This one is another dud, at least by the high standards we have come to expect from The Prisoner, and it doesn’t have the benefit of a memorable Number Two to pull it out of the fire like last week. At first I thought writer Roger Parkes was going to do something very interesting. We started off in blistering form, with Number Six’s gestures of defiance, total confidence and frivolity in the face of a show trial in the same vein as the Nazi “special courts”. His punishment was initially to be ostracised by everyone as “unmutual”, a clear parallel with the Red Scare in the US and its associated campaign of fear. The escape route from this is to “go to the rostrum and confess”, but being as the judge “will tell you what to say” it’s not really a confession. It’s a humiliation.
The problem with this is that “public enemy number six” is clearly not going to be shaken by it. The episode works very hard to sell the horror of being ostracised by society:
“Let’s see how our loner withstands real loneliness.”
But everything we have learnt about Number Six has made it abundantly clear that he is not the sort of man who will be unable to “withstand real loneliness”. Instead he is the sort of man who would bear it for his entire lifetime rather than let it break him. So ultimately the metaphor of the flock of geese symbolising community falls flat. These people are no friends to Number Six anyway, and it would have rung a lot more true if his frivolity had followed through his period of isolation. When everyone gets up and leaves their drinks behind at the cafe, he should simply have thanked them and enjoyed the free beverages. At least that would have been in character, and I suspect only humour could have saved this episode.
The next stage of Number Two’s very bizarre plan is to pretend to lobotomise Number Six without actually doing it, even going as far as to televise the operation. Who wants to watch that? Having said that, the villagers are shown in a very bad light this week. Before watching this episode I had a little debate with Mike over his classification of the villagers as sheep, whereas all the evidence in recent episodes had pointed to them being ex-spies who were actively fighting, but some of whom had been broken by torture and brainwashing. That’s the picture we get in episodes like Hammer into Anvil, loud and clear. But in this episode the villagers really do act like sheep, and nobody seems to be on the side of Number Six until the herd turns. It’s the bleakest portrayal of the village we have seen.
This was an episode that seemed to veer wildly between moments of brilliance and silliness. Not an episode goes by where I don’t think how amazing Patrick McGoohan is as Number Six, and his standout moment this week was his reaction to being strapped down to be lobotomised. Instead of panicking, he just smiled at Number 86. It was an almost chilling level of self-control and defiance. On the other hand we had the spinning chair in the courtroom and the committee who disappear in the blink of an eye, moments that throw logic out of the window and briefly turn the series into a bad fantasy series where things happen for no reason or seemingly by magic. At least we had the obligatory fights with stripey people to brighten things up, and Number Six emerging from some shrubbery as usual. Was it written into his contract that he had to do that at least once per episode?
In the end, I suppose the best thing that can be said for this episode was that it was a charmingly British allegory of anti-Communist scare tactics and Nazi kangaroo courts.
“I think we are all more than ready for a tea break.”
They might not be in Britain, but they’re certainly British alright. RP
The view from across the pond:
You know, I wanted to have a change of mind about this episode, but all I ever remember about it is the bushy-bearded man crying out “believe me, believe me, BELIEVE ME!!” only to then walk away a split second later as if he were walking down the aisle of his local grocery store trying to determine what pasta to buy. That is the scene that stands out to me more than any other, even though there’s a far funnier scene that I had utterly forgotten.
#2: “…you needed time to think?”
#6: “no, NO!!”
#2: “I’M ASKING YOU NOT TELLING YOU!” (nearly hysterical with anger)
#6: “Please don’t be angry.”
#2: (in a calming, sing-song voice) “I’m not angry, my dear friend. That is just the way things seem to be to you!”
Goodness me, did I laugh at this. In fact, I laughed at a lot of this story because it makes so little sense. I mean, there are the Village Ploys, for one. There’s the old “Isolation Ploy”, tried before in Many Happy Returns, but this time he’s not alone, he’s just ignored. (See in your Ploy appendix under “The Ignore-him ploy” often used in grade school playgrounds!) There’s also the old “spin him around until he’s sick” ploy, which does little other than make the guy run up the stairs all out of whack because he can’t find his footing, but this doesn’t work well with #6.
Then there’s #2’s proverbs. I love his little lines of wisdom like, “he who ploughs a straight furrow need owe for nothing”. Why is that important? What was his point? And I laugh at all the times #2 repeats himself while pointing at his own head. I love it even more when he does that and the Supervisor gives him a look of such disgust that one wonders how this #2 ever came to power. I think this was the substitute #2 while the others were at the Torturers Convention down the road.
What of the Butler? In Hammer into Anvil, he is dismissed and prepares his bags to leave. He never wears a number, and when everyone has left the Illuminati chamber, he’s the only one there. He releases #6 from the Circle of Vomitous Turns. Is he someone of importance or just a civilian, not impacted by the rules and information passing through the Village? What of the Villagers themselves, all sporting their stripped shirts, like prisoners… oh, look at that, that’s what they are! I guess that was the point, eh? But this episode depicts them as a mob; there are no individuals here, whereas in Checkmate there seem to be a number of them who are free from Village control.
There are a lot of interesting ideas in this episode despite coming off like a very silly episode indeed. The idea of instant social conversion is scary. We are all subject to the social contract and those who do not follow it are “lone wolves” (an idea that will come back near the end of the series). If there were a way to convert those lone wolves, that would be a powerful tool, and if the village really has that, how could #6 survive it? As they depict it as lobotomization, it’s even more terrifying. And there’s some indication that they do have that ability and it’s about to be used on #6. Is that because #86 seems to turn the power down, just before it could destroy him that it doesn’t work? I’ll tell you this: it does give credence to this #2 not being familiar with the importance of #6. He may be treating him like a common Villager, when in fact, he is not, and #86 knows it. (The Village also shows some other horrible torture devices here, probably prepped for the Torturers Convention, like strapping a poor guy to a chair and showing him Rover on an attack vector! For that guy, the episode was titled A Change of Pants!)
And what of that sign on the wall: “your community needs you” with the Uncle Sam style picture? Although their accents might say otherwise, this is the second time a very American theme has entered the Village. (Dance of the Dead featured that line “of the people, by the people, for the people”!) And I always think of the word “Communist” in place of “unmutual” when watching this episode because of the House of UnAmerican Activities from the 1950s. I’m no student of history, but I do know about it and that’s what I think of every time I watch this episode. Can the Village be in the US? Perhaps a joint venture between nations?
One thing that did interest me and I almost forgot to mention it. #86 has a change of mind herself, when #6 hypnotizes her. He actually uses one of the Village’s techniques against them, but what I never got about that is simply: why didn’t he ask her who #1 is? Sure, she may not have known, but why didn’t he try? Or “where is the Village?”
The episode ends with my favorite ploy, but it’s reversed; #6 uses it on #2. It’s the ever popular “Umbrella Smackdown” ploy, wherein your victim is beaten within an inch of life until he gives up the desired secrets. #6 gets the Villagers to beat the hell out of #2, where he is lost in the sea of bodies. But remember last episode, It’s your Funeral? You know, all the way back one episode ago? Yeah, #6 doesn’t want the Villagers punished for an assassination attempt on #2, but he’s alright with them beating a #2 to death? Call me weird but I don’t buy it. Unless you consider what we know about #6 – he seems to like fair play. The #2 of It’s your Funeral has done nothing to warrant an assassination. This #2 is a torturer, pure and simple. Maybe #6 is morally at ease cleansing the gene pool of such horrible people. Evil needs to be put down, to protect other people, you understand! And that makes it alright, I imagine. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Prisoner: Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling
It is indeed episodes like this that make us understand why McGoohan wanted The Prisoner to be shorter than it was. 17 weekly episodes is a third of a year, as opposed to 26 weekly episodes for half-a-year which we were used to with most series at that point. 10 episodes may have worked a little better as it did for The Outsider. It was clearly the buildup to the series finale that could make any miniseries work best with a certain number of episodes, as I first learned from The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy on TV in 1981. So yes, there is a valid point to where extending the number of episodes for a miniseries, even with the best intentions, can be self-defeating.
An episode like this, however, with the powers behind the Village getting more determined with its tools to break #6, still has its uses. It could have seen better recognition if it were in the extended series adaptation for The Prisoner via Big Finish. We know that the vulnerabilities for #6 are what make him humanly identifiable and thus give him the human tools to combat all the dehumanizing factors of the Village. As a key reminder of the series’ vital message, it deserves points for that.
Thank you both for your reviews on this one.
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The Uncle Sam poster is actually based on an earlier British poster featuring Lord Kitchener.
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Great point! I don’t know how I overlooked that when I read Mike’s article originally, but yes that poster would not have been intended to reference anything American, nor would any British viewers have made that assumption at the time.
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