The Prisoner: Once Upon a Time

The Prisoner Once Upon a TimeWhat an exceptional piece of television. I wasn’t around in the 1960s but I have since watched a lot of the television of the era, and it seems to have been an extraordinarily inventive time. It was also a time when people making television dramas were brave enough to push the boundaries, and most importantly challenge the viewer. Little allowance was made for short attention spans or the hard of thinking: you came to your evening viewing with your brain switched on, and anyone who didn’t was dragged up a level. Nowadays, so often everyone is instead dragged down.

It’s not so much the idea of this episode that is so challenging. It’s the way it’s presented. It pulls no punches. The vast majority of the episode is two people locked in a room together shouting expertly-crafted dialogue at each other. These are two actors at the top of their game, committing to every word. In fact, Leo McKern, who was simply one of the greatest actors on the planet at the time, committed so much to the psychology of his performance that he had a breakdown and filming had to be stopped for a few days. That’s dedication to your craft.

The idea of the episode is that Number Six is mentally regressed through different stages of his life while Number Two adopts authority figure roles and tries to get Six to reveal information. He seems to have two agendas: to find out why Number Six resigned, and to break his resistance to conforming as a member of the village. The two of those go hand-in-hand to a large extent, and Number Six refusing to say the number six for most of the episode is symbolic of his iron will to resist, even under extreme brainwashing.

While this is going on, the silent butler is doing his thing. He has actually been a great character throughout the series, but this is his finest hour. Most of the time this is a two-hander between McGoohan and McKern, and the butler quietly fades away into the background, sometimes swinging on the swing, biding his time. Then when the moment is right he calmly steps forward to play his role, with cane or cudgel. It’s a simple performance, and just a little bit chilling. He is also entirely unsympathetic to the plight of anyone, and plays his role mechanically, even when it comes to changing sides.

“He thinks you’re the boss now.”
“I am.”

The room the three of them are confined in is a masterpiece of simplicity. There are just enough props to allow Number Two to weave his scenarios together, and it’s all quite surreal and disconcerting, especially as some of the props seem to take on a life of their own. Does that rocking horse ever stop moving? Even after everyone has departed the room it’s still going. Maybe it was stolen from that little girl we saw last week, and it’s keen to get back to her.

Right from the start it’s clear that McKern’s Number Two is putting his life on the line, although it’s not clear why until the moment the tables are turned on him. McKern plays his desperation brilliantly, and more importantly his pent-up aggression. He speaks to Number One over the phone in a way we’ve never heard anyone do before, much more the conversation of equals. When he sings Number Two into his brainwashed state he barks out the nursery rhymes with rage and desperation bubbling under the surface of his words, a disturbing subversion of innocence. Playing the parent or teacher roles in Number Six’s life, he is a nightmare of an authority figure, cold, manipulative and single-minded. McKern makes every word of the script count.  And in the face of the onslaught Number Six simply will not break. It puts into perspective why Number Two is willing to take the ultimate risk and why the village authorities are so desperate to bring Number Six over to their side.

“I am a good man. I was a good man. But if you get him he will be better.”

By the end of the episode things are set up tantalisingly for the final episode. Number Two is gone, everyone now seems to be deferring to the authority of Number Six, and he is about to get his first meeting with the mysterious Number One. Once Upon a Time was almost exhausting to watch, but it must surely stand as one of the finest hours of television ever made.   RP

The view from across the pond:

We come at last to the penultimate episode of the series.  But to talk about Once Upon a Time, we can’t help but have some fallout from Fallout make its way into our discussion, so forgive any contamination from that story.  It’s inevitable, but I’ll try to keep it to a minimum.

The story opens with Rover sitting in #2’s chair while #2 stands in a silo, like a robot, unmoving, waiting, thinking.  Rover’s presence annoys Leo McKern’s #2 enough that he calls his superior and asks to have it removed.  #2 irritably dismisses the butler, too.  Then he begins to watch #6.  “Why do you care,” he asks the screen.  He even calls #6 to ask him directly.  “You’ll never know,” comes the curt reply.  But maybe he will.  Maybe we all will.

#2 has a plan; a particularly difficult gambit that he wants to use to break #6.  “If you think he’s that important” he tells the person on the phone.  “…you must risk either one of us.”  Now this is when it starts getting interesting.  “I am a good man.  I was a good man, but if you get him, he will be better!”  That is a fascinating thing to say.  Had it been the other way around (was, am as opposed to am, was) it would have sounded like a recognition of a Freudian slip, but this way, it’s an acknowledgment that he no longer views himself as a good man.  Is that because of his choice, to subject #6 to Degree Absolute?  Or perhaps because he gave in to the powers of the Village without fighting as vehemently as #6?  Perhaps some other reason?

As #2 watches #6 for a bit, #6 accosts a man in the street by saying “HOW!” in the most Monty Python-esque way he can.  (I need to try this sometime!)  This freaks the man out (“don’t do that!”) which must be what justifies Degree Absolute!  #6 is regressed to the mind of a child by a lampshade (dangerous things, lampshades) and thus begins a ploy very few people have ever employed: the Shakespeare ploy!  Here, one must take a person through the 7 stages of man as defined by the Bard himself.  This episode does a fair job showing those stages including the death of #2, but there may be more to it.  Like the dialogue in this strange episode, we have to pop out of the show and into a sort of metafiction.  The series, as pitched by McGoohan, was to be 7 episodes.  They are, in order: Arrival, Free for All, Dance of the Dead, Checkmate, Chimes of Big Ben, Once Upon a Time, Fallout.  So let’s see…

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.

At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;

Arrival –where 6 throws a fit and tests his boundaries.

And then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school.

Free for All  – where 6 is bullied into running for #2.  In the end, he joins the fun and has his face smacked, tick tick.

And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow.

Dance of the Dead – where a woeful ballad plays to the worldly death of #6 and the mistress #2 teaches him that he can never win.

Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth.

Checkmate – where the chessboard comes to life and 6 puts his life on the line to seek freedom, which is as fleeting as “a bubble”.

And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part.

Chimes of Big Ben – where 6 confidently attempts to escape the village.  Nadia plays her part and 6 gets back to the formality of Parliament.  Sort of.

The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound.

Once Upon a time – Having been in the village for some time, #6 relives his life in a final bid to escape and give the audience some answers.

Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Fallout – That ends this strange eventful history, indeed.  #6 goes up … well, that would be telling.  You’ll have to wait until next week to wrap up this part of the tale….

In the Alternate ending of Chimes, there are closing credits where the word POP appears on the screen.  Interestingly, #2 and #6 have a discussion about POP that might explain everything.  See, #6 suggests that POP stands for protect other people.  This is something #6 does repeatedly throughout the series: it’s what I loved about his motivation in Hammer into Anvil, it is at the heart of It’s Your Funeral, and it’s in his core throughout the series.  Perhaps he was aware of something so devastating that he could not protect anyone from?  What could he do?  Resign, for peace of mind, to try to stop worrying.  Maybe go off to a little island like what we see on the photo in his briefcase.  Perhaps the dialogue went something like this: Why do you care?  Because I wanted to protect people, but have no ability to protect anyone from what we’ve invented.  I know too much, and they’ll “be no one to save with the world in a grave”.

So he rebels against the figures, those in power who want him to continue in his role, but he’s honor bound to take his “international state secrets” with him to the grave if that’s what it takes.  He tells #2, “honor!  You should teach it” because if #2 understood honor, he would understand why #6 never breaks.  He is honor bound to keep those secrets even if he wants nothing to do with them anymore.  #6 stays true to himself, as we will discuss in Fallout, and remains “number nothing” as Number 2 says here.   He never steps “over the line” and as a result, he survives Degree Absolute.  “What do you want?”  “Number 1!”  “I’ll take you…”    ML

Read next in the Junkyard… The Prisoner: Fall Out

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
This entry was posted in Entertainment, Reviews, Science Fiction, Television and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Prisoner: Once Upon a Time

  1. scifimike70 says:

    Thank you both for your great ways with words for this review. Leo McKern having a breakdown during filming of this episode is something I’m shocked to learn. I always liked his acting which I remember from a few movies starting with Ladyhawke. Penultimately this was an intense one to end the series on a proper buildup to Fallout.

    Liked by 1 person

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