we’ll give ourselves new names, identities erased

As promised, my final thoughts on The Prisoner.

Short Version (Spoiler Free): The ending was better than the original ending (which isn’t hard), but the interstitial episodes were worse than the original interstitial episodes (which also is not hard). Final verdict: decent.

Longer Version (Contains Spoilers): Well.

When I wrote about the problem of genius in movies, I referenced Mr. Scott’s “transwarp beaming” in the new Star Trek movie. Transwarp beaming is supposedly a genius breakthrough, but it doesn’t seem any more “genius” than flying faster than light or teleporting to a planet. In a universe where all tech is handwaved, calling another piece of handwaved tech “genius” tells the audience nothing.

I had a similar reaction to the middle (middling?) episodes of The Prisoner. Everyone in the Village acts weird – including the one “normal” man, Number Six. We don’t know who’s acting weird because they’re crazy, and who’s acting weird because they’re hiding something, and who’s acting weird because that’s how they always are. As a result, the moments meant to shock – like 1112 stabbing 909 in the neck – just confuse us. Was that supposed to happen? If so, why? If not, what went wrong? We never know, and the show won’t bother to tell us.

Add to this the fact that the Village follows no consistent physical laws and all tension goes out the window. Are Six, Sixteen and the Winking Lady going to find the ocean over that sand dune? Maybe. Is Six going to finish rifling through this apartment before Two shows up? Could be. Is a fiber-optic camera watching Six right now? Probably. There’s no situation that can not be changed, as if by magic. So our heroes are either in constant danger or no danger at all. The visual and narrative cues we would rely on to tell us if they were aren’t available here.

Oh crap! Everything's normal!

The best episodes of the original series – and as much a fan as I am, I must admit they weren’t all gems – hinged around two compelling questions: why did Six resign? and who is Number One?. Simple questions, but exploring them and their ramifications made compelling drama. Why did Six resign his intelligence agency post? What did he know that was so valuable that he’d be thrust into this Village-prison to uncover it? And why won’t he save himself a lot of heartache and just say why? Similarly: if Number Two isn’t in charge, then who is? And why do the Number Twos keep changing? Bizarre little enigmas, especially for primetime television.

The new Prisoner briefly addresses both of these questions in the third episode, “Anvil,” and then abandons them. Six resigned (we learn in the flashbacks with Lucy) because he learned something he didn’t like about Summakor. And there is no Number One in the Village. Problem solved! Next!

Of course, removing these tensions pulls the teeth from the rest of the series. We have no idea why Two is keeping Six in the Village. And we have no idea why Six would engage Two on his own terms, instead of spending every waking minute walking toward those ghostly twin towers on the horizon. So the exchanges between them have no venom, the battles no suspense, and the odd little satires of suburban life no satirical edge.

The finale, “Checkmate,” revisits the interesting questions about the social order that the original series was known for. Can you fix someone against their will? If you can, should you? How aware are the Village residents of the “super-conscious” life that Mr. Curtis’s wife imagines them in? And what of the people who die in the Village – 1112, Lucy, 147’s daughter? This was fascinating. You could have built a whole series around this. Instead, you get protagonists toeing the sand uncertainly or screaming melodramatically.

If I were showing this to someone who’d never seen it before, I would skip “Harmony” and “Anvil” entirely. The rest, keep as they are.

NOM NOM NOM

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I lose a dream when I don’t sleep; I’m slumbering

A man wakes up on a desert plateau. The staccato pops of automatic fire draw his attention; looking over a ridge, he sees an old man in an outmoded jacket tumbling down a hill. He picks the old man up and carries him out of the sun. The old man dies; the younger man buries him. Alone, the younger man staggers across the desert until he finds:

The Village.

jim-cavielzel

The notion of a remake of The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan’s legendarily inaccessible 1967 BBC series, thrilled me more than it bothered me. I don’t like remakes. I don’t like the idea of dredging the same river for new fish. But the original Prisoner, for all the thunder of its premise, lacked something in execution. McGoohan wanted the audience to draw their own conclusions, but a little more explicitness couldn’t have hurt (“yes, Patrick dear, but what do the monkey masks mean?”). And toward the end, the show drifted from challenging-weird to just weird-weird. The same ideas, given a fresh start and a proper budget, would devastate.

Number Six (Jim Cavielzel) stumbles through the Village. Exhausted from walking in the desert all day and afflicted by hallucinations of life in New York, he falls off a rooftop. He awakes in a clinic – The Clinic – under the warm gaze of Dr. 313 and the blue-eyed fatherliness of Number Two (Ian McKellen). “Why are you keeping me here?”, Six demands. Two shrugs: “I see no locked doors.” This is the insidiousness of the Village: it responds to direct confrontation with gentle redirection. Aside from Number Two, no one denies the existence of a world outside – Isaac Newton, Alexander Graham Bell, David Beckham, Manhattan. But they don’t understand why it’s so important to Number Six. They just want to help.

The beauty of the original Prisoner was the distinct visual and auditory style of the Village. Shot in Portmeirion, Wales, the use of gay colors, cheery announcements and signs in Albertus typeface all contributed to the air of stiff, enforced conviviality. AMC’s The Prisoner has a style all its own as well. Identical 60s-era bungalows, duplexes and diners form neat little rows in the middle of a vast desert. The occasional flashback to New York or to static-ridden surveillance footage jars Six out of his attempts to focus. There are no walls and no guards: there are the simple limits of sand and sky. But Number Two keeps control in other ways. He can’t suppress every citizen’s desire for escape or their search for something more, so he gives it to them: the Escape Resort! The nightclub More! And just to remind you that this world isn’t right, there’s the occasional touch of weirdness for its own sake, like the soap opera Wonkers or Brian Wilson’s “In Blue Hawaii” or the twin therapists, Number 70.

And no, they don’t have anything that’s not a wrap.

I love Ian McKellen as the new Number Two. He brings a sinister warmth to the bland pronouncements that he bestows on people: “Every day above ground is a good day.” He lives in a pristine opulence that the rest of the Village aspires to. And yet behind everything there’s an air of instability. Everyone gets very still whenever he enters a room, as if he and Mommy were just having a screaming argument in the kitchen downstairs and it’s imperative that we be good. He carries a grenade with him everywhere, pulling it out of his pocket once or twice an episode and tossing it to make a point. He is the capricious tyrant, just as likely to bestow prizes – a free vacation, a medal for service – as punishments. It takes a brilliant actor to pull that off and still appear sane.

ian mckellen

Jim Cavielzel as Number Six, I’m not as sure on. He plays crazy very well, while McGoohan was always proud and stiff. This is essential: Number Six is the man on the fringes of society, and people on the fringes are “crazy,” even if they’re not disordered. When he’s trying to convince 313 or Two that his memories of a world before the Village are real, he fumbles for the thread of his own thought. He lacks the thunderous contempt that McGoohan’s Six had for the other conspirators in the Village, but that’s for the better. Cavielzel’s is a more sympathetic Six. He bites back, but he doesn’t bark.

What doesn’t quite work for me are the slow-mo shots of Six running through the desert, dropping to his knees when faced with some implacable object – the twin towers, the weird anchor – and screaming. They seem a bit too forced. The horror of the Village comes from its cheerful banality and its absolute impermeability to logic, sprinkled with the occasional bit of grotesque: a giant bubble bouncing down the street and absorbing someone. The horror shouldn’t be something that we sit and watch with flashing lights: hey kids! Here’s where the horror is!

I watched the first two episodes, “Arrival” and “Harmony,” last night (and thanks to Sylvia M. for being a gracious host). So far we already know more about Number Six in two episodes than we ever did in the prior series: he worked for a company, Summakor, that collects CCTV footage to analyze trends in human behavior. We already have a hint of why he resigned as well. Interestingly enough, no one in the Village seems to want to know why: a major plot point from the original series. But this cute and accessible woman he picked up on the streets of Manhattan in flashbacks – Lucy – won’t let up on it. But if she’s the only one who’s curious, why can’t Six leave the Village? And if Two wants to know, why hasn’t he asked yet?

Ultimately The Prisoner is not about Number Six. We are not supposed to see ourselves in Number Six; we are supposed to see ourselves in the rest of the village. The Prisoner is about how the institution of society deals with a man who will not conform. Perhaps he’s not conforming because his brain is chemically imbalanced; perhaps it’s because no one around him can supply what he wants. Or perhaps he has memories of a past that no one shares and every time he tries to pursue them, a giant bubble attacks him.

Regardless of why he feels that way, he can’t fit in. He rejects all attempts to make him fit in. So how do we respond? Some of us watch him with sad compassion. Some of us write him off (“she’s a crazy”; “he’s an old drunk”). If he gets too loud or violent, we lock him away. And if he persists in being unmutual, we gently nudge him to the far edge of the herd.

Two more episodes tonight and two on Tuesday. Expect my final thoughts on Friday. Be seeing you.

the prisoner