seem less freaked-out about this stuff, Showcase, the Canada Media Fund and Firestone’s company Prodigy stepped up with financing. But Firestone was unable, for a long time, to secure additional funding from other broadcasters, studios or financers. “They were nervous about the bisexual element,” he says. “That’s what scared everybody.”

He financed the pilot, and even after that, couldn’t attract funding until they were about three or four episodes in, when Sony came onboard. “No American network would have produced this show; I will give you that, for sure.”

Over on Space and BBC America, another made-in-Toronto series (this one a Canada-U.S. co-production) is also generating cross-border buzz. Orphan Black started simmering in the brains of Manson and co-creator John Fawcett a decade ago, beginning with an opening sequence: A woman gets off a train, looks across the platform, and witnesses another woman, who looks remarkably like her, commit suicide. As Sarah (Tatiana Maslany) assumes the identity of her doppelganger, she begins to uncover the mystery of the dead woman’s identity, as well as her own (and later, others’).

The series premiered March 30, attracting the biggest audience for an original series debut in Space’s 15-year history – and some excellent reviews. “Thoroughly impressive, wildly entertaining,” gushed The Hollywood Reporter. “One of the most intriguingly entertaining new series of the year.”

Much has also been made of its ambiguous setting. For example, what appear to be suburban trains in the opening sequence are departing for New York, but the dead woman’s wallet is filled with Canadian currency. “It’s meant to be Generica,” says Manson. “It’s part of the price you pay for this kind of co-production.”

On Continuum, meanwhile, Vancouver plays itself – in the present and future – with very specific references, right down to street names. “It wasn’t a decision. We just kind of assumed it and we waited for someone to push back, and nobody did,” says creator Simon Barry, who lives in one of Vancouver’s glass towers.

There was some initial concern that because Vancouver is such a new city, it was almost too modern to demonstrate the contrast between 2012 and 2077. But Barry says it was exciting to embrace the modernity of contemporary Vancouver and to force that against a different aesthetic of what the future might look like. “We thought: Let’s give ourselves a challenge to out-future an already futuristic city to see what we come up with,” he says.

The setting for Lost Girl is more traditionally vague. While care was taken to mention the need to cross the border during an episode dealing with capital punishment, for the most part Bo is doing her vixen thing in Anytown.

“The story is a universal story,” says Firestone. “We’re not talking about Canadian monsters.”

 

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