Television

The Prisoner: 'Fall Out'

The Prisoner's unapologetic payoff of surrealism and absurdism heads into that artistic realm where meaning is defined more by resonance than by immediately identifiable relevance.

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.

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