The many different faces of sci-fi

The fact that Tatiana Maslany’s mother was a translator may have assisted her in pulling off her roles in Orphan Black (SBS2, 8.30pm).

As Sarah Manning, and her various clones, Maslany succeeds in what must be a devilishly difficult task for an actor – playing a variety of characters, of a variety of nationalities, who all look the same but have wildly differing personalities. Just keeping the accents straight would be challenge enough, not to mention the array of hairdos that Maslany must switch in and out of to help us differentiate. And things have to get gruelling when you have to shoot the scene twice as different people. Spare a thought too for the body doubles, fated to a life of being shot from behind in someone else’s wig.

As we get to the pointy end of the series, and the mystery uncoils like a great snake, Maslany’s skills are tested heavily, particularly in a tense confrontation between the daring, troubled Sarah, seeking to protect her clone sisters and deranged Ukrainian assassin Helena, seeking to exterminate them.

The challenge with sci-fi is always making it feel important.

There’s a great risk, when your characters start talking about self-directed evolution and revealing their bio-engineered tails, that it’ll all start to feel a bit silly, and the essential unreality of the whole thing will cause the viewer to lose any feeling that anything on screen actually matters.

The question is, do you go full-Star Trek into fantasy land, or do you take the riskier route of grounding your show in the world we know, and hoping your writers and actors can muscle up enough to make it feel real? Orphan Black does the latter, to commendable effect.

As Sarah learns more about the cloning program, Cosima is drawn into the dangerous orbit of Dr Leekie, and Helena continues her fanatically murderous quest against the Neolutionists, it is very much down to Maslany’s ability to be by turns desperate, quirky and psychopathic, investing each clone with her own authentic identity, that Orphan Black still feels like it matters as the story becomes more and more extreme.

Speaking of extreme, the Winter Olympics (Ten, 8.30pm) bring us some of the most extreme behaviour possible for humans to engage in for the sake of a little gold disc. In the Summer Olympics elite athletes push themselves to the very limit – in the icebound version they push themselves over the limit and off a cliff.

Gold medals are being handed out in the women’s giant slalom (AKA throwing yourself down a mountain) and in the speed skating (AKA hurtling around in circles on razor blade shoes). There’s also qualifying in the ice hockey (AKA men bashing each other with sticks).

Sport, as always, is at its best when death lurks at every turn.