The Prisoner: Checkmate

The Prisoner CheckmateA glance around the internet reveals a few people drawing parallels between this episode of The Prisoner and the Stanford Prison and Milgram experiments. However, those experiments were about dividing people up into those with power and those who lack power, and discovering the brutality that results in handing ultimate power to a group of people. You could maybe stretch that to The Prisoner as a whole, although the warders here really are the warders, but it doesn’t really apply to Checkmate as such. Instead, this is about traitors in the midst of an oppressed populace. The lines are not blurred between prisoners and warders, but the warders are not always easily identified.

We have seen Number Six betrayed several times before, and that has reached the point where it strains credulity. He is otherwise astute, so seeing him continue to place his trust in fellow prisoners (albeit reluctantly and often women) does not sit well with his characterisation in general. The problem is that a successful escape plan generally requires more than one person. After the previous episode, in which a friend of Number Six really was on his side and eventually got lobotomised, it is now clear that there are in fact genuine allies to be found in the Village, but the problem is identifying them among so many who are willing to betray him. The irony of Checkmate’s twist ending is delicious. It is Number Six who is assumed to be the traitor by his friends:

“Your air of authority convinced him you were one of us.”

There is an attempt throughout to use chess as a metaphor. It’s the go-to metaphor for just about everything, but it really doesn’t work very well here.

“It’s like the game. You have to learn to distinguish between the blacks and the whites.”

… which is not at all like chess, is it. The one thing you don’t have to do in chess is figure out whose side the pieces are on. They are colour coded! They don’t betray their own side. So the situation Number Six finds himself in is exactly the opposite of a game of chess. The metaphor only works so far as the Villagers being pawns in somebody else’s game, but it would have been useful to see this extended beyond that obvious cliché. For example, a pawn is quite capable of placing the king in checkmate. Something along those lines perhaps? More importantly, as the queen is the most powerful piece on the board and the very definition of a powerful #2, this more than any would have been the week for a female Number Two, as much as I appreciated seeing a (just) pre-Jason King Peter Wyngarde in the role this week. I did like the allusion to Alice in Wonderland, with Number Six, like Alice, the White Queen’s pawn, although again it was metaphorically an awkward fit. The Black Queen’s pawn with a female Number Two would have been better.

A stronger theme was forcing people to conform to society’s (or prison’s) expectations, which is something that has been rumbling along for the whole series. This is achieved basically by torture, with the example of a man who is desperate for water being electrocuted when he tries to get it.

“From now on he’ll be fully co-operative.”

I get that this is shorthand storytelling, but just because he went to the right water cooler when told to doesn’t mean he’s conforming. He does want the water after all. He’s incentivised. That’s another area where the comparison to Milgram or Stanford breaks down. Torturing the Rook into conforming would involve breaking his will until he carries out meaningless acts under orders at the very least, or even more accurately acts that go against his beliefs or morality.

Interestingly, the Rook explained that he was in the Village in the first place because of an act of treason, which is further evidence if we needed it that the Village is being run by people from the upper echelons of the British secret service. If that proves not to be the case, I don’t see how it’s going to fit with all the evidence we’ve been presented with so far.

There were loads of little moments I really enjoyed, including plenty of defining moments in terms of Number Six’s characterisation. He is generally immune to manipulation, including the usual female tactic (at least in 1960s television) of bringing on the waterworks:

“I’m waterproof. A slight drizzle won’t wash away my doubts.”

His determination and unwillingness to be manipulated is admirable, even when he is shouting at a woman who is supposedly in love with him to get out of his house, which is a powerful scene. It’s unfortunate that she’s an innocent too, being cruelly manipulated herself, but Number Six doesn’t know that, and it’s fair for him to assume she’s a “warder”. Like James Bond, he alternates between being dangerous and being funny.

“May I see you again.”
“Oh yes, I’m here all the time.”

The Prisoner Checkmate Number Six in the BushesAll the old Prisoner clichés were present and correct this week as well. It wouldn’t be The Prisoner without at least one fist fight, or without Number Six popping up among some foliage at one point during the episode. At the end of the episode the pawn is placed back on the board by the butler, but it’s a hollow gesture. Number Six is far from being a pawn as yet. You never know, he might just end up destroying the entire game.   RP

The view from across the pond:

After last week’s Dance of the Dead, you may have noticed a curious lack of ploys.  This is because Dance of the Dead is supremely surreal.  At best, we get a Faked Death ploy but that is not pulled on #6; it gets pulled on the rest of the world who might want to know what happened to the man who is #6.  Maybe they pull a Carnival ploy but since he goes to the carnival as himself… hard to say.  Of course there’s the old “tricky computer ploy” where you rip the cables out of a computer… and it keeps working.  But we never see what happens after that.  So Dance was unique in its absence of a good ploy.

Checkmate however pulls the ex-Admiral’s line of “we’re all pawns m’dear” from the end of Arrival and makes an entire ploy out of that!  Let’s have a look!

Checkmate introduces us to the Rook, a character everyone calls by this nickname based on the role he plays on the chessboard at the start of the episode.  Even #2 calls him as the Rook.  The Rook is a timid chap who has been beaten one time too many by the powers behind the Village and #6 comes in one beating too late to really utilize him.  Sadly, he only learns that after his own attitude turns the Rook against him.  The episode focuses on a few characters that are each experimented on.  The woman is made to love #6 while the Rook is treated like one of Pavlov’s dogs, learning to drink from the correct colored water cooler.  (Aha!  Possibly the age old Pavlov Ploy!)

Once again, there are hints that this is still early days for #6.  “You must be new here.”  There’s also indication that this #2 (Timanov from Doctor Who’s Planet of Fire) knows how important #6 is; “He’s too valuable!”  The question is, just how important is he?  Rover does not seem concerned when the old fellow with the stick walks by but won’t let #6 do the same.  Is this man more important that #6?  Is he, perhaps, #1?  #6 has “superhuman willpower” according to his keepers in the Village.  What makes the man with the stick have power?  Surely it’s not just that he carries the Stick of Popping, is it?  Rover can handle a little pointy stick, can’t he?  (Imagine if that’s all #6 needed!)  So why can he walk the Village without batting an eyelash, but #6 can’t walk up stairs to follow a woman without Rover intervening?

There are also a lot of great psychological elements to this episode.  We hear about the Cult of the Individual.  Now, this is essentially what Prisoner fans are.  #6 constantly insisted upon his individuality.  The fans of the series are the cult.  You can’t really have a cult (group) of an individual (um… individual, as in singular).  I do love that one can have an “attack of egotism”.  I am sure many of us have those.  In a society, one must learn to conform, we are told.  But that’s not really the case.  We have to agree to an unspoken social contract, but we are allowed certain rights to be ourselves.  This is lacking in the Village.  Even #6’s costume in Dance implies he’s allowed to be himself, but as the costume was chosen for him, that idea promptly gets destroyed.   Egotism in the Village can lead to harsh treatment.

Assuming this is early days, #6’s desire to determine who are prisoners and who are warders seems logical.  It’s early enough that he hasn’t realized just how many people are double agents.  Many of the people on this episode seem willing to entertain thoughts of escape.  The same can’t be said in many of the other episodes.  What #6 forgets to account for is his own actions.  The Rook reads him as one of the warders and doesn’t want to be punished again so he turns #6 in.  It’s a terrible oversight from a man still learning the ways of the Village.  But it makes abundant sense.

What makes little sense is “tonight at moonset”.  Am I wrong or is that another way of saying “sun up”?  And should you really plan covert activities as the sun rises??

Ok I’ll leave off with this.  The word association is brilliant and worthy of a review.  I’ll put #6’s replies in italics.

Hope and anchor; pub I used to drink at.
For all.

Let’s quickly go over this exchange.  By Hope and Anchor, he has a reasonable explanation for the name.  Home/Away is interesting because he’s away from home, but by the next one, Return, his answer is game.  Is it a game to him that he is going back and forth like… tennis? Love is also a game to him, tying in with his previous comment of never trusting a woman.  Ship gets shape as in everything is in order, shipshape and in formation.  Red Sails is a fascinating answer.  Piracy?  I simply have no idea.  Then of course we have free leading to an answer of for all as in Free for All, the 4th episode in the series.  Maybe it doesn’t matter at all.  But just maybe, there’s an answer in there after all.   ML

Read next in the Junkyard… The Prisoner: Hammer into Anvil

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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