Considering #Captions in Orphan Black: Some ideas and sources flowing towards speculative captioning

The Personal

I love Orphan Black. I am invested viewer, and I've watched all three seasons twice already. I'm now on my third run through the series. Why? Because it has all the components I enjoy: conspiracy, dystopian near-future, strong characters, an interesting gay male (Fe), a strong female lead (multiple leads, in my view, all played by the same actress). During each viewing, I've watched with the captions on. Most of the time I'm reading and watching the action. It's not just passive viewing; there's active reading as well. Just feels right.

The Trigger

Now that I'm back to working and thinking about #captions--it's been non-stop the past 36 hours--I've been thinking a lot about Orphan Black. I was just watching "Nature Under Constraint and Vexed," (Season 2, Episode 1) and had a sudden revelation--or delusion--about how identity was not clear when Sarah or Alison were impersonating each other. These impersonations are often only clear by hearing the alternation between voices--something that is not clear in the captions [I'm working on a longer piece about this, actually, so I don't want to develop everything here]. That got me thinking.

A lot.

The Action

This morning, then, I decided to track down some scholarship on OB. [Tangent: Am I the only one that finds the initials of the show ironic, especially considering the strong themes about fertility, biopower, birth, fertilization, fertility, and women controlling their bodies? Hmmm.] Anyhow, I found a great dissertation (completed in in 2015): Renegotiating the Heroine: Postfeminism on the Speculative Screen. Opening chapter is pretty clear work on the purpose, etc. Nice work on post-feminism--certainly helped remind me of how little I know in that area and where I need to read. However, somehow I retained focus. Skimmed much dissertating and ended up in the chapter I wanted most: "Just One, I'm a Few": Cyborgs, Reproductive Rights, and Difference inOrphan Black. If you're hoping for some Deleuze, he's not here. Foucault and Biopower are, though. There is, however, plenty of Haraway along with de Laurentis and a bit of Greer.

As I approached this text, my core goal was to uncover other critical perspectives and views of OB. I found that. A bit of discussion on multiplicity--hooray--with Haraway and some connections with realist dystopian fiction. Also cool. Helped me look at the series from a different angle. These angles are important to me because, based on my conversations with Sean, I want to explore what emerged as "speculative captioning" in our conversation. I'm sure that one or both of us, if not others, will work on developing this idea more fully, but the short gist of it (for now at least) is: how we can explore captions' use and applications to open up new perspectives, to try new approaches, to fully employ current technologies and explore captions' aesthetic, political, and social potentials and use? What are some ways that we can test out captions?

Speculative Captioning--Briefly

Some models can be seen in the captions in Night Watch (see Sean's discussion of Night Watch here) and Sherlock (the new series). You can see one example of alternative or speculative captions by Sean in a brief modified clip from Avatar. As Sean points out, the idea is not to replace traditional captions; rather, one of the purposes is to speculate, to come up with ideas about ways that captions could be presented or used, and then to test them out. 

Another influence for me is Walida Imarisha's article about the role of speculative fiction within her larger social justice and prison abolition work. While Imarisha's piece focuses largely on Octavia Butler and prison abolition, one of her opening points is vital:

We [the Left] often forget to envision what could be. We forget to mine the past for solutions that show us how we can exist in other forms in the future. 

That is why I believe our justice movements desperately need science fiction. 

Just as speculative fiction and science fiction can help us see alternate futures, to see past hegemony and imagine alternatives, speculative captioning might help us re-see how we caption, what we caption, what perspectives shape captions, and much more. Frankly, the idea was voiced less than 36 hours ago, so I'm sure there's some evolution coming. I'm not sure if Sean is thinking of SC in way I am. Pretty sure he's going to develop and share what he sees/thinks about SC too.  What I do know, though, is that I'm now seeing captions as much larger than just text on the screen. So much more is there and is possible--I can't undo how I'm thinking of captions now.

Back to the Dissertation

Having all these ideas and thoughts about speculative captioning had me in a good place--a space open to multiple ways that captioning might be able to be used. As I read Heatwole's dissertation, walking through her multiple analyses on identity, fertility, power, and control, I suddenly started asking myself:

  • What if Helena was captioning the video? Would Sarah be "Sestra," Kira as Kira, and Alison and Cosima be "things"--at least until later episodes?
  • If Dyad were running the captions, as a global corporation is likely to do, would the clones be listed as Subject 1, Subject 2, and so forth?
  • What if the captions were only created after the series had ended and was created by a fan who could include short and relevant commentaries?
  • Do these alternative captions represent alternative narratives, or are they simple different angles on the same master narrative generated by the writer and producer?
  • Could these caption tracks be additional, optional tracks available for viewers to watch after they had seen the original, "master" version?
  • In other words, is it possible--or even useful--to remove the voice of objective authority within the captioned narrative and shift that over to a character's voice?
  • What kinds of impacts would such adjustments have on D/deaf viewers and Hearing viewers? How might these impacts differ?
  • What if the alternative caption tracks, i.e. the ones embodying characters' perspectives--like Rachel or Helena--provided additional, supplemental information that expanded and built out the narrative from the traditional captions? Might this be one way to encourage broader use of captions among Hearing folks: supplemental content and material?
  • Could some of these tracks use alternative methods? For example, since Helena clearly sees the world in a very different way--religious, hyper-violent at times, and driven--maybe her captions should be animated and swirly, like inNight Watch, whereas Rachel's captions would be traditional, formal, and proper: embodying the aesthetics of corporate control. Given Alison's character and bubbly, babbling personality, her captions might appear as the scroll up captions so often used in live events [I hate that format, but perhaps the aesthetics express part of her personality?]

End point here: reading scholarship about the primary text (OB) helped me see it in new ways. Just like speculative fiction can help us see through the artificialities of our culture and identify the components which matter, just as speculative captioning will, hopefully, help us envision new ways to caption, feminist and continental theories can help us re-see texts in new ways and thereby crack windows and doors for new perspectives and, most importantly, new modes of action and creation.