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by Bill Gibron

27 Oct 2009


They remain the last cinematic taboo, a sinister subject that gets bandied about once every decade or so before crawling back into the annals of scary movie manipulation to fester for a few more years. Each time it’s dragged out, audience respond with a combination of shock and indignance, wondering how anyone could taint the innocent of a child like that. You guessed it - the evil kid killer is back, an archetype made infamous by Patty McCormick in 1956’s The Bad Seed.

Since then, we’ve had grindhouse versions (Harry Novak’s The Child), post-modern rewrite (The Exorcist, The Omen) noble TV attempts (Child of Rage) and the notorious Macaulay Culkin vehicle The Good Son, each one taking the offspring and turning them into something awful. Sadly, none of them can match the latest installment in the wicked wee one horror show, Orphan (new to Blu-ray from Warner Home Video). What it lacks in scares, suspense, thrills, chills, pacing, plot development, logic, realism, authenticity, and satisfaction, it definitely makes up for in fudged up homicidal brattling…and that’s about it.

Esther is an odd child. When John and Kate first meet her at a local orphanage, she is shy and distant. Taking an instant liking to the family, the couple feels safe in bringing her into their fragile home. You see, Kate is a recovering alcoholic, and during one particularly memorable bender, her deaf daughter Maxine slipped into a nearby pond and almost drowned. John saved her life, and helped his spouse sober up. Along with son Daniel, things were starting to look up for the Colemans. Then Kate’s last pregnancy ended in a stillbirth. Thus, the decision to adopt.

At first, Esther is odd addition to the clan, but tries to fit in. She wears frilly dresses and ribbons around her neck and wrists. She draws the ridicule of her new classmates, and Kate begins to grown suspicious of her new, nosy daughter. Within a few short weeks, Esther has scared poor Maxine and Daniel into submission, and a few “accidents” have left people injured…or missing. When Kate decides to look into Esther’s past, the unassuming kid turns from polite to psychotic, doing anything she can to protect her “secret.” Suddenly, the Colemans are all in danger.

If you’re looking for a fright flick that does its damnedest to get by on contrivances, coincidences, and outright plot convolutions, Orphan is it. Existing in a parallel universe where nine year olds are adopted without much legal (or medical) wrangling, where the local branch of Child Protective Services is apparently on extended vacation, and where the prissy manipulative nonsense of an Eastern European eccentric takes precedence over common sense, supposed intelligence, and the obvious arrival of some incredibly bad luck. No one seems the least bit concerned that Esther is a cheeky manipulator, overplaying her “glad to be part of the clan” conceits to the hilt. Everyone assumes it’s an expression of happiness, even when her “Helter Skelter” maniac eyes give her away.

Even worse, parents John and Kate (how apropos) have opposite ways of dealing with this newfound affection. He thinks Esther is just peachy keen, capable of nothing more than big fat hugs and butterfly kisses. She thinks her new daughter is a demon. Such extremes make many of the interpersonal machinations between the couple hard to swallow. Every time Kate has a legitimate concern about her safety - say, when Daniel’s treehouse goes up in a blaze of lighter fluid fueled-glory (with Daniel in it), John thinks she’s nutso…or worse, back on the sauce. Even during one of the film’s most outrageous moments, he blames himself for giving off the wrong signals to Esther (rationalizing with a grade schooler - never a good sign).

And then there’s the pacing. House of Wax remaker Jaume Collet-Serra spends so much time setting things up, over an hour’s worth of handwringing and touchy feely kvetching that we wonder if Esther’s secret is that she’s just an incredible asshole. Granted, actress Isabelle Fuhrman gives good jerk, but it’s not until much later in the plot that she lets her inner Voorhees shine. By then, we’ve been lulled into a sense of scripted stupidity. David Leslie Johnson apparently created his narrative out of old fright flick beats, false scares, and one iffy reveal, telegraphing much of his purpose (beyond the ending) to anyone old enough to remember the rules of terror. Sure, we feel our pulse race when Esther removes the parking brake and sends the family SUV careening down a hill, little Maxine inside and a sequence shrouded in blacklight also works well. But to get to that material we have to slog through moments crafted directly out of the direct to video terror tome.

You really do have to buy a great deal of bullspit to believe in what Orphan is offering. No one thinks like its 2009, an era of skepticism and overreaction. Everyone is nonsensically gullible to a fault. Even the deleted scenes and alternate ending offered on the new Blu-ray release of the film fail to fill in the gaps created by an attempt at atmosphere over realism or rationality. Instead of turning Esther into Michael Myers with worse fashion sense, why not show how a young child deals with being adopted into a troubled family, her missed signals and unmet needs slowly turning into confusion, and then rage. But then we wouldn’t get the serial killer slice and dice at the end, or the overwrought “huh” of the twist.

While it’s true that some of Orphan works (good vs. evil smackdowns always have a way of satisfying our innate bloodlust), but most of it is one big schlock tease. When taken in total, Esther is a remarkable creation, something that could have functioned expertly within a much better film. But Collet-Serra style is so frustrating, and Johnson script so aggravating that we wish a studio-sponsored killer kid would show up and simply thin out a few in the crew. There is nothing wrong with bringing back the evil child for a post-millennial update and Fuhrman’s performance guarantees that she’ll have a few more cracks at making a major motion picture impact. But Orphan is not very good. At 90 minutes, it might have been amazing. At two hours, it’s tedious.

by Bill Gibron

27 Oct 2009


Rowan Atkinson’s brilliant Blackadder franchise, consisting of four fabulous series and a couple of clever one-offs, is frequently misjudged by the press. No, not in the lists of British Best-Of, where it frequently gives other English classics like Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, and The Young Ones a run for “greatest sitcom ever” accolades. And not in the arena of available talent. Along with the future Mr. Bean, we get stunning, starmaking turns from Hugh Laurie, Miranda Richardson, Stephen Fry as well as creative input for comic savants Ben Elton and Richard Curtis. In fact, when wedged up against those previously mentioned UK laughfests, Blackadder typically beats them all. So why is it never a true part of the pop culture discussion? Why does it take something like the sensational new DVD release of remastered episodes to get the show some significant international love?

Of course, it’s a massive hit back home, recently voted the second favorite comedy of all time - and this might explain some of the disconnect. One of Blackadder‘s major selling points is its twisting of British history, retrofitting the facts (and occasional tall tales) to turn the adventures of a conniving little cretin named Edmund, his manservant Baldrick, and the various incarnations of the man throughout traditional English folklore into sidesplitting satire. The first series, simply entitled The Black Adder sees the secret record of Richard III/Richard IV’s reign used as a backdrop for Atkinson’s seminal sneak. Blackadder II is set during the court of Elizabeth I and amplified the character’s sinister nature. Blackadder the Third finds the Regency Period utilized as a means of highlighting the relationship between the Prince of Wales and his butler, our scheming antihero. We shoot forward a century to World War I, where Captain Blackadder Goes Forth, trying to find ways of avoiding his military duty to God and Country.

As with most UK series, all four Blackadder offerings consist of six individual installments. They cover subject as intriguing as the authority of the Church (“The Archbishop”), witch hunts (“Witchsmeller Pursuivant”), baby-eating bishops (“Money”) and intoxication (“Beer”). By the third go round, we get plots revolving around politics (“Dish and Dishonesty”) old stage superstitions (“Sense and Senility”) and The Scarlett Pimpernel (“Nob and Nobility”), while the final tour of duty presents tales of pigeon murder (“Corporal Punishment”), aviation (“Private Plane”), and music hall variety (“Major Star”). In addition, the DVD set also offers the masterful Blackadder Christmas Carol take-off, the 15 minute Blackadder: The Cavalier Years set during the English Civil War, and the time travel extravaganza Blackadder: Back and Forth. Along with a wealth of bonus features (including commentaries, interviews and documentary features on the show and its impact), we get an in-depth lesson in all things silly and snide - and it’s all absolutely brilliant.

Indeed, what one takes away from such an overview is how radical and revisionist Blackadder really is. Imagine a series that poked gentle fun at American ideals and factual truisms, all for the sake of a character that is mean, neglectful, incorrigible, cutthroat, bumbling, brazen, devious, shrewd, and on more than one occasion, completely off his nut. Without Aktinson in the lead it would never work. Though he is usually the butt of the situational joke most of the time, Blackadder (in all his carnations) remains a significant comedy creation. He’s not just the man you love to hate - he’s the slimebucket you obsess over like a moonstruck school girl. There is just something so amazingly awful, so delightfully despicable about the man that you can’t help but hang on his every wicked wisecrack and/or deed. No matter if it’s aimed at royalty or a peasant, Blackadder does not suffer fools - not lightly, not bloody likely.

Though great almost from the beginning, the series did struggle a bit at first. The BBC did not like the high cost and low return of The Black Adder, and then demanded changes before the second set of shows was okayed (and even then that took nearly three years to accomplish). Aside from the casting, which saw the heroic Brian Blessed replaced by more comic-oriented actors, the character of Blackadder was altered as well. Instead of a blundering fool who seems to fall into treachery, Curtis and Elton reconfigured him as a more astute and cunning antagonist. Much of the moron material went directly to Tony Richardson, who mined the always filthy manservant Baldrick for all he could. In was also discovered that Atkinson was a master at making already idiotic people look even worse than they really were. Thus the constant state of stupidity surrounding Blackadder, from a dim Elizabeth I to an insufferably dense Prince of Wales.

By Goes Forth, the writing was so polished, the performances so honed and perfected, that the series never misses a beat. Even when dealing with a subject as tricky as war, Blackadder finds the truth and then turns it on its crazy, crackpot head. Even better, with each new generational jump, the historical elements become an indirect supporting character. Another reason the show often suffers in syndication is that many of the quips are incredibly insular, known to only those whose country is being deconstructed and/or those familiar with the eras and events. Granted, the dialogue is not all dates and declaration. The Blackadder series is sublime in its unique and complex insult strategy, a combination of scatology and dead-on satire. It’s not every show that can work a statement about feces, incest, and the failed Feudal system into a rejoinder, but that’s the beauty of Edmund and the gang.

As the DVD set points out, the series was a truly labor intensive affair. Actors had to learn to ride, wear ridiculous, epoch appropriate garb, and trust the intricacy of the scripts vs. adlibbing at will. Injuries where suffered and opportunities missed, and many have fond memories of the results if not the specific means of achieving them. During a few particularly poignant moments, several members of the cast are visibly moved by their memories of their show. Aktinson, a rather reclusive star who rarely gives interviews, uses the new bonus features to address rumors, quash misinformation, and generally make his final statement on the show, period. Oddly enough, there have been rumblings both pro and con for another series of the show. While many recent comments argue otherwise, the material here seems to suggest that, if the right subject came along, and a network was willing to back them up, there’s a contingent that’s keen to do it.

And why not - the Blackadder conceit seems to work no matter the time or place you put it in. Like most classic comedies where one character spends his or her time looking down their nose at the rest of the rabble, only to realize their as guilty of being as plebian as they are, Rowan Aktinson successfully argued for his place as one of Britain’s greatest living humorists. While his next outing, Mr. Bean, would reinvent slapstick for the post-modern age, it’s his time traveling through various phases of UK lore that will always illustrate his truest gifts. No matter the lack of universal respect, Blackadder remains a singular achievement. It’s great, because everyone involved is as well. You can’t argue with that kind of creative strategy.

 

by Bill Gibron

27 Oct 2009


When Deep Throat became a media sensation, giving a smidgen of legitimacy to what was otherwise verboten hardcore pornography, the exploitation impresarios were dumbfounded. For decades, they had been delivering the kind of sensationalized pseudo smut that made the raincoat crowd happy. While they pushed the boundaries of permissiveness, they never went “the full monty”, so to speak. But now, a 42nd street phenomenon was looking to supplant their softcore cash cow. Enter various attempts at recapturing the crown, including something called blaxsploitation. It was an attempt to speak to a different demographic than they had before. Heavily marginalized by Hollywood heavy hitters looking to horn in on the profits, the ghetto fabulous filmmaking flared brightly, but like any flash in the pan, petered out before long.

Now, nearly four decades after Melvin Van Peebles put a foot up the Man’s ass with his brilliant Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, indie filmmaker Jonathan Lewis, with the help of some of his more miscreant moviemaking pals, has dreamed up Black Devil Doll. Part homage to the hilarious surrealism of Petey Wheatstraw and, to some, a respectful rip-off of Chester Novell Turner’s Black Devil Doll From Hell, this outrageous example of Joe Bob Briggs’ patented “three Bs - breasts, blood, and beasts” is so insane, so silicon injected and silly that it’s almost impossible to take seriously. In fact, Lewis does try for a bit of social commentary before dragging out the strippers to show off their dirigible-like dirty pillows. From then on, it’s nothing but sex, scatology, and lots and lots of skin.

Heather is a buxom babe who gets bored one night and uses an Ouija board to contact the dead. Unbeknownst to her, an infamous black militant radial serial killer is being fried in the local electric chair. A few incantations later and the spirit of the evil African agitator is transferred to the gal’s goofy ventriloquist doll. With the addition of a Black Panther monster make-over and mandatory jive-ass jargon, the horny horror is born. At first, Heather satisfies all this perverted puppet’s needs. But when one white girl is not enough, the Black Devil Doll demands a humptastic hen’s night. So our heroine invites her friends Natasha, Candi, Buffy, and Bambi over for a little risqué R&R. Little does she know that this trim-seeking terror toy is really out to continue his menacing, murderous ways.

Like a 14 year old suburban rap fans wet dream doused with a heavy helping of skankified sleaze, Black Devil Doll is truly demented. If you’re looking for subtlety, careful characterization, logical plotting, and in-depth political grandstanding, go find Spike Lee and sit him down for nice long chat. Lewis is Hell-bent of being as derogatory, depraved, and disgusting as possible, and he truly does deliver. He finds front-heavy actresses eager to see his wanton vision through, and then has them undress for endless sequences of slut-tastic exposure. These are the kind of chicks that teen boys cream over, who resemble cut-outs from a particularly prurient men’s magazine or workers at a dive bar brothel. There is no denying their flagrant frizzled sex appeal. Black Devil Doll never tries to turn its victims into human beings. Instead, it’s straight up objectification - and these women have the over/under the muscle scars to prove it.

Of course, humor is an integral part of the experience, and Black Devil Doll is very funny indeed. Most of the jokes are aimed below the belt (and sometimes, even lower) and Lewis does go slightly overboard with the race baiting repartee. But for the most part, it’s just mindless burlesque, cheekiness for the sake of satire. While it may have a hard time proving its interest in a high purpose, Lewis does sneak in a bit of ‘70s era earnestness. Whenever the Black Devil Doll “conquers” one of his female victims, a psychedelic montage of Civil Rights symbolism and African American iconography plays in the background. It reminds us that any interracial combo - even one involving a hopped up puppet - creates its own subversive subtext of ethnic controversy.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this film is one not seen on the recently released DVD. When it was making the rounds this last summer, Black Devil Doll received a great deal of bad press for being a horrifically insensitive and morally objectionable work of outright trash. Of course, Lewis embraced said statements, even if many of them were made with the flawed foresight of not actually seeing the film first. Indeed, some even questioned the intent behind the movie, arguing that it was created specifically to instill anger in the African American community. Clearly, anyone seeing the final results will be laughing in the face of those self-ascribed watchdogs. Black Devil Doll is nothing more than a farce, an extended riff on a stereotype taken to ridiculous, raunchy extremes. Besides, it’s hard to see the bigotry with all the breasts flopping into the lens.

In fact, if anyone should be unhappy with Black Devil Doll, it is the current crop of artificially enhanced actress. Reduced to discussing their bowel movements and lesbian tendencies as signs of significant three dimensions, the girls here are nothing more than carnal eye candy for the settled self-abuser. Yet because Lewis never really exploits them, never has them doing things they wouldn’t normally do for a dollar, there’s none of the grimy scumbucket sensation involved.

Black Devil Doll will probably become a must-see member of the direct-to-DVD circuit, something that plays better in the privacy of your own home with a group of like-minded friends than in a packed movie house (though the recently released disc offers a ‘you-are-there’ audience experience that argues for the film’s universal appeal). While the original examples of blaxploitation were hardly this retarded, they would definitely support Lewis’s vagrant vision. The best advice one can give is to simply sit back and let a bedeviled brother work his magic on you. Who knows - you might just enjoy it. 

by Bill Gibron

26 Oct 2009


Before he became the king of disaster porn, manufacturing more and more outlandish ways of destroying the planet and all the people on it, Roland Emmerich was trying to become the master of mediocre sci-fi. He built his still questionable resume on the back of such hack classics as Making Contact, Moon 44, and Universal Soldier and it was on this latter bit of Jean-Claude Van Damme-age that he met future collaborator Dean Devlin. Together, the duo would embark on a solid set of schlock masterworks, including the ridiculously ripe Independence Day, the goofy Godzilla remake, and perhaps the most notorious speculative nonsense of all - Stargate. While many now know the name thanks to its tired TV series retread, Emmerich first hit considered commercial paydirt with this specious interstellar claptrap involving aliens in pyramid shaped spaceships, Chariots of the Gods, Egyptology, and a US military team doing a bit of manufactured worm hole spelunking.

You see, several centuries ago, aggressive ETs landed on Earth and absorbed as much ancient culture as possible, including the physical image of comely caveboy Jaye “The Crying Game” Davidson. Fast forward to present day and James Spader is a Erich von Däniken wannabe who believes the pyramids were built by visiting space travelers. Just as he is being booed offstage at a science seminar, he is given a chance to work for Uncle Sam and decipher the symbols on an unusual object found in the Middle Eastern desert. It turns out he opens up a ‘stargate’, a way to travel between far off cosmic worlds. With Kurt Russell in tow as a military man recently reinstated after a personal tragedy, a reconnaissance team travels through the portal and ends up on a backward planet where everyone is a slave, building yet another set of pyramids (that function as starship ports) for the same despotic alien race that traveled to Earth eons before.

No matter how you slice it - original theatrical version or retrofitted director’s cut (complete with nine minutes of additional footage), Stargate is silly. It’s backwards science as up to date falderal, an episode of that ‘70s staple In Search of… dragged out to wholly demented ends. In the commentary track and bonus features offered on the brand new 15th Anniversary Edition DVD and Blu-ray, Emmerich makes it very clear that he wanted to take an unconventional approach to this film - unconventional casting, unconventional plotting, unconventional subtexts. That’s why indie Method man Spader is sparring side by side with Snake Plissken himself, why the interstellar natives speak in a weird foreign tongue that never gets translated, and why we find ourselves shaking our head in rather conventional disbelief. It does make for some inherently goofy charms, especially when both of our leading men fall for emotional substitutes (Spader, the hot chick - Russell, the son he recently lost).

But that doesn’t prepare you for the outright audacity of the movie’s design. Even if you grant that the pyramids seem like the work of extraterrestrials, seeing it actually play out is a lot like looking backstage at a magic show. Once you realize how it’s done, it doesn’t seem quite so amazing any more. Similarly, the minimal CG used to mechanically remove the alien’s elaborate Pharaoh inspired headgear looks incredibly dated. Granted, Emmerich’s attempts at being epic does give Stargate some scope, especially when Spader and Russell investigate the huge triangular structure set against a three satellite sky in a endless sand dune milieu. But its big ideas that make sci-fi sing, and in the case of this blasé boy’s adventure tale, we are dealing with junior high conceits at best.

The notion that highly evolved space travelers would enslave indigenous people’s simply to build their landing stations seems surreal. After, they manufacture these amazing flying ships - why do they need manual labor to construct its dock. Similarly, Russell and the gang sure get the peoples restless in a hurry. One moment, they are talisman wearing gods. The next, they’re Angela Davis in designer fatigues. The last act assault on Jaye Davidson’s stronghold seems unlikely to succeed, and the whole “regeneration” subplot seems stuck in if only to provide a third act out in case one of our leads bites the big one (hmm…I wonder if they do…). While there is a restless sense of fun flowing in between all the UFO sturm and drang, Stargate is really nothing more than the Discovery Channel gone gonzo.

Of course, if you believe the added content stored on the various home video incarnations of the title, there is a lot of “truth” behind the decidedly dumb movie. We get experts popping in and out of the picture-within-a-picture information featurettes, each one explaining concepts that were debunked back when Jimmy Carter was still slinging peanuts. As they sit in their smug superiority, interplanetary backdrop providing a small modicum of ComicCon credibility, we realize that someone might actually think Stargate serious, that buried in Spader’s paycheck cashing casualness, in Russell’s buzzcut bravado, Emmerich and Devlin are actually championing ancient astronauts. It puts a whole new perspective on the film, one that falls far outside the typical big budget blockbuster effort we actually see. Serious support is one thing. Stargate, however, cannot solidify such speculation.

Still, this is a decent little diversion, the kind of pure popcorn fodder that would find a far more ballsy form when Will Smith took on city-sized flying saucers in Independence Day. Indeed, one can see Stargate as a warm-up for all the Day(s) After Tomorrow to come. While its F/X are not as eye-popping as they were 15 years ago, and the premise has been peeled apart and reconfigured to fuel a more or less unnecessary TV take on same, what we have here is a prime example of cinematic cheese - fatty, slightly nutritious, and capable of deep satisfaction if served correctly Roland Emmerich has made an entire career out of such highfalutin fromage - and we, as a gullible, guilty pleasure appreciating audience just can’t get enough.

by Bill Gibron

25 Oct 2009


“I am not a number. I am a free man”
- Number Six (Patrick McGoohan)

It is the line that leads us into every episode, a reminder of the show’s most obvious and undeniable theme. Unlike other late ‘60s entertainment, lead actor (and series creator) Patrick McGoohan wanted everyone to know that his hour long spy drama was not your typical espionage experience. Like an uprooted and reconfigured 1984, or one of Anthony Burgess’s dystrophic cautionary tales, McGoohan meant to challenge the stifling status quo. Borrowing a little of America’s counterculture creativity, and marrying it to the pop art poetry of his native Britain, the performer embraced the idea of treating the audience as participants, not patsies, in his weekly game of cat and mouse. As a result, The Prisoner became the Twin Peaks of its time, the Gravity’s Rainbow of secret agent science fiction and a stunning television classic. 

Perhaps second only to the original Star Trek in terms of concrete cult status and lingering fanbase frenzy, McGoohan’s gamble remains an astounding masterpiece of mangled mainstream intent. Tired of playing the standard special operative, and realizing that the entire James Bond franchise had upped the anti when it came to such storylines, McGoohan, a UK superstar, decided to completely deconstruct the rules regarding such shows. Instead, he devised a puzzle box of prospective mysteries, filtered them through an inventive framework, and then proceeded to make each episode an illustrated battle between conservative, Establishment ideologies and the personal preferences for freedom, liberty and choice. Even the title held a three-pronged connotation. It created an image that reflected the lead character, his state of mind, and the world(s) in which he lived.

Premises don’t get any more intriguing than this one. McGoohan plays a nameless British intelligence officer who quits his post and prepares to leave town. Just before he’s able to escape, he’s gassed and wakes up in a weird little seaside burg known only as The Village. There, he is referred to by a numeric tag, in this case, Number Six, and forced to report to a Big Brother-like interrogator named Number Two. A captive, and held for the information in his head (the main question being “Why did you resign?”) Number Six learns that there is no fleeing this bizarre, baffling place. Indeed, whenever he or anyone else attempts such a strategy, a large floating orb (nicknamed “The Rover”) is released from the ocean. It tracks down anyone attempting a getaway, and encases them in its opaque elastic shell. Then it’s straight into The Village’s hospital for a little ‘R’ & ‘R’: re-education and re-indoctrination.

From such a foundation, The Prisoner took a multi-level approach to its individual storylines. Ritualistically, we are introduced to a new Number Two each time (creating its own interest level of internal intrigue) and the elusive Number One is always mentioned, but never shown. In each episode, we witness another in The Village’s odd assortment of festivals (art, costume gala), events (elections, speed education broadcasts) and personnel. It’s the final facet that’s the most interesting, since it sets up the biggest dichotomy in the show. Number Six is always viewed as a fighter and a rebel, unwilling to conform to the brainwashing, psychological control and outright attempts to undermine his spirit. By comparing him to people who either love The Village, wish to join him in any plan of escape, or use friendship as a mask to proceed as an agent for the omniscient officials, The Prisoner provides many of its most memorable exchanges.

Indeed, beyond the stunning art design with a great deal of Londonderry air and Carnaby Street whimsy tossed in to increase the arcane factor, and the terrific technological twists (phones are angular and modern, rococo buildings housing elaborate science labs and room sized computers), it is the interaction between people that makes The Prisoner so special. Thanks to the wonderful writers responsible for the program’s intelligent and biting scripts, conversations crackle with meaningful political and social suggestion, while dry Brit wit bubbles beneath all the intrigues and enigmas. Initially, the first few shows stutter a bit in providing us with recognizable hooks to get a handle on. This is partly because The Prisoner was never devised with a wholly linear format to follow. It is also an obvious attempt to keep us squarely in Number Six’s shoes, allowing us to experience the adventure right along with him. Still, in an episode like “Dance of the Dead”, where a washed up body and an available radio are utilized in one of Number Six’s many escape plots, we can feel rushed toward a resolution.

By “The Chimes of Big Ben” and “A, B and C” however, we find the dynamic settling in, and except for a strange instance toward the end where Number Six magically changes human form, and acting ability (McGoohan was off filming Ice Station Zebra at the time) for the “Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling” installment, The Prisoner perfected the art of audience expectation evasion. Relishing the chance to play with both the Village and its residents, stellar episodes like “Hammer Into Anvil” (Number Six avenging the death of a young girl) and “Many Happy Returns” (Number Six thinks he’s made it back to London) also pick apart the approach to the entire premise. Instead of limiting the narrative to the fairytale like location with all its Alice in Gestapoland style, the plots placed our hero in all manner of outside situations (parties, offices, his old haunting grounds) as a means of reconfirming his personality. We are not only supposed to cheer for Number Six, but sympathize with and support his plight.

Thanks to the iconic way in which McGoohan is presented here, it’s impossible to think of anyone denying the character’s emotional and ideological pull. Shot from an angle that suggests a man used to slipping under the radar (from above and downward) and always featuring the performer in a semi-smirk, eyebrow cocked in knowing perception of the situations at hand, Number Six looks both dominant and deceived, a man caught up in a world which he didn’t create, but able to navigate its weird waters with cunning, drive and more than a little moxie. Toward the end of the run, we see our star slowly manipulating the format to force a confrontation between himself and the dreaded dictator of The Village, Number Two. “A Change of Mind” sees McGoohan’s character creating a bond with a female doctor (all the medical staff seem to be women, for some reason) with the intent of thwarting his nemesis. Similarly, “Once Upon a Time” sets up something called the ‘Degree Absolute’ which turns out to be a battle to the death between these long time antagonists.

With American Movie Classics gearing up to offer an update on the series (starring Passion of the Christ‘s James Caviezel and Ian McKellen), A&E has overseen a painstaking remaster of the original series, complete with a stunning Blu-ray release that brings everything brilliant about the show to dazzling life. The extras packed presentation, including new commentaries, making-of featurettes, character and setting documentaries, and a bevy of bonus background gives the Prisoner fan as much context as they could possibly want. With gorgeous imagery, razor-sharp sound, and a load of exciting content, the new format box set answers a lot of questions about the material…except one.

Indeed, the lingering concern that every fan has centers around the identity of Number One. The final episode, “Fall Out”, offers its own somewhat imaginative take on the answer (something about how a famous line in every introduction is read), but many The Prisoner faithful find such a solution unrewarding. The reason for this, however, is understandable. Something strange happened along the way toward a reasonable resolution to all this mysterious spy stuff. McGoohan, who only wanted a very short run to begin with, agreed to a full 13 episodes understanding that ITC executive Sir Lew Grade was only willing to contract for same. Surprisingly, Grade actually wanted two seasons, not just one. By the time the requisite number had been reached for series one, McGoohan was shocked to learn that Grade had pulled the plug. After several meetings, the men came to an agreement. Four more episodes were allowed, with the finale wrapping up the series for good.

That may explain the rushed nature of the resolution, especially when you consider that McGoohan originally wanted to make seven installments total. Besides, it’s hard to labor inside a storyline that keeps delaying revealing to the audience the story’s purpose.  All the techo-babble and pseudo sci-fi speak can only get you so far. At some point, clues have to be clarified and hints explained or fans will fade out. This is why the initial Peaks comparison is so apt. David Lynch designed his ‘90 show around the solution to the question “Who killed prom queen Laura Palmer?” Once revealed, the series lost its narrative purpose. As a result, it turned into an idiosyncratic mess for eccentricities sake. With The Prisoner, the problem was more metaphysical. In the finale, during his speech to a gathering of Villagers, the President of the Assembly says the following about our hero:

“We are honored to have with us a revolutionary of a different caliber. He has revolted. Resisted. Fought. Held fast. Maintained. Destroyed resistance. Overcome coercion. The right to be a Person, Someone, or Individual. We applaud his private war and concede that despite materialistic efforts he has survived intact and secure. All that remains is recognition of a Man.”

As the main symbolic and dogmatic thesis to the show, The Prisoner faced the daunting task of making such a stance seem new, fresh and exciting each and every episode. For some, seeing McGoohan defiant and flip every scene could certainly create a stigma of staleness. Also, there are moments where The Village feels purposefully and pointlessly insane, merely making up new elements to fluster and fool Number Six. Like any series with an ambiguity at its core, The Prisoner rests and falls on its handling and revelation. It did a decent, if not quite definitive job.

If simplicity and easy answers are all you’re looking for in a one hour thriller, then perhaps you should focus your entertainment attentions elsewhere. The Prisoner is more of a sum of its parts than a cleverly considered bit of clockwork creativity. There are slow spots (“Free for All”‘s election element takes a long time getting started) and one extremely odd bit of mindmeld exploitation (“Living in Harmony”‘s take on the Western genre and its archetypes). Still, the energy the series gives off, and the experimental way in which it handled ideas both distinctive (the balloon like bounty hunter “Rover”) and deranged (“A, B and C”‘s use of dream/memory manipulation science) makes it a stand out example of an ambitious series that celebrated its epic ideals and aesthetically challenging execution of same.

And that’s what’s most riveting about this nearly 40-year-old program. The Prisoner defied the corrosion of conformity and mocked institutionalized violence and state sanctioned interference with personal freedom. It celebrated the human being and blasted any society wanting only compliance and control. There were nods to Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, the increasingly bitter political process and the “tune in, turn on, drop out” dream of the peace and love generation. For Number Six, and the actor playing him, anything remotely resembling a group or collective conscious was to be considered corrupt and anti-individual. It was as if that famous ‘60s saying – “Never trust anyone over thirty” – was reclaimed and retrofitted by the show to state, “Never trust anyone but yourself”.

In the end, it really didn’t matter who Number One was, which side of the Cold War The Village sat, why enumeration was used to identify the citizenry, or what in the world that killer beach ball really was. The Prisoner was more interested in one’s individual capacity for choice than any future shock folly. In fact, one could successfully argue that this entire experience was a test, a proving ground created to test Number Six’s loyalty and tenacity. If he really wanted to resign from a world loaded with underhanded dealings, back stabbing best friends and governments grasping to one-up each other, how far would such a man be willing to go to prove his point? Would he be willing to challenge every facet of his humanity, including his personality and his soul? Would he allow himself to be locked away, only to champion his desire to be free? The way in which the answer is discussed and discovered is one of The Prisoner‘s best features. It’s what keeps the series timeless…and very telling.

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