Genre fiction requires the infodump.
Eventually, you’re going to get to a point in a science fiction, fantasy or horror work where you need to lay out, exactly, the rules everyone’s playing by. The One Ring to rule them all corrupts absolutely. Dr. Jekyll’s potion lets out his bad self, but it also slips from his control. Use the Force! Other genres don’t require the huge piling on of exposition that genres where something “other” is present require. You might find some infodumping in a Western or in a period piece, but for the most part, we know the rules those genres play by because those genres take place in our reality, just in the past. Romance? Everybody knows what it’s like to fall in love. Comedy? Everyone likes to laugh. But genre fiction? That requires the infodump, and that’s where a lot of people get off the ship. It’s all well and good when we’re talking abstractly about folks on other planets fighting over resources, but once you bring in specific concepts like “spice” and “Arrakis” and “sandworms,” a lot of people are going to say, “That’s it! I’m outta here!”
To be fair, a lot of infodumps are pretty inelegant. Exposition has a way of just sort of sitting there on the page, and if you’re not really fascinated by, say, how time travel might work, it’s the sort of thing that gets in your way of enjoying a work ABOUT time travel. To a large degree, the division between “hard” and “soft” SF often hinges on things like infodumps. The hard SF is often for the people who are really, REALLY interested in the science part of the science fiction equation. The soft stuff skews more toward the fiction end of things and isn’t particularly concerned with plausibility much of the time. Obviously, there are terrific and terrible works in both subspecies, but it’s the infodump that seems to keep the harder stuff hard and allow folks like Ray Bradbury to make tentative steps into the mainstream when he mostly keeps his works infodump free. The professor of the science fiction class I took in college despised infodumps, particularly from early science fiction short stories, which tended to feature long sequences with two characters talking at length about why a certain technology worked the way it did, followed by some sort of half-assed attempt to watch that technology in action. Obviously, literary science fiction eventually moved on from that, and most televised and cinematic science fiction follows from that. Infodumps in movies and TV are increasingly rare outside of big effects shots that are mostly just there to shout, “WOO HOO! SPACESHIPS!”
Battlestar Galactica has always mostly eluded infodumps, choosing instead to wed them to big character revelations (Tigh is a Cylon!, for example). This, for the most part, has managed to keep it from getting too bogged down in its own mythology. For most of its run, the show was content to pile on the questions with occasional answers that didn’t dig into the show’s genre implications and philosophical concepts too deeply. Well now, with the series’ end coming in just a few weeks time, all of the cards have to go out on the table. After the action-packed “The Oath” and “Blood on the Scales,” “No Exit,” written by Ryan Mottesheard and directed by Gwyneth Horder-Payton, both newcomers to the BSG writing and directing game, is ALL infodump. It’s like one, long episode of those two characters sitting around and talking about why things are the way they are. Surprisingly enough, it works much, much better than this sort of thing has any right to work.
“No Exit” has very little in the way of a traditional plot. What’s there tends to be centered around Battlestar’s central Big Philosophical Question: What does it mean to be a human? How is that different from being a machine? This is all covered in a long, surprisingly evocative storyline that finds a resurrected Ellen Tigh (Kate Vernon) doing battle with Cavil (Dean Stockwell) over why she and the others in the Final Five saw fit to make the other Cylons (of which we learned there were eight others instead of seven tonight, opening the door for Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) or Baltar (James Callis) to be the final Cylon yet again) in the form of humans and not as perfect as machines could be. Cavil’s upset that he’s imperfect, that he can’t see the full spectrum of light coming off a supernova or smell dark matter. He’s been making modifications to his programming so that he doesn’t have to sleep and urging Boomer (Grace Park, nicely understated) to go against her own human impulses as well. Ellen, for her part, seems to say that she made these new beings in the form of humanity because of the weakness of human beings. We’re led around by our hearts. We can take pleasure in things. We fall in love. This is not a particularly new idea in science fiction, which has long argued that machines may be capable of many, many things but love, especially, is what makes us human and worth preserving. The very question of what makes humanity special or “worthy of survival” was something Adama (Edward James Olmos) brought up back in the miniseries that served as the show’s pilot, but it’s still a uniquely science fiction-y idea, and the intricate writing in these sequences, where Cavil and Ellen veer back and forth from arguing like lovers to arguing like mother and son to arguing like a worshipper might argue with his God, manage to toe the line as carefully as possible. The direction consists largely of wide shots that occasionally pan quickly between the squabblers, enhancing the sense of confusion Ellen felt when she woke up in the resurrection tub (she didn’t know she was a Cylon until that moment), and the scenes also serve to play up Cavil’s villainy (perhaps foreshadowing a return in the final handful of episodes) while also making the rage and feelings of inadequacy that villainy stems from much more understandable.
The scenes where a bed-ridden Anders (Michael Trucco) lays out exactly how the Final Five came to join the 12 Tribes so they were among those attacked by the Cylons at the start of the series are not as elegant as the Cavil-Ellen scenes. Indeed, they have a sense of the quick and dirty to them, as the show lays out a whole bunch of information very quickly (so much so that it took a second viewing for me to really unpack a lot of it). In short, resurrection was a talent the 13th tribe possessed when it left the other tribes to go find Earth, but they gradually forgot it as they apparently discovered the joys of procreating naturally on their long voyage. Eventually, as Earth descended into a war between Cylons and Cylons who thought they were humans (or something like that), Ellen came up with a plan to save herself and four close friends, including her husband (Michael Hogan), Anders, Tory (Rekha Sharma) and Tyrol (Aaron Douglas). When the bombs hit, they were downloaded into new bodies in a ship orbiting high above. These new bodies then began a long voyage at near-light speeds (keeping their aging comparatively slow to someone moving at normal speeds) to go back to the 12 Colonies and warn them that the creation of artificial life could only end poorly. Once they got there, it was too late. The Centurions were already in existence, but the Final Five hooked up with them to create the “skin jobs.” Cavil was the first created, and after he fell out of favor with Ellen in favor of an unseen seventh Cylon named Daniel (I dare you to unpack all the bibilical references in THAT one), he tricked the Final Five somehow and killed them, as well as completely eliminated Daniel (or so he thought). Once the Final Five redownloaded, their memories had been altered by Cavil, who sent them off to the positions we found them in at the start of the miniseries, starting with Tigh. Cavil then spent much of the New Caprica occupation specially singling out the Final Five for his enmity but never actually killing them (in some twisted form of revenge crossed with a deep desire for Ellen’s appreciation) so they would redownload and learn the truth. When Tigh killed Ellen, she downloaded again, which is where we found her when the episode began.
Whew. That’s a lot of backstory to impart. While some of it comes from the Cavil-Ellen scenes, the vast majority of it comes from Anders telling the others who have gathered around his bed. These scenes try to toss in a little extra drama from having Anders’ medical condition be in doubt (as it still is at the end of the episode) and also tossing in the trendy TV condition of aphasia (meaning that everything Anders says has an added layer of frustration to it, as the character struggles to overcome his brain failing him), but for the most part, they are straight up infodump. There’s obviously an argument to be made that we should have SEEN as much of this as possible, but at the same time, the show is on a bit of a limited budget (this episode appeared to be a bottle show—an episode contained within a small number of sets specifically to keep costs down), so the only way to convey the sheer epicness of the story scope here is to stick it in the hands of an actor and hope he’s capable of delivering the material. Trucco mostly manages to be up to the task, but, to a real degree, since the show is playing off many seasons of goodwill and a legion of fans who JUST WANTED TO KNOW, this stuff could have been a LOT more inelegant than it actually is and it still would have played. We’re curious as to what’s been going on with this timeline and these characters, and the show knows us well enough to know that only the hardcore are left, pretty much, and we’re just waiting for some answers. The fact that all of this comes out in such a rush (the Anders infodumps occupy less than 10 minutes of screen time) means that it can be a little dense, and it probably keeps this episode from being an all-time favorite from the series, but it was necessary to get this information out of the way at some point, and this frees up the final episodes to delve more into the characters, leaving only a few very crucial mysteries still hanging.
The episode’s other major plotline concerned Adama and Tyrol examining the damage Tyrol found to the ship’s hull at the end of the last episode. While this mostly just functions as a place to cut away to when the episode needs to exit the exposition-heavy additional plotlines, it too is a bit more science fiction-y than the show usually is. Battlestar usually strays away from the “The ship can’t take the strain, Captain!” types of episodes, simply because it’s never been as interested in the technical specifications of the Galactica as other series might be, but this storyline, which reveals just how poorly the Galactica has held up from the years of abuse it’s been taking felt like it fit well enough amid the other, harder science fiction stuff (though it is a bit implausible that Tyrol is running from the repair efforts to stand vigil at Anders’ bedside), also set something in motion that will probably be important in the final episodes (the Galactica now contains some Cylon technology—it’s the only way the ship will hold out). Similarly, the short scene of Roslin (Mary McDonnell) turning most functions of her presidency to Lee (Jamie Bamber) and the scene of Tigh and Six (Tricia Helfer) feeling their baby kick were there to set things in motion. Even the major new revelation of the episode (there’s yet another Cylon out there) seems mostly there to keep some ideas alive and kicking. “No Exit” is definitely a summing up kind of episode, but it also has its moments in which it points the way forward.
Some other thoughts:
1. Since the episode went all the way back to the beginning, more or less, the little “The Cylons have a plan!” opening that the series has used since day one got a somewhat epic makeover, taking us more or less through the entire history of the series. It actually served in place of the “Previously on Battlestar Galactica” segment, and if you were watching the series for the first time with this episode, first of all, why would you do that? And, second of all, it worked probably about as well as a “Previously on ...” would have.
2. I didn’t really say anything about the acting in this one, but Dean Stockwell was suitably rage-filled. The show’s not exactly the Academy’s favorite, but here’s hoping the Emmys find a way to honor him in the guest category.
3. Be honest. How many of you saw the “sponsored by Viagra” bit at the close of the opening credits and thought that even the sponsors were Adama/Roslin shippers?
4. This week’s Sci-Fi Channel original movie, Splinter, is apparently about a virus or something that makes people grow splinters out of their skin. I realize they can’t ALL be Raptor Planet or Mansquito, but that whole premise is simply unacceptable. If the film can’t be described en totale by an evocative two-word title and/or a weird portmanteau seemingly conjured by a team of marketers, it doesn’t deserve to be a Sci-Fi Channel Original Movie.
5. So, obviously, Daniel is still out there SOMEwhere. Put your chips down. Who’s he going to be? Me? I think the line about how his genetic line was corrupted is evidence that it’s going to be Starbuck.
6. It’s nice to see Galactica continuing a long TV tradition of giving a script in the waning episodes of the series to someone who’s been with the show for a while and maybe harbored writing ambitions but hasn’t been on the full staff. Mottesheard has been the show’s script supervisor for the final season, and he turned in some fine work with some tricky material here.
7. Unremarked upon episode motif that I just don’t have it in me to give the full treatment it deserves: Adama and Tigh still carry a bit of Cylon resentment, even though one claims to work with Cylons and the other IS one. Adama, in particular, only lets the Cylons do things to his beloved Galactica when it’s simply a last resort. Understandable reservations? Some sort of foreshadowing? Or just the show continuing to beat home a point it made a few episodes ago?
8. So if it seems safe to assume the escaped Ellen and Boomer will rejoin the fleet in an episode or two, can Cavil be far behind, bringing with him one final showdown for the finale or penultimate episode? Also, how over-obvious was that cut from Boomer wailing about not even knowing whom she could be able to love to Season One squeeze Tyrol working on the ship? Oh well. Y’can’t win ’em all.