Periscope Depth

we'll give ourselves new names, identities erased

As promised, my final thoughts on The Prisoner.

Short Version (Spoiler Free): The ending was better than the original ending (which isn’t hard), but the interstitial episodes were worse than the original interstitial episodes (which also is not hard). Final verdict: decent.

Longer Version (Contains Spoilers): Well.

When I wrote about the problem of genius in movies, I referenced Mr. Scott’s “transwarp beaming” in the new Star Trek movie. Transwarp beaming is supposedly a genius breakthrough, but it doesn’t seem any more “genius” than flying faster than light or teleporting to a planet. In a universe where all tech is handwaved, calling another piece of handwaved tech “genius” tells the audience nothing.

I had a similar reaction to the middle (middling?) episodes of The Prisoner. Everyone in the Village acts weird – including the one “normal” man, Number Six. We don’t know who’s acting weird because they’re crazy, and who’s acting weird because they’re hiding something, and who’s acting weird because that’s how they always are. As a result, the moments meant to shock – like 1112 stabbing 909 in the neck – just confuse us. Was that supposed to happen? If so, why? If not, what went wrong? We never know, and the show won’t bother to tell us.

Add to this the fact that the Village follows no consistent physical laws and all tension goes out the window. Are Six, Sixteen and the Winking Lady going to find the ocean over that sand dune? Maybe. Is Six going to finish rifling through this apartment before Two shows up? Could be. Is a fiber-optic camera watching Six right now? Probably. There’s no situation that can not be changed, as if by magic. So our heroes are either in constant danger or no danger at all. The visual and narrative cues we would rely on to tell us if they were aren’t available here.

Oh crap! Everything's normal!

The best episodes of the original series – and as much a fan as I am, I must admit they weren’t all gems – hinged around two compelling questions: why did Six resign? and who is Number One?. Simple questions, but exploring them and their ramifications made compelling drama. Why did Six resign his intelligence agency post? What did he know that was so valuable that he’d be thrust into this Village-prison to uncover it? And why won’t he save himself a lot of heartache and just say why? Similarly: if Number Two isn’t in charge, then who is? And why do the Number Twos keep changing? Bizarre little enigmas, especially for primetime television.

The new Prisoner briefly addresses both of these questions in the third episode, “Anvil,” and then abandons them. Six resigned (we learn in the flashbacks with Lucy) because he learned something he didn’t like about Summakor. And there is no Number One in the Village. Problem solved! Next!

Of course, removing these tensions pulls the teeth from the rest of the series. We have no idea why Two is keeping Six in the Village. And we have no idea why Six would engage Two on his own terms, instead of spending every waking minute walking toward those ghostly twin towers on the horizon. So the exchanges between them have no venom, the battles no suspense, and the odd little satires of suburban life no satirical edge.

The finale, “Checkmate,” revisits the interesting questions about the social order that the original series was known for. Can you fix someone against their will? If you can, should you? How aware are the Village residents of the “super-conscious” life that Mr. Curtis’s wife imagines them in? And what of the people who die in the Village – 1112, Lucy, 147′s daughter? This was fascinating. You could have built a whole series around this. Instead, you get protagonists toeing the sand uncertainly or screaming melodramatically.

If I were showing this to someone who’d never seen it before, I would skip “Harmony” and “Anvil” entirely. The rest, keep as they are.