Friday, November 13, 2009

The New Prisoner

In mathematics, six is the smallest perfect number, making it an appropriate designation for the unnamed protagonist of The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan’s cult 1960’s science fiction series. While the original Number 6 was a paragon of individuality, times have changed. In AMC’s three-night six-hour miniseries reboot, Number 6 now desperately clings to his sense of self in the face of a technological dystopia. Yet, Prisoner fans will be happy to hear Number 6’s mantra remains the same: “I am not a number, I am a free man.” They will have plenty more to compare, contrast, and debate when The Prisoner (trailer here) debuts this coming Sunday night.

A man wakes up in the middle of the desert. Though disoriented, he still rushes to help an elderly man fleeing an armed gang. Following the dying man’s instructions, he makes his way to the nearest settlement, a community of largely homogenous pre-fab buildings referred to simply as “The Village.” There are no names in The Village. Everyone is known only by their number. (According to the press kit, mine is 779). The reluctant new arrival is told he is and always has been Number 6, by Number 2, the supposedly benevolent ruler of this ostensibly happy community.

We quickly learn from early flashbacks the new Number 6 at least has a first name, Michael. We also know he recently resigned from a sensitive position at an electronic surveillance firm, but the true nature and location of The Village remains a mystery. As in the original series, Number 2 will wage a not-so cold war to break 6 of his headstrong individuality and convince him to accept life in The Village.

Pulling out all the stops, 2 targets 6’s human vulnerabilities, like familial love and romantic attraction. Yet unlike the original 6, who tormented a rotating cast of 2’s with his brilliant counter-measures, the new 6 constantly struggles to maintain his sanity in the face of this 2’s relentless psychological warfare. Of course, should 6 ever try to make a break for it, Rover, the ominous beach ball, is still there to herd him back to the tight little Village.

Number 2’s cream colored suit fits Sir Ian McKellen to a tee. He is absolutely perfect as mysterious mastermind, reveling in every nefarious scheme, while dealing with his rebellious son 11-12 and sick wife, M2. The casting of Jim Caviezel as 6 is also an inspired choice. He has the right on-screen intensity as the defiant everyman and also brings a certain iconoclastic reputation as an actor that actually enhances his credibility in the role. (Who else in Hollywood would be more likely to be banished to The Village than the star of The Passion of the Christ and The Stoning of Soraya M?)

Though many of the particulars have changed (like the desert setting in place of the vaguely Mediterranean ambiance of the original Village), AMC’s Prisoner often nods to the classic series, with strategically placed props, including an antique penny-farthing bicycle and a lava lamp. Writer Bill Gallagher also demonstrates a similar flare for eccentric details, like the Village cuisine, which is now consists almost exclusively of wraps (except for the cakes baked for 2, of course). The new Prisoner also delves deeper into the sociology of The Village, where surveillance is one of the subjects taught in grade school and matches are made through blink counts.

While AMC’s Prisoner is divided into six episodes (each with a title that echoes those of the original series), it is very definitely a sequential narrative that steadily builds towards its final reveal. Unlike the 1960’s show, the new incarnation of The Prisoner is much more cinematic, capitalizing on the sweeping sand dunes and sun-drenched vistas of its desert locale. In fact, Florian Hoffmeister’s lensing nicely reflects the surreal nature of the Village (wherever it might be), suggesting he might be the right cinematographer to shoot the next Dune adaptation as well.

In most respects, the new Prisoner gets the tone and spirit of the otherworldly Village right. However, the evil Summakor Corp. seems like small beer compared to the shadowy forces behind the original Village, which might have been run by our side, the other side, or both sides cooperatively in an early manifestation of New World Order paranoia. Still, AMC’s Prisoner makes up for the evil corporation cliché with a series of increasingly inventive revelations that should even pass muster with the generation of viewers raised on The Matrix.

Indeed, this Prisoner is a very cleverly constructed science fiction event that will definitely entertain newcomers to the Village and satisfy most cult followers of the original Number 6. It is commendably ambitious, requiring a certain commitment of time and attention, given its fractured narrative and the frequently dubious nature of reality within its story. The Prisoner debuts on AMC this Sunday (11/15), continuing through Tuesday (11/17), with two back-to-back episodes each evening (8:00 PM EST).

(Photos © Keith Bernstein/AMC)