Sunday, 28 November 2010

The Prisoner Challenge: A Change of Mind

This episode has a lot of potential but I think the whole is less than the sum of its parts because the main plot is the weak link - Number 6 foils the plan of John Sharp's Number 2 and turns it against him far too easily.

It begins well, with scenes showing us the tools and techniques the Village uses to enforce conformity among the villagers. The supposedly impartial committee, which is of course controlled by Number 2 from behind the scenes however much he publicly denies it, declares Number 6 "unmutual" (a fabulous term and the most memorable part of the episode) and he is ostracised by the villagers.

It goes wrong when we see the next step beyond being declared unmutual - "instant social conversion," an operation to remove aggression from a person rendering them permanently incapable of rebellion.

But Number 6 is too valuable to the Village for something permanent like this to be done to him, so the operation is faked using drugs with the intention that Number 6 will think he has been 'converted.'

But he sees through this really easily, and swaps his drugged tea with Number 86's. While she is drugged and suggestible Number 6 hypnotises her into turning the tables on Number 2 and declaring him to be unmutual at a public meeting.

I think it may be the case that the writer knew what he wanted to achieve, he just didn't quite have the skill to pull it off. Number 2 being hoist by his own petard allows Number 6 to win against him with a sense of poetic justice, but the execution of this plot element is just not up to the high standard I would expect of The Prisoner as a whole.

The real strength of this episode are in its themes - the pressure to conform in society and the subversion of otherwise benevolent groups by corrupt elements, both of which are as relevant today as they must have been in 1967.

The stand-out scenes for me are when Number 6 defies the committee and the 'social group' they send him to, for which he suffers the consequence of being declared unmutual. And, of course, that chilling word itself...

Next: Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling

The Snows of Terror

I watched lots of Doctor Who last night, all early stories with William Hartnell as the Doctor, and Susan and Ian and Barbara with him. Duncan was having another 'Doctor Who Night.'

First we watched An Unearthly Child, when the Doctor met Ian and Barbara for the first time. They didn't like each other at first but they became friends after escaping from cavemannys and Ian was very clever at making fire. Cats don't know how to make fire - that's what mannys are for!

Second was The Aztecs, which had a great baddy in it, he was like Richard III from Shakespeare with his plotting. Barbara wanted him to lose his job as High Priest of Sacrifice but he just wanted to keep it and the mannys he sacrificed liked being sacrificed anyway. He won in the end but the Doctor and the rest got away in the TARDIS.

Last was the one I had been looking forward to - Keys of Marinus by Terry Nation! It was a great story full of exciting bits and a baddy called Tarron (which sounds like Tarrant!) who wasn't a baddy in the end. They had teleport bracelets like in Blakes 7 and all the mannys who were watching with me were shouting at the mannys in the TV for them to escape the danger by using them but they couldn't hear because they were in the TV.

I will do a full review of Keys of Marinus some time. I called this post The Snows of Terror because that is the name of one of the episodes of Keys of Marinus, but also because during the night it was snowing a lot outside our home and there was lightning and thunder and it was very scary for us cats.

Don't worry, we are alright now since Scary Cat went "rar" and scared the lightning away.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010


"Thus it was that Men called King Felagund, whom they first met of all the Eldar, Nom, that is Wisdom, in the language of that people, and after him they named his folk Nomin, the Wise."
-- Quenta Silmarillion

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

The Prisoner Challenge: It's Your Funeral

"I won't go for it! Whatever it is. So you may as well stop trying."

"We never stop, Number 6."

In his red dressing gown and glasses, looking more than a little like a Gerry Anderson puppet, this is a fabulous entrance for Derren Nesbitt as Number 2. Or should I say Acting Number 2?

I find this episode combines a slow and padded first half with a complex and interesting second half. And when I say "padded" I really mean it - this is the second (and thankfully last) appearance of 'Kosho' in the series.

The plot begins with Number 6 learning about the 'Jammers' - a group of villagers who have made so much of a nuisance of themselves by wasting the Village guardians' time with false reports or escape attempts that they are no longer believed or even closely monitored.

While Number 6 plays Kosho, Acting Number 2's agent sabotages his watch so Number 6 will visit the Village clockmaker's shop and so get drawn in to Acting Number 2's plan. Number 6 sees the clockmaker is constructing a bomb, and joins his daughter (the clockmaker's, not Number 6's) in trying to dissuade the clockmaker from using it to assassinate Number 2.

When the old man remains adamant Number 6 goes straight to Acting Number 2, who claims not to believe Number 6 because the clockmaker is a known Jammer - though really he is filming the entire scene for use later in his plan.

Number 6, oblivious to the part he is playing so well in Acting Number 2's plan, gathers more evidence - finding out that the bomb will be hidden in Number 2's 'seal of office' - and then returns to Number 2's house, where he finds a new Number 2 (the first time this has happened mid-episode since Arrival).

Andre van Gyseghem plays the other Number 2 in this story, an older man who contrasts nicely with Derren Nesbitt's younger version impatiently waiting in the wings for the old man to make way for him.

It turns out that this old Number 2 has not taken over from Acting Number 2 in the way Number 2's have changed before - in a way not seen before and not seen again in the series, he is Number 2 and Acting Number 2 was only temporarily occupying the position while the old Number 2 was away from the Village.

It is not made clear to the viewer (perhaps deliberately so) if this arrangement is a common occurrence in the Village or what this means for other Number 2's we have seen in other episodes - perhaps they were all Acting Number 2s just filling in for this Number 2?

Whatever the arrangement, Number 6 seems to accept it at face value. The old Number 2 has seen all of the films prepared by Acting Number 2 of Number 6 warning Acting Number 2 (and two other Acting Number 2s whom we have not seen before edited together with film of Number 6).

Number 6 has been set up to look like a Jammer. Difficult as it is to believe that the Village would ever discount one of Number 6's escape attempts as a hoax, he has been successfully framed as a man who cries 'wolf' by warning each Number 2 about fictitious assassination attempts.

But this Number 2 is still suspicious enough to gather his own information and, by the time Number 6 next visits him, has come to terms with the truth:
"Tomorrow, after I've handed over office, I'm to be assassinated."
"For 'assassinated' substitute 'executed'."
"Since it's arranged by my own people you mean?"
"You don't mind?"
"Well of course I mind. It's just that... well, I never thought it would happen to me."

With this self-pity and seeming sympathy for the innocent people who will be blamed for the murder and punished in reprisals, this Number 2 comes across as sympathetic - the first time a Number 2 has been anything other than Number 6's scheming opponent. Contrast the old Number 2 with the slimy and devious Acting Number 2, who fills this role in It's Your Funeral.

At the ceremony both Number 2s are visibly nervous. The old Number 2 understandably so, as he knows he has a bomb on a chain around his neck. Acting Number 2 is also nervous for his future depends on the success of his plan, as confirmed by his superior (Number 1?) in a 'phone call. As always we hear only Number 2's side of the conversation.

Having taken a long time to really get going, the plot is then resolved very quickly - Number 6 finds the clockmaker and obtains the detonator from him. Acting Number 2's henchman tries to get it from Number 6 but he is too late because old Number 2 has passed the seal of office to his successor. 'Acting' Number 2 no longer, now he is nervous for a whole new set of reasons.

Number 6 passes the detonator to the now-retired Number 2 as his 'passport' and blathers at the new Number 2 - preventing him from taking the seal from around his neck - long enough for the old Number 2 to make his escape by helicopter.

"Be seeing you... won't I?" are Number 6's final words to the new Number 2.

While this may have made a good adventure story in its own right, there's something unsatisfying to me about the way this episode doesn't fit well in the series as a whole.

Andre van Gyseghem's old Number 2 is played as sympathetic and almost benevolent, as far from Mary Morris's Number 2 in Dance of the Dead as I can imagine. Once he appears and Number 6 sees it is him that is due to be assassinated - and not Acting Number 2 - his claims that he is only saving Number 2's life to protect the innocent villagers don't ring true to me.

It seems to me that either the old Number 2 must have done just as much spying, kidnapping, brainwashing, etc. as any other Number 2, or else he was never really Number 2 at all - just part of the real Number 2's plan - but neither of these are supported by any evidence on screen. Certainly Number 6 accepts him as Number 2 - had he seen him before, off-screen, before the Acting Number 2 replaced him?

Then there are the Jammers. Unless we are to believe they don't really exist except as part of Number 2's plan for this story, they don't fit in well with the way the Village seems to work in just about every other episode - surveillance is near-total, any dissension is ruthlessly suppressed, and any hint of an escape attempt is instantly crushed. Why would the Jammers be allowed to exist?

It seems as though the answer to this is that they have been infiltrated by Village agents and are occasionally made use of in plans such as this one - which would be a nice idea if it worked, but again we come back to the question of why then do they feature in this episode and not any others?

While ambiguity is often a strength in The Prisoner, here I think it just serves to make this episode less enjoyable. It is also very unevenly paced, as I have already mentioned, which doesn't help it. Overall: unsatisfying, one of the weaker episodes of The Prisoner.

Derren Nesbitt's great in it, but frankly I'd rather watch him and McGoohan in the Danger Man episode Sting in the Tail.

Next: A Change of Mind

Saturday, 13 November 2010

The Prisoner Challenge: Hammer Into Anvil

Patrick Cargill, who had already been in The Prisoner as Thorpe in Many Happy Returns (playing the same man maybe?) is Number 2, and this is his episode as much as it is McGoohan's, as this is the one where Number 6 destroys Number 2 by using his own weaknesses against him.

It begins with the new Number 2 interrogating Number 73, a woman in hospital after attempting suicide. Number 6 hears her screams from outside the hospital and goes to help. When he enters the room she jumps out of the window to her death - a shocking start to the episode.

Number 6 is brought - kicking and screaming, by three burly henchmen - to Number 2's house where Number 2 threatens to break him. But, once permitted to depart, Number 6 begins a series of actions that will, ultimately, break Number 2.
  • In the shop he listens to all the copies of a particular record that they have in stock while checking his watch. Naturally the shopkeeper, a witness to this odd behaviour, reports what he has seen to Number 2 and gives him his first clue that Number 6 is up to something.
  • Number 2 and his henchman Number 14 track him down to the stone boat where Number 6 hides a package. Retrieving it, Number 2 finds it is full of blank sheets of paper. Nothing the Village scientists can do will find anything on the sheets.
  • He places a message in Spanish ( a quote from Don Quixote) in the personal column of the Tally Ho to further confuse Number 2 as to his purpose.
  • He telephones the director of psychiatry at the hospital and asks for his report on Number 2. Number 2 has been listening in on the call and brings the doctor in to ask him what it was about. The poor doctor denies preparing a report on Number 2 - well, he would - and this only makes Number 2 even more suspicious.
  • He makes a request of the Village open-air band but doesn't stay to listen to it. We don't see that he's being observed in this by Number 2's agents but by this point it's clear his every action is being watched even more than is usual for the Village. We only see the poor, innocent band leader being aggressively questioned by Number 2 for the 'real' reason Number 6 spoke to him. From this point Number 2 lets his paranoia get the better of him, playing into Number 6's hands.
  • The Village radio broadcasts a personal message from Number 113 to Number 6 wishing him a happy birthday. But it's not Number 6's birthday. And there is no Number 113. Number 2 hears the message and it causes him to remove the Supervisor from his position for allowing the message to go out. Number 2 is now convinced there is a conspiracy against him, but who else is in it?
  • Number 6 turns up at Number 2's house saying Number 2 sent for him. He didn't. This paralyses Number 2 trying to understand what this means.
Number 14 is still on Number 2's side, and he takes Number 6 on at 'Kosho,' the ridiculous game involving trampolines and a small pool of water. This is a pointless scene that only serves to break up the flow of the episode as Number 2 is overcome by his paranoia and systematically alienates himself from those around him.
  • Number 6 buys a cuckoo clock and turns its case into a trap for a pigeon (meanwhile the Village bomb squad is kept busy disposing of the unnecessary clock part. Upon discovering it is only a clock the expert subtly indicates it is the panicking Number 2 that is 'cuckoo'). The pigeon is used to carry a coded message, which the Village intercepts after shooting down* the pigeon. The computer decodes the message for Number 2.
  • Number 6 goes to the beach and signals the horizon with a mirror reflecting sunlight in morse code. With no receiver being detected by all the technology at the Village's disposal, and the computer unable to decode "Pat-a-cake pat-a-cake baker's man," Number 2 cannot trust that those around him aren't in on the conspiracy against him.
  • The last loyal follower of Number 2 is Number 14, until Number 6 whispers to him at the cafe, making sure the meeting is observed by other villagers so Number 14 reports himself to Number 2 rather than have someone else inform on him. But Number 2 is by now so paranoid that he doesn't believe Number 14's story, and he accuses Number 14 of working with Number 6 and being a traitor.
Number 2 suspects everyone, even the silent butler who he demands get out of his house. But I think the butler knows he'll be here long after this Number 2 is gone from the Green Dome.

Number 14 goes to Number 6's house and fights with him as relaxing music plays in the background (it's not incidental music; Number 6 was listening to it when Number 14 arrived - a nice little touch that gives this scene a touch of surrealism), until Number 14 is defenestrated.

With Number 14 out of the way, Number 6 goes to see Number 2, who is all alone in his house (the butler having packed his bags and left). Number 2 confronts Number 6 with the 'fact' that he is a plant sent by their masters to spy on Number 2.

To this Number 6 suggests that, if true, then Number 2 is either a traitor or a blunderer for interfering with someone sent by their masters. Number 2 is broken completely and he begs Number 6 not to report him. Number 6 says "I don't intend to. You are going to report yourself."

Number 2 calls his superior (Number 1?) on the big red telephone...

I think this is a superb episode, with one of the strongest stories of the series showing Number 6 defeating Number 2, despite all the advantages he possesses as head of the Village, by using intelligence and trickery and not by violence or force (what fight scenes there are in this episode are incidental to the story).

Scenes showing Number 6 undertaking some seemingly random and pointless activity are revealed to have their effects on Number 2, piling up and systematically causing him to suspect and then alienate those around him because he thinks they must be covering up what Number 6 is really doing. He just cannot see what the audience has been in on throughout - that the only purpose of Number 6's actions are to have exactly that effect on him.

Aside from the unnecessary Kosho scene, this is overall a pretty tightly-paced episode. It's very well executed from the initial scenes showing us, the audience, that this Number 2 is a nasty piece of work and Number 6 is justified in breaking him, through all the stages of Number 6's campaign against him to the final scene of Number 2 reporting his own failure to his superiors.

Crucial to the success of this episode is Patrick Cargill's performance as Number 2. He begins as an aggressive, confident new Number 2 who thinks he can succeed where previous Number 2's have failed. But he also has his underlying insecurity that Number 6 is quick to spot and exploit, changing the confidence into paranoia and the aggression is turned against his own side.

Patrick Cargill's performance shows all of this, and each scene we see his breakdown progressing further. His emotional, over-the-top acting contrasts with McGoohan's complete cool throughout, and this combined with Number 2's central importance to the story, makes his Number 2 one of the most memorable to me.

Next: It's Your Funeral

* Don't worry, pigeon-lovers: the pigeon survived. They only used minimum strength on the laser gun so as not to destroy the message.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Big Gay Longcat reviews The 39 Steps (1935 Hitchcock version)

Poor Mr Memory, all he wanted to do was remember things.

Duncan reviews Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles

The Doctor Who novel by Michael Moorcock.

(Warning: Spoilerish)

I feel as though this book was written just for me. The Doctor, my childhood hero, adventures in a universe populated by themes, events and characters straight out of my favourite of my favourite author's novels. How could it fail?

Michael Moorcock, although my favourite author, I still consider to be hit-and-miss and there are books (and whole series of books) of his I can't stand and won't ever read again. So the possibility of him producing a stinker was always there, and I ordered the book with some trepidation. But if I'd never read it then I would never have known for sure.

The "Second Ether" trilogy (Blood, Fabulous Harbours and The War Amongst the Angels) seem to me to be the biggest Moorcock influence on the setting of The Coming of the Terraphiles - a far-future that is built using the infinite budget of the author's imagination. This does not attempt to emulate the TV series Doctor Who, it knows it is a novel and plays accordingly.

The next most obvious influence, to me, is Dancers at the End of Time, set so far in the future that technology is indistinguishable from magic and its wielders are as gods, imagination their only limit ("I'd be dead in a week") and the only thing denied them is knowledge of their own history. The Coming of the Terraphiles is not set quite that far away, but far enough that corporations terraform planets Magarathea-style to their customers specifications, and the titular 'Terraphiles' reenact the games and customs of Earth's past (well, 20th Century Britain's) to the best of their understanding - much to Amy's amusement at how limited this is.

The ambiguous characters - never quite sitting comfortably in the traditional hero, villain, ally or antagonist roles the pulp space-adventure plot seems to call for - also echo, as do a few names, the Jerry Cornelius stories that I have known and loved and failed to fully wrap my head around since I was a teenager borrowing the books from the local library when it ran out of Elrics.

The story can, I think, be broken down into three rough Acts: Act 1 is a space-Edwardian mystery wherein the theft of a hyper-expensive hat is more important than it seems. Act 2 is a race through the sea of space to get to the planet Miggea in time for the most important game of pseudo-space-cricket in history. And the final act is this game itself, played with the fate of the multiverse (of course) at stake.

There is more than a hint of the Adams/Williams era to this story - I could imagine Tom Baker just as easily as Matt Smith playing the Doctor’s part, and it would be a small step from Amy to Romana (Lalla Ward’s, probably) in the Companion role.

Amy is written with a few of her character traits in place - being Scottish myself I wonder if there were a couple of references she makes that would pass a lot of readers by - but with no mention of Rory at all it makes me question how much Moorcock knew about the events of TV season 5 when writing this. Though “quite generically written Companion” is hardly a devastating criticism of a Doctor Who story.

The Doctor is the Doctor. Moorcock could have been writing Doctor Who for years, he fits so well. It makes me want to re-read the Second Ether books and look for all the hidden references to the Doctor that I know aren’t there but which if I look hard enough I’ll find anyway.

How comprehensible would this book be to someone who hasn’t read the Second Ether stories or at least possesses a working knowledge of Moorcock’s Law/Chaos/Balance cosmology, let alone any children reading this (risqué in places but that wouldn’t be my first concern) complex work? I cannot really answer that. I would hope that the explanations provided by the Doctor (to Amy, naturally) would suffice, but my instinct suggests that I’m being optimistic and that there’s a good chance Moorcock’s style would be confusing and perhaps frustrating to those not used to it - he leaves a lot of interpretation to the reader and that is not something you get in just any book.

From my point of view this is a strength, one that makes the best Moorcocks so re-readable as each time you take something new to the book and find something new within it. I look forward to re-reading The Coming of the Terraphiles many times in the future for this reason, and because it’s a bloody good story in the best traditions of Doctor Who.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

The Prisoner Challenge: Checkmate

Checkmate, coming half-way through the series, is perhaps the most iconic episode of The Prisoner (I would say Arrival is the other main contender for this title), as it features the very distinctive and memorable game of human chess, and carries this as a theme throughout the episode's story.

The actual game of human chess comes at the beginning of the episode and introduces the significant characters for this story - the Queen, the Rook, and the old count who is playing one of the sides.

After the game Number 6 talks to the old count who hints at a way of telling the real prisoners from the warders in the Village. If they could do this then they would know who they could trust in an escape attempt.

Number 2, played by Peter Wyngarde, takes Number 6 to the hospital to see the Rook, who had suffered a breakdown during the chess game. Having made a move of his own free will, rather than as directed by his side's player, the Rook is being conditioned to obey authority.

Number 6 begins recruiting for his escape plan, choosing his allies by the way they react to him - just as the count suggested. He begins with the Rook and together they select a small band of prisoners, including the shopkeeper and the old count.

Meanwhile the Village psychiatrist is conditioning Number 8 - the Queen from the human chess game where Number 6 was playing her Queen's Pawn - to love Number 6. Her dialogue as the hypnosis has its effect says it all:
"See the gentleman on the screen? Isn't he handsome? Isn't he manly? You love him - passionately, devotedly. You would do anything for him, anything. You would even betray him, to save him from his own folly."

They also place a transistor on her - hidden in a locket supposedly, they say, given to her by Number 6 - that will monitor her pulse rate so they can tell when she's near him by the effect the conditioned love has on her.

Number 6 is none too happy about her affection for him, but he quickly finds the locket and, knowing that he didn't give it to her, takes it and he and the Rook incorporate the transistor into their plan, which has involved scavenging electronic apparatus from throughout the Village.

When they are ready, they put their plan into operation one night: having built a transmitter they signal a "mayday" and contact the Merchant Ship Polozka, pretending to be survivors of a downed plane. With the Rook broadcasting the signal from a stolen dinghy, the others take out the Village watchtower.

Suffice to say, the Village also intercepts the transmission. Number 2 is informed, in a scene in which he randomly chops a plank of wood in two with his hand while dressed in full black-belt karate gear. I say "randomly" because this scene, outfit and character trait of this Number 2 are none of them ever referred to again, which is something of a let down.

Number 6 enters Number 2's house with his followers and they capture Number 2 (who is dressed normally again) without a struggle. Their plan is going well up to this point, but there's soon trouble which is first made apparent when the Rook's signal stops transmitting.

Number 6 goes to the beach to find their dinghy and radio abandoned and with no sign of the Rook. Number 6 carries on with the plan regardless, and manages to rendezvous with the Polozka.

"I hate to disappoint you, but the Polozka's our ship," Number 2 informs Number 6 over a TV screen on the Polozka's bridge. It turns out the Rook betrayed their plan to Number 2, who reveals why to an understandably disappointed Number 6:
"I gather you avoided selecting guardians by detecting their subconscious arrogance. There was one thing you overlooked."
"What was that?"
"The Rook applied to you your own tests. When you took command of this little venture, your air of authority convinced him that you were one of us."

Number 6 makes one final attempt to take control of the Polozka by brute force, but by the time he has overpowered the crew Rover has been summoned by Number 2 and brings the escape attempt to an end.

There's not much substance to the story in this episode, it's all about the imagery and the extended metaphor of the chess game being played out in the Village between the prisoners (represented by Number 6) and the warders (Number 2).

I think the metaphor breaks down pretty quickly, however, because it's also about the problem of how can you tell one side from the other. In real chess, of course, this is trivially easy because... well, I don't need to spell it out, do I?

This is quite an enjoyable episode to watch, but I don't think it's one of the best stories even if it is one of the prettiest to look at (lots of location filming at Portmeirion, not least the human chess scene), and Peter Wyngarde is really wasted as Number 2 because he has very little actually to do.

I will admit the first time I saw this one the random karate scene had me convinced this was foreshadowing for a fight between Number 2 and Number 6, which meant Number 6 wasn't the only one left disappointed by the end of the episode.

Next: Hammer Into Anvil

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Everyone knows monkeys love to fight!

Hello, we're monkeys.
We have badges.
We are Monkeys With Badges.

And now we have a great new book.
It is by Mike Loades.

He knows a thing or two about swords.
And swordsmen.