Sunday, 17 October 2010

The Prisoner Challenge: The General

"Best of luck with your exams."

This is the second appearance of Colin Gordon as Number 2, so introduces the concept that Number 2 does not have to be different in every episode. As it happens this is also his last appearance, and, of the other Number 2's, only Leo McKern will make a return appearance.

But I do think it is significant to have the idea that a Number 2 can come back, since, as we never see one Number 2 replace another (except - kind of - in It's Your Funeral), it would otherwise be very easy to assume they are disposed of permanently, like a James Bond villain's henchman.

Anyway, The General has a confusing but sinister beginning which introduces the Professor, John Castle's Number 12, and the General (named but not yet revealed, just like the name-checking of the General - no reason to suppose it is not the same one - in Schizoid Man).

"A great man, the Professor - treats lectures as though his life depended on it."

Number 6 gets involved with the Professor, the General and the 'Speedlearn' project seemingly by chance (although does anything happen by chance in the Village?) and forms an alliance with Number 12, even though neither trusts the other, at least to begin with.

This is the first time the plot of the episode has not centred around Number 6 and his relationship with Number 2 and the Village. Indeed, several episodes - such as Free For All, Schizoid Man, and Many Happy Returns - give me the impression that the Village may only exist for Number 6's benefit.
Here this is clearly not the case, as Number 2 finds Number 6's interference in Speedlearn unwelcome, and it is not a trap. Not a trap for Number 6, at least.

Number 6 doesn't know who or what the General is, and his initial guess - that the Professor's wife is the General - is wrong. But when he goes into the Professor's house and smashes his head to reveal the Professor is not a real person but a construction of his wife, Number 6 is right.
Because obviously a sculptor would be able to create something that looks and acts like a real person...
Unless I'm missing something then this scene is a cheat - it is not explained how Number 6 reaches the conclusion of what the Professor is - but as a shock and surprise to the audience it does work.

At Number 12's urging, Number 6 tries to swap the real Speedlearn lecture for a call to freedom made by the errant Professor during an abortive escape bid.

Infiltrating the project disguised as an undertaker in sunglasses, Number 6 is caught at the last moment.

Realising Number 6 must have had help to get in, Number 2 takes Number 6 and Number 12 to see the General - a supercomputer that, according to Number 2, "can answer any question put to it." The question Number 2 wants to ask is who is the traitor that helped Number 6?

But before it is put to the General, Number 6 has a question that he says can't be answered by the General and Number 2, wanting to prove him wrong, lets Number 6 enter it first. It causes the machine to go wrong and both the Professor and Number 12 are killed trying to stop the General blowing itself up. The question:

I think The General hasn't dated well. I will try and explain why - in this episode there are three science fiction concepts all existing side-by-side:
1. The 'speedlearn' process, here being used to give people subliminal history lessons, but its potential use for brainwashing is obvious and cleverly understated in the episode.

2. The Professor himself, some kind of robot or artificial man made by his wife - the hows and whys of this are never made clear - Number 6 just seems to accept them and so I guess we are supposed to as well. I'm really not sure what the point of this sub-plot is, though.

3. The General - only revealed in the last few minutes and disposed of just as quickly. It's all very well for Captain Kirk to trick supercomputers into blowing themselves up in Star Trek, because they were always the advanced technology of an alien world, but here in The Prisoner it's just too implausible for me to accept.

So the speedlearn plot is the core of the story and works really well - the repetition of the rote-learned/subliminally implanted facts about European history that all the villagers know is well presented, and we are left in no doubt what the Village could use the project for when it is perfected.

But the other two sub-plots are, to me, two sci-fi concepts too far and they detract from the episode as a whole by being less believable than the speedlearn - they feel as though they belong to a different level of plausibility, more fantastic than how the episode - and perhaps the series so far - was up to this point.

Not one of my favourites.

Next: Many Happy Returns

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