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The Prisoner? More Like The Busy Nerd! - The Book of the Celestial Cow

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November 22nd, 2009


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09:24 pm - The Prisoner? More Like The Busy Nerd!
I have not heard very good things about AMC's remake of The Prisoner, but I do thank AMC for providing all the episodes of the original series for free this month so that I could experience this 1967 cult classic.

In The Prisoner, a British spy decides to resign his position, giving no reason for his decision. When he returns home, he is kidnapped, and he wakes up in the Village, an Orwellian community where everyone is assigned a number. He is Number Six. But he is not a number! He is a FREE MAN! Yes, yes, I know; that's pretty much all I knew going in. The Village is run by Number Two, and it is Number Two's job to find out the answer to one important question: Why did Number Six resign? Why did he resign? Why did he resign? WHY DID HE RESIGN?!?!?! They really want to know, you guys. It must be really, really important. Because it can't be something as simple as "Oh, I got tired of being a spy and wanted to live a normal life" or "The health benefits just weren't cutting it for me anymore." No, he's probably going to sell out some state secrets or something, so they really really really need to know why he resigned.

Normal interrogation methods are totally passé in the Village. In the Village, you do things like drug the shit out of people and brainwash them and try to drive them crazy in an attempt to trick the truth out of them. Most episodes involve Number Six attempting to escape. To my surprise, sometimes he actually does. OR DOES HE. Seventeen episodes feature many variations on one of a few basic plots: Number Two fucks with Number Six and succeeds, Number Two fucks with Number Six and Number Six turns the tables on him, Number Six fucks with Number Two and succeeds, and Number Six fucks with Number Two and Number Two turns the tables on him. It's actually not as repetitive as it sounds! Each episode is pretty distinct (unless you describe it as "the one where Number Six tries to escape").

What I really liked about The Prisoner was that the political allegory and social commentary are handled much more subtlely than in Star Trek. Now, obviously the conceit itself is clearly a comment on individuality and conformity, but because of that conceit, the stories the show tells lend themselves very easily to asking questions like "How useful is a democratic election when the campaign process is so artificial?" and "Is it worth your freedom to have a peaceful, docile existence?" The Village is supposed to be a microcosm of society, full of prisoners just like Number Six, but most of the people we see have simply resigned themselves to life in the Village, having given up all hope of escape. Sure, every now and then someone will make a token effort (ORANGE ALERT! ORANGE ALERT!), but then a menacing white balloon stops them. Yes, a menacing white balloon. It's like the Smoke Monster on Lost except twice as puzzling. Or half, I can't decide which. Anyway, I liked that the show rarely delivered anvilicious messages and just let the stories speak for themselves.

I was disappointed, however, that the stories were so self-contained. I expected such a popular, influential show with such an interesting premise to have an arc where every episode you learn more about the Village or Number Six's history and there are all sorts of crazy reveals. But no, there is very little continuity (such that there are debates about the best order to watch the episodes [I used the KTEH order]) and there are very few recurring characters. In fact, with a couple exceptions, Number Two is different in each episode, the idea being that if you fail at breaking Number Six, you're replaced. It's kind of fun to have a different shade of the same villain, and the fact that the Village seems to treat each Number Two as if he has always been Number Two adds to the Orwellian nature of the establishment. Also adding to it is the Big Brother-like surveillance everywhere, of course.

Patrick McGoohan as Number Six is awesome and so much fun to watch. He's so unflappable! His whole mien conveys, "Fuck you all, you won't break me, I'm going to escape and you're going to pay, so shut your face." He's constantly half-smirking, and his line deliveries leave no scenery unchewed. He makes it easy for you to root for him.

There are a lot of interesting things about The Prisoner, and it requires you to pay attention since the plots are generally pretty dense (oh, they drugged him again, now I get it...). And it has a finale so famously WTF-y that Patrick McGoohan apparently went into hiding after it was aired. I think it was less WTF-y than the Twin Peaks finale, and I kinda liked it, as it ended pretty much as one would expect it to, thematically. Mostly. Except for the monkey.

The Prisoner was an influential series, and while I generally tend to like modern works more than their influential forebears, I did enjoy The Prisoner on its own terms. It was clever and intriguing and slightly offbeat and totally sixties. I believe that AMC will still have all the episodes online until the end of the month at least, so I recommend checking it out.

Be seeing you.
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(20 memoirs | Describe me as "inscrutable")

Comments:


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From:duchessdogberry
Date:November 23rd, 2009 05:48 am (UTC)
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So, are you going to go back and watch the episode of Reboot that referenced The Prisoner (it was one of the ones with Matrix and AndrAIa wandering the Net) and see if it changes the way you view the episode?
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From:spectralbovine
Date:November 23rd, 2009 05:56 am (UTC)
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I don't know if I ever even saw it. I only have faint memories of that show.
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From:duchessdogberry
Date:November 23rd, 2009 06:05 am (UTC)
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Then you should definitely go watch it now.
From:birdsarecalling
Date:November 23rd, 2009 05:54 am (UTC)
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Hooray! The one, true version of The Prisoner is online! It's just the thing I need to wash the terrible taste of AMC's remake from my mouth. That show was a criminal waste of Ian McKellan.

Glad to see I'm not the only person out there who enjoyed the bizarro ending. McGoohan was a troll before his time.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:November 23rd, 2009 05:58 am (UTC)
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I mean, parts of it were off the wall and made no sense (DEM BONES DEM BONES GONNA WALK AROUND), but that final shot of the Butler entering the house? Sweetness.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:November 23rd, 2009 03:53 pm (UTC)
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With Hill Street Blues, right? It's so weird since I'm all into serialized storytelling, it's hard to grasp that it wasn't always like that.
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From:ocvictor
Date:November 23rd, 2009 04:06 pm (UTC)
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Yeah, that's a relatively new concept. Even looking at "Dr. Who" or "The Avengers," (the other two in my holy trinity of '60s British TV), they were mostly standalones or short-lived serials. A two-part episode was a BIG DEAL. "Hill Street Blues," as you say, was an eye-opener, and "X-Files" even moreso, for SF TV.

But "The Prisoner" was revolutionary, in its strange way. It distilled cold war paranoia into a completely surreal mix, making something that was a tad more frightening than most of the televised or cinematic fare of the day. Hold it up next to James Bond or even John Steed, and you've got the flipside of what was going on in the psyche of a post-war England wrestling with Imperial decline and looming U.S./Soviet conflict. It had the spy thriller aspect, which was a familiar touchstone for the audience, but then charged it with identity crisis and a twisted nostalgia for British "village life" that was at times too uncomfortable for the average British viewer. The whole thing was really genius, even if its production values were ... modest.

I'm not as down on the new "Prisoner" as many: I thought it was an interesting take, although in the end it's hard not to admit that it's flawed. I wonder sometimes if it merits repeated viewing, because there was a lot in there. And the ending was ... questionable ... but I find I do mull it, some, so maybe there was something there. Ultimately, I felt it lacked some teeth when it really needed them.

Edited at 2009-11-23 04:07 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:November 23rd, 2009 04:30 pm (UTC)
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"The Avengers," (the other two in my holy trinity of '60s British TV), they were mostly standalones or short-lived serials.
Yeah, I do know that most shows were stand-alones back then, but it seemed to me that a show like The Prisoner really lent itself to serialized storytelling. This way worked too, though, since the mystery of what was going on and why Number Six resigned wasn't really the point.

A two-part episode was a BIG DEAL.
Yeah, I was just thinking that!

"X-Files" even moreso, for SF TV.
Oh, huh! I hadn't realized that, I don't think. At least I was there for THAT revolution. Then again, I hadn't watched SF TV before then, really.

The whole thing was really genius, even if its production values were ... modest.
Heh. They did seem to shoot on-location a lot, though, which was cool.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:November 29th, 2009 06:11 pm (UTC)
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"X-Files" even moreso, for SF TV
Hey, wait! What about the V TV series? Wasn't that totally serial? And it was way before XF.
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From:ashfae
Date:November 23rd, 2009 02:19 pm (UTC)
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!!! PRISONER EPISODES ONLINE I love you forever for pointing this out! I've seen several episodes but never finished it. WHEEE!
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From:dotificus
Date:November 23rd, 2009 04:58 pm (UTC)
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Great review of the original. (and yes, the new version is made of suck) But I like episodic, stand-alone-ni-ness. I like overarching multi-ep arcs too, but only if there are some stand-alone eps to give me a breather and some closure.

Another thing I would add to your list of strengths about the original Prisoner is the fun Pop Art/Op Art vibe.
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From:heartsways
Date:November 23rd, 2009 05:28 pm (UTC)
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I LOVE the original series, so I was dubious when I heard about the remake. However, I started watching Episode 1 and found that it wasn't exactly a remake, but more of an "homage"...or at least, it is so far.

I went to Portmeirion, where the original series was filmed. Of course, it's all quite shameless with the merchandise that bears the legend "I'm not a number, I'm a free man!", or "You are number six!". But fun, nonetheless.

Less fun? The people wandering around in blazers. The little cycle wagon thingies. And the brass band that gathered on the bandstand and started playing. Like you do. It was all a little terrifying, to be honest. And I loved every second of it. I even wandered down towards the beach in the hopes of seeing a Rover. Oddly enough, I didn't, heh.

I love McGoohan; he's mad as a hatter and never really did much of any note after this show. But it's one of the cultiest, most brilliant, out there shows from the sixties and fits in rather well the others of its ilk. A true classic.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:November 23rd, 2009 05:46 pm (UTC)
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However, I started watching Episode 1 and found that it wasn't exactly a remake, but more of an "homage"...or at least, it is so far.
Yeah, from what I can tell, it's quite different in a lot of ways. But, even so, I haven't heard very good things.

Less fun? The people wandering around in blazers. The little cycle wagon thingies. And the brass band that gathered on the bandstand and started playing. Like you do. It was all a little terrifying, to be honest. And I loved every second of it. I even wandered down towards the beach in the hopes of seeing a Rover. Oddly enough, I didn't, heh.
Ha, that's great.
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From:radiotelescope
Date:November 23rd, 2009 09:10 pm (UTC)
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I am a fan of the original show from Way Back -- okay, not since it first appeared, but I was ten years old when I first caught reruns on PBS. It is one of my first great fandoms, before I knew the word "fandom".

So it is great seeing new people watching the show. Watch the show, everybody! It's good. It's *so* Cold-War-period, like _Doctor Strangelove_. But given the deliberately off-kilter visual style, it really hasn't dated at all.

Except for the giant computer in that one episode. That's pretty dated.

Now, the new show -- I thought it was good actually. It does some excellent storytelling things. I have deep questions about the way it relates to the original show, and whether it's really doing the same thing thematically, and whether I can validly call it "The Prisoner". But those are good questions. It's not a cheap copy or a "Land of the Lost"-style trashing of the original.
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From:the_narration
Date:November 23rd, 2009 11:03 pm (UTC)
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This is one of those classic shows that I've always kind of wanted to watch and never got around to it.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:November 23rd, 2009 11:14 pm (UTC)
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Same for me. And then they made it easy for me to watch it.
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From:ethanvahlere
Date:November 24th, 2009 01:22 am (UTC)
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We actually watched this my senior year of English, because one of my classmate's convinced my teacher to show it, so "Be seeing you" was a catchphrase between us for a while.

If you liked it, you should check out Secret Agent (aka Danger Man), as some see that as a precursor to The Prisoner (and argue McGoohan's character in both series is the same).
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From:gymble
Date:November 24th, 2009 02:04 am (UTC)
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I marathoned that show with a bunch of friends during the summer that I stayed at college. It was beastly hot in Boston and none of us had air conditioning, so I associate the show with a sort of general heat-induced semi-comatose state. Which kind of makes sense for it. As for the WTF-finale, it ranks just behind Evangelion for me. Gorilla mask!?!
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From:spectralbovine
Date:November 24th, 2009 02:16 am (UTC)
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Ha ha, Evangelion does probably reign supreme in the ranks of WTF finales. The gorilla mask was...I don't know. Since the actual mystery of the premise was never really the point, I was okay with the not-making-sense of it all.

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