The Prisoner: discussion post

Monday, November 16, 2009

Tagged: ian mckellen, off-topic, television, prisoner

Occasionally I co-opt this space to just talk about stuff. Then I figleaf it by raising some spurious connection to the world of games -- which I can always do, because games are connected to everything. I mean, dude.

Today's topic -- and tomorrow's and Wednesday's -- is the new TV remake of The Prisoner. (The figleaf, of course, is the best videogame ever made, which I played along with the IF premieres of Infocom and Scott Adams, back in 1980.)

I have now watched the first part (or first two parts of six, depending on how you count -- just like Tolkien). I want to get some thoughts down on blogpaper before I either read other people's thoughts, or see more of the show. So this will be my comment post. I will update it on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Spoiler-free judgement: good job so far. Ian McKellen is magnificent.

The rest of this post will contain SPOILERS. Comments will also be spoilery, I expect. Continue on if your mind is already contaminated.

EDIT-ADD Tuesday evening: Added comments about part two ("Anvil/Darling"). Spoiler-free judgement: overcompressed but promising.

EDIT-ADD Thursday evening: Added comments about the conclusion ("Schizoid/Checkmate"). Spoiler-free judgement: not awful, but disappointing to Prisoner fans.

(I mean it about the SPOILERS, after the cut.)

Part one: Arrival, Harmony

There must, of course, be changes. The new Village is not the old Village. The new Two is not the old Number Two. A remake cannot reiterate; we expect that.

Most important change first. The role originally played by Albertus has been given to Optima Bold. (See the map links above to view them in context.) Risky -- Optima is a familiar player these days, without the crazily retro associations of Albertus. But it works quite well. Optima is elegant, but overuse it -- and The Prisoner, old and new, gleefully uses the hell out of its core font -- and Optima gets on your nerves; it's unsettling, over-recognizable, intrusive. Exactly right.

Yes, fonts are trivial. Seriously now:

The Village landscape is different. No longer cozy and self-contained; it's expansive, barren, surrounded by deserts (like so many fairylands). Its focal points are starkly alien, not quaint. I'm willing to go with it. Post-apocalypse, time travel, virtual cyberworld, reconstructed by aliens? All of those have been done before, and I'll admit I'll be disappointed if the show settles on any of them. But I like the wordless way the possibilities have been raised.

The threats are different. Six's former employer has a name. He is an ex-corporate analyst, not an ex-spy. That is no surprise. The old Village was the perfect reflection of the Cold War -- governments were all, terrifying and secretive. The new enemy is the private, megalithic corporation which stands on the hazy edge of governmental influence. The stakes are still your privacy, your rights, and the control of your life; only the masks have changed.

The construction of the story is different. Two's game is not just about Six; it is rooted in Two's own life, his wife (if that is his wife), his son (if that creepily underaged beautyboy is his son). We don't know the game yet, of course, but it's not the duel simple for Six's soul.

(Do I need to mention that Ian McKellen is magnificent? Benign, charming, all-powerful, slightly mercurial, mildly frustrated with Six, and, just possibly, batshit insane. He's the perfect distillation of all Number Twos -- except, so far, for the trembling wreckage that Number Six occasionally managed to leave in his wake. We'll see if we get there by Tuesday.)

(I'm also pretty pleased by the hints of the old show, and the old Six, surfacing in the background. Patrick McGoohan did not live to see this show filmed, but I believe they had a place reserved for him, and it is fitting.)

All of this is still trivia. My judgement is positive, though still reserved: I'll buy all of it and see where it goes.

The interesting changes are deeper, and they have given me insight into what I believe The Prisoner is.

In the New Village, nobody believes in New York (or London). There is no outside world. Six's initial collision with Village life is not "I will escape," but "I believe that there is somewhere to escape to."

Metaphorically, sure, the theme of The Prisoner has always been "the world is the Village". But literalizing it like this -- I'm not sure.

See, if Two's story is right, then Six is deluded. And if Six is right, then everyone around him is deluded. And the story can't do a lot with that. It's the he-said-she-said problem: what do you do after they've said? Eventually, someone turns out to be right.

I know, the old show had its share of episodes that tried to rewrite Six's memory. (And more than its share that he spent drugged out of his gourd.) I remember them fondly. But ultimately they wind up in that annoying montage where Six twitches and mumbles and has memory flashes; and that's just where the first part of the new show wound up.

(I guess I'm glad, because that implies they'll do something else tomorrow.)

The creepy thing about the Old Village was that the Villagers weren't brainwashed, mostly. They accepted the Village. They were passive collaborators, or active ones. Six wasn't surrounded by zombies -- he was surrounded by Them. His peers, explicitly -- retired spies, inventors, movers and shakers -- who were no longer on Six's side, no longer shared his goals (even ignoring the surface boundaries of the Cold War).

This element did begin to surface last night, and I think that's when the new show really started to sizzle. When the tour bus drove by the Clinic, and the Villagers got very quiet. When Two arrives, and the stink of desperate terror fills the air. Later, of course, when they begin admitting to lies.

Because that's when you know they know. They may not know New York, but they know there are sides. The Villagers have agendas; they have things that they want; which means they have things they will betray to get what they want. And that's what The Prisoner is, to me.

Part two: Anvil, Darling

This didn't work as well, because they slid out of miniseries mode, back to the series/episodic model of the original show. Not completely -- but this was clearly two episodes, the Show Where Six Works Undercover and the Show Where Six Falls In Love. (Maybe the first two-hour chunk could be divided up that way, but it didn't feel like it at the time.)

I say it wasn't completely divorced from miniseries structure, because each episode was strongly tied to the miniseries plot: the first to the present (Two's son), and the second to the past (Six meeting Lucy in New York). The problem is, they tried to have self-contained, one-hour plots as well. And they couldn't fit all that into one hour.

The result felt like stand-alone episodes which had had half their scenes edited out. We never had a chance to follow the schoolgirl 1100, so her loss at the end of "Anvil" was flat and pointless. It should have been a damning indictment of Six's quest -- he set her off, after all -- but it never connected. As for Six's romance, it went from heavy petting to the chapel scene so fast that I mistook it for 832's funeral. All the story's connective tissue was missing.

Which is a shame, because the other story material -- Two's family, the flashbacks -- were fantastic. I love the background building. (The "Reformation", "Number Two the 14th," "Who is Number One?" and every hand goes up.) None of that was dispensible. And for sure I prefer under-explained, elliptical, fast-jumping scripts to the overexplained kind. But this part of the show needed another hour of screen time, minimum, and that's all that's to be said.

The mysterious holes seemed very random and perhaps pointless... except that they're really of a piece with the Village's perverse and unstable geography: vanishing oceans, omnipresent crystal towers, a trackless desert where every track leads to the same anchor. If the last part of the show takes this somewhere, I'll be happy with the holes. If not, I'll be somewhat put out.

(However, they will still be redeemed by the "HAVE A PIG... FOR STABILITY!" posters. I want one.)

Let me put in a word for Jim Caviezel, by the way. One wants to just mumble ecstatically about Ian McKellen, but really Caviezel is doing a great job of being The Prisoner without doing a Patrick McGoohan impression. I think he's taking some cues from the classic McGoohan performance -- watch him searching the liquor cabinet in part one, for example -- but he's got his own brand of prickliness and suspicion.

On to part three....

Part three: Schizoid, Checkmate

These two hours still had an episodic slant (the Evil Twin, the Conclusion) but the hour-long stories were better integrated with the overall show. They fit in as chapters within the overall arc, and they didn't try to introduce new characters with their own self-contained stories. (This, in retrospect, was the failure of Anvil and Darling: they tried to provide complete stories of 1100 and 415, while still following Six, and that's what didn't fit.)

I said last time that if the show went somewhere interesting with its surreal geography, I'd be happy with the Unexplained Dirt Holes. But then, I said earlier I'd be disappointed if they picked a standard SF trope like "virtual cyberworld" or "all in your head".

So, both. I'm somewhat happy, and somewhat disappointed.

Because I am in a good mood, I will start with the disappointment.

The Prisoner is a show about agendas, principles, lies, promises, and betrayal. That's why an "all a dream" ending would have been a cop-out: because if all of the Villagers are figments of Six's imagination, they can't be real people who choose wrongly (or rightly). They can't be afraid; they can't demand things; they can't betray Six. It would just be Six sabotaging himself, which is not the point.

(Again, I admit that the old show had plenty of dream sequences. But the point was that the dreams were tools, ultimately -- Two's weapons, or sometimes Six's. They were elements of the game.)

(...Except for the final episode, which went to wackyland and didn't come back. I shall not add to the lake of ink which has been spilled over Fall Out; you make up your own mind about it, and that's its point.)

Now, I don't categorize the new show as a simple "all a dream" story. The writers developed the concept in an interesting way; and they populated their fairyland with real people, not zombies or figments. But, at the same time, the show presented them as not really conscious people. They were unaware of the real world, unaware of their own history.

That's not a recipe for agency. Sleepwalkers don't make interesting decisions; they just react to their dreams. Even 415/Lucy, who had a dynamic role in the New York scenes, became passive once she transitioned to the Village. 16 (Six's "brother") and 909 (1112's boyfriend) had moments of choice -- but their choices didn't really matter to Six, did they?

And with the question of what matters, we turn to the surreal aspects of the show.

The old show carefully framed its surreal moments (with the exception, again, of its conclusion): you always knew, by the end of the episode, what had been dream and what real. (Though not, perhaps, which events had been faked or staged.) A few episodes were mostly hallucination, but physical reality dominated.

The new show, in contrast, metered out a steady stream of surreal, hallucinatory moments; they were woven into each episode. A few were explicitly marked as dreams (for example, Six's rescue of 313 in the tunnel). But most of them simply flowed past, ungraspable. The vanishing ocean. The holes. Six's twin being invisible from some viewpoints. Six being hauled off for treatment, and then reawakening at home undisturbed. (How many times did that happen, actually?)

This was, of course, all lead-up to the core revelation of the Village as a shared dreamworld. And that colors how I react to it. As writing, as a sustained atmosphere of dissociation, I find it excellently done. I've always been a sucker for surreal stuff -- any fan of my games knows that.

And I am seriously damn impressed by the underlying mechanic of the show's writing: the New York flashback scenes which turn out not to be flashbacks. The miniseries is presented (I am convinced of this) in unadorned chronological sequence; everything occurs in the order that we see it. It is the nature of this Village that every inhabitant -- every real inhabitant, I mean -- is simultaneously inside and outside, going about a conscious and an unconscious life in parallel.

Pulling that off, using the conventions of film and then turning it inside out by disclaiming the convention -- that is a hell of a trick, and I damn the writers forever for thinking of it first. Leaving it unexplained and unremarked -- merely implied, more and more strongly, as the show concludes -- that is iridium gonads of the first water. Not to mention that I'm gonna have to watch the whole thing again, paying attention to the simultaneities.

But. And on the other hand. The endpoint of all this surreality is a Village in which most of the Villagers don't matter to the story. They sleepwalk through their world, and either survive or vanish at Two's whim. Six does not need to trust them or help them, sacrifice them or destroy them. When these things happen (as with 1100), Six isn't even aware of it. And the conflicts of the Village do not matter to the world.

Which is why I say this new show is well-written, but it is not The Prisoner. If I can wrench my mind away from this fandom that I have held since age 10, if I can forget all the Prisoner catchphrases and clever references, I can see it as an excellent work of psychological science fiction. But as The Prisoner -- no. It's not about the same questions.