After reading revisionist hype for Patrick McGoohan’ UK series The Prisoner, I finally watched one of the main inspirations for Lost. Beware, for there will be spoilers. The introduction credits shown before (almost) every episode lay out the main character’s plight. He’s trapped in The Village, assigned the name No. 6. Leaders of The Village (specifically the shifting character No. 2) are trying to dissect why No. 6 resigned from his post for an intelligence organization.
No. 6’s questions are: Who is #1? Why am I here?
Comparisons to Lost can definitely be made, such as protagonists trapped in a geographic area (island vs. The Village), tracked by an omniscient object (smoke monster vs. Rover), and brainwashing of citizens by leaders (Dharma vs. unnamed Village hierarchy). The Prisoner doesn’t contain as much character development since each episode has a one-off feeling. Most characters of the No. moniker have a changed actor every week.
Most of the early stories involve No. 6 finding limitations in The Village’s universe, in how he communicates with fellow citizens or attempts to escape the sea and mountain-locked villa. The series’ arc really doesn’t pick up until the last 4 of 17 episodes. The show was originally supposed to be 7 episodes but the producer forced 17 to sell the American airing rights. They knew the show itself would be cancelled by the time these last episodes were written, so maybe that provided proper motivation to wrap storylines up rather than milk the premise (say hello to the philosophy of American television).
While the show had sci-fi themes, these final episodes fall into a downward spiral of psychedelic madness. Minds are swapped between bodies (“Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling”), No. 6 is forced into dreams set in an episode-long Western (“Living in Harmony”), a Sherlock Holmes/Bond chase of a mad villain (“The Girl Who Was Death”), a hypnosis sound stage theatre set (“Once Upon a Time”), and the most bizarre trial I’ve seen aired on television (“Fallout”). The only way to describe this storytelling is surreal.
It does get around to unveiling who lay behind the curtain and it ain’t conventional. The Hungian reveal of No. 1 (that wasn’t the silent dwarf butler after all) really set in stone the classic psychological nature of the The Prisoner‘s writing. The opening credit’s quote, “I am not a number, I’m a free man!” and protagonist-also-as-antagonist expose themes of an individual’s freewill vs. unavoidable state hegemony. You can even fit in Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey arc of a character coming to terms with his subconscious and his transformed enlightened and peaceful mindset.
That isn’t to say the series didn’t have issues. I found the tone to be off in scenes, especially near the end. The soundtrack was mostly playful and silly, with nursery rhymes like “Pop Goes the Weasel” and “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” used to to represent The Village’s innocence. A theme of a single discordant electric guitar was used in scenes of distress or tension. Then there’s the finale, which is an uneven set of scenes themed by “Dem Bones” and The Beatles’ “All You Need is Love”.
Not to mention the outdated hand-to-hand combat and trampoline fights (!!!) being good for a laugh.
AMC’s The Prisoner
Then this year there was a AMC/ITV remake involving only 6 episodes, with the same feature film-like production values found in Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Whereas the UK series was made during the Cold War when East/West paranoia and Bond film popularity were at their height, a spy conspiracy story doesn’t work as well set in our present. Instead the writer made a contemporary shift to corporate culture and citizen surveillance, which doesn’t have the same draw to it. Character motivations seem fuzzy the whole time.
The original was more deliberate and grounded in its character, where the AMC production uses direction and editing to convey disorientation of most characters in The Village (now set in a desert town [filmed in Africa] rather than a posh European seaside resort). Shifts between where the protagonist came from before The Village and the sequence of events after seem like a clusterfuck. I don’t understand how the big budget was approved for a confused project that doesn’t stay true to complex themes found in its source material (that have proved to be fruitful elsewhere, see: Lost).
At least the digital effects (such as the Rover) are better than the hilarious makeshift effects and miniature model explosions made in the 60s.