Surveillance as the Plot Demands

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
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Blossom: Hey, who filmed this anyway? What, do you have cameras all over the world?
Mojo Jojo: Yes! Now shut up!

Lex Luthor had cameras everywhere. It didn't matter if Jayna was on the toilet or if Superman was 3 galaxies away enjoying a bowl of cereal, Lex Luthor could put it up on the big screen if he wanted.

The bad guys have cameras everywhere. Like some even-more-sinister version of Big Brother, they always know exactly where the heroes are and what they're doing, even if there's no possible reason for them to be able to. It doesn't matter if they're three galaxies away or five thousand years in the past, the villains can still find them. They can put anything that they want up on the big screen, making you wonder why they don't just give up on the bizarre plans for world domination and just surreptitiously blackmail every government in the world without the good guys ever finding out. Or at least you would if you weren't so busy trying to puzzle out exactly how Luthor managed to get a live feed of the Superfriends repairing satellites in outer space.

The Omniscient Council of Vagueness will often make heavy use of this trope—it's evidently how they keep the Xanatos Roulette up-to-date. It also has aspects of the Magical Security Cam. Heroes or antagonists savvy to this will give them a Poke in the Third Eye to escape detection.

The trope used to take its name from the Palantíri, the mostly-lost Seeing Stones from JRR Tolkien's Middle-earth stories (e.g. The Lord of the Rings). Incidentally, magical versions of this trope (Crystal Balls, Magic Mirrors, etc.) are a little more sensible, being one of those tropes that's so unlikely that A Wizard Did It becomes the most plausible explanation.

See also Big Brother Is Watching.

Examples of Surveillance as the Plot Demands include:

Anime and Manga[edit | hide | hide all]

  • The Digimon Kaiser in Digimon Adventure 02. One of the standby jokes in any Crack Fic involved him being caught aiming the camera in odd directions...
  • MakubeX in GetBackers while inside his tower.
  • Soul Eater has Arachne using her spiders as spies to track enemy movement. Even to the point of semi-omniscience, which she demonstrates by telling Maka & Soul that Soul is the one who burnt their curry the previous night, because he left it on too long. So, apparently, she's either an excellent multitasker, or she just likes watching people do mundane things.
  • Dragon Quest: Legend of the Hero Abel has Baramos monitoring the heroes' progress through magic using the eyes of his many minions.
  • The new Ai no Kusabi OVA shows that Iason has surveillance cameras all over Eos watching Riki where ever he goes.
  • In Powerpuff Girls Z Professor Utonium has a screen in his lab that can show any spot in the city, no matter how little sense it makes for him to view anything there. Mojo Jojo, unlike in the original, does not.
  • L from Death Note likes this trope, so do Mello and Near and is often seen watching Ominous Multiple Screens. At one point L put 64 cameras in his suspect's room only to take them out again later.
  • Briefly appears in Gurren Lagann for a single episode: Tymilph has a wall of screens, displaying various things. Including one camera aimed directly at Yoko's breasts.

Comic Books[edit | hide]

  • Played with in an issue of Flash, where the Mirror Master finds a Pocket Dimension in which he can see through all the mirrors in the world. However, with millions of mirrors to choose from, he can't find the one he's looking for. This turns out to be not quite right, though; the woman he's seeking has removed all reflective surfaces from her house.
  • In keeping with his theme of knowing everything Metron of The New Gods has been shown to have a corridor full of "datalinks" (which are really just TV screens) showing information from all across the universe. Even Highfather is shocked by the things he sees Metron is able to spy on.
  • Justified in Agents of Atlas, where their opponent has a video link to their robot team member, allowing him to always have a camera where they are.
  • Mocked by Linkara in his Kool-Aid Man #1 review:
    • There Kool-Aid man is able to bring up a camera shot of some "Thirsties" bothering some children even though he shouldn't be able to switch to footage of this, relating Kool-Aid Man to Big Brother.

"The Kool-Aid Man sees you when you're sleeping. *leans in close to camera* The Kool-Aid Man sees you in your nightmares."

    • He actually did this joke before with Mr. T as well.

Film[edit | hide]

  • The Bourne Ultimatum. Combined with Everything Is Online, this takes things to ridiculous levels.
  • Parodied in Spaceballs, where the bad guys track down the heroes via a VHS tape of the film itself.
  • The Dark Knight:
  • The main villain of Eagle Eye apparently has the ability to spy on anyone she cares to, including closely monitoring our heroes to ensure that they enact her plans. As it turns out, she's a super-computer that the government has built for spying, and her hijacking of various cameras was justified by the DHS having forced the companies to include back doors.
  • Parodied in Blazing Saddles, where the villain goes into a movie theater to escape the hero, sits down, and sees the hero coming into the theater on the screen.
  • In You Only Live Twice, two scenes where James Bond follows the action through TV screens might bring Fridge Logic. In one, the car television shows a helicopter throwing a car in the middle of the sea - from above - and Blofeld's ship engulfing the American one in space.
  • The skeksis' of The Dark Crystal have spying creatures called crystal bats, whose bodies appear to be lenses; the images picked up by these lenses can be seen through the title crystal.
  • Sunnyside Day Care Center in Toy Story 3 has more surveillance cameras than the Luthor mansion.

Literature[edit | hide]

  • Discworld:
    • Some of the wizards at Unseen University own small pocket crystal balls that can be used to observe a specific location, although sometimes reception is bad. And lampshaded: An Omniscope, one of the most powerful magical devices, can technically show anything anywhere in the universe; the tricky problem is getting it to show you the specific thing at the correct place and correct time that you want (it's easier now that Hex, the magical computer at Unseen University, can crunch the numbers for you). Some wizards just set the lens of the Omniscope to the dark of infinite space and use it as a shaving mirror. Recently (in Going Postal), two omniscopes have successfully been linked for long-distance "video conference" communication purposes.
    • This is the result of an accidental discovery Ponder Stibbons makes in The Last Hero, where his clumsiness reveals that one half of a broken omniscope automatically sees out the other half's POV.
    • In Witches Abroad, the villain, an evil Fairy Godmother, has a Magic Mirror room that allows her to scry through any reflective surface on the disc. It's a bit Awesome but Impractical, though, since she has no magical ability locate what she wants to look at, so she has to essentially scroll through every reflective surface in a given area to find what she's looking for.
  • The Light of Other Days by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter:
    • The whole book is about the invention of a device that allows the user to look anywhere in the world they want; later on, the technology is discovered to be able to directly view events in the past. The main focus of the novel is on how the world adapts to the fact that "privacy" literally has no meaning anymore, since you can be watched at any point in your life (and even things you've done in the past).
    • It's implied that the Overlords in Childhood's End have similar technology, and that it contributed to the downfall of mass religion, as people got to see their religious figures in flesh.
    • Isaac Asimov's short story "The Dead Past" covers similar ground.
  • Robert Ludlum's The Prometheus Deception has a villain with this modus operandi.
  • In J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth:
    • Some of the Valar have vast surveillance assets. When upon the holy mountain Taniquetil beside his spouse Varda, Manwe Sulimo could see anywhere in the world; likewise, when Varda was similarly situated, she could hear anywhere in the world. Melkor/Morgoth had a rather nasty variant; he set a chair atop the peak of Thangorodrim where he imprisoned Hurin, just so Hurin could see all of Morgoth's victories and the ruin of Hurin's own nation and family.
    • Oddly, the Palantíri themselves seem to subvert this trope—they were primarily designed for communication between the owners of the stones. However, they are not purely communication devices. Tolkien elaborates on how they can be used in one of the chapters in Unfinshed Tales. They have limited range, cannot see through things, and cannot look everywhere at once, but they can be used to view things in locations other than the rooms where other stones are kept.
      • Due to their limitations, Frodo famously slipped through the surveillance net to get into Mordor. Sauron has to resort to more "mundane" methods of info gathering such as via his flying Nazgul.
      • Additionally, one is actually used against Sauron: Aragorn uses the Palantír taken from Isengard to show Sauron that Isildur's heir is alive and challenging him. However, this is all just a ploy to keep Sauron's attention (and Palantír) pointed elsewhere while Sam and Frodo slip into Mordor.
      • Part of the reason is that the Palantiri know who is a legitimate user and who is eavesdropping. Aragorn had a natural advantage in a Wizardly hacking duel, because he was a lawful heir to the thrones of the Numenorean realms in exile. Similarly even Denethor (who was at least the rightful deputy) could stand up to Sauron for several years of this though it drove him insane in the end.
  • In Septimus Heap, Merrin Meredith and later Simon Heap can use appropriately-name The Observatory to spy out the Castle from safe distance.

Live-Action TV[edit | hide]

  • In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Trio has cameras where the need them. How they pulled off planting that gnome in Buffy's lawn is a question for the ages.
  • Doctor Who:
    • In the episode "The Sound of Drums", the Master observes the Doctor, Jack and Martha on a public CCTV camera, while speaking to the Doctor on a mobile phone. While the camera's existence is perfectly plausible, the Master's ability to quickly gain access to the exact one our heroes are standing in front of is not, even if he is the Prime Minister.
    • Torchwood London was able to locate the arrival of the TARDIS on their global sensors (during "Army of Ghosts"), find a public camera nearby and pipe the picture from it to a screen at their headquarter just in time to see the TARDIS dematerialize again.
    • Not to mention, both Sarah Jane Smith and Harriet Jones both had their own secret global communications network (in "Journey's End"). Or the "magical" cell phones the Doctor is handing out to his companions these days, that use the TARDIS as a transtemporal relay station. Communications technology is the new plot shortcut.
  • Megan of Drake and Josh.
  • Used frequently by both the heroes and villains in Power Rangers. If there's a viewscreen of any sort, it can pull up the enemy's activities from anywhere. Justified on the Rangers' side in Power Rangers Ninja Storm (there are surveillance drones) and Jungle Fury (RJ says that he has placed cameras all over town.)
  • Lost's "Others" seem to know the Losties' every move for the first few seasons. This is eventually explained (mostly) by the presence of spies in their camps and cameras all over the island.
  • In Kyle XY, Latnok apparently installs cameras in places like a diner in the middle of nowhere.
  • Granted she's not a villain but disregarding that Gossip Girl fits this trope to a T.[context?]
  • Lampshaded in the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "The Menagerie," when Spock shows footage from his days with Capt. Pike (using footage from "The Cage") and when it gets so detailed, Kirk objects noting that no security footage could be like that. It turns out it is images sent by the Master of Illusion from Talos IV instead.
  • Justified and then averted in Person of Interest where the Machine is fed data from millions of cameras already installed all over the country. It can thus track individual people everywhere in the county and determine if they are pose a threat. However, the Machine was specifically designed to deny its human operators access to its inner workings and thus they cannot just tell the Machine to track a specific person. The Machine outputs a Social Security number of a Person of Interest and the humans have to track that person down through other means.
  • On The Mentalist this becomes a crucial point during an investigation of a murder in a high school. The school's principal is able to obtain information about events he could not have witnessed and was not told about. It turns out that he secretly installed security cameras in the bathrooms.
  • Slade in season 2 of Arrow has cameras and bugs everywhere Oliver might go in Starling City. However, Oliver eventually figures this out and uses it against him.

Mythology[edit | hide]

  • This is Older Than Print with Norse myth:
    • Odin is said to possess a high seat called "Hlidskjalf" which enables him (and anyone else who sits on it, at least if they are gods) to see everything that occurs in the nine worlds. However, to his defense, Odin is the master of all the gods. Which is a pretty good defense, don't you think?
    • Plus, Odin has his two ravens, Hugin ("Thought") and Munin ("Memory") who fly out at dawn each day from Odin's hall across the three worlds and upon their return whisper in his ears the news of everything they've seen.
  • In the graphic novel Lucifer the title character once flies to the "Aleph Point" which seems to serve this exact function. Given the Norse mythological overtones the series has later on it's not unlikely the reference to Hlidskjalf is intentional.

Tabletop RPG[edit | hide]

  • Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition: The cover illustration of the fourth edition Dungeon Masters Guide is a dragon spying on adventurers (from the cover of the Player's Handbook) via a crystal ball in Palantir Ploy fashion.

Video Games[edit | hide]

  • The Combine of Half-Life. It makes more sense than most though, as they they've conquered the entire planet.
  • A character limit caused this to happen in the English versions of the first two generations of Pokémon from a kind, loving mentor. Whenever you tried to use an item improperly, the game would all of a sudden have Professor Oak speak to you, saying that this isn't the correct time to use that. Nintendo Power explained that Oak had set up a complex series of cameras across Kanto and Johto expressly for this purpose. By the time the games moved to a 32-bit system, there was more room for text, and thus they could explain that it was simply the character imagining what his mentor would say in that situation.
  • Xenogears:
    • Combines this with one of the most brilliant aversions of Gameplay and Story Segregation to date when we find out that the bad guys had been tracking our heroes through the Save Point network.
    • Which was done again in Chrono Cross. The save points also acted as subtle mind-control devices for FATE.
  • In the first Rayman game, Mr. Dark spends most the game spying on the eponymous hero. Doesn't matter if Rayman's inside a cave or atop a mountain; Mr. Dark is always watching from that hill.

Web Original[edit | hide]

  • On Homestar Runner:
    • The Cheat Commandos Thanksgiving episode featured a scene where hero Gunhaver was spying on evil Blue Laser's Thanksgiving dinner on the "main screen." In the words of the Blue Laser commander, "I'm not thankful for that guy with the camera!"
    • In a short with the main characters, Strong Bad has satellite coverage of Homestar on the ice floe in the middle of nowhere that he's trapped on, but has no idea how he got said coverage or how Homestar ended up there!
  • According to Yu-Gi-Oh the Abridged Series, Seto Kaiba has cameras all over Tokyo to stay aware of his enemy's every move. He is adamant that this includes shower rooms.
  • A more low-key example, The Nostalgia Chick surreptitiously sets up cameras in her BFF Nella's parents' house. On the other side of the country. In Nella's bedroom. Without Nella's knowledge or consent. Repeatedly. Poked fun at, in that Nella is every bit as indignant about this as you'd expect.
  • Somewhat averted at Whateley Academy, where no one party (even Security) can claim to even come close to knowing everything that goes on on campus. On the other, at a school full of espers, wizards, gadgeteers, devisors, people who can talk to animals or computers, and not to forget good old-fashioned cameras and eyewitnesses it's kind of hard for anything to go completely unnoticed.
  • Lex Luthor in The Randomverse. Lampshaded by Stark and Osborn.

Stark: How many cameras do you have?
Osborn: What, did you buy out Google Earth?


Web Comics[edit | hide]

drone cam: Emotional state: Irritable, hostile.
drone cam: Abilities: Fireball, pitchfork.
drone cam: Conclusion: AVOID.

Western Animation[edit | hide]

  • Slade in Teen Titans.
  • Lampshaded in a Powerpuff Girls episode, when Mojo Jojo steals the Anubis head for the second time and replays clips from the last episode of the effects of the head's magic in countries around the globe. See page quote above.
  • Plasmius by Season 3 of Danny Phantom has taken to using numerous, tiny, bug-shaped, Spider-Man-esque cameras. But not that tiny.
  • Dr. Claw in Inspector Gadget has cameras everywhere. Apparently his minions carry them around everywhere, but sometimes they pop up in weird places, like ancient pyramids, the police stations, and Gadget's own house!
  • Lex Luthor:
    • Superfriends. He had cameras everywhere, including Earth orbit...and near the Earth's core.
    • And as Seanbaby pointed out, they could have used blackmail to take over the world several times over by now... except it's the Superfriends, the show where everyone, hero or villain or the show's writers, is Too Dumb to Live.
  • On Samurai Jack:
    • The Big Bad Aku has a crystal ball that allows him to see whatever Jack is doing. Why he doesn't try more often to send his flunkies right to Jack is anyone's guess.
    • It has been demonstrated at least once that it can be "jammed", causing it to display only static (Aku treats it like a faulty TV, but hitting it doesn't help much). Also, it probably does a great job of tracking people once the user has found them, but might not be so hot at actually finding them in the first place.
    • Still, even if Jack keeps winning, you'd think he would just send staggered waves of weak or competent enemies to tire and infuriate Jack before he delivers a finishing blow. At least part of this plan has actually happened in series.
  • WOOHP, the Heroes-R-Us of Totally Spies! can not only record everything everywhere in the world but can find and summon the girls from anywhere: at school, at the mall, in the Middle Ages, even from their bedroom or from in the shower!
  • Played with in the Season 3 première of The Venture Brothers:

The Monarch: Yeah, yeah, roll the clip...
Councilman 1: Unfortunately, we have no visual records of your time in college.
The Monarch: ...Really? So we're not going to have to sit through hours of me abusing myself to Markie Post?
Councilman 2: Of course not! How could we have video of you from that long ago? That's crazy!
Councilman 3: We're the Council of Thirteen, not magic angel babies.
Councilman 2: We don't have like a... magic window into the past-
The Monarch: Okay, okay, I get it.

  • In He-Man and the Masters of the Universe:
    • He-Man's nemesis Skeletor had (at least in the Ladybird books) a 'mystic viewscreen' which let him see absolutely anywhere, including inside Castle Grayskull. Even as a seven-year-old this troper found this both a bit weird and absolute proof of Skeletor's incompetence - when you can watch the heroes' every movement and still lose every time, you're obviously doing something wrong.
    • In the 2002 remake, Tri-Klops uses a series of small floating Conspicuous CG devices to spy on everyone. The heroes completely fail to notice them flying around their palace... most of the time. There are at least two cases of animals chasing them, and a minor villain finds one and uses it as an excuse to get inside Skeletor's base.
  • Kim Possible:
  • Transformers Generation 1:
    • It is crawling with hidden cameras, from both the Decepticons and the Autobots. Oddly enough, even when they're supposedly connecting with the 'visual sensors' of another bot, there's always some sort of angled camera view instead.
    • Megatron has one of those when he's dismembered during the first few episodes of Transformers Animated.
  • Mumm-Ra from Thundercats does this. Only partially justified, based on how much you want to believe that he really is confined to his pyramid in any given episode. Lion-O's Sword Of Omens can do this too.
  • Shredder was a huge offender of this trope in the '80s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoons.
  • Jafar from Aladdin is shown watching Aladdin in some sort of crystal ball.
  • Dr. Wily in the Mega Man cartoon had what some fans call the 'Anywhere Screen', letting him see live feed of just about anywhere.
  • The high whippet, Annabelle, in All Dogs Go to Heaven can appear on surfaces like glass and liquids such as puddles.
  • In the "Abducted" episode of Invader Zim:
    • The duo of aliens that abducted Zim somehow have recorded video of Zim lying about being human, made even more implausible in this case since these aliens are so stupid that it'd be a stretch to think they'd even know how to use a camera.
    • Maybe they somehow hacked into the one Ms. Bitters used to record Zim saying he would attend Parent-Teacher Night. In that case, Zim Lampshades:

Zim: Why would you record that...?

  • Total Drama is (supposedly) a reality show. Okay. But some of the things that Chris and Chef manage to record is just ridiculous—like, for example, Owen's dreams. And how did they pull off the TDWT penultimate episode? Did they put cameras all along the pathway between Alberta and Tijuana, despite not even having planned that challenge before Sierra blew up the plane?
  • The Phineas and Ferb Clip Show claims that most of the clips shown were things Irving had recorded over the summer. Some of these clips were from en episode that was All Just a Dream Within A Dream.
  • On Jimmy Two-Shoes, Lucius seems to be able to pull up anything going on in Miseryville on his big screen. This is probably a side effect of his Reality Warper powers.
  • The Gamesmaster from the G.I. Joe episode of the same name takes this Up to Eleven. His screens showed the inside of Cobra's base, Lady Jaye changing her clothes, and the Baroness taking a bath. Serious Paranoia Fuel.