[12 November 2009]
The Prisoner: Fall Out, February 1968
With the 2009 remake of The Prisoner, the ‘cultiest of cult TV’, finally (or regrettably?) on the air (though still unscreened at the time of writing), it’s perhaps worth a brief jaunt back into the heart of ‘Fall Out’, the final episode of the original 17 episode series, and one of the the most controversial series finales in TV history.
The Sopranos’ pout-provoking fade-to-black-ending is kids’ stuff next to The Prisoner‘s unapologetic payoff of surrealism and absurdism, undercutting its seemingly solid foundation with a series of confounding and contradictory images that still send fans scurrying to the security of ‘what really happened’ theories, explanations and rewrites.
After the finale aired, legend has it that star and creator Patrick McGoohan was forced into hiding and TV switchboards went into meltdown thanks to calls from irate viewers—the kind of detail that, while probably true, tends to distract from unsensational analysis of the show itself. (Similarly, the usual lore that the first episode confounded and befuddled viewers when the hero didn’t ‘escape’ at the end seems a little overblown—it’s a pretty dim-witted viewer who couldn’t piece together the basic idea of the show when its opening episode is called ‘Arrival’, spends plenty of time establishing the setup and ‘prison’ location, and is part of a show called… um, ‘The Prisoner’.)
Trying to pin down the essence of The Prisoner isn’t something that’s going to happen in a single column; there’s far too much tangled up in the years of responses, interpretations, homages, fan reactions, disputes, odd and obscure imagery and conceptual allegory. Adding to the confusion, the show is at once a well-defined whole and a hastily conceived concoction of ideas, simultaneously thought-through and off-the-cuff, with even the controversial finale’s script apparently thrown together by McGoohan in a couple of days.
Most confounding of all, the series never quite escapes its mainstream TV roots—only seven of the 17 episodes have the Patrick McGoohan ‘seal of approval’ as being core episodes, the rest seen as something akin to filler and ranging from being properly intriguing to seeming to completely miss the point. In some way’s it’s like piecing together a historical text out of corrupted sources: it’s hard to imagine how McGoohan could be so forceful in his vision in some instances and so lax in others (‘Do Not Foresake Me Oh My Darling’, completed mostly without McGoohan’s presence, is one episode perhaps best forgotten).
So (although Retro Remote would much rather spend some time dipping into one of the less-discussed ill-fitting or ‘non-sanctioned’ episodes) it’s perhaps worth greeting the remake by recalling a single scene from ‘Fall Out’ that is often overshadowed by the further absurdist excesses that follow it (the original series ending is hardly a secret, but I won’t spoil it here anyway, because I’m nice like that).
The setup is simple enough (well, it’s not, but let’s say that it is): Number Six (Patrick McGoohan, the ‘Prisoner’ of the title) has finally made it to the heart of his ‘prison’, the mysterious ‘Village’, seemingly run by an ever-changing series of authority figures (known as Number Two). His demands for freedom and the right to individuality (‘I am not a number, I am a free man!’) have finally been agreed to. In other words—he’s won. Just as we all secretly imagine will happen to us (any day now…), the oppressive world that tried to crush him has finally collapsed at his feet and declared him its leader and one, true individual:
He has revolted, resisted, fought, held fast, maintained, destroyed resistance, overcome coercion. The right to be a person, some one or individual. We applaud his private war, and concede that despite materialistic efforts, he has survived intact and secure.
Out of context, it’s pretty standard stuff: hero is oppressed; hero fights for his beliefs/ individuality/ rights/ job/ goldfish; everyone decides hero is just super. The end.
In fact, 40 years later the storyline is probably more familiar than ever, with ‘oppressed-chic’ the TV fashion of the day and no shortage of uniformly pretty and blandly powerful characters pouting because they just can’t get a fair shot at being themselves/ mutants/ vampires/ vampire-slayers/ space-rebels/ goldfish in a world that’s mean and nasty to them (apologies to Chris Claremont). We hear a lot about modern metaphors for oppression, although usually we’re served up cultural doses of conformist models pouting because one-dimensional strawmen won’t be nice to them—the fact that the ‘oppressed’ are invariably articulate and benevolent [or mildly ‘troubled’ (yawn)’ fashion models tending to strengthen rather than disrupt the real-world workings of actual bigotry and social exclusion.
But McGoohan’s not interested in just staging some fantasy victory over an illusory enemy or Star Wars-style awards ceremony to reassure viewers that the world’s not such a nasty ol’ place after all. Even his previous series Danger Man, rarely taken as anything but a superior but standard action vehicle, avoided simple resolutions and heroes with stacked decks—especially as McGoohan’s own profile and popularity (and, presumably, power) increased.
A Neat Visualisation of Zizek-style Lacanian Psychoanalytic Theory
So, Number Six isn’t just awarded a position of greatness, he’s asked to follow through and actually speak. So far he’s been oddly silent throughout most of the episode, responding mainly with wary and non-committal questions, delivered in McGoohan’s inimitable sardonic and clipped style. Now, as some intentionally cheesy music plays for his triumphant victory, he rises from his throne, slowly takes the miraculous prizes of his newfound freedom (some travellers cheques and identity documents) to enthusiastic applause from a crowd of masked and robed observers, and stands at the podium, bringing the music to a halt with the clack of a gavel.
He pauses, prepares to speak, begins: “I—”
The robed figures erupt into a shout: “I, I, I!”
He clacks the gavel to bring silence and tries again: “I fe—”
The crowd erupts again: “I, I, I! I, I, I!”
The third time he presses on, then a fourth, increasingly frantic as his is speech drowned out once again by the unleashed bellowing of the crowd: “I, I, I! I, I, I!”.
“We thank you”, says the judge-like figure presiding over the victorious affair as Number Six concludes his completely inaudible speech. And, the ceremony concluded, Number Six is led to ‘Number One’, the man behind it all.
It’s an oddly compelling scene, a triumph shouted-over and a victory that seems to turn inexplicably, almost passively, into a defeat. The moment of triumph seems ridiculous, the trophies of freedom and individuality mundane.
The speech itself, rapturously shouted over by the masked figures, seems to present a seminal (and therefore simple) philisophical problem: Number Six has been granted ‘individuality’—and yet, given a chance at self-proclamation, can’t even manage to get beyond ‘I’, the most simple signifier of the self.
Obviously disruptive in any standard literal or narrative sense, the scene undercuts its own expected trajectory and pushes us into more thoughtful territory—the kind of thing that’s always troublesome in a cultural world that seems to be dominated by dramatic realism and literal representation of the world (and where even the most basic hint of a ‘style’ divides audience responses). Here, freedom and identity is offered up, quite bluntly, as a core problem that goes beyond the immediate context of our culture and environment.
In other words, McGoohan moves beyond the cherished (and oft-overstated) realm of social commentary and proves himself more concerned with that artistic realm where meaning is defined more by resonance than by immediately identifiable relevance. Bypassing the usual sense of ‘meaning’, McGoohan attempts to define the meaningless, the core state of the self, and lets us worry for ourselves about how this vision fits into the reality of our social context.
This shouldn’t really be a surprise—McGoohan always tied his moral concerns to his on-screen image (an underlying religious puritanism, for example that, oddly, makes Danger Man so much more compelling than its bland flavour-of-the-day James Bond-style counterparts), and Henrik Ibsen’s exciting and provocative 1865 play Brand (in which McGoohan starred for BBC television in 1959—a subject for a future Retro Remote) serves as a philosophical foundation for much of McGoohan’s work.
As a result, it bypasses the immediate but simple intellectual gratification of ‘commentary’, gathering meanings rather than delivering one. For example, it’s a neat visualisation of Zizek-style Lacanian psychoanalytic theory where ‘the unconscious is outside’: identity is defined not by some inner special core of ‘self’, but only by the self’s belief in their place within the network of others around them (those shouting figures, all echoing back Number Six’s ‘I’ in a kind of feedback loop).
Similarly, I sometimes use it as a demonstration of the working of hegemony, where the individual may believe themselves free from ideological influences, but cannot deliver the most basic thought without finding themselves caught up in some kind of externally defined ideological position (i.e., claiming to be free from ideological position is, itself, an ideological position). Interestingly, the viewer can just catch glimpses of little name-plates identifying the masked figures with one social institution or another. More simply, perhaps it displays the need to identify with pre-existing social structures and labels to determine who we are: identity reduced to a mere construct of the choices around us.
Maybe, maybe not—but enough of that malarkey. However we look at it, clearly on some level it works, as the evocative images of The Prisoner continue to provoke lively discussion and analysis, even though most of the superficial ideas commonly associated with the show (control of the state, electronic monitoring and surveillance society, government and corporate reduction of dissent) have become standard mainstream topics.
The remake may not disappoint—hopefully it won’t—but a quick glimpse at the trailer suggests a bunch of poor pretties waiting to be liberated, love in an oppressive environment, and a generic villain, played with the once-great Ian McKellen’s now routinely-dull friendly-but-actually-nasty demeanour. With backstory promised (no doubt to keep the literal-minded happy), are we just going to end up with yet another ‘social commentary’ serving up the usual cheap rebellion fantasy against totalitarian societies, surveillance technology, and oppressive cultures. Will we just end up with another The Formula (1980) or Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1997) that thinks it’s a revelation to point out that the government and companies don’t care about people? (Duh.)
McGoohan’s The Prisoner leaves us with something that doesn’t simply reduce itself to a statement. We’re left with something that holds more meaning than it seems to be capable of. Where standard commentary doles out an idea or two, this kind of art attracts and provokes them.
Perhaps this is the lofty perspective from which we should judge the 2009 version of The Prisoner: not ‘does it have a point?’, but does it have several?