Is Big Brother watching you?
Review of BBC's The Capture (2019)
Is there someone watching you right now, observing your every move? Probably. The BBC’s
The Capture is perhaps one of the most chilling, thought provoking, and downright terrifying
thrillers currently on TV. Living in the most watched country in the world, with CCTV
perpetually capturing images of us, The Capture’s plot of sinister government surveillance resonates on a deeply disturbing level.
Following the case of the recently acquitted soldier Shaun Emery, we first come to learn that he has been accused of murdering and kidnapping his barrister, evidenced by seemingly damning CCTV footage. As the six episodes unfold however, DI Rachel Carey, the detective investigating Shaun, begins to uncover a much darker conspiracy that is truly fitting in this era of paranoia. In classic BBC drama fashion, the show features a complex plot, with twists and turns in every episode, and hauntingly explores the themes of Orwellian state surveillance and manipulation.
So, what exactly is so unsettling about the premise of The Capture? We are all aware of our
government’s CCTV constantly recording images of our every movement, companies
gathering our data; all of our searches, bank details, interests, hobbies, photos, every piece
of personal information imaginable. However, The Capture takes our everyday notion of
surveillance one step further.‘The Correction’, the show’s dubious governmental
organisation, minutely alters surveillance footage to change whole realities in order to convict suspects. This notion of manipulating footage to fulfil a governmental agenda may seem outlandish, but given more thought, this feels like it could be more “darkly credible” (Hughes 2019). The creeping plausibility of the manipulation of surveillance strikes similar parallels to Orwell’s 1984. The Correction, much like The Ministry of Truth, rewrites truths in order to fit governmental doctrine. This is symbolised in 1984 with the expression “2+2=5”. The truth being something that can be altered, that 2 plus 2 can equal 5, if the situation warrants. After being arrested for the ostensible kidnap and murder of his barrister, we see Shaun beginning to believe the “corrected” CCTV footage, and doubting the validity of his own experience. The Capture, like 1984, invites us to question, is there ever any such thing as the truth?
“If both the past and external world exist only in the mind, and the mind itself is controllable, what then?”
We come to learn that Shaun Emery, much like Orwell’s protagonist Winston Smith, was
simply a pawn in a government organised agenda. Although both are works of fiction, The
Capture remains in the realms of the possible, and makes us question how consciously we
realise we are being watched. Cameras are everywhere; in our phones, laptops, hidden in
the corner of ceilings, peeking out from the sides of buildings. We are unable to tell when we
are being watched or not, but does the possibility of someone, somewhere, watching your
every move, in fact compel you to regulate your behaviour as if you were certainly being
watched anyways? Scholars such as Jeremy Bentham, with his formulation of The Panopticon,
The Panopticon, Greek for “all seeing”, was a prison system designed by Bentham as an institution with the cells in a circle, dominated by a central inspection tower. From this vantage point, a single security guard can observe any of the inmates, yet the inmates
cannot know if they are being watched due to blinds in the guard tower. It is practically impossible for the guard to observe all the prisoners, yet the prisoners assume that the “omnipotent governor is always watching them” (UCL). They cannot possibly tell whether or not they are being watched, however the fear of being potentially being spied on compels them to act as if someone is in fact observing them. Is this indicative of how our society works? It may be plausible that perhaps, like The Capture suggests, we are subconsciously regulating our behaviour in fear of being watched by an ever present surveillance. Foucault describes this as ‘the automatic functioning of power’; states in fact harness power by coercion, training the body with certain habits and behaviours. We start to behave in the way the state conditions us to, to sustain order (Foucault 1977:131) . With the state’s power increasingly becoming more God-like, acting as an omniscient, omnipotent dictator, we are living in a society whereby slowly creeping paranoia and distrust are becoming staples of everyday life.
What are the repercussions of this constant surveillance? The protests for democracy in
Hong Kong are perhaps the most telling. Known as a “surveillance state”, the citizens of
Hong Kong are being captured at every moment on multi-billion dollar “facial recognition
towers”, populated by the facial recognition giants Megvii (Doffman 2019). People in Hong
Kong are having every aspect of their private lives extradited to China; their every move
recorded and shared beyond the means of their control. Protesters have gone to great lengths to hide their faces with objects, even breaking down these facial recognition towers. What will be next? Thought recognition towers? This draws a parallel to the means of surveillance in Western society, whereby corporations seize data from us unknowingly, using our information as a means to their own end. The Cambridge Analytica scandal demonstrated how Facebook users were unwillingly being manipulated into swaying towards a particular political outcome. Coercion and surveillance are becoming more normalised in our world than ever before.
The Capture, as a contemporary, eerily plausible surveillance thriller, sits on the right side of
conspiracy shows. Dramatic enough to keep you watching, yet darkly realistic, this show
invites us to question the nature of “truth”, and just how much the government
manipulates and uses ordinary people’s data to achieve some sort of end. Orwell and
Bentham were perhaps brilliant predictors of the future, and their theories of the state as
‘Big Brother’ are becoming an ever disturbing reality.
Doffman, Z. (2019) ‘Hong Kong Exposes Both Sides of China’s Relentless Facial Recognition Machine’, Forbes, 26th August 2019
Foucault, M. (1977) ‘Discipline and Punish: The Birth of The Prison’, Translated by Alan Sheridan, London: Penguin Books
Hughes, S. (2019) ‘Trust Nothing! Why BBC’s The Capture is perfect TV for our paranoid times’, The Guardian, 3rd October 2019
Orwell, G. (1949) ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, Secker & Warburg
UCL (2010), ‘The Panopticon’, Bentham Project, Available at: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/bentham-project/who-was-jeremy-bentham/panopticon (Accessed 1/11/19)