Saturday, September 18, 2021

The Prisoner: The (Highly) Original Series

Your every need is taken care of in “the Village” and the scenery is lovely. All that is asked of residents is that they avoid “unmutual” behavior. Sadly, many people probably will not understand why the freshly arrived Number Six considers it such a miserable prison. Increasingly, his mantra “I am not a number, I am a free man” will fall on deaf ears. That makes the ground-breaking, head-tripping series created by lead actor Patrick McGoohan and George Markstein even more relevant today. The troublesome individualist of the title still refuses to conform in The Prisoner, which airs this weekend as Decade’s Weekend Binge.

A British agent who looks and acts a lot like John Drake, from McGoohan’s previous series,
Secret Agent has resigned, citing issues of principle. Shortly thereafter, he wakes up in a vaguely Mediterranean-looking village, supposedly organized along utopian communitarian lines. In practice, it is an open-air prison, where the wardens either safeguard people with too much information in their heads or extract their secrets. Just which side (of the Cold War) runs the Village is unclear. It might even be a joint venture. Regardless, Number Six is not talking. Nor is he willing to accept his captivity, but he quickly finds he can never out-run Rover, the giant surreal beachball that corrals runaways.

“The Arrival” and “The Chimes of Big Ben” (which some chronologies consider the second episode) are largely compatible with Number Six’s espionage origins, but it establishes the duplicitous tactics that will be employed by Village’s ostensive leader, Number Two. There will be many Number Twos, thanks in large part to Number Six’s stubbornness and resourcefulness, but the one played by Leo McKern in “Chimes” is probably the most iconic—he also returns for the last two episodes.

In episodes like “A, B, and C” and “The General,” Number Six does not merely play defense, foiling their schemes. He also plays offense, taking aim at the machinery of their dystopian apparatus. The computer hardware of “The General” might look dated now, but the questions it raises about artificial intelligence apply even more these days. Perhaps the most satisfying episode is “Hammer into Anvil,” wherein Number Six deliberately exploits the paranoia and distrust of a particularly brutal Number Two, to undermine him with the mysterious forces above him. This is about as much fun as subversive behavior gets.

Throughout the series, the Number Twos and their co-conspirators try to get inside Number Six’s head, in more ways than one. In many ways, the show picked up on the brainwashing motif of
The Manchurian Candidate, depicting its practice in subtler, more insidious ways. In “Schizoid Man,” Number Six is forced to confront his doppelganger, after having undergone extensive behavioral modification, making him appear to be the imposter. Ironically, it puts him in the position of asserting he is Number Six. Number Two stoops even lower in “A Change of Mind” by faking Number Six’s lobotomy and pumping him full of depressants, but he still can’t extinguish the prisoner’s inherent sense of self.

Even though “Many Happy Returns” re-uses elements of “Chimes” it still ranks as one of the most memorable episodes, because the first half employs no dialogue at all. Waking to find the Village deserted, Number Six takes advantage of the situation to escape via a makeshift raft. Unfortunately, nobody in his former agency trusts him when he reaches London. He is not so sure about them either. As a bonus, Georgina Cookson might just make the best Number Two ever, eclipsing McKern, for reasons that would be spoilery to explain.

One of the best episodes, “Living in Harmony,” initially appears to be an Old West allegory of the Village, but ultimately illustrates how the act of oppression corrupts and debases the oppressors. It also notably represents McGoohan’s personal aversion to handling guns throughout the series, when Number Six, now a retired sheriff, steadfastly refuses to strap his six-shooter back on. On the other hand, “The Girl Who Was Death,” which has a fanciful G.K. Chesterton vibe, is the only installment that now feels dated, because the big twist has subsequently been done so many times.

According to legend, the finale, “Fallout” inspired thousands of British viewers to call their stations to express their outrage or confusion. Even by today’s standards, it is still pretty out there. There is so much to unpack, but it is the little things, like an animated conversation we only see Number Six have way off in the distance near the end of the episode that we really wonder about. In most respects, it is an ambiguous conclusion, but Number Six remains unbowed.

Frankly, the AMC miniseries remake (which wasn’t so bad if you consider it on its own merits) was made just in time. In this woke age, cultural gate-keepers are increasingly more apt to identify with Number Two than Number Six. They might ask: shouldn’t society be protected from all the mean things Number Six says regarding Villagers being sheep? Perhaps they should even protect Number Six from his own unmutual behavior.

Admittedly, the Village—largely filmed at the Portmeirion resort in Wales—is extraordinarily picturesque. The surreal décor, mixing hippy-dippy lava lamps with space-age chic, as well as the pseudo-Nineteenth Century fashions are also quite striking. Plus, Rover is still completely wacky, yet weirdly sinister. Even more importantly, the acerbic wit and eloquent rage of the great Patrick McGoohan really make the show a classic.

The Prisoner
could very well be the best TV show ever. Visually, it is in a league of its own. Sadly, its individualistic philosophy also remains unmatched. Very highly recommended, The Prisoner airs this Saturday and Sunday (9/18 & 9/19), as part of Decade’s Weekend Binge, with each of the seventeen episodes airing multiple times (and it also streams on Tubi).