24 November 2007

Three Things about The Prisoner


One of the three non-fiction books I didn't have time to review last time I posted book-related stuff here was Fall Out: the unofficial and unauthorised guide to The Prisoner, by Alan Stevens and Fiona Moore, which I read... er, back in Septemberish, I think.

I said then that, of the three, one was good, one very good and one quite stunningly good. This was the good one.

Despite my evident obsession with The Prisoner I don't claim to have read all the available factual books about the series... but excepting the Scriptbooks (which are a special case, obviously) this is probably the best of the ones I've read.

(It's certainly deeper than The Prisoner: a television masterpiece by Alain Carrazé and Hélène Oswald, the first book about the series I ever read, which is pretty, glossy and almost entirely uninformative. Most of it consists of a detailed summary of the episodes, with occasional script extracts. I can only assume the French didn't have video recorders in 1992.)

I'd heard great things about Stevens' and Moore's Blake's Seven guide (which, being almost entirely unfamiliar with and indifferent to Blake's Seven, I haven't read myself), and may accordingly have set my expectations a little high. I'd have preferred rather more analysis and less of a summary of the (undeniably entertaining) behind-the-scenes soap opera of McGoohan's single-handed struggle against everybody else who worked on the series ever, but never mind -- it's a fine treatment of the subject matter.

As well as the in-depth episode guides and analyses, there are some good (if short) essays on aspects of the series: the vexed question of the "correct" episode order, a piece on the series' treatment of gender, sexuality and ethnicity, some analysis of the baffling figure of Number 1 and the like. There's also some excellent introductory material, setting The Prisoner in its cultural context rather in the manner of the About Time series. It also gets points for dealing with the Prisoner apocrypha: the original novels (including the recent, and excellent, The Prisoner's Dilemma, the 1980s comics (whose late-Cold-War peculiarities it has some fun with), and the unmade scripts and story pitches included in the Scriptbooks.

It's not the towering work of intellectual analysis the show has been crying out for for throughout the past 40 years, but it's well worth a read.


I'm still enjoying my 40th anniversary Prisoner DVDs. The picture quality is gloriously crisp and sharp, enabling me to read text (on the ID cards Number 6 gets handed in Arrival, for instance) that I never even knew was there.

The extras include a rather splendid documentary full of interviews with writers, behind-the-scenes people and surviving cast members (with the exception, naturally, of Patrick McGoohan, who's always preferred to coast along on a surfboard of enigma rather than tell people what he actually meant by anything).

One thing that stuck in my mind from the documentary was Vincent Tilsley, the scriptwriter of The Chimes of Big Ben, taking about his later, more inglorious Prisoner episode, Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling, and in particular explaining why it's such rubbish. (You'll note that Jonny Morris, who wrote the BBC episode guide I'm linking to here, disagrees that it's rubbish. This is because, entertaining though his reviews are, every single one of his opinions are deeply wrong. Except about The Girl Who Was Death, which is indeed the best episode of the series.)

I've talked before about -- and speculated, I suspect rather unjustly, about McGoohan's part in -- the alterations which were made to this script between writing and broadcast. There's no denying, though, that the premise is a fundamentally lame one. Tilsley states that his reason for falling back on such a hackneyed plot device as recasting the central character via mind-swap machine was that he was told to write a Prisoner story with neither Patrick McGoohan nor Portmeirion in it, and panicked.

Personally, I'd say there was a much more interesting story to be told with those constraints: invert the premise of the series, to show an outsider attempting to break into the Village.

One of the Prisoner's old adversaries, a spy from the other side of the Iron Curtain, is trying to track him down. This spy has found evidence that his Soviet masters are opearating a secret hidden facility where ex-agents from both sides are held against their will, brainwashed and tortured. The spy is appalled by this treatment of his fellows, but has been warned off any interference by his masters. He now wants to bring this to the attention of the West, and is attempting to locate the most trustworthy and honourable of his opponents, the man we know as Number 6.

However, all his attempts to make contact with the man lead him, inevitably, to the very facility whose existence he's discovered. By now he strongly suspects that East and West are co-operating in order to run the prison camp -- perhaps indeed that there's a high-level conspiracy on both sides to maintain the status quo. Eventually deciding to spring Number 6 from the facility, he locates it in the middle of nowhere and breaks in... only for us to realise that he hasn't found the Village after all, but a completely different-looking facility with the same setup. Now he's there, of course, he can never leave -- except that the agency behind the Village has determined that his personal relationship with Number 6 could be very useful to them, and offer him a turn at being Number 2. We leave him pondering his stark choice: whether to become a warder -- or a prisoner...

Of course, this sort of one-off episode is something culty drama series do all the time these days -- see for instance the highly Prisoneresque Babylon 5 episode The Corps Is Mother, the Corps Is Father -- so I have the advantage of chronology.

But even so -- a mind-swap machine? Give me a break.


Random stream-of-consciousness alert: I've never been convinced by any of the religious readings of The Prisoner, as despite McGoohan's well-documented Catholicism, there's barely any hint at such a reading being remotely plausible. (There's a metaphorical reference in The Chimes of Big Ben to church doors obstructing freedom -- though whether freedom is to be found inside or outside the church is left altogether ambiguous -- and a vaguely crucifixish pose struck by the Prisoner whilst being beaten up in Free for All. That's about it.)

Fall Out (the book), though, makes a halfway decent argument for the idea that Number 1 in Fall Out (the episode) being God. Or something.

If such a reading were to make any sense, it would have to be a Gnostic one, I think, with Number 1 representing the fallen demiurge who's made the Village in his own image and who is confused by the Villagers with the true God of whom the identical-looking Prisoner is a representative. Number 6 himself would therefore be a saviour from outside the created order, come not to bring peace but a machine-gun, liberating the few individuals capable of true enlightenment.

Or something.

On the other hand, this could well be my usual obsessions showing through. After all, pretty much all SF's Gnostic, according to my thesis... and that doesn't seem very likely really, does it?

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