What The Prisoner Demands

The Times Literary Supplement recently dropped an essay/multi-title book review by Julian Baggini on morality and ethics. (Baggini uses the two words interchangeably. Is this normal in such high-brow discussions?)

I was reminded of The Prisoner by a couple of paragraphs deep in the essay.


Many moral philosophers are at work in this space, trying to show that even if we can’t tidy up every inch, there are more or less rigorous ways of muddling through. One central issue that has preoccupied them for several decades is the possibility that there may be more than one set of legitimate moral values but that these sets might be inconsistent with each other. For example, there is a moral value in individual liberty and also in being bound to a community. Both might be equally reasonable forms of life but to choose one is to reject the other.


Tom Koch treads similar ground in Ethics in Everyday Places. Koch argues that we can’t always avoid “the queasy, inchoate feeling that arises when you’ve done everything right but know you’ve done something wrong”. For Koch, this is the consequence of the conflict between individual moral agency and the demands placed on us by employers, insurers, professions or the state.

Years ago I wrote a five part series of blog posts about The Prisoner, mostly about the AMC reboot, but with plenty of consideration of the original series starring Patrick McGoohan. I’m thinking mainly of McGoohan’s version here. The Prisoner extensively works themes of the mutual duties of the individual and society.

In reading this essay, and those paragraphs in particular, a thought about The Prisoner I hadn’t previously had came to me. The Prisoner is a strange show open to many, sometimes contradictory, allegorical interpretations. Among the most frequently seen interpretations is that, in the final analysis, Our Hero did not, in fact, destroy and escape The Village.

For whatever reason, somehow it never previously occurred to me that Our Hero might not have entered the village as a result of resigning and subsequent kidnap. He might have always been a resident. Or, maybe more sharply, The Village where the events of The Prisoner take place is a more intense version of the ordinary world, the world where we all must live.

In this reading, Our Hero–known throughout the series as Number 6–is, indeed, The Prisoner.

Historically, one of the very common assumptions about The Prisoner is that it is a loose sequel to Secret Agent (aired as Danger Man in USA), and that Number 6 is possibly (probably?) a continuation of that program’s main character, John Drake. There are episodes of The Prisoner which support this interpretation, of course. There is plenty of on-screen evidence that Our Hero was a spy, formerly working on behalf of Western powers, and that The Village we encounter is especially designed to debrief agents with special backgrounds. Additionally, there are strong hints that The Village serves this purpose for “both sides.” This aspect of service to both sides suggests the allegorical idea that The Village we see is a special case of a more general system. In this view, the purpose of The Village is to sustain the system, the network of players, rather than to serve the idiosyncratic  interests of the players. 

The general system is the real world. In the real world each of us has to make our best effort to navigate often conflicting societal demands, where we have to be uniquely ourselves and to subordinate the nearly continuous insistence that we owe the world everything that we do to our own actions when we choose, and how we choose, to acknowledge and support those demands.

Our Hero is the prisoner. When he resigns, one of the first explanations given in the show is that it’s a matter of conscience. This is often seen as a literal issue–he was a spy, didn’t like what his spying was about, and left the job. Then he was taken to The Village in order to clarify the matter more satisfactorily, at least in the minds of The Village’s overseers.

In the allegorical interpretation which popped up for me recently, Our Hero resigns. For a matter of conscience, he resigns. I accept this explanation. His conscience demanded he resign; something about his relationship with the world demanded he stand as himself. Something changed. He realized something, and he had to change.

He is The Prisoner, he is Our Hero. He chooses himself, at least in the timeframe between when he decides to resign and does so. For that time, he chooses himself over the demands of his social network. Then he prepares to travel, to undertake a new life. He will be enmeshed in a different set of obligations. These will be obligations of his choosing. Did he not choose the obligations from which he just resigned? In any event, those plans are waylaid when he is abducted, and brought to The Village. He is drawn back into the forms of his old social network, yet he resists. In The Village, he resists the unwelcome demands of his keepers. In The Village he suspects everyone. In The Village he also protects other people. He enmeshes himself.

The demands of conscience are inescapable, as are the demands of society.

Our Hero is The Prisoner.

Game of Oh Lookit That! A Crow!

What's that you say? Someone is coming to kill me?

Geek Night has moved on to season one of Game of Thrones. We’re about half way though, and here’s what we’ve learned. If you’re little, you’re likeable, and the larger you are, the less likable you’re likely to be.

There are exceptions. Ned, while amongst the largest characters, remains among the most likable. However, he’s recently been hobbled, which cuts him down a bit. And he’s played by Sean Bean, so I expect him to look increasingly like a porcupine.

Also Robert, while clearly the largest character round, is not the least likable; unless you think the Dothrocknroller king is the largest character around–and we’ve seen plenty of evidence that he might be–and he’s far from the least likable character.

Anyway, that’s about the clearest summary I can give of this show.

SG-1: Early Days

Stargate SG-1 cast minus Jonas Quinn

The premise, in case you’ve forgotten your mid-1990s Showtime programming, is that a team of United States Air Force personnel, plus someone who’s probably a civilian, plus someone who’s an extraterrestrial human with a bit of alien in the belly… Wait…

The Good Guys have a Stargate in the basement of a military complex in a mountain which they use to visit planets-of-the-week and fight the Bad Guys. A Stargate is like a rotary-dial phone you can walk though the rotary part or and end up on a different planet where the bad guys have seeded humans from around the world and throughout time, and where those cultural oddments have totally failed to change in the hundreds or thousands of years they’ve been isolated from their culture of origin.


We’ve seen ten episodes so far, and–to be honest, because why not be honest?–I’m surprised we made it this far. We watched the theatrical movie, and liked it pretty well (despite the final 5-10 minutes having been somehow erased from the public library VHS we were watching). Then we watched the two-hour pilot episode.

This was, largely, a standard-issue sci-fi adventure on another planet movie for the first somewhat more than half. Then there was an extended sequence dominated by naked women being infested by slimy worm puppets. This came (on the scale of shocks from one can get from scripted TV) as fairly significant shock to the seven-year-old. We talked about puppetry, he and I, for a few days after that. Things are fine now.

And that’s why SG-1 is the second hour’s show on Geek Night these days.

Where was I?

The subsequent episodes dialed back the grossness rapidly, and dropped the nakedness immediately, so that the next seven episodes were little more than travel brochures for places which were sort-of-but-not-really Petri dishes of old-timey cultures from ’round the world. It’s a Small World After All sorts of things, but not as cheerful.

But about as interesting. The character elements felt, if not forced exactly, then… expected. Like kissing your date goodnight because all your friends think you’re such a good fit and all. We started talking about dropping the show, picking something else. A few ideas have floated by: Doctor Who has had a really good run in recent years, and Game of Thrones is now an option.

But the ninth and tenth episodes have been better than that. Maybe SG-1 has hit its stride. There was “Thor’s Hammer” which added some dimension to the back story about the bad guys, the good guys, introduced the possibility of allies for the good guys, and had the Voice of James Earl Jones, which is always like hot fudge topping in that, even if you don’t care for what it’s topping, you can always get at least a little bit of it on your spoon uncontaminated by the rest of it and really enjoy that.

And the tenth one, “The Torment of Tantalus,” was largely a character study of a minor character, but it did pretty well with it. The story of a previously unknown traveler through the Stargate, and what he’s been up to for the last fifty years was nicely done (wandering around naked, and learning to read space alien languages from holographic projections, and eating purple apples). So, next time we have “Bloodlines” on the menu (though the actual menu will be Mexican food). This will be an episode focused on the extraterrestrial human with a bad guy in his belly going home to find his son. We’ll see what happens; after that one, there are something like 203 more episodes, which sounds like a lot.

Geek Night Update: ST & SG-1

We’ve started up with two new shows.

Of course, they’re not really new shows, so much as shows some of us were familiar with from long-standing fandom. More-or-less.

We’re still doing two episodes a night, generally, mixed in with eating (especially chocolate cake, when I’m lucky), and–in addition to the now-seven-year-old–two (count ’em, two! and soon to the three!) babies. This is a hoot. The first episode is a classic Trek, because we feel comfortable that the boy-o can enjoy the show without parents worrying about any PG-13iness.

The second hour is an episode of Stargate: SG-1, which is where I’ll stop for the moment. More on SG-1 next time.

“Half-human on My Mother’s Side”

River, The Doctor, Rockin' Rory, & the Girl Who Waits
River, The Doctor, Rockin' Rory, & the Girl Who Waits

The Doctor lies, so the title of this post is not the big secret at the end of “The Wedding of River Song.”

In any case, we got to the end of the season where the Doctor Dies! Dun-dun-dun… And, he–of course–did not die. I predicted this, so I’m feelin’ pretty gooood about things. I also predicted that the answer to how was right there, right in front of me. I’m in danger here of overselling, so let me admit that, had I said, “the answer is staring me right in the eye,” which–really–I might have, but didn’t, I would have a shaky leg to stand on that I had actually predicted the end of the season.

Of course, I didn’t. To be honest, I’m still not 100% on exactly how it all worked out, but that doesn’t really matter. What I am actually modestly hopeful about is the button at the end of the episode… wellll, the next to last button. The one where The Doctor indicates that he’s going underground, or back into the shadows, or something like that. In a previous post, I hoped that there would be less universe shattering shatterings going on, and more with companions like Donna and Rory. You know, the kind of companions who don’t fall in love with The Doctor and whose falling in love-nesss drive the plot while a season-long universe shattering shatteringness hangs in the background of every episode like Chekhov’s Ragnarök.

Anyone who didn’t know what the question as old at time is before the Big Blue Marble articulated it either hadn’t been watching the show long enough, or had been watching so long they forgot it, or weren’t paying enough attention to what the writers always do when The Doctor picks up a new companion and don’t want to make them notice or care that it’s bigger on the inside. Or they just didn’t want to try to tease that out of the plot.

And now I’m looking forward to seeing “The Doctor, the Widow, & the Wardrobe.” And the next season… when does that roll around?

Wrap-up: Babylon 5

It took a bit more than two years, but Geek Night in our house has moved on from Babylon 5. We watched the final two episodes a couple of weeks ago.

“Objects at Rest” finally payed off the prediction by (what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call) Mr. Morden’s ghost from “Day of the Dead.” In that episode, Morden hung out with Lennier and gave him some bad news about betraying the Anla-shok.

“Sleeping in Light” was, this time around, a less moving ending than I recall it being on previous viewings. This is possibly in part due to the somewhat erratic viewing schedule we used this time around. Another factor is that we decided, at essentially the last minute, to watch it so we would–finally–be done with the series. It’s not that it’s been a slog, but with this group of viewers, this time around, season 5 really did get treated as a tacked-on set of stories. 

We’re going to take up Stargate SG-1, and–I think–continue with classic Twilight Zone. We watched the original Stargate theatrical release (except for the final 10 minutes when the VHS went, strangely, to video snow and no audio) last week. Next week the TV pilot 2-parter, then… 

Since it’s a pot-luck, we try to shake up the menu week-by-week by looking ahead at episode titles, and trying to theme the food accordingly, though, keeping with the Egyptian origins of Stargate’s story, we’ll spend another week more-or-less Mediterranean.

Torchwood: Not so good.

Clearly I’m in a minority here with this opinion, since there are, what? four seasons now?  We’ve recently been watching season 1 of Torchwood, and it has pretty much lost me at, about, the mid-point.
I don’t care, especially, for the soap-opera-y nature of the character stories. Misunderstandings, hurt feelings, sex with co-workers because “I just can’t talk to anyone else.”  And so on.  

It’s possible that could have been overcome, though, if I found the characters likable.  But I don’t.  Captain Jack is no fun, and the argument presented in the opening voice-over, “the 21st Century is when everything changes, and you have to be ready,” is–on its–own trite and doesn’t explain why Captain Jack is a jerk-ass with a big goofy grin, and–within the context of the Doctor Who continuity within which it’s embedded–simply misunderstands how things work, all timey-wimey and stuff.

And none of the rest of the characters are all that appealing, either.  Not even Gwen, the audience’s POV.  She is, to be sure, the least unappealing, but sometimes she brings a competent cop vibe to the scene, and sometimes she’s just one more emotional hot-head suckered by the demands of the plot.
And there’s the point where Torchwood actually lost me as a viewer with anything greater than a mild curiosity about how things turn out.  Wikipedia is probably good enough, but actually, this place is even better.  Torchwood is constantly leaving us viewers suckered by the demands of plot–so the unappealing characters are stuck into plots that just don’t hold up.

For instance:  The plot of “They Keep Killing Suzie” is this monstrosity of… Look, I’m totally OK with unlikely and convoluted plots.  See most of Doctor Who, for instance.  But this episode presented not just a convoluted plot, but the antagonist’s plan was of such convoluted scheming and anticipating the actions of second- and third-tier characters that even Moriarty would be double-checking the figures and asking, “are you sure blowing your brains out is the best way to accomplish your goals, here?”
And worse (worse!, I can’t hardly believe it could be worse (worse!) than it is), there’s not even a particularly good explanation for the plan (that’s hedging on my part, I didn’t notice an explanation for the plan at all).  Here goes: in the pilot Suzie went mad (mad! I tell you!) with the power of life and death, and especially life, and especially death and used a device to bring people back from the dead, and also killed a lot of people.  And then blew her own brains out.  
But, dig this, man, blowing her brains out was part of the plan.  See, before she blew her brains out, she co-opted a low-tech sort of support group who only met because of some hand-drawn fliers, the better, you see, to stay under the radar.  No electronic traces in case anyone came looking.  Until later, after she was dead, you see, and the Torchwood team went through her bunch of stuff, and found one of these fliers.
Max & Suzie/
Suzie & Max

And what did she do to co-opt this support group?  She took some Torchwood drugs, the kind that alter people’s memories.  Torchwood uses them to wipe the minds of witnesses they don’t want to remember Torchwood activities, they’re called retcon.    She took some (from the dispensary? don’t they lock this stuff down and keep and inventory?), kind of a lot, actually, and fed them to a big bruiser of a guy so that, to program him as her own personal sleeper agent with the subconscious instructions that, at some point in the future, well after she was long dead, he would go on a killing spree.  So that he could get caught.  His name is Max.  

But, despite being Torchwood, and Max’s killing spree being, essentially, the stuff of every police procedural ever produced, Our Heros are unable to simply investigate the crime, and feel like the only way to find out who killed the dead people is to temporarily resurrect them and ask them.  Now, I’ll admit, that’s a pretty handy tool to have in the kit.  If it works.  But the Torchwood team knows that the bringing-people-back-from-the-dead method of closing cases is likely to end with a team member blowing her own brains out.  Despite this, they try it anyway.  And worse (worse!), the idea comes from, and is pressed by, the only person on the team with actual police experience, who should be up on the techniques for investigating a string of linked murders (Gwen, as if you didn’t know).
So.  Where are we?  Oh, yes.  The Team has resurected a couple of victims, and gotten a lead on Max, but–as I say–rather than investigating Max, they decide the only way to get the information they need is to resurrect Suzie.  Except, somehow, rather than resurrecting her for, like, oh, a minute and a half or maybe two minutes or something, they accidentally resurrect her for ever.  And, as it turns out, this was part of the plan.
Then Our Heroes find Max and lock him up.  Meanwhile Suzie is getting less dead all the time, which isn’t good for Gwen, who was wearing the glove which brought Suzie back, because now Gwen’s life energy, through the conduit of the glove, is sustaining and healing Suzie.  (“Glove?”  I hear you say.  “Glove?”  The glove is the thing that makes people come back from the dead.  It doesn’t really matter.)  Suzie is getting so much better that her brains and head are on the mend.  Bad news for Gwen, though.  Her head is getting blown off in slow motion, painfully.
That’s when Max shuts down Torchwood, more-or-less.  You see, in addition to programming Max to kill members of the support group, Suzie also programmed him to, once Torchwood had locked him up, chant a secret shut-down code she had programmed into the computers before she blew her brains out.  It was part of the plan.  You see, the plan was to trick Gwen into taking her to see her father who is dieing of cancer so she could rip his ventilator out and make him die.  And also live for ever.
It doesn’t work because, at the very last possible second, after escaping from a cleverly reactivated Torchwood, and racing through the byways of west Wales for, presumably, hundreds of kilometers, and running to the Grey Havens, I mean Hedley Point, and shooting Suzie repeatedly and to no effect, the people still in Torchwood destroy the glove–which has been in Torchwood the whole time–and that breaks the life energy suck from Gwen to Suzie, killing Suzie for real, restoring Gwen–instantly!–to health, and, well, there you go.
To recap, the plan, in chronological order:

  • Suzie gets to use the glove
  • She loses her mind
  • She conceives the rest of the plan
  • She reprograms the computers in Torchwood to shutdown on her code word
  • She figures out that after Max kills a bunch of people, Torchwood will resurect a few people for a little while and learn just enough about Max to want to resurrect her for a little while
  • She figures out that, in the future, after she’s dead, Gwen will actually resurrect her for ever
  • She figures out that Torchwood will manage to lock up Max, rather than kill him like we’ve seen them do pretty regularly through the series so far with other bad guys
  • She reprograms Max to both kill a bunch of people and say the trigger phrase to shut down Torchwood’s computers
  • She blows her own brains out
  • She is resurrected some time later–somehow for ever, despite all evidence of how the glove works
  • She plays on Gwen’s sympathies, and gets Gwen to take her away from Torchwood right before Max shuts down the computers
  • Gwen takes her to see her father who she kills while Gwen’s head starts to fall open like a cheap paperback
  • She takes Gwen to the End of the World
  • Then, and only then, does Torchwood think to destroy the object at the heart of the problem–an object they had to hand at every single moment of the problem, including the whole time they were locked in, and trying to figure out how to escape their own offices
And here–at this point–is where the plan fails, and where Torchwood loses me as an engaged viewer.