Monday, January 12, 2009

Presidential Spectacles

We're very pleased to present an original essay for the Galactica Sitrep by Sam J. Miller, who brings us studious observations on BSG's use of a particular prop we've seen on the faces of Adama, Baltar, and notably on Laura Roslin:

The Eyeglasses of Laura Roslin
by Sam J. Miller

One source of Battlestar Galactica's overwhelming narrative strength is the level of attention paid to very aspect of characterization. Katee Sackhoff is a great actor and Jane Espenson is a great writer, for example, but that's just part of the story. The producers have created an artistic environment where props, background elements, camera angles, and lighting are all skillfully exploited to enrich our experience of these characters, with a success generally only attained by the most skilled novelists and filmmakers. To help me process my grief as we prepare for the end of the series, I would like to take a retrospective stroll through the series, from the miniseries to “Revelations,” with an eye on one specific prop: the eyeglasses of Laura Roslin.

When we first meet Roslin, she is seated in her doctors office—passive, patient, afraid. Without her glasses. A Cylon nuclear strike wipes out twenty billion people, catapulting her into a position of power that the schoolteacher-turned-Secretary-of-Education never wanted. Her whole civilization has been destroyed, and she is surrounded by panicked people desperate for leadership she is not prepared to provide. The moment when we finally meet her glasses is significant. Cylon raiders attack the newly-christened Colonial One, and President Roslin, finally confronted with her foe, strides into the cockpit. Putting on her glasses, she becomes the steely strong leader whose own fear is irrelevant.

This is the drama at the heart of her character. She's the president, and the survival of the entire species depends upon her, but she's also a human being, with all the fear and weakness that come along with that. This internal duality—between being human and being the president—is reinforced by the back-and-forth of Roslin-with-glasses vs. Roslin-without.

As the show progresses, Roslin relies on her glasses more and more in the moments when she's forced to make difficult decisions. Early in season one, in the episode “33,” she's not wearing them as she wrestles with the decision to authorize the destruction of a civilian vessel possibly carrying 1300 passengers. Her face is stricken; she's overwhelmed by the magnitude of what she's doing. By season 2.5's “Resurrection Ship,” when she tells Adama that murdering Admiral Cain is their only option, she's got her glasses on. She's not paralyzed by the moral consequences of the action. When she announces the ban on abortion in “The Captain's Hand,” her voice breaks several times, and she's blinking back tears. No glasses.

Roslin's glasses come to signify power, confidence, and leadership. Baltar's act of bringing Roslin her glasses when she's held in a New Caprica prison is a gesture meant to make her feel less powerless—and it obviously impresses her, because she returns the favor when he is in Galactica's brig in “Taking a Break From All Your Worries.” Romo Lampkin takes Roslin's glasses during Baltar's trial, to make her more vulnerable. Later on, when Apollo's cross-examination becomes antagonistic and threatens to expose the fact that her cancer has returned, she reflexively grabs her glasses and puts them on.

Yet her glasses also represent the constant risk she runs of losing her humanity, of becoming inflexible and mechanical. Her harsh treatment of the mysteriously-returned Starbuck in “He That Believeth In Me” and “Six of One,” and her double-crossing of her renegade Cylon allies in “The Hub” are all carried out with her glasses on. Paradoxically, her glasses do not help her to see. She has to take them off to admit that “for all his crimes,” Baltar is “still one of us” or to finally tell Adama that she loves him.

On New Caprica, Tigh tells Roslin “sometimes I think that you've got ice water in those veins... and other times, I think you're just a naive little school teacher.” The development of her character entails mastering both—reconciling the human and the inhuman. The human and the mechanical. Just as the Cylons are simply and purely evil at the start of the show, and slowly come to exhibit the moral equivocation and free will that signifies humanity, Roslin begins the show as a human being who must master the art of being mechanical. Not only does she need to set aside her own personal feelings, she must go against her whole understanding of right and wrong. In “Lay Down Your Burdens,” Admiral Adama is correct when he says she'd never be able to live with herself if she stole the election. Roslin is prepared to sacrifice her soul, to become the evil she opposes—because the alternative might mean the end of the human race. Her own desires and happiness and even her life are secondary.

Roslin and Admiral Adama, two leaders who obsess over the discrepancy between human instinct and military necessity, both wear glasses. Admiral Cain does not. She has no such internal conflict. For her, holding onto the civilized side of human life was never a priority. Quite the opposite—she was determined to be an unflinching tool of violence, unconcerned with questions of morality or fear. A razor. Brutality is seamlessly integrated into Cain's humanity, and her strategy for saving the human race.

I don't mean to imply that this use of Roslin's glasses is some explicitly-staged narrative device that the producers and writers arranged at the start, and is applied consistently throughout the run of the show. It wouldn't take much digging to turn up a moment where Roslin expresses her humanity through her glasses, or orders a human being airlocked without them. And yet it speaks to the show's incredible storytelling atmosphere that this kind of pattern can evolve organically, as a result of occasional directorial decisions or a simple instinct on the part of an actor (and it's worth noting that the glasses were not provided by the producers or the wardrobe department—they're Mary McDonnell's real glasses).

To be human is to be a big sloppy mess of contradictions, and it isn't just the Cylons who spend the entire series taking the measure of their own humanity. Admiral Cain and Kendra Shaw perish because they are mired too deeply in the mechanical and the inhuman; Apollo and Baltar consistently make terrible decisions because they are too deeply “human” (Baltar because he's selfish and vain, and Apollo because he's self-righteous and unrealistically idealistic). Yet it's worth pointing out that all four of these characters “ring true” and are often quite likable, in spite of—or because of—these flaws. And if Battlestar Galactica has touched its audience in a way that puts it alongside Ulysses and Citizen Kane as the absolute pinnacle of its art form, it's because of the way every piece reinforces the central theme of balancing the contradictory aspects of human reality. Big things like the brilliant soundtrack and the special effects, and little things like the eyeglasses of Laura Roslin.

Sam J. Miller is a writer and a community organizer. His work has appeared in literary journals such as Fiction International, Strange Horizons, AlterNet, and The Minnesota Review—who nominated him for a Pushcart Prize. Unabashedly obsessed with the re-imagined BSG, he's the author of “Battlestar Galactica vs. Star Trek,” available at mental_floss. Visit him at, and/or drop him a line at


Anonymous said...

In many aspects, this sums up the show perfectly.

However, this can have negative implications.


The essay raised some red flags.

Reading it, you start to view Roslin as some new superwoman.

The author contrasts Roslin with Cain & Lee, who are too evil & too good. Both Cain & Lee fail because of these polar positions.

The author concludes that Roslin has mastered the delicate balancing act. She's evil when needed, & good when needed.

That's why the fleet has survived. Because they have this superwoman.


It doesn't help that Galactica constantly potrays the fleet as stupid sheep & the elected Quorum as ineffectual blowhards.

Instead of being valuable players in decision-making, they're portrayed as a nuissance.

As the essay shows, Roslin carries the weight of the world on her shoulders, like Atlas.


To me, this smacks of pure ELITISM..

Isn't "Galactica" just the Liberal version of the Neo-Conservative "24"?

Both shows prove that America's Neo-Conservatives & Liberals are two sides of the same coin.

Both will declare "Give me liberty or give me death!"

But both breed of rats will abandon ship, at the first sign of danger.


Anyways, thanks for the essay.
It's clearly great food for thought

Anonymous said...

Or...uh...the glasses are actually the actress' and she is seen wearing them mostly in scenes where she is reading or needs to read sometime soon?

I think it is easy to see what you want to see....funny things about beliefs and faith.

Anonymous said...

Ashoka - thanks for your thoughts, although I don't feel like Cain & Lee "are too evil & too good;" the show is too smart for such simple definitions. People on BSG are weak, brutal, selfish, vain, paranoid, proud, desperate, deluded, unstable, self-destructive, ignorant, violent, irrational, brilliant, intuitive, messy and wise - like most people.

Anonymous - I cited a bunch of scenes where Roslin is seen with her glasses, and she's not reading (or about to read) in any of them. Of course you're right, it's easy to see what you want to see, even if one wants to see nothing.

karigee said...

I like seeing it your way, Sam; I like the idea that Roslin needs some sort of shield to prepare for battle, especially since it's such a small, personal character note. Thank you for a well-written, thought-provoking piece.

Eric H said...

OK so I see this headline and my first reaction is "Is the waiting getting so bad that Sitrep has resorted to blogging about the inauguration?" Quickly followed by "oh, THAT kind of spectacle." Thanks for a very thought-provoking essay that deepens my enjoyment of this complex and fascinating character.

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