Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Prisoner

It's a shame this seminal smart-arse sixties series didn't get more than the 17 episodes, though even that was already stretching the concept well beyond Patrick McGoohan's original seven-episode outline. The desperate filler gets comically mental by the end, before the actual ending is inexcusably madder than anything that came before. Still, the journey was compelling.

It's due for a rewatch. The good bits, at least. Here are my moderately confounded reactions from the first time around, for what those are worth.


McGoohan's "important" episodes
Not important, I guess

Arrival ****

As high calibre as this first instalment is, I can't really see how this premise could be stretched to an entire series, though it's very intriguing. Even if, like me, you never saw this series the first time round, or the many subsequent times round in the near 50 years since, you're probably familiar with at least some elements of the plot, from self-indulgent parodies to attempts by Iron Maiden to translate Number Six's plight to heavy metal form (twice). But after reading about how great it's supposed to be enough times to persuade me, it's well worth a watch - please stick with it through the gratuitously overlong intro that even beats Quantum Leap's.

After resigning from some department of the government or other, and seeming quite cross about it, our anonymous protagonist wakes up in a pastoral village that blends fairy tale chic with inconveniently sculpted equipment and light shows because that probably looked futuristic in the sixties. I'm not here to poke fun at the writers' doomed attempts to portray technologies ahead of their time, this series is dated in an endearing way with its visuals, blaring fanfare soundtrack and occasional fist fights. There's even a lava lamp masquerading as scientific equipment in one scene.

This first episode introduces the setting of The Village without answering too many questions. We don't know where it is or who's in charge, only that you never leave and you'd better get used to the idea for your own sanity. There's a real sense of futility and distrust that I didn't expect from a show of this vintage, for some reason, which makes it fit well into any era. I'm looking forward to this. Things I did expect from a sixties show and wasn't let down by include powerless women, disorienting editing cuts, fisticuffs and a lot of patient listening where fisticuffs really should have come sooner.
"I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own" - Number Six

The Chimes Of Big Ben *****

Several months have passed since the first episode, and although Number Six stubbornly refuses to break, he's at least been bored into relative subservience. But our hero's only biding his time, and the arrival of another ex-government resignee with apparent information on the Village's whereabouts persuades him to enter the unsuspecting communal art competition with a piece of "abstract art" that looks suspiciously like it would be seaworthy.

They really pulled the wool over my eyes with this one. As Number Six's smart but flawed escape plan got implausibly closer to fruition at every stage, I was almost convinced they were abandoning the concept of the Village entirely and moving on to some new form of imprisonment, at a bold early juncture. But no, it was exactly the sort of basic fool that modern TV should have prepared me for, which I clearly wasn't giving the benefit of the doubt because of its age (as if dramatic plot twists were unheard of by the sixties or something). I've learned my lesson and I won't doubt this show again.

It's got enough quotable catch-phrases already, but to borrow from a much later show, "trust no one" would be sage advice to follow from now on.
"He can make even the act of putting on his dressing gown a gesture of defiance" - Number Two

A, B & C ***

That's not how dreams work. And why are all of Number Six's memories from third person views? So it wasn't as good as last time, but I'm still pleasantly surprised to see such strong female characters in a sixties show.

Number Two has been replaced again - this one has a thing for milk, that's about as much characterisation as he gets before he's presumably replaced himself - but the hare-brained schemes to fool Number Six into revealing why he resigned continue. This week, They test an experimental drug and impossible thought reading machine on the Prisoner, to see whether he was planning to sell his sensitive knowledge to the enemy. But our implausibly shrewd protagonist is onto them and beats the system once again!
"Your nonsense bores me" - Number Fourteen

Free For All ***

I do love this series' premise, but these last couple of episodes have been a bit of a let-down after the first two. I'm hoping this will be the last time the usually astute Number Six will be so easily manipulated into doing what his keepers wanted all along under the pretense of doing him a favour, but admittedly I'm not living under the same stresses he is, plus I know there are 13 more episodes to go before he either escapes or the series ends on a downbeat note.

This week's elaborate ruse is an election for the position of Number Two, which Number Six concedes to enter for three apparent reasons: to finally meet the elusive Number One and get answers, to encourage his fellow prisoners to rebel, and because he doesn't have anything better to do. Those other prisoners are the strangest thing about this series, they're more like extensions of the scenery and technology so we have to be continually reminded that they used to be government operatives too. It seems so unlikely.

Less effectively discombobulating is the sci-fi equipment, which might have looked impressive in 1967 but can now be seen for the fairground equipment it is, relying on flashing lights and lots of spinning. If this wasn't all confusing enough for you, Number Six is also assigned a PA who doesn't speak English, before the veil is lifted and it turns out they just wanted to break him after all. Number Six raises a good point when he asks why they don't just shove him and all the other inmates into solitary confinement rather than setting up this elaborate penal resort. Because that would make for a less colourful series.
"Humour is the very essence of a democratic society" - Number Two

The Schizoid Man ****

A much more effectively disorienting episode and another pointlessly convoluted scheme from the powers above, there are still a few things that annoyed me about this otherwise excellent story that I'll get off my chest now:

  • Why is there someone out there with the exact same appearance, voice and abilities as Number Six, conveniently working in the intelligence business and with sympathy for the necessary side?
  • Why do people mistake Number Six for Number Twelve, or at least not comment on their miraculous shared appearance? Number Six was the talk of the town last episode.
  • Why does the Rover kill people now? Wouldn't that completely ruin their plans for these prisoners? Don't they have any control over those things?
  • Psychic powers don't exist. Oh hang on, this is a TV show.
  • Why do the two identical men always stand on opposite sides of the screen unless one of their faces is obscured by a fencing mask? OH SOD OFF.

Despite the oversights, this episode succeeds in confusing its viewers as much as the characters. At one point I forgot what was going on and who was pretending to be who, despite the concessions they make to idiots by dressing Patrick McGoohan in contrasting blazers. That might also be the reason they cut back to Number Two reminding viewers of what's happening every once in a while to prevent brain hemorrhages, which it would have been stronger without.

It's chilling to see the flashbacks to Number Six's personality conditioning too, as he recalls lost days of getting zapped into favouring his left hand over his right and changing his taste in breakfast. That makes it even more satisfying when he finally manages to pull the wool over Number Two's eyes without it being part of the game, even if he's caught out in the end. That doesn't count as a spoiler - we're only five episodes in and this series isn't called The Free Man is it?
"Mother Nature has been up to her tricks again" - Number Six

The General ***

Meet the new Number Two, same as the old Number Two. The inexplicable reappearance of an old iteration of the revolving door adversary after he was supposedly fired or worse made me twig that these episodes might have been originally broadcast (and consequently canonised) in a different order than intended.

Brief spoiler-conscious Wikipedia research confirmed that the episode order is indeed all over the place, which I wish I'd known earlier as 'The Chimes of Big Ben' would have made a lot more sense further down the line. As someone who still gets annoyed when he finds out people are reading the Narnia books in the horrible 'recommended reading order,' this revelation has irked me, but it's too late to change now - let's get on with this chronologically confused series and hope they at least put the finale in the right place.

In this episode, Number Six gains a new doomed ally-of-the-week whom he trusts despite previous betrayals (unless those haven't happened yet), but they fail in their plan to thwart a mass mind control initiative. If you ask me, the villagers seem pretty brain dead and complacent already, but luckily Number Six has more tricks up his rolled-up sleeves and the episode ends like many episodes of Star Trek from around the same time, with fist fights and exploding technology. Stupid super-intelligent computers, when will you realise humans are superior?
"Why?" - Number Six

Many Happy Returns ****

This feels quite similar to 'The Chimes of Big Ben,' but while the Prisoner's escape and return to London in that earlier episode was all a cunning, customarily over-complicated ruse to get him to talk, this time it appears to be completely genuine and there aren't any clumsy attempts to extract information. Your main clues that this isn't going to end happily ever after are:

a) There are 10 episodes left to go.
b) They've done this before.
c) The identity of Number Two isn't revealed in the opening titles as normal, implying we should be on the look out for double agents (but you might still be surprised).
d) The title.

It manages to be a memorable episode though, with impressive scope and scenery. Number Six doesn't even speak for the first half, waking to find the Village abandoned by all but one lonely cat and hastily making his escape on a handmade raft. He's temporarily inconvenienced by some gun smugglers, climbs a jagged cliff face, stows away in a truck and against the odds finds himself back in London, where we lean in closer to the television and scrutinise every shot for signs that this is some sort of construction/virtual reality/anything other than the real thing.

Where this episode falls down is the ending, or rather lack of one. The more you think about it, the less sense it makes - while this seems mostly to have been a typically insanely convoluted ploy to break Number Six's spirit and discourage him from attempting any other escapes in the future, are we to infer that it was also intended as a sadistic birthday present? If so, that would require some meticulous planning on the part of Number Two, as he was on that raft for almost a month.

Was everyone in on it? Were any of his actions random? What if he hadn't gone back to his old house or office, realising these would be the obvious places they'd look for him, and really made some trouble? Anyway, didn't he already report to his superiors in a fake London the last time this happened and discover them to be in on it?

I like it less the more I use my brain. But I enjoyed it at the time.
"You retire, you disappear, you return. You spin a yarn that Hans Christian Andersen would reject for a fairy tale" - Thorpe

Dance of the Dead ***

Evidently jumping to an earlier point in the Prisoner's incarceration, he's much more the inquisitive escapee of episode one than the jaded villager of episode two. This is only the start of the inconsistency though, as despite having committed more heinous 'crimes' against the Village in other episodes, here he's actually put on trial for attempting to use a radio as the bizarre climax to an evening's festivities.

It feels like they're trying to be quirky for the sake of it with the colourful period costumes and bipolar character actions, which might be for disorientation purposes or the result of a writing deadline. Security seems to be especially lax compared to other episodes as Number Six eludes Them entirely at several points just by going to the beach. This is starting to affect my enjoyment.

Still, I liked Number Six's feline friend, and assuming the previous episode comes later in the chronology it was a nice call-back to have the cat stay behind with him when the other villagers disappeared. That's some retroactive praise for the previous episode there - this one was nothing special.
"Never trust a woman, even the four-legged variety" - Number Six

Checkmate *****

If none of the remaining episodes in this sadly short-lived series lives up to this one, I'd still be satisfied - this one's just about perfect, if you're happy to ignore the absurd science of a locket that can read your emotions. Bear with the superficial chess analogies at the beginning too and you'll be treated to a tense and thoughtful story that lives up to the description 'psychological thriller' better than those films where someone in a mask goes around stabbing people.

This is obviously another episode that was intended to go out earlier in the schedule, as Number Six is still inquisitive about the machinations of the Village and opportunistic about escape. This is one of very few episodes that actually presents his fellow inmates as individuals, or some of them anyway, as Six learns to distinguish beaten-down prisoners from their more arrogant guardians and recruits a gang of rebels and saboteurs.

Once again there's a glimmer of hope as the escape plan actually seem to be working, and even though you know deep down he'll be back sleeping in his cosy cell after the end credits, for once his downfall isn't all part of an elaborately orchestrated scheme for Number Two's amusement. That revelation makes it the most tragic ending yet.

This is also the episode that finally broke me and made the Welsh seaside resort Portmeirion an essential stop whenever I go back to the UK. Apparently it still looks exactly the same nearly 50 years on, I just hope some joker hasn't rigged speakers to bellow the terrifying Rover howl when you wander the streets, that could finish me.
"I'm waterproof. A slight drizzle won't wash away my doubts" - Number Six

Hammer into Anvil ****

It's payback time as Number Six screws with Number Two, ostensibly to avenge his latest innocent victim but there must have been some level of personal satisfaction in there too. Correctly interpreting this Number Two as the paranoid conspiracy theorist type, Six sets about performing various barmy, incomprehensible or incriminating actions, knowing that every meaningless act will be painstakingly analysed by his target before his mind eventually explodes like a sixties computer charged with answering "why?"

Number Six's mischievous activities include listening to the same section of music on a range of LPs, hiding blank sheets of paper for Number Two's minions to steal, placing a subversive newspaper ad, calling the psychiatrist on the subject of Number Two's mental health, requesting an arbitrary song from the big band, placing a birthday message to himself from a dead woman, buying a cuckoo clock and not putting a bomb inside, releasing a pigeon with a coded message and heading down to the beach to flash nursery rhymes in morse code.

Still, the wackiest things in this episode are those we're supposed to take seriously, like the Prisoner's preferred trampoline-based martial art and the sci-fi laser beam they apparently have to harmlessly ground pigeons. It's a fun episode.
"I am going to hammer you" - Number Two

It's Your Funeral ***

I don't really know what's going on in this episode, and for once it unambiguously seems to be a fault of the writing rather than the success of the series' disorienting style. The position of Number Two becomes over-complicated for one episode only, as the acting Number Two conspires to get Number Six involved in a plot with other rebellious villagers to assassinate his predecessor even though the old man's retiring anyway.

Number Six doesn't really have a part to play, outside of his image being used in a crude mash-up to persuade the incumbent Number Two not to take his assassination theories seriously. Is that what it was all about? Or did the new Number Two want an excuse to come down hard on these people, and saw the old man as a useful tool? What's the range of that explosive device? Hopefully very localised, or the new subordinate number wouldn't have a lot to smile about.

We must be back up to date in the chronology now, as Number Six is distrusting and not prepared to be a pawn again, though he ends up doing that anyway. Did the conspirators just temporarily forget they're under constant surveillance? Do the bad guys really need to constantly remind each other about the details of their plan? Was it really necessary to watch Patrick McGoohan's stunt double doing so much aerobics? At least there are plenty of beautiful sixties women to look at.
"Many times bitten, never shy" - Number Six

A Change of Mind ***

After spending a few episodes wandering the delightful alleys, gardens and beaches of Portmeiron on location, the London studio 'exteriors' feel particularly fake in this one, which isn't helped by the camera lingering for longer on painted backdrops and faux foliage than it should. The lack of costume budget is also getting more noticeable with each passing week, as only the main characters are ever permitted to don the distinctive piped blazers, with everyone else in the village being forced into unflattering Where's Wally? jumpers.

The background villagers are at their least personable and most robotic here too, though the plot of enforced and conditioned conformity necessitates it. Having finally got tired of Number Six's rebellious streak, Number Two takes decisive action with a lobotomy to make the Prisoner more agreeable, though for some unclear reason that can only be put down to the series' need to retain the status quo, Number Two only fakes the effects, keeping up the pretence with drugged tea. Number Six discovers what's going on, thanks to his typically superhuman mental and physical faculties once again, and once again foils Number Two using his own plot. That little scamp, there's no putting him down! Unless They learn from their mistakes and just do the bloody lobotomy for real next time.

I feel very settled into this series now, which is sadly approaching its end point soon. This feels as by-the-numbers as they come.
"I cannot stand girls who do not know how to make a decent cup of tea" - Number Six

Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling **

This is a plain contender for my least favourite episode of the series, as through a gimmicky body swap plot device it hardly features Patrick McGoohan at all. That wouldn't necessarily be a problem if the guy they got to play the guy possessed by Number Six acted anything like the character we've got to know over the previous 12 episodes.

Still, this episode is notable for revealing more about Number Six than we previously knew - so more than next-to-nothing then. It turns out he had a fiancée, which might explain his lack of interest in women in other episodes, and was working for her father. We also find out some of his unhelpful aliases (Number Six has more of a ring to it than ZM-73). Even though we still don't learn the driving mystery of the series - why he retired (McGoohan's MacGuffin) - it still feels like we learn too much, and what we see feels inconsistent with previous episodes, something that isn't helped by the all-new cast of characters at ZM-73's old workplace. At least they didn't all turn out to be in on the trick like the previous two times he tried talking to them - why does he keep going back for more?

This feels like a different show for the most part, zooming around London and slightly less convincing Hungarian Alps. But we're privy to revelations/confirmations back at the Village too, as we're shown cooperative prisoners being sent back to their own lives with the memory of their incarceration removed. It turns out that an episode heavy on answers we didn't ask for isn't very satisfying, I hope the next one isn't all about how Rover works.
"Anybody who spends his time doing that must be rather stupid" - The Colonel

Living in Harmony ***

Firstly, brilliant. Randomly inserting a Wild West episode into your series and re-casting the characters in allegorical roles is this series at its psychedelic best, and it gets deliciously surreal with the cardboard cut-outs at the end.

Lastly... ah well.

If you're a casual fan of Westerns, this has all the familiar staples - bar fights, lynch mobs, a morally upright sheriff, jaunty piano music, ample-bosomed prostitutes, lassoings, showdowns and fist fights ending with the loser diving into a barrel of water. If you're a fan of The Prisoner, you should at least get a kick out of the revised opening titles where Number Six hands in his badge and gun rather than a neat resignation letter, and the silent, distant, insane 'Kid' character is like something from David Lynch.

The episode's let down by being all surface, as I get the strong feeling watching it through a second time would raise more questions than it answered. The main one being, "why bother?" The last few scenes back in the 'real' world are ridiculous, so best not to worry how any of this works or why it's happening and just accept they wanted to be wacky this week.
"Nobody walks out on me" - The Judge

The Girl Who Was Death ****

If the last episode was wacky, this one's downright deranged. It's typically sanitised by context at the end, but for the first 40 or so minutes I was bamboozled as to how any of this was supposed to fit in with the established series or reality in general.

It's nuts and the most fun you'll have had watching TV in a while. Apparently based on an unused script from McGoohan's previous series Danger Man, I'll have to check that out if it comes anywhere close to this. I assume it's an all-out parody of the invincible secret agent genre, or maybe they were just really fed up writing the usual stories and so wrote a kid's comic instead.

If you previously found this series lacking in exploding cricket balls and candles, living shop dummies, pre-recorded LPs that talk back, coded messages in beer steins, fairground rides, pits of electrified spikes, rocket launchers, indoor minefields, bad guys with literal Napoleon complexes and rockets disguised as lighthouses, this is the episode you've been waiting for. Personally, I love Number Six's awful attempt at an inconspicuous disguise - no wonder he was caught.
"You'll make a beautiful corpse" - Sonia

Once Upon a Time ****

Leo McKern is brought back to play the final Number Two as we finally reach an episode that can be firmly placed in the running order. Ending on an intriguing cliffhanger that's bound to end up disappointing somehow, this intense Orwellian two-hander sees Number Two reach the end of his tether with the resolute Number Six and locks them in a room together for a week until one of them cracks and dies. Can you guess which?

McKern's Number Two was one of a select few that really had the supervillain quality about them (last showing up in episode two), and he dispenses with inept goons and wacky inventions this time to go man-on-man. Despite Number Six's severe handicap of being brainwashed into believing he's a child, he turns the tables with such subtlety and borderline psychosis that you might actually start rooting for his tormentor by the end.
"I'm beginning to like him" - Number Two

Fall Out **

I'll grant them this: it's certainly an ending. And it's a memorable one, though hopefully not so memorable as to tarnish the series as whole.

If I'd been eagerly tuning in every week back in 1968, I'm confident this confusing, half-arsed denouement would have seriously pissed me off. Watching almost five decades later with the likes of Lost behind me, I liked it and loathed it as it went along.

What I liked:

The sense of finality and break from the norm as Number Six is granted an audience with Number One. The bizarre and eclectic use of contemporary pop hits to pad out the running time for wont of script. Um... I guess all those masks were creepy too?

What I loathed:

The whole thing felt very under-written (which apparently it really was) and the things that make no sense really make no sense. Leo McKern had shaved his beard and changed his hair colour before filming, which they explain with a reincarnation makeover. Number Six is revered for his individuality with clunky exposition that doesn't fit in at all with what's going on in the rest of the series, nor does the brutal violence towards the end.

There are enough sociological buzzwords and woo-woo floating around that make it easy to over-analyse this script more than it deserves, and seen as our hero has been abducted from his home with ease several times before, there's nothing to stop you continuing his story in your head. I'm sad to see I apparently like this less already than when I finished watching it a few minutes ago, so I'll doubtless end up really hating it over time. Still, I'll give McGoohan and the other hard-pressed creatives due respect for going out with something so mad, not caring who they piss off. Rebels to the end!
"Be seeing you!" - Number Two

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