All posts by Shannon McMaster

The Prisoner, an Appreciation (pt. 2)


I’ve watched the first two episodes of AMC’s The Prisoner and have some thoughts. Rover is a lot more intimidating in this series than in the original. I was hoping to avoid very many comparisons with the original, and I’ll still try. But the first episode was rife with references, and the spine of the plot for this episode invites such comparisons.

Six wakes up in a desert, a craggy waste. Dusty sand falls off his clothes when he stands. I mention this only because it appears to be a motif, appearing in the second episode as well. Just about the first thing that happens to him is he encounters someone we come to know as 93, an old man dressed in black blazer with white piping, chinos, and white sneakers. Viewers of the original series will instantly identify him as Number Six, though the actor is not Patrick McGoohan. He’s being chased by armed men with dogs who Six, carrying 93 to a conveniently located cave, manages to elude. Is this merely the plot convenience typical of the fortunate hero, or does it indicate the unreliability of the hero’s point of view? Once in the cave, Six and 93 have a conversation. I found it difficult to hear what they were saying, but I don’t get the impression that the actual words people say are terribly important in this show. In any case, 93 dies, and Six buries him in the desert. Six makes his way to The Village, and what appears to be the main plot of the series begins.

The plot of the episode is Two’s efforts to find 93. Six appears to stymie these efforts, though at the end of the episode Two is attending a public funeral for 93 in The Village’s cemetery. Again, did Two find 93, does he only have an empty coffin and is merely pretending to have found 93, or was the whole 93 story an effort to entangle Six in something Six would otherwise have fought against? As Two remarks in another context, “It doesn’t matter if I believe it, it matters that Six believes it.”

Along the way Six becomes acclimated to The Village functioning. There’s a bit of fun surrounding wraps as the food of choice in The Village, though in this episode and the next we see Two eating much more elaborate fare. There a scene where Six buys a map of The Village which includes a nice sight gag as he unfolds the map to seemingly impossible size. This scene echoes a similar scene in the first episode of the original series. The original series’s opening sequence is referenced in a scene where Two interviews Six, and Six slams is fist on the desk upsetting a cup of tea.

As the episode progresses we see scenes of Six’s life before The Village, and that Six is apparently amnesiac. Within The Village, there is an effort to get him to understand that there is no other place than The Village. Six’s efforts at escape are grounded in both his desire to not be kept against his will (to escape simply because he’s there), and to get back to where he comes from (and this is in part to prove there is someplace else). Residents of The Village appear to accept the idea that there is no other place. In a major departure from the original series, Two keeps a family in The Village: an apparently catatonic bed-ridden wife and a teen-aged son who asks about Six’s assertion that there is another place, wondering if it could possibly be true. There are some in The Village who seem to support 93’s assertion and efforts to escape, and Six befriends one of them in the first episode. She dies in an explosion at the cafe where she works.

But what do we have? Six has vague memories of another life, dreams, and visions of two towers in the desert (always just over the next dune or the one after that). Within The Village, Six appears to reject simple human kindnesses, and harbors positive animosity toward Two and anyone who he thinks works for Two. However, as viewers we know the cab driver Six might trust a bit is an agent of Two, and we should expect the doctor Six spends a lot of non-theraputic time with is an agent of Two–she’s a figure of authority, after all. In the second episode, almost at the end, the man presented as Six’s brother is revealed to not be–right after Six accepts him (at least tentatively). Although Six always insists he is not a number, he never insists on being called by his name.

Six’s memories of his earlier life are vague, and the most detailed ones come in dreams. Dreams are notoriously slippery things, and the content of them–even of recurring dreams–can be affected by the concerns of the day. So the fact that the woman in his dreams is clumsily asking why he resigned doesn’t mean I think that’s what actually happened before Six woke up in the desert–it might not even have happened until after the events in The Village, since Six’s memories seem so slippery. As viewers we have an unreliable narrator operating within a situation designed to induce paranoia. We are privy to information Six is not, but we don’t know what it means–on the one hand it is patently absurd that The Village is the only place (where are the steel mills for making Two’s hand grenades, they’re in a desert so where does the food for all those wraps come from, and on and on?). On the other hand, children appear ignorant of the larger world which must sustain The Village. Six found the ocean, and then lost it again. It’s as if the landmarks (including an enormous ship’s anchor) moved when he blinked.

The world of The Prisoner is different from how it appears after the first two episodes. This much I feel confident to say. I sympathize with Six, but that doesn’t mean I have to accept his view of things. I don’t accept that The Village is the only place, and I don’t accept that The Village is a good place, and I consider all the residents of The Village to be as untrustworthy as Two. This is despite the fact that both 93 and the cafe waitress die, and we viewers see them dead–93 is buried, and the waitress is last seen in a body bag. If they do represent a real resistance, I think it is a resistance built into the design of The Village, and they’re still playing a role–willingly but at the same time unwittingly. I consider Six to be unreliable, which I never considered McGoohan’s Number Six to be–even at the very end when everything fell apart. I always trusted Number Six to be, essentially, on my side.

I’m looking forward to the next four hours of this show.

(Originally posted as a Facebook note December 3, 2009)

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.

And Another Thing… (Reader Response… finale)

Well, I managed to get to the end, the end of a middle, anyway.

At the end I found the most unsatisfactory the parts which were most Douglas Adams-y. The things I found least satisfactory were the things which were least Hitchhiker’s-y. Like the plot.

The plot, you see. There was one. The weakest Hitchhiker’s books, as I recall them unread this long past decade, were the ones with the strongest plots.

Anyway, it ended about as well as anyone could reasonably expect. Everyone was separated, doing their thing. Or having their thing done unto them, depending. Fortunately, nobody… ha! I’m not spilling the beans.

So. Was it worth it? Is it worth while? (These two are not exactly the same thing, of course.) Remember when Jamie Delano stopped writing Hellblazer? Same sort of thing.

And Another Thing… (Reader Response… a little bit more…)

A little bit more before the end, actually. I’m at chapter 11, just ended chapter 10 to be more accurate. Thought I’d take a pause here and mention some further thoughts on the whole thing. Before I finish, that is, and have to have a more supportable position as it were.

Not that I’ll bother supporting any position I take at the end with much more than I’m bothering with here.

Firstly, I’ve just about given up all hope that the guy I was excited to see at the beginning will turn out to be the guy I hoped he would be. (Edit: I do not know who I hoped this would be, I might have to re-read this book. Jan. 3, 2019.) Which is pretty much too bad, since I’ve missed that guy and didn’t know it until I thought he showed up again. Also, the possibility that he might be that other guy was a pretty nifty one, I thought, and as things have progressed, I’ve found myself thinking I would rather have read the book telling the story of how they could be the same guy. Or at least a story where they were the same guy. But, given where that guy actually was, the odds of them being the same guy in this story are vanishingly small. But if there are other numbers in this three-part series, maybe…

Secondly, the author does a fine job writing Hitchhiker’s-y stuff. But just about anyone of a certain age who decided to be a writer, or to play around with the idea of being a writer, went through a phase when that sort of writing seemed like a good way to go. It’s a great phase. So doing a fine job of it in an actual Hitchhiker’s book is more “Satisfactory” than “Excellent.”

However, he does a very good job writing a Hitchhiker’s book under certain circumstances. There are four major characters from the previous books who have shown up in this one. (One of them is arguably a minor character who’s been promoted, though this more accurately applies to a fifth character. There’s a sixth character who’s a middlingly important character who’s been called back into middlingly important service.) What the author does well is let these four characters have a story. Other circumstances in this book result in something weaker.

For instance, a couple of subplots took over for a while there in the middle of this book. One, a subplot involving a major character, is the latest in a now-seemingly mandatory set of setpieces, rather like Bond’s visit with Q in those movies. This subplot was pretty well done, but there are kind of a lot of scenes to it, and more than a few of them felt to run a little long. The other subplot involved a whole new set of minor characters doing their own things which bear (to this point, at least) only a tangental relationship to the plot. It’s an interesting subplot on its own, fits well into the Hitchhiker’s mileu, and the fact that it’s tangental should not be seen as a flaw. But, again, there are maybe too many scenes, and more than a few run a bit on the long side.

Which brings me to a structural criticism. I’m nearly done with the book, but I’m only through chapter 10. As I recall, the earlier books would be to about chapter 37 or 53 or so by now. The author uses breaks in the flow of the narrative–litterally breaking into the middle of a scene or dialoge exchange to insert a bit of information (or much more than a bit) from the Guide. In previous books this happened sometimes. Other times there’d be a footnote. Other times there’d be a whole chapter devoted to something like this. The shorter chapters structure added an energy to the story and to the text of previous titles which I feel is missing from this book.

There are two major characters from the previous book who we haven’t seen yet in this one. It isn’t necessary to see them in this book, so, again, their absence isn’t a flaw. The plot doesn’t seem to need them, you see, so I hope they don’t get dropped in late in the game just to be there. Of course, if they show up on the last page to help set-up another volume, that would probably be OK with me. There has been a development of surprisingly sunny proportions, and there is still a planet-shatteringly important plot element to be resolved. There is one other major character who hangs over the story. This is possibly the best part of the book–it’s not particularly funny, but it does give one of our heroes a new depth of character the author is doing a very good job with. I’m looking forward to seeing how this develops.


And Another Thing… (Reader Response, another…)

I’ve made it through a few more chapters. Things are much as they were. A minor character has returned and taken a central role in moving the plot, such as it is, forward.

And the plot, such as it is, doesn’t appear to the the plot I was looking forward to at the end of the first chapter.

At this point, it appears an awful lot of energy was put into getting our characters together, but without much effort at smoothly integrating with what came before. Nevertheless, we’re firmly in the Hitchhiker’s universe. The author never lets us forget that. Alas.

However, when the author forgets that he’s spending a lot of money to make it sound like… and settles into telling his story, that’s when it’s a good book. Not often enough, but often enough. Barely.

And Another Thing… (Reader Response, pt.1)

Who would have expected a sixth Hitchhiker’s book? Not me, and I was, as so many were, totally comfortable with five books in the trilogy. Here’s all the information you need about the book as a book you might get. I took my copy from the library.

On the other hand, it makes sense, though even still, I wouldn’t have expected another author, but rather some posthumous folderol. Nope. I’m through the first chapter, needed a sandwich, and decided to start responding now. Don’t expect a chapter-by-chapter response.

Or maybe there will be one. I read Life, the Universe, and Everything in one sitting when I was in eighth grade and bought my copy at the grocery store, after all.

The opening was a bit… hyper. Like someone really wanting to sound like… someone spent a lot of money trying to… sound like someone else. But I wasn’t hopeful in the first place.

Now, I was really irritated with the end of Mostly Harmless. If he didn’t want to write any more Hitchhiker’s books, he just shouldn’t have written any more. I felt like I’d been strung along on a writer’s exercise in disparaging the fan base. And if the point was the pointlessness of it all, well, that didn’t make things any better. I’m not interested in philosophical point-making at the expense of the story in a novel. That’s why I’m not interested in those tree killers from Ayn Rand.

But, at the end of Mostly Harmless, there were still some characters around who had a way of pulling something from the jaws of something else. Then chapter one started, and once I got my bearings, thought, “hey, that guy! Pretty cool.” Then that guy wasn’t that guy. Then I wondered if maybe that guy was really that other guy after all. Why not? It might be a bit too tidy. But it might work, since this sort of thing is similar to the sort of thing we’ve seen in other books (for instance, The Restaurant At the End of the Universe).

(Edit: I’m reviewing several posts in this blog. These posts about And Another Thing are frustratingly vague about being non-spoilery. I am sorry about that. Jan. 3, 2019.)

Then other characters were introduced, enough people were together to move the story along, that one guy who might also be that other guy was acting the way we need him to, and the beginning of a plot had been introduced along the way.

Not bad.

Reader Response: Pebble in the Sky (conclusion)

It closed almost as strong as it opened, though this bears in mind the very opening, in the science lab in Chicago, an almost throw-away scene where Something Bad Happens that sets up the rest of the story, but is never explained, or, indeed, even referred to again. That was a neat chapter, and I wish the rest of the book had been more like it.

The close was much stronger than the beginning of the story with the tailor who could just as easily been sliced in two himself rather than the rag doll. By the end of the novel one thing after another was happening. Reasonable-sounding things, from a narrative point of view, yet from the point of view of the characters, totally unreasonable. It’s not exactly that nobody was listening to each other, as nobody could quite believe that people on the other side of the issue were saying the things they were saying.

And then, after all the talk-talk, lectures, arguments (as opposed to disputes), there were scenes of torture, interpersonal vengance with violence, and a covert, unauthorised, hypnotically compelled military mission with the effect of resolving the Problem while leaving the Plot untouched. And the resolution came on quickly, in the context of the book. Of course, it had to come on quickly since there was this deadline looming. The Villian had only to keep people talking until the deadline passed. Or so he thought, never reckoning on the possibility that the Mind Reader could actually Read Minds, despite the fact that he had, himself!, been under pretty severe Mind Control.

But it all seemed so reasonable during the reading. Very Michael Crichton-y. So, am I glad I read it? Of course I’m glad I read it. It’s one of Those Books… actually, it’s just a part of one of Those Books. I’ll have to read the entire Foundation/Empire/Robot saga to really have read it. Kind of like the remaining three Lensmen books or the Known Space books. I may not be overly impressed with any given part, but I look forward to being able to look back on it, to see its over all form. I’ll judge then if it was actually time well-spent.