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

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