I have never seen The Prisoner. As a fan of 60s television I realise that makes me somewhat unusual. It’s a popular, cult series with a strong following. So when I was in the mood for watching something from the 60s, I was pleased when Mike suggested it. As a man of sometimes good taste, it’s one of his favourite series. Although it’s a British series, which makes Mike the “across the pond” view in this instance, he is very much the expert so if you want the knowledgeable view then you will find his review below mine. As for me, I will be repeating the Babylon 5 experiment, watching one episode at a time and giving my honest reactions, free from knowledge of what’s to come. In fact, I knew virtually nothing about this series in advance, other than it was made in 1967 and filmed in the little Welsh village of Portmeirion, which to my great shame I have never visited, while Mike has traversed a much greater distance to presumably wander around the Italianesque paths wearing odd clothes and a top hat.
Right off the bat I was surprised to see this burst onto my screen in colour. There wasn’t much of that going on in 1967, but then this was ITC, not the BBC. The budget must have been at a level the BBC could only dream of for something like Doctor Who, with extravagant location filming, a large cast and even a helicopter. The Prisoner shares a composer with Doctor Who, proving that even a genius like Ron Grainer can have a bad day. The opening title sequence tells the story of Number Six’s resignation, and it’s a very 60s action sequence, with very 60s music. Maybe it will grow on me.
I was immediately puzzled about what was going on, which I presumably was supposed to be, but it’s hard to figure out how any of this could make sense. My only explanation that worked was that Number Six had been thrown into the future somehow, but instead it appears that he is just a prisoner in a present day (i.e. 60s) island prison. I suppose that means we are just meant to accept the futuristic technology as being a secret achievement of the 60s. Some of that is very hard to believe. A cordless telephone? Unheard of! Even more strangely, it’s a cordless public telephone, which wouldn’t stay where it is for long in reality. Then there are the automatic doors (amusingly ordinary wooden house doors which open and close by themselves), the remote control helicopter, and where do I start on the control area? Two blokes on a see-saw – really?
One of the reasons I thought this was supposed to be in the future was the attempt to make it multi-cultural. This being the 60s, multi-cultural means one Singapore-born actress and some chatter in foreign languages.
Everything is designed to make us feel uneasy. Everything is a little bit wrong. The people in the village wear an odd collection of clothes and some natty headwear. The maps and signs have only generic terms on them, or say things that don’t seem quite right like “walk on the grass”. There are gravestones on the beach. People behave oddly, clearly on the verge of insanity, or right across the line. There’s a man with post-it notes on his head in the hospital. There are “credit units” instead of money. Music plays inside the house, and smashing the wireless speaker won’t stop it. Most horrific of all, there are lava lamps. It’s enough to send chills down the spine.
Whole statues move around, with surveillance cameras planted inside them. In fact, these people clearly have cameras absolutely everywhere, and have been watching Number Six for a while. The line “sneezed yourself out of our camera” made me laugh a lot.
Oh, and then there’s death by water balloon. I’m not sure how I feel about that. Actually I am: amused. Then again, the more it happens, the creepier it gets. Somehow a giant balloon does actually become a little bit frightening. I think this is a series that’s going to mess with the mind.
“We’re all pawns my dear.”
As an episode in isolation, this was magnificent. I’m not sure that the sight of a man trying to escape a surreal inescapable village will sustain 17 episodes, so I presume something different will happen. I’m looking forward to finding…. aaaachoo!
Sorry, I just sneezed myself out of the blog there. RP
The view from across the pond:
WOW! What an opening, huh? The opening of The Prisoner probably deserves a page to itself, but let’s break it down. It begins with a peel of thunder and a fast car. A man is driving into a car park, where his car is so low, he barely has to stop to wait for the gate to rise. He walks down a long corridor marked “Way Out” (and believe me, this series is way out!) He storms into the office of a man who seems surprisingly disinteresting in the ranting of our protagonist (script editor George Markstein, as a point of interest). Our protagonist slams an envelope on the desk knocking the man’s tea cup over and he leaves. We see a card with a picture of Patrick McGoohan being X’d out and dropped into a file cabinet marked “resigned”. (Also of interest, the key springing up from the middle of the typewriter is not the X key. My mom has a typewriter and I was messing around when I realized the X arm comes from a different spot altogether!) As McGoohan leaves the car park, we see that he is being followed – this includes the old retroactive follow ploy too, where you get ahead of the person you’re following to really throw them off! Then as McGoohan packs his photos of tropical islands (which one might have expected to have packed in advance) there’s the old gas through the keyhole ploy. McGoohan collapses conveniently onto his bed. When he wakes up, he sees he is not in Kansas… or London… anymore. (This is the old “disorientation ploy” – we’ll see a lot of that in coming episodes!) With this, the episode begins.
Arrival does not feature the opening dialogue, so we can end there. Two and a half minutes to give us the backstory and not a word spoken! Like I said, the opening is worth a page for itself. The music is also fantastic. The setting of 1960’s London is surprisingly modern and those modern touches will extend to the Village. Oh yes, the Village. Let’s cover some ground, literally as well as figuratively. Arrival, to my mind, is a slow episode. It’s not a bad one and it’s absolutely necessary to keep the pace that it does. It lays the groundwork for where our protagonist is and what he is up against. From the moment he wakes and see a man in the nearby bell tower, he is kept off balance. Asking the nearby waitress where he is offers no insights. The cab driver speaks in French, the grocery store owner speaks in Italian. (When Cobb leaves in the end, he says auf wiedersehen, the German phrase for goodbye.) The architecture is a bizarre mix and, while beautiful, gives no indication of where he is. And the main antagonist, #2, changes midway through the episode. And even though #6 is determined not to be called a number, he never corrects this by saying who he is!
Let’s talk about the Village. It’s beautiful! Who wouldn’t be happy here? It’s got automatic doors, cell phones (in a variety of colors), clones (if you go by the maintenance men, at any rate), and bubbles that smother people and sound like Godzilla. There’s the hospital with its therapy room that doubles as a yodel-practicing room. If you find yourself in the hospital, try not to wear your best clothes: they might be burned! And there’s even a constellation room with a seesaw… God knows what that thing does, short of sickening the operators! Then there are the “ploys”. Anyone who has ever watched The Pink Panther movies knows, a good ploy is worth its weight in gold, and #2 is going to try some. For background, #2 needs to know why #6 resigned. It seems the very question those in charge want answered. #2 even tells #6 that “you’ll be the death of me.” Is that literal or figurative? Considering he is replaced mid-episode, one wonders. But they want this information and have a trusty Ploy Book. There’s the old…
- Damsel in distress ploy: introduce a maid who will break down crying. Surely that’ll soften the heart. Nope! #6 not only continues to yell at her, but he tells her not to come back again. That’s after reminding her how stupid she is for believing she’d ever be freed.
- Knitting grandma ploy: have an old woman knit by your bedside until you tell her everything you know so you can get that lovely sweater she’s making! Nope! #6 ignores her completely and she leaves to knit another day.
- Sick friend ploy: bring in an old friend who has also been broken over weeks or months to show how bad it can be. Surely fear will make #6 talk. Nope! #6 walks off with the local doctor without worrying too much. Alas, this opens the door for the old…
- Death of a friend ploy: Surely after the suicide of a friend, you’ll be grief stricken and talk. Nope! #6 is just enraged by this. Bad move! Better employ the old…
- Grieving mystery woman (who may have had a secret affair with your old friend) ploy: her broken heart will open #6’s mouth. Nope. He’ll yell at her and get the pass key to escape via helicopter. (This leads one to wonder why, if she had the means to escape, would she involve anyone else, ever!) This trick only gives #6 a free ride in a helicopter. And that leads to the culmination of the episode with the old…
- You’re free to go ploy: a free ride that is remote controlled right back to where he started.
Prison doors close as he walks off and the episode ends. Wow! So much happens in this episode!
There are a few quick items of note: the signs throughout the Village are brilliantly subversive. There’s also something totally dark in the phrase “feel free” when one is a prisoner of the Village. And the use of the musical piece for “pop goes the weasel” is rather apt too. When will the weasel pop, I wonder? But perhaps the most telling lines of all come from #2: “You know how important this is.” And later, “In view of his importance…” Who is this #6? What is his secret? And how will the Village get that information from him? We have 16 more episodes to find out… Be seeing you. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Prisoner: The Chimes of Big Ben
Patrick McGoohan, in his own understanding of this pivotal SF series that he created, supposedly wanted to address the sense that we are ALL prisoners in a world that’s permeated by conformity and conditioning. The mental torture that #6 endures during his time in the Village, just to try and break him down into giving information, is something that I’ve intuitively come to recognize in our real world.
In a decade where SF began to break the most pivotal ground in addressing real-life issues more profoundly than other genres, The Prisoner hit it right on the nail by depicting how attacks on our minds, without necessarily attacking our bodies, whether it’s through the manipulative influences from our television and media or our misplaced trust in our governments, were at the heart of all tyrannical evils.
So the message of The Prisoner is a simple one: We must never give our power away and must always make our boundaries known. McGoohan, whom I first noticed as a kid when he was the villainous Mr. Devereaux in Silver Streak, had a most unique acting signature and The Prisoner, alongside his guest stings in Columbo, gave me appreciation for how individual uniqueness is a special gift that is always worth protecting. Particularly in our creative endeavors for SF, movies and television.
Thank you both, RP and ML, for the best choice for a new SF series to review on the Junkyard for the New Year. Happy 2020!
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