The Prisoner Rewatch: Part One
Posted by therebelprince on August 6, 2009
“I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered: my life is my own!”
– Number Six, “Arrival”
In the lead-up to November’s miniseries remake, we’re looking back at Patrick McGoohan‘s iconic series The Prisoner, starting with the episode that began it all: “Arrival”, and “Dance of the Dead”.
I’ll hopefully be covering a bit of everything in these “reviews”, discussing the series’ meaning, its legacy, its production history, and just in general taking the good with the bad. The Prisoner is a rare series in that no one can agree on what any of the symbolism means, or for that matter what order the episodes should air in, so we’ll have a look into that along the way as well! But first, the story:
McGoohan (above) plays a government official who angrily resigns from his post one day and, on returning home, is gassed only to wake up in an island prison. No Guantanamo Bay this, instead “The Village” is a quaint seaside resort which operates as an independent entity. Stylish cafes, a human chess board and shopping alleys abound. Aside from a barricaded operations post, and a handful of stormtroopers, the island is populated by former victims of government interference, most of whom seem to have blithely accepted their fate. (Although, as the series shows, drugs and torture may have led the citizens to their lobotomised lives.)
Everyone here is assigned a number (our hero is Number Six), and at the top sits Number Two. (The question of Number One’s identity is an open one). And patrolling the island? A giant weather-balloon like creature, “Rover”, who also possesses the power to kill.
It’s a spectacularly imaginative world that McGoohan conjures up here, and the beautiful location of Portmeiron is put to great use, informing the series’ bold use of colour. The world is wonderfully conceived with the penny farthing bicycle a recurrent theme (the double-edged sword of progress being a favourite topic of McGoohan‘s) and brilliant signs adorning the city, such as “Questions are a burden to others; answers a prison for oneself.” As an allegory of the individual’s relationship with society, among whatever else McGoohan hoped to say, he had found a fertile field of symbols and ideas. Undoubtedly, he was far ahead of his time. In the era of The Avengers, the idea of following an adventure series through a somewhat continuous story was almost unheard of. To add on to this such Huxleyian ideas, McGoohan risked alienating the networks and audiences.
Originally, his idea was to do a 7-episode miniseries. Given the initial cost, the network balked at this, and a suitable number was negotiated. Reports still vary as to whether the final 17 was the agreement, or whether 26 were commissioned but then cut back at a later date.
Either way, “Arrival” does a pretty good job of trying to explain a good deal of the aspects of The Village. Aside from Rover, there is of course Number Two (Guy Doleman), the viceroy of the settlement. He coyly explains to Number Six that the information in the latter’s head is vital, and they will stop at nothing to know why he resigned. The reason for resignation will never be explained to us (theories range from the discovery of state secrets to, if Wikipedia is anything to go by, the fact that Six himself originally came up with the abstract idea for the Village) but the series certainly gives us plenty of hints to make up our own mind.
From his operations bunker, Number Two operates with the help of the Supervisor (Peter Stanwick) and the diminuitive Butler (Angelo Muscat), who seems to function symbolically as an objective entity: neither good nor bad. (In some episodes, he carts a black and white umbrella). After getting involved in the life of a former colleague (Paul Eddington) and his lover (Virginia Maskell), Number Six quickly becomes aware of the futility of their situation. It’s best summed up by an admiral (Frederick Piper) to Maskell’s character: “We’re all pawns, m’dear.”
There are simply endless methods to divine which episodes belong in which order. Truthfully put, there is no definitive order, as these aspects of continuity were not as fully formed forty years ago as they are now. Some people cite the rarely-mentioned dates throughout the series, pronouns referring to former number allocations, or the overall mood of Number Six in various episodes. Different official DVD sets have spoken differently, while McGoohan has reportedly approved a set of his own. Wikipedia is a good place to start, followed by the Prisoner US Home Page. For the purpose of our reviews, I’m following the aforementioned site’s list, as to be honest it doesn’t concern me that much.
When “Arrival” ended, the last major conceit of the series was revealed: numbers can easily be reallocated. Doleman‘s Number Two failed to break our hero, so a new Number Two (George Baker) is brought in. By “Dance of the Dead”, he’s been replaced by one of the most memorable in Mary Morris (above). It’s one of my personal favourite episodes, as Six remains defiant and certain that he can escape. After discovering a dead body with a radio, Six sends a rescue note out to sea, before reuniting with an old colleague (Alan White). It is too late when he realises that Number Two has orchestrated everything. Morris is such an enjoyable performer and she fits in perfectly with the surreal aspects of this episode: a carnival sees Number Two dressed as Peter Pan and a Little Bo Peep (Norma West) who is “observing” (or rather spying on) our hero.
And while we won’t hear much from her in later episodes, British actress Fenella Fielding provides one of the most surprisingly chilling aspects of the series in the voice of the town loudspeaker announcer. Her cheerful “good morning!”s are the perfect sickly counterpart to the Village’s eventual domination of its citizens.
There’s a sense of underlying evil in the first two episodes: Six is resilient while The Village attempt, by convincing him he is dead to the world, to get his secrets from him. Whatever lingers beneath the surface is yet unknown to us, but what a surface she is. Incidentally, when some talk about McGoohan’s “seven episodes” (which includes both of these), they refer to his original seven in the plan. I don’t like to think of these specifically (even though they certainly are the most integrated with our plot) since once they hashed the other 10 stories, I’m sure that some took on a life of their own. At the same time some of the subtler aspects, such as the feelings of complacency rather than complete satisfaction in some other citizens, are lost in the later non-McGoohan episodes where it seems like the one line premise of “one man against the world” takes over from a logical, multi-faceted story. But certainly there is a sense of purpose this week and next which will be missing from some of the stories.
Next week, Rover and an escape attempt. “Be seeing you!”