Thursday, 16 December 2010

The Prisoner Challenge: The Girl Who Was Death

This was the first episode of The Prisoner I ever saw, on Sky TV a good number of years before I saw any of the rest of the series. It's not representative of The Prisoner in any way, being - in its own way - just as much of a format-breaker as Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling or Living in Harmony.

None of these three episodes feature much of the Village, the setting of the great majority of the series, though I would say this episode lies between those two in how successfully it retains the important themes of the series while stepping outside the setting.

Superficially the story of The Girl Who Was Death resembles a spy thriller (such as Danger Man), but turned up to 11 with pulp adventure elements ranging from bombs disguised as cricket balls to ridiculously elaborate slow-moving deathtraps, and downright silly elements such as the recorded (Mission: Impossible-esque) briefing answering back to the listener's comments.

Justine Lord as Sonia Schnipps, a.k.a.The Girl Who Was Death

Once 'Number 6' (what else can I call McGoohan's character?) is on the girl in white's trail, the escapes maintain a consistent level of absurdity only matched by the most outrageous of James Bond's. And yet, for all the comedic moments, there is a dramatic tension about them - I want Number 6 to escape and catch the girl to unravel the mystery.

The escapes go from an exploding cricket ball to being poisoned in the pub - while Number 6 simply evades the former, his solution to escape the latter is ingenious. He is then locked in a turkish bath (while fully dressed in a Sherlock Holmes kit) and goes on to box with the 'Killer' for the clue leading him to the 'Tunnel of Love' (where she first confesses her love for him... as an opponent).

She leads him a merry dance across fairground rides (where there is a cameo by Alexis Kanner as the irate photographer) and then on to a car chase where she taunts him:
"You'll make a beautiful corpse. I'm going to do you the honour of letting you die... superbly."

She's mad. But her madness is seemingly contagious - she bamboozles him with a special effect, turning the projected backgrounds of the car chase scene around.

Fourth wall? What fourth wall?

"You may not see my face, but you may know my name. My name is Death."
She leads him to the isolated street she has set up, and continues to taunt him as he continues to hunt for her.
"You are a born survivor. I am a born killer. We were made for each other."

He survives a hail of bullets from a machine gun and falling through a trapdoor above a pit full of spikes. "Incidentally, they're electrified."
He gets out into a room mined to explode in 90 seconds (she's good enough to warn him of this). He climbs along a pipe to avoid touching the floor. The pipe sizzles. "That's the hotline. Or had you noticed?"

He swings into a room full of poisoned candles that explode if they're blown out. Shut in by steel doors, he begins to choke. But his solution is as ingenious as this trap is ludicrous. He sets up enough of the candles by a door to blast his way through when they're extinguished.

Wearing a spiked German WW1 helmet - white, like all her clothing - she chucks grenades at him while shouting "Whee!"
He tries to get out by driving a digger, but the grenades disable it and she finishes it off with an anti-tank missile. "Bye bye lover."

Thinking him dead she departs by helicopter. But guess who is clinging to the underside?

This episode has so far carried off its absurd plot with immense charm, and I love the music that accompanies it and lends the whole thing a surreal atmosphere. But after this point the best part of the episode is over and the ending is something of a rushed disappointment by comparison.

Number 6 is brought to the villain's lair, inside a lighthouse where a man with a literal Napoleon Complex (Professor Schnipps, played by Kenneth Griffith) plots a plot lifted from Moonraker (the book, not the film) - to destroy London with a big rocket. And aside from his mad daughter he is assisted by a parade of Irish, Scottish and Welsh stereotypes who bumble about until they kill themselves with guns Number 6 had rigged to backfire.

Despite the girl managing to capture Number 6 to tie him up inside the rocket for one final deathtrap, father and daughter are also bunglers, displaying so little competence in these scenes that I have to wonder how their plan ever got this far? It's maybe best not to think too hard about it, this is supposed to be a comedy episode.

They get blown up with backfiring grenades, taking the whole lighthouse ("it's only a model") with them. Then the scene fades to Number 6 in the Village - he's been telling a story to three children (and their un-PC toys).

"Goodnight children... everywhere."

Although I find the ending - or what is basically the last 'act' of the episode - to be anticlimactic, there is much to recommend about the sequence of escapes that make up the middle of the story and the overall theme.

On the one hand this is an episode that doesn't take itself too seriously, e.g. the fourth-wall-breaking car chase scene, but by presenting the overall comedic plot as part of a story told by Number 6 it allows it to be part of The Prisoner continuity - just as the VR in Living in Harmony allowed the Wild West setting to exist within the Village setting.

While Number 2 and his assistant (who bear a resemblance to Schnipps and his daughter) fail to learn anything about Number 6 from the story he tells, I think it is possible to interpret the story within the context of the series, coming as it does between Living in Harmony and the final two (linked) episodes.

In Living in Harmony we see what the Village has in store for Number 6 - the fate of the Sheriff is a possible fate for Number 6 if he continues to resist them. As the Judge says, "Nobody walks out on me. I'm not letting you join some other outfit. I'll kill you first."

The story he tells in The Girl Who Was Death is Number 6's answer to this: Bring it.
Just as his character does in the story, he intends to survive anything and everything they can throw at him and win through in the end. He remains as defiant as he was in Arrival when he said "I've resigned. I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered."

So what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?

Next: Once Upon A Time

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