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Dystopian Villages: Surveillance and Re-mediation in The Prisoner

Sébastien Lefait


Le Prisoner de 2009 est une adaptation plutôt qu’un remake, étant donné les nombreux changements qui peuvent y être repérés. L’une des modifications les plus signifiantes est en lien avec l’emploi de la surveillance dans la création d’une société dystopique. L’espace de la série originale, qui était entièrement soumis au regard de Number 2, pourrait être défini comme panoptique, un aspect de la série mis en place afin de révéler les potentiels fléaux futurs de ce que l’on appellerait plus tard la société de surveillance. Le Prisoner de 1967, cependant, a principalement représenté la surveillance comme un instrument de pouvoir, même si le regard de l’observateur a été parfois assimilé au regard des spectateurs, prouvant ainsi que la télévision détient une autre forme de pouvoir, fondé autant sur le fait de montrer que de regarder. Un changement marquant dans la nouvelle version est que le prisonnier de 2009 démissionne d’une agence de surveillance à New York qui s’appelle Summakor, alors que son homologue de 1967 est un agent du gouvernement britannique. Cette relocalisation apparemment mineure donne un nouveau sens à la série dans sa globalité : par exemple, la surveillance, qui était l’un des thèmes majeurs de la fiction originelle, devient une clé de voûte de tout le récit du Prisoner de 2009. La nouvelle série va bien plus loin dans l’investigation des aspects médiatiques liés à la société de surveillance et les changements idéologiques provoqués par la création de nouvelles formes de technologies de surveillance (qui ont fait du panoptique un concept à réexaminer ou même à renouveler). Le but de cet article est de montrer que le Prisoner de 2009 réussit à adapter la dimension de la critique sociale du Village de 1967 — la cage dorée dans laquelle le prisonnier est envoyé — en le transformant en une autre forme de dystopie, qui prend en compte l’importance croissante de la surveillance dans la société contemporaine, ainsi que les changements majeurs dans le sens et les buts de la surveillance qui résultent des nouvelles technologies.

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Notes de la rédaction

The Prisoner: 1967 and 2009 versions.

Texte intégral

  • 1 Season 3 in Lost being the most surveillance related, although the notion applies to the series as (...)
  • 2 Law & Order: Special Victims Unit season 3 episode 17 is entitled “Surveillance”; The Office (U.S. (...)
  • 3 “The dominant theoretical orientation of most sociological and historical studies of film genres an (...)
  • 4 Jane Feuer, Seeing Through the Eighties: Television and Reaganism, Durham, Duke University Press, 1 (...)

1In the wake of FOX channel’s 24 (2001-10), a trend, increasingly noticeable in cinema since the 1980s, has been perceptibly infiltrating TV series. The trend is visible as the common factor appearing in widely varying programmes such as Lost (ABC, 2004-2010) and The Wire (HBO, 2002-2008). What these series have in common is their extensive use of surveillance, either as the very concept for the series or on a seasonal scale1. To this shortlist, numerous surveillance episodes in such dissimilar programmes as Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (NBC, 1999-), The Office (NBC, 2005-) or The Simpsons (Fox, 1987-) should be added2. To account for such a widespread phenomenon requires more than the “reflection-of-society” perspective3 that is so often applied to cinema and seems even more fitted to television programmes. In fact, as Jane Feuer argues, “just as TV images could not be said to have caused the eighties, neither could the eighties be said to have produced the images as a simple reflection of the times4.” In a similar vein, I propose to explore, over a wider period, why the trend of surveillance came about and how it affects TV series.

2The tendency can be traced back to one of contemporary TV series’ arch ancestors, Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner (ATV, 1967-1968), whose exploitation of surveillance actually leads to an alternative explanation. As the extensive use of surveillance devices in the public space can be dated to the 1980s, with a sharp increase in the 1990s, the original Prisoner can hardly be said to illustrate changes massively occurring in the society of its time, let alone affecting audience tastes. In the series, the Village to which the main character is sent is an imaginary location which can obviously be interpreted as a dystopian allegory or a projection of 1967 Europe, but not as a description of a particular place.

3As a result, the 1967 Prisoner’s use of surveillance, rather than being descriptive, takes its originality from its inscriptive quality: surveillance fits in the narrative pattern of the series while, at the same time, TV is shown to play a part in the surveillance system the plot presents. In this renowned series, then, surveillance is not treated passively as a theme, but functions dynamically as a narrative and reflexive agent. The first moments of episode 3, entitled “Free for all”, exemplify this two-way inscriptive process. At the very beginning of the episode, The Prisoner’s credits sequence shows a British spy suddenly resigning and driving home in his sports car, followed by a hearse. Once at home, he packs up, presumably to go on holidays, and the undertaker formerly driving the hearse pours anaesthetic gases into the room. When he wakes up, the British agent looks out the window and realises he is now in a strange place that, as he learns in the first episode, is called the Village. The sequence that comes next is used in all but four of the Prisoner episodes. It describes the Village as a surveillance microcosm through the use of high-angle shots which could be taken from spying cameras towering over the place (see Plate 1).

  • 5 “[Dans le cas de l’ocularisation interne primaire,] il s’agit […] de suggérer le regard, sans forcé (...)

4Such shots seem to indicate that what the spectators are given to see is captured by a camera belonging to the diegetic world, so that they could be described, if we consider surveillance as a form of ocularisation and adapt Gaudreault and Jost’s terminology, as primary surveillance shots5. However, by casting a closer look at the first few shots in the sequence and by taking the next pictures into consideration, we are led to qualify such an interpretation. The first overall view of the Village, when the episode title appears, may be fixed, but the second high angle shot pans right to follow “Number 6” – the name ascribed to the British spy by the inhabitants of the Village. If those shots are taken by a diegetic surveillance camera, it is necessarily one that is able to move from left to right around a central axis. The sequence then includes another high-angle shot of Number 6 running on a deserted beach, which contains a zooming effect. Then come a low-angle shot of the character’s mad race and another high-angle shot of the same continued action, in which the camera now tracks from right to left. Those are followed by closer shots of the Rover, the famous balloon whose role is to chase after escapees.

5As this brief description indicates, the sequence almost imperceptibly shifts from shots which can consistently be interpreted to be taken by surveillance cameras to a more classically cinematic shooting style. In fact, if it is possible to imagine a surveillance camera with the ability to pan or zoom, it is far less likely for a surveillance camera to be able to track laterally. This first series of shots, however, is undoubtedly described as a case of Number 2 watching Number 6 through reality capturing-devices. Number 2 (the ruler of the place) appears twice in the next part of the sequence, first in a medium close-up shot, then, immediately after, in a reverse shot that situates him in the Village control room, sitting in a ball shaped armchair in front of a large screen displaying images of the Rover now actually in pursuit of the Prisoner (see Plate 2).

  • 6 “[Dans le cas de l’ocularisation interne secondaire,] la subjectivité de l’image est construite par (...)

6To use ocularisation terminology again, the images on the screen within the screen are secondary surveillance shots6, because they are edited next to a shot of the watcher in the control room.

7Given this construction of the credits sequence as surveillance footage, it is easy to forget that it intermingles two types of shots – some of which can be read to have been taken by diegetic surveillance cameras; some of which, however, clearly show the actors ignoring the presence of the camera, a case in point being the view of Number 6 rushing to the foreground with the Rover close on his heels. The sequence Number 2 is watching in order to “watch” Number 6, then, is fictional footage shot in the style of surveillance rather than actual surveillance recording. The feeling thus conveyed is that Number 2 has found the perfect way of keeping Number 6 under his gaze, wherever and whenever he goes, by lackadaisically watching the series, comfortably settled in his armchair, the way its spectators in the real world do. The mise-en-abyme is further encouraged by the fact that Number 2’s globe-shaped armchair is shot from behind to recall the form of the chasing balloon: it is as if the Rover were both on the side of the watcher and on the side of the watched (see Plate 2).

8The opening of the “Free for all” episode is specific in that it extends the scopic regime of the credits sequence to the beginning of the episode per se. As the plot begins to unravel, the two-way screen presented at the end of the credits sequence, which displays TV pictures but is sometimes treated as transparent, is found again in a slightly different form. Number 2 imposes his visit upon Number 6 through a phone call soon to be supplemented by shots of the character with the receiver in his hand, displayed on a screen in Number 6’s house (see Plate 3).

9This variation on the telescreens featured in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), which serve both as showing and watching instruments, is however complete with a new feature: the telescreen has obviously become a television screen. Number 2 then appears at the door, with an umbrella rather than a receiver in his hand, which suggests that the telescreen is not a mere video door intercom. Rather, the construction of the sequence suggests that Number 2 is simultaneously behind the door and on the screen – i.e. in two different places at the same time – because the sequence on the screen has been rehearsed and put on, very much like a TV show. This, however, is contradicted by the fact that Number 2’s picture on the screen is able to answer Number 6’s questions, which presents the television glass as transparent. The device is thus depicted as enabling both actors and viewers to simultaneously watch and be watched, an imaginary hypothesis which may seem totally preposterous unless one considers that Number 6’s questions are no more improvised than Number 2’s replies. In fact, part of the script is spoken through the diegetic TV screen, which is therefore treated as a window looking into a fictional world. The ultimate surveillance device imagined by Orwell is translated into the most common domestic appliance; television is represented as an instrument of control, in a double equation between watching TV and surveilling on the one hand, watching TV and being surveilled on the other hand.

  • 7 David Lyon, Surveillance Studies: An Overview, Cambridge, UK, Polity, 2007, p. 204.

10As this sequence shows, in the original version of The Prisoner, the Village is a kind of gilded cage with no bars, a prison from which it is impossible to go away due to an elaborate surveillance system enabling the powers that be to immediately detect escape attempts. The series’ space, circumscribed as it is to what cameras can see, is entirely submitted to Number 2’s gaze, so that it can be defined as panoptic, because the ubiquitous watching of the whole place is centralized in one character, thus enabling, in keeping with David Lyon’s definition of panoptic devices, “the few to watch the many7. This aspect of the show may be thought to expose, through the nightmarish vision of the Village’s surveillance dystopia, the upcoming or virtual evils of what would later be called the “surveillance society”.

  • 8 Ibid. The reference is to Thomas Mathiesen, “The Viewer Society: Michel Foucault’s ‘Panopticon’ Rev (...)

11The 1967 Prisoner, however, does not merely present surveillance as an instrument of power, but derives its specificity from the role it ascribes to television in the surveillance pattern it describes. By equating the watchers’ gaze with that of the spectators, the show offers a reflection on the nascent surveillance society rather than a mere reflection of the society of its time. In a visionary move, it reflectively includes TV in a hypothetical surveillance system, thus suggesting that showing devices can be used as surveillance tools. This groundbreaking idea at the time has, by now, become quite commonplace in the field of surveillance studies via the concept of the synopticon cos surveThomas Mathiesento chasnary h7 is elonsimul surveitrol, idociety, ans, em encks ups of shotshe hus sparent. The e rdevices, panoptic devif <the few to watch the man8"Foucault’s 8 Le Prisonhiesento chasnary h7 is e cals from the o bars, ad toy être rll soon ld of sAn iconic chans, em enckhow.of NThe duatire rll epicted s; soanopticlage, s, hash serve bothsion is repregaze, coul="en" lotheticedociety, n>The 1967 Prisoner version of Prisoner

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1 Season 3 in Lost being the most surveillance related, although the notion applies to the series as a whole if surveillance narrative techniques are considered.

2 Law & Order: Special Victims Unit season 3 episode 17 is entitled “Surveillance”; The Office (U.S. version) season 2 episode 9 is entitled “E-Mail Surveillance” and The Simpsons season 21 episode 20 is “To Surveil, With Love”. Apart from this very limited sample, many episode plots in other series feature surveillance without their title illustrating the fact. The whole span of TV series is virtually covered by the spread of surveillance, even more so since such programmes as Big Brother are considered to be series, their segmentation into seasons and episodes inviting us to do so.

3 “The dominant theoretical orientation of most sociological and historical studies of film genres and cycles is the reflection-of-society perspective. According to this viewpoint, shifts in film content reflect changes in audience taste preferences which are, in turn, linked to major shifts in the structure of society.” Robert E. Kapsis, Hitchcock: The Making of a Reputation, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1992, p. 3.

4 Jane Feuer, Seeing Through the Eighties: Television and Reaganism, Durham, Duke University Press, 1995, p. 2.

5 “[Dans le cas de l’ocularisation interne primaire,] il s’agit […] de suggérer le regard, sans forcément le montrer; pour ce faire, on construit l’image comme un indice, comme une trace qui permet au spectateur d’établir un lien immédiat entre ce qu’il voit et l’instrument de prise de vues qui a capté ou reproduit le réel, par la construction d’une analogie avec sa propre perception.” “[With primary internal ocularisation], the fact that a character is watching what is shown on screen is suggested rather than directly shown. To that effect, the picture is structured as a clue or trace which allows the spectators to immediately connect what they are seeing with the reality-capturing instrument which has shot or reproduced the real world, through the construction of an analogy with their own perception.” André Gaudreault and François Jost, Le Récit cinématographique, Paris, Nathan, 1990, p. 131, my translation. Similarly, a primary surveillance shot bears the trace that what is reproduced on screen was captured by a diegetic surveillance camera.

6 “[Dans le cas de l’ocularisation interne secondaire,] la subjectivité de l’image est construite par les raccords (comme dans le champ-contrechamp), par une contextualisation. N’importe quelle image qui raccorde avec un regard montré à l’écran, à condition que quelques règles ‘syntaxiques’ soient respectées, sera ancrée dans celui-ci.” “[Secondary internal ocularisation] takes its specificity from the fact that a shot becomes subjective through continuity with another shot (as for example in a shot-reverse shot sequence), i.e. through contextualisation. Any shot introduced immediately after the shot of someone watching, provided certain ‘syntactic’ rules are abided by, becomes part of what they are watching.” Gaudreault and Jost, p. 133 (my translation). Similarly, a secondary surveillance shot is contextualised as such through editing, for instance when the shot of a CCTV camera is inserted before a static high angle shot of the inside of a room.

7 David Lyon, Surveillance Studies: An Overview, Cambridge, UK, Polity, 2007, p. 204.

8 Ibid. The reference is to Thomas Mathiesen, “The Viewer Society: Michel Foucault’s ‘Panopticon’ Revisited”, Theoretical Criminology, vol. 1, No. 2, 1997, p. 215–234.

9 The existence of a link to a fake Summakor website on the series’ official page also provides convincing evidence of its creators’ wish to anchor the series in the reality of contemporary surveillance societies: (consulted June 27th, 2011).

10 For a comprehensive study of the notion, see sections 8.2 and 8.3 in Hervé Chamley’s Geosciences, Environment, and Man, which bear the titles “From Surveillance to Dataveillance: The Rise of the Electronic Web” and “The Development of Internet Surveillance”. Hervé Chamley, Geosciences, Environment, and Man, Amsterdam, Elsevier, 2003, p. 141-148.

11 One of the other aspects of contemporary surveillance exploited by the series is related to the way it sometimes shows Number 2 centralising information collected by several watching entities rather than sitting in a control room providing him with total coverage of the Village. Episode 3 as a whole is the main instance of this complementary perspective, because it presents surveillance as effected by all the citizens on all the citizens, with Number 2 at the head, a perfect illustration of the fact that the new Village, despite its mainly synoptic feature, also evinces catoptic qualities – the catopticon being a non-hierarchical pattern in which everyone watches everyone: “Dans Voir et pouvoir, qui nous surveille?, Le Pommier, 2009, Jean-Gabriel Ganascia propose une expression similaire, le ‘catopticon’, pour designer une architecture de ‘sous-veillance’ dans laquelle tout le monde surveille tout le monde, sans aucune hiérarchie.” “In Voir et pouvoir, qui nous surveille?, Le Pommier, 2009, Jean-Gabriel Ganascia coins a [...] phrase, the ‘catopticon’, to describe a sub-veillance architecture in which everyone watches everyone, with no hierarchy.” Renaud Francou, Daniel Kaplan and Charles Népote, Informatique, Libertés, Identités, Limoges: FYP Editions, 2010, p. 139. My translation.

12 This scene takes advantage of Ian McKellen’s fame as Shakespearian actor to suggest 2 is an inverted version of Richard III, as he manipulates the crowd into acclaiming 6 as the new ruler, while Gloucester organised plebiscite as King for himself.

13 Hille Koskela, “‘Cam Era’ – The Contemporary Urban Panopticon,” Surveillance & Society, vol. 1, No. 3, 2009, p. 305 [p. 292-313].

14 As Sean Cubitt states, commenting on an essay about “neo-TV” by Umberto Eco, “Neo-TV brings in a falsification of reality such that it will conform not to a known ideology with roots in the real world, but only to the fictionalisations inherent in the medium. The only truth of the media is that they stage reality to fit their requirements.” Sean Cubitt, Simulation and Social Theory, London, Sage, 2001, p. 72.

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Sébastien Lefait, « Dystopian Villages: Surveillance and Re-mediation in The Prisoner », TV/Series [En ligne], 2 | 2012, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2012, consulté le 18 décembre 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/tvseries.1394

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Sébastien Lefait

Maître de conférences en littératures et civilisations du monde anglophone à l’université de Corse depuis 2005, est l’auteur d’une thèse consacrée à l’œuvre filmique d’Orson Welles comme adaptation de et à la pensée shakespearienne. En plus de publier des articles sur le théâtre de Shakespeare et sur le cinéma hollywoodien, il se consacre tout particulièrement à l’étude des nouvelles formes d’adaptation, qui cherchent à exploiter des ressources proprement cinématographiques dans le but de forcer les œuvres littéraires adaptées à re-produire du sens, et non de reproduire leur sens initial. Il s’intéresse par ailleurs à la surveillance au cinéma, qu’il envisage comme instrument de critique sociologique, mais également comme outil esthétique.

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