The Prisoner, an Appreciation (pt. 1)


I’m running late. The holiday weekend was busier and more eventful than I expected, and I didn’t have time to sit down and watch any of the episodes of The Prisoner. But, I promised you a review, and you’ll get it. In a few parts. Maybe 7. This first one will be some reminiscences of the original series. I’m not going to do any research, so this will be a fairly impressionistic review, since I’ve only seen a couple of episodes since… maybe 15 years ago or so. I’ll make these comments before I watch any of the new show.

The prisoner, the character played by Patrick McGoohan in the 1960’s series, was a recently retired spy, widely assumed by the viewing audience to be John Drake, the title character from McGoohan’s earlier TV show, Danger Man (titled Secret Agent in the US broadcasts). Retired is the wrong word, he was in fact resigned. The opening credits, a brilliant all but silent short (though with a very telling clip of dialog), firmly establish this fact with a shot of his ID card being dropped into a file drawer labeled “Resigned.”

There were 16 episodes of this show, and they were, on the whole, somewhat odd. As a viewer now it is difficult to imagine what the US audience in 1968 might have made of this summer replacement for the Jackie Gleason Show, which was a comedy/variety hour. It was odd, but nevertheless, most of the episodes followed a fairly straightforward formula. McGoohan’s character, held against his will in a place called The Village, is called Number Six. All residents of The Village, save a few with nicknames like The General, are called by numbers. Each week Number Two tries to get Number Six to explain why he resigned. Each week Number Two fails and gets canned, and the next week a new Number Two tries again. The rules of Number Six’s captivity, coming presumably from Number One, though certainly from Number Two’s superiors in the organization running The Village, prevent Number Two from doing any lasting harm to Number Six, and certainly from killing him. There were a couple of instances where Number Six was allowed to escape from The Village, to teach the lesson that there is no escape from The Village. These main-run episodes were mildly allegorical and layed out the essential theme of the conflict between the privileges of conscience for the individual versus the trend of society to insist, sometimes violently, on conformity and participation on society’s terms.

As the series progressed, the allegory got heavier, and the plots and scripts got, to be frank, strange. And to say “strange” is saying something, since the context within which they got strange was pretty strange to begin with. The Village set is a real place called Port Marion, a resort in Wales. It’s a fanciful place with cottages reminiscent of Hobbitton, if Le Corbusier had been a Hobbit. The streets have a way of curving back on themselves, the architectural material of choice appears to be stucco-coated concrete, and there’s a stone boat beached above the high tide line. The residents of The Village, save Number Six and the administrative and medical staffs, tended to dress in brightly colored striped outfits with capes, floppy tam o’shanters, and parasols (even the hired muscle). Anyway, toward the end, things got weird. And by the end, you had to turn around, look through a spyglass, and squint to see weird, since by then things had gone so far past weird, it would be nice if there was a different word for it.

In the final episode, really a two-parter, Number Six, in his trademark black sport coat, chinos, and white sneakers, faced Number Two, but not a new Number Two. This was a Number Two we’d seen before. He’s come up with a clever new way to break Number Six and been brought back. And that’s really what The Village wants—to break Number Six. The reason why he resigned is a side light. In fact, it seems likely to me that they accept the reason he gave for resigning in the first place–in the resignation letter we saw in the opening credits of each episode. We don’t know what the reason was, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is that he did resign, unexpectedly, and, if you will, out of order. He left the system, you see, and The Village is a way of breaking him. Breaking in the sense of breaking a horse. Bring him back into the fold. They don’t want him to be a spy again, but they want him to be a team player. Comparisons with O’Brien’s conversations with Winston Smith would be valid, though I don’t think The Village is a totalitarian endeavor in the Orwellian way of Stalinism or Fascism. More in the Huxley way, I think.

Anyway. In this final episode everything breaks, in the way we usually mean break–to fall apart, or fall out as the title of the final episode indicates. Number Two breaks; other characters previously assumed dead return and they break. Number Six breaks, though not in any way you can anticipate, so my telling you this fact is hardly a spoiler. The Village breaks, or gets broken, or maybe not. Number One is revealed, or shows up, or maybe not. Number Six finally escapes, or takes over, or maybe not. You see, when I say everything breaks, I really mean it. In the final segment of the final part of the final episode, narrative itself breaks down. You see it all, and you see it all pretty clearly, and yet you really don’t know what you’ve seen. And then, in the final scene, as Number Six heads confidently into his future, he turns back, looks right at you, waves the standard-issue Village wave, and something so strange happens that you might not even notice it which breaks everything you think you’ve been through for the previous sixteen hours.

So that’s The Prisoner I remember. This new Prisoner is, as I’ve gathered from a few reviews, different in significant ways. In my remarks on the new one, which I’ll try to post one episode at a time, I’ll try not to let my fondness for the original color my assessment. I’ll probably not succeed, but I’ll try. Be seeing you.

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