“The Prisoner” is, in my mind, the best science fiction show ever made, possibly the best one ever made. A full list of its honors and inspirations could easily block out the sun, but suffice to say that not only it the apex of the Spy-Fi subgenre of Science Fiction, it’s also the first miniseries, a blueprint for paranoia, a treatis on the rights of the individual, a lament on the death of privacy, a precursor to the concept of Virtual Reality, a study on the different kinds of rebellion in society and a value judgment on same, a deliberate Christian allegory indicting the political world, and an homage to Kafka.
Among other things.
The show is an allegory, and as such lends itself to multiple explanations, many valid, many ludicrous, but still fun as it refuses to sit still for a completely literal interpretation. It is the pinnacle of SF on TV that has never been exceeded, nor even equaled, nor even come close to. It was a groundbreaker, and it’s still, forty years on, in the avant garde intellectually.
So the obvious question is, “Why the hell would you want to remake it?” It’s a masterpiece as it is. Why would anyone want to risk defacing its memory? What could someone possibly have to add to the concept that would come across as anything other than simply drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa?
In truth, I don’t know.
Now, I could bitch and moan about the disrespect inherent in the project, but, you know, Mel Gibson actually talked Patrick McGoohan in to revisiting it in the 90s in a movie format that was evidently going to be a sequel to the original series. The project fell apart over Mel’s insistence that McGoohan direct (The studio didn’t want him), and that was that, but if Mel came up with a concept that intrigued McGoohan, or if McGoohan had one or two undeveloped ideas that occurred to him during the decades of retrospect, it implies that there *IS* more to do with it, and I’m just too stupid to perceive it. This is entirely possible. I’m not the shiniest penny in the fountain, so I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume there’s a reason for doing what they’re doing, something new they’re bringing to the party that justifies its existence. I’m going to go in to this positive, assuming the best.
For those of you who’ve not seen the original show, you may wish to re-aquaint yourself with it through Zack Handlen’s really great reviews of it at the AV Club here http://www.avclub.com/tvclub/tvshow/the-prisoner,84/ and for those of you who’ve led empty, sad, Prisoner-free lives bereft of meaning, or are simply too cheap to buy the DVDs, you can actually watch the entire series here online http://www.amctv.com/originals/the-prisoner-1960s-series/
Now, let’s get to it…
PLAY BY PLAY
Our protagonist wakes up in the mountains in a desert, confused. He sees an old man wandering around being chased by gunmen and wearing the old 1960s-style village uniform. The protagonist rescues him, and gets him to a cave. The man’s in a bad way, and tells the protagonist to find 455 and tell her that he made it out. Then he dies. The protagonist buries him in the desert, and then wanders around trying to figure out where he is and how he got there. He stumbles in to a suburb made entirely of identical A-frame bungalows, and meets a cab driver who drives him around for a bit, but the conversation confuses our protagonist, who dives out of the car, and wanders around until he finds a nightclub. He asks a girl in the nightclub to help him, then some confusing jumpcuts happen and he runs off and wakes up in a hospital.
Turns out the pretty girl is his doctor. She addresses him as “Six” and after an interview with Number Two, he’s released from the hospital, and sent to his home, which is more like a nice row house than a bungalow. Eventually he realizes that everyone’s number and address are the same thing, so he asks the cab driver to take him to 455. She’s not in her A-frame, but a neighbor points her out working at the diner across the way. He tells her that the old man got out, and wants to know why it was so important that he tell her that. She’s elusive, evasive, openly frightened. Six makes his way to the old man’s A-frame and finds a sketch of Big Ben hidden inside. He asks 455 why it’s so important, and she shows him a picture she’s drawn: It’s the statue of liberty. She asks if there’s really something outside the village, and if she can really trust him. He swears he can, and that he’ll protect her, so, of course, you know she’s gonna’ die horribly, right?
Meanwhile, the cab driver and his wife are summoned to an audience with #2, who praises them for their actions in support of the Village, gives them medallions that he tells them never to take off and always display, and asks that they please bring him a cherry cake of some sort, as he likes cherry cake.
The pretty doctor continues to follow Six around, and it’s clear that she’s interested in him. Then the diner explodes, and 455 is badly injured. Before she codes, she tells six that the old man knew ‘The Towers’ would show the way. “The Towers” are two semi-visible towers way off in the distance. Six confronts the doctor at the clinic asking what the hell the explosion was all about, and all she says, cryptically, is that it happens from time to time, she’s frightened, and please, six, don’t make it any worse.
He runs off in to the desert, towards the towers, runs and runs and run, and when he’s almost made it to them, Rover - the giant weather-balloon monster from the original series - grabs him.
That’s the end.
Intercut with all of this are scenes of Six in New York in a diner, meeting a girl, striking up a conversation with him when she steals his phone, and asks her to come back to his place, along with one scene of Two staring up at him in New York.
Where to start?
Ok, well, first off the opening title sequence is pathetically short, and though it’s derived from the original, it’s a poor comparison: “Six” drives in to a parking garage, takes an escalator, and then spray paints “Resigned” on a window where his bosses can see it. Granted, the original show had the longest freakin’ title sequences in history, but this is all of fifteen seconds long, maybe twenty. There’s no trace of the theme music.
The Village was an idyllic faux-Italianate resort town in a pleasant, lush, seaside climate. This version of the Village is a vaguely-1950s-looking desert community. It looks very prefab and temporary, like an early Vegas suburb, or a Florida beach resort. It’s also much larger. While the original Village had several hundred people in it, certainly no more than a thousand, this new Village is much bigger, with a downtown area, nightclubs, a shopping district, a vacation resort, plenty of cars and sprawling, generic suburbs. The whole thing feels like a town of 30,000 or so.
The Penny Farthing bicycles are completely absent. The old uniforms are missing as well, excepting the old man, though a few of the women’s clothes do have piping around the outside of ‘em. No one really wears uniforms, though.
Rather than tell us who Six is outright, they use a lot of jarring jumpcuts to flashbacks of him in New York, letting the story unfold as a subplot while the main plot unfolds.
We have recurring supporting characters in this show, unlike the original. In the original, in order to emphasize Six’s isolation, we had nearly a completely new cast every week (With a few noteworthy exceptions). Here we’ve got the doctor, the cab driver, Number Two, Number Two’s kid, and presumably others as well.
In the original series, everyone knew full well they were prisoners, but like most prisoners they were resigned to their fate. It was a comfortable prison, pleasant even, and all it cost was their freedom. Since freedom was mostly illusory anyway, it was really like getting something for nothing, right? In this show, no one appears to know/remember that there’s a world beyond the village, though some have glimmers of it.
Curiously, they haven’t really asked Six any questions. The original show was all about finding out why he resigned, but here no one seems to care. They all think he’s hallucinating (And he clearly *is* hallucinating in one scene, seeing dogs where there are no dogs), and only want to convince him that he’s always been here, that this ‘other world’ is an illusion.
Why is #2’s wife in a bedridden coma?
Why is the doctor so obsessed with Six? Has she been put up to it by Two?
Why was 455 killed? Doesn’t it seem a bit extreme to blow up a diner to kill one person when Two clearly has the resources to simply make her ‘disappear?’
Why is 6 here?
So what do I think of it?
Well, I’m going to refrain from saying “It’s good” or “it sucks” until I’ve seen the whole thing because there’s a slow burn going on here that might add up to something later on. Or it might not.
I *will* say that it was slow and disjointed, and didn’t really feel like it was telling as much story as the original episode of the original series did. The McGoohan Six was confused briefly as to where he was, but figured it out quickly, and then he was shielded by his anger. The new Six is simply confused, then confused some more, then confused a bit more, then runs away. Different character, different response, I don’t begrudge that, but it felt like they took forever to establish a sense of menace, and then never quite managed to really hook it, you know? The original show wasted no time in establishing its Village as a pleasant place that’s really a horrible place. The new Village is artificial enough, but never feels truly alien. It’s really not much different from a bunch of places I’ve been in the southwest. It looks, frankly, a bit too real to really creep us out, and this is a case where this show’s bigger budget is working against it, it harms our suspension of disbelief.
There were some good scenes - hommages to the original - my favorite was the one in the store when Six tries to buy a map, which is straight out of the original, but much funnier. The first scene with the cabbie was nicely derived from the original. The scene where Six pounds the table and the teacup goes flying was obviously derived from the opening credits of the original. There’s some nice nods, some good scenes, but nothing really jumping out at me yet.
Ian McKellen is actually a very good number two, he could have easily fit in to the original show, but he’s really given little to do here other than dole out an ironic appearance of compassion to mask his inherent evil. You know, the usual.
So it held my interest, but it didn’t hit the ground running, and the direction felt rather flat. I’ll be interested to see from the ratings how many people stuck around for the second episode.