Thursday, 9 September 2010

The Prisoner Challenge: Arrival

If you watch one episode of The Prisoner, watch this one.
Then you'll want to watch the rest, I'm pretty sure of that.

The Prisoner has gone down into popular culture as an iconic TV series of the 1960s, and many of its distinctive features are familiar even to those that have never seen the show - I know this because I was one of these people until a few years ago.

The first episode, Arrival, displays almost all of these idiosyncratic characteristics - the numbers instead of names, the Portmeirion location, the roaring weather-balloon guard, the costumes, etc. All save one - it only features the first half of the iconic opening title sequence.

There is an extended version of the first half of the titles, showing the resignation and kidnapping of Patrick McGoohan's character, whom I will have to call "Number 6" as he is never given any other name (and calling him "The Prisoner" could be confusing with the name of the show).

In the majority of the other episodes, this sequence is then followed by the famous exchange between Number 6 and Number 2, in which the conflict at the heart of The Prisoner is made clear. There is no place for this sequence in Arrival, because that is what the episode as a whole is for.

It is nine minutes into Arrival before Number 2 introduces himself to the understandably disorientated Number 6, who has found himself transported from the heart of London to a place that could be almost anywhere on Earth. Number 6 heads straight over to "The Green Dome" for a confrontation.

The Green Dome, then and now
(well, 2009, when I took the photo on the right)

The confrontation occurs over breakfast, where the heart of the matter is reached pretty quickly - Number 2 wants to know why Number 6 resigned from his job. Or rather he wants Number 6 to tell him the reason, even though they apparently already have the information in their file.

"I will not make any deals with you. I've resigned. I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered."

By refusing to cooperate here, Number 6 has set the stakes - if he tells them why he resigned, he loses. The Village has secrets of its own - whose side is it on? This being the Cold War era there are a number of obvious candidates, Britain itself among them. Number 6 will win if he can find their secrets out. And escape.

Number 2 acts friendly towards Number 6, trying to win him over perhaps. He shows Number 6 around the Village. It is a stunning use of the Portmeirion location, which really does look like nowhere else.

I think they mess around with the geography of the place, presumably for practical reasons, but it also helps convey the disorientation that Number 6 must be feeling.

Then we get an introduction to 'Rover,' the roaring automaton that is a sort-of 'watchdog' on the Village's inhabitants and was in actual fact a white, spherical weather-balloon. An amazing special effect in both sound and appearance, Rover is as otherworldly as anything in the Village.
And it is also quite terrifying.
"What was that?" asks Number 6.
"That would be telling," is Number 2's enigmatic reply.

Number 6's scene with his maid provides some exposition on the Village, most importantly regarding how difficult it will be for him to escape from it. When he asks "has anyone ever escaped?" she replies:
"Some have tried. They've been brought back... not always alive."

This sounds like a challenge! Almost immediately Number 6 makes his first escape attempt. Making his way out of the Village on foot, he is unaware of the Supervisor keeping him under constant surveillance from their control centre.

All the while the seemingly decorative but sinister statues turn themselves to follow him.

"Yellow Alert" declares the Supervisor, which seems to mean a couple of guys in a car chase Number 6 on the beach. But this just means Number 6 quickly captures the car.

"Orange Alert" brings out Rover. The first escape attempt is swiftly ended, with McGoohan's face stretched, silently screaming, against the white balloon. Another iconic image.

We don't get as far as Red Alert. In fact, we never get to Red Alert in the entire series...

After leaving the hospital Number 6 is dressed in the blazer and outfit that will be his trademark for the rest of the series. He goes straight to see Number 2 and meets a different man from before.
"I have taken his place. I am the new Number 2."
This is the introduction of a concept that will become familiar through the series - the seamless replacement of Number 2 with another person fulfilling the same function. 'Number 2' is an office, a position; its holder can be - and often is - replaced.

This Number 2 calls Number 6 "Number 6" as a name (or at least as an identity) for the first time - previously he had not been identified at all, and '6' could have just referred to his house or 'phone number. Suffice to say, this provokes the following response:
"I am not a number. I am a person."
"Six of one, half-dozen the other," is Number 2's reply.

This only leaves the second escape attempt, with the 'electropass' to the helicopter. This is really just a taste (for the audience as well as Number 6) of the methods used by the Village. The remote control defeats Number 6's attempt very easily, but he will not be so naive and underestimate them like that again.

The episode ends with Number 6 still a prisoner of the Village. This might sound obvious now, but if you compare this ending with Patrick McGoohan's previous series Danger Man, which saw John Drake win through at the end of every episode, it's quite a departure.
I can imagine audiences at the time may even have been surprised that his second escape attempt didn't succeed, given they were coming up to the end of the hour.

Next: The Chimes of Big Ben

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