The Prisoner Confusing, Nightmarish, and Absolutely Brilliant

27 Nov

“Remake” and “original” are loaded words.

The Prisoner, AMC’s remake of the 1967 British series of the same name, is nothing like its predecessor.  Or at least that’s what I’m told—not having seen the first version, I watched the new miniseries with a mind wiped as clean of preconceptions as one of the brainwashed members of The Village.  And along with most of them, I liked what I saw—The Prisoner (2009) was a strong, character-driven, self-contained story: an original in its own right.

Brilliant, enigmatic, and utterly horrifying in the way all good dystopian science fiction is—the final scene alone was enough to bring up a wave of déjà vu from reading George Orwell’s Nineteen Eight-Four for the first time and naively imagining torture and death were the worst O’Brien could do to Winston (or in this case, Two to Six).

I was wrong.

Throughout the miniseries, Six’s single-minded dedication to escape—“I am not a number!” he cries on multiple occasions, “I’m a free man!”— is almost heartbreaking.  Mental conviction, Six (James Caviezel) insists during early episodes, is stronger than anything the manipulative leader of The Village, Two (Ian McKellan, in a terrifying departure from the grandfatherly Gandalf), can throw at him.

But the theme of The Prisoner seems to be that the mind is not as secure a vault as we might imagine.  Six, after all, can’t even remember the name he supposedly had in his supposed other life and its supposed other world.  Any evidence he or any other number in the village has is as fragile as the wisp of a dream left after waking up—literally.  “Dreamers,” who draw fragments of their other lives on scraps of paper (the Statue of Liberty, a stick figure with a bag over its head), are disruptive elements in a society that sees them as crazy.

Add self-doubt to the mix and getting out starts to look impossible for the increasingly irresolute Six.

From my own experience, I’d say viewers can relate—as Six attempts to piece together memory fragments of a creepy corporate life at a mysterious surveillance company called Summakor (and his own quitting, even though “Nobody resigns from Summakor”), we’re trying to straighten out the plot from a thoroughly disjointed, non-linear story structure.  Episode one, “Arrival,” I’ll warn you, is nearly incomprehensible.

It’s not easy for anyone to straighten out the mysteries of The Village—neither us nor its own denizens—but the nonlinear narrative is as masterfully done an example of television text painting as I’ve ever seen.  The series, after all, is all about manipulating the human mind.

And no one’s better at that than Two, whose “death-cold eyes” (as described by one terrified villager) and gelid calm are absolutely convincing—I’m pretty sure smiling benignly while playing catch with a grenade is something only an elder statesman of drama like Sir Ian McKellan could pull off.

The rest of the cast, as well, is stellar, successfully portraying incredible depths of characterization (careful! some spoilers below) —

Two’s son, 11-12 (Jamie Campbell-Bower) shifts chillingly between the frigid self-possession of his father and the tortured confusion he picked up from Six;

Ruth Wilson’s self-composure as 313 is flawless, until the total disassociation of her “real” self from the “real” world is revealed, and makes a jarring contrast;

And Caviezel’s disorientation and resolution to escape are through the early episodes are utterly believable—only makes his ultimate end even more horrifying (here’s a hint: remember Winston Smith?).

But The Prisoner recalls Aldous Huxley as much as George Orwell: Two’s seemingly sincere belief that he can “help” people, perfect humans against their will, makes The Village as brave a new world as Huxley imagined for London of the 26th century.

“The great war is psychological.  It’s in here,” Two insists, tapping his head.  And he’s right—not just in terms of the control he exerts over the minds of Six, 313, and his son 11-12 (for a while, at least).

“Postmodern” nonlinear editing doesn’t mean that the themes aren’t relevant, or predictive rather than contemporary—The Prisoner’s emphasis on the difference (or lack thereof?) between what’s real and what’s a construct is a very modern moral dilemma in an age when scientific and technological advances blur the line between the “real” the synthetic.

(Is 313’s love natural, or manufactured?  And even if it is a product of Two’s nefarious gene therapy, does that make it less real now that she does feel it?  Does The Village exist in any physical space, or just the mind?  Does it make a difference?)

In any case—with a disjointed structure, an just-barely-comprehensible storyline, a nightmarish conclusion, and a concept disconcertingly contemporary, watching AMC’s The Prisoner was something like having a bad dream, only to wake up and shudder that it could be possible.

But if Nineteen Eighty-Four or Brave New World are any sort of examples (or Shakespeare’s tragedies, or Euripides’, or Sophocles’…), dystopia and tragedy have a long shelf life.

I’m definitely buying the DVD.


3 Responses to “The Prisoner Confusing, Nightmarish, and Absolutely Brilliant”

  1. Jacque Pellam December 26, 2009 at 4:37 pm #

    Have you seen this tribute video to Patrick McGoohan? It’s quite nice. The Prisoner is my all-time favorite television series in history in my opinion. What did you think of the new version? Click here if you’d like to check out my site. Be seeing you.

    • thescattering December 27, 2009 at 9:49 am #

      Thanks for the links and the comment!
      I wasn’t familiar with The Prisoner until the AMC remake premiered, but I love it now; definitely up on the all-time favorites list.


  1. Tweets that mention The Prisoner Confusing, Nightmarish, and Absolutely Brilliant « The Scattering -- - November 27, 2009

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Wendy Kovitz and Ian McKellan fans, Isabela Morales. Isabela Morales said: <i>The Prisoner</i> Confusing, Nightmarish, and Absolutely Brilliant: […]

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