The Prisoner: Arrival

"I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own."

A prison where you can never turn off the Muzak. Now that's a nightmare.

The Village is like a surreal seaside vacation resort, with bright colors, winding streets, and holiday entertainments. But like a roach motel, you check in -- but you don't check out, as evidenced by the old folks home and the graveyard on the beach. No one talks about (or more accurately, is permitted to talk about) anything that exists outside the Village. And it appears to be international. What sort of government agency would collaborate with the agencies of other countries to illegally imprison their decommissioned spies? The "maid" assigned to Number Six said that she was born in the Village. Makes sense, if some of these imprisoned people choose to have children, but it's a disturbing idea.

Surveillance is constant, privacy is nonexistent, and paranoia is the rule of the day. (Although Six also learned that he was under constant surveillance before he came to the Village.) Nearly everyone Six met during this episode was working against him. And there was the hinted at but un-elaborated upon threat of torture if Six doesn't cooperate and tell them why he resigned.

Number Six

So why did Number Six resign? He was a loyal government servant for a long time, and discovered something that made him very angry. And he was important, since he has already been offered a position of authority in the Village if he cooperates.

I like Patrick McGoohan's work in this series. He's a strong actor with a crisp, memorable voice, a gift for effective sarcasm, and a face that manages to express emotion while also appearing impassive. We know very little about Number Six, but we do know that he's principled, tough and individualistic. He certainly doesn't give up easily. He kept it together a long time before he finally kicked the hell out of that loudspeaker. Which is very much a symbol of his imprisonment; he was forced to listen to pleasant music, and can never turn it off.

Six is a new prisoner, and there are hundreds of prisoners in the Village. Why was he assigned such a low number? You'd think the early numbers would have been taken long ago. Is he important? Is "Six" a revolving number, like Number Two?

Number Two

"Number Two" seems to be a title for the person in charge, since there were two Number Twos in this episode. The first Two said to Six, "You'll be the death of me." Is that what happened to him? Is Six so important that Two's failure to deal with him required immediate replacement? It's like being the principal of Sunnydale High, isn't it? Who'd want that job?

Who is Number One? Number Two was reporting to someone by phone.

Assorted Village weirdness

A roaring white balloon keeps people from escaping. Although it has no name in this episode, I know it's called "Rover." Rover is very much like the Village: soft and innocuous looking, sort of fun on the outside, but revealed as smothering and very dangerous. What happens when Rover gets you? It has to be more than simple unconsciousness, since it put Six in the Village hospital.

The symbol of the Village is an antique bicycle, called a "pennyfarthing." It's on everyone's number tag, and there were actual pennyfarthings sitting in the square and in Number Two's "office". Why is this the symbol for the Village? It's pretty without being all that functional. It's old-fashioned, meant for one person, and difficult to ride. Hey, I don't know.

There are statues and busts of human figures everywhere. This is such obvious symbolism of the prisoners in the Village that I don't need to point it out, do I? Most of the Village inhabitants are forced to wear striped, colorful clothing, and it just occurred to me that in the past, prisoners used to wear black and white stripes, very clever. There are a number of men in black clothes and top hats walking through town, much like the man who gassed and kidnapped Six. Are they the guards?

There is a nonfunctional boat situated outside the "old people's home" that seems to be there for people to play on. I guess you can pretend you're sailing. Two's home is decorated with paintings of sailing ships, as well.

Everyone assigned to "group therapy" was sitting on the floor alone in a sectioned hallway, not speaking. It's very Village, to be forced to pretend to socialize while you're still essentially very alone.

There are maps available, but only of the Village. (Some in full color.) In the opening scenes when Six resigns, the wall behind the man's desk has two world maps on it. There were maps on the wall of Number Six's flat, too, as well as a globe. Symbolic of two different worlds, I suppose: the Village, and everything else.

I absolutely loved the "aptitude text." Number Six was given a round peg, and a square hole to put it in. The square became a circle as the peg was inserted. How could a message be any more obvious?

Ben P Duck Number Five says...

(Ben P Duck resigned from DouxReviews.com, reasons unknown. He then drove around London for a while before being gassed and spirited off to a couch. There, slowly reviving, he was greeted by a mysterious voice which demanded that he review every episode of The Prisoner. When he refused, Billie... I mean Number Two... unleashed a large beach ball to pummel him into submission. The following is the result.)

Ben P Duck: Wait a minute. Shouldn't I be referred to as a number?
Number Two: Every man is a number.
Duck: That's really not that helpful.
Number Two: Check the tag on your jacket. It has your number.
Duck: Oh, right. Ummm... it kind of fell off.
Number Two: You lost your number. We can utilize harsher measures to get you to take care of your things, you know.
Duck: I was just saying the same thing to my kids.
Number Two: So... anyway... what number works for you?
Duck: How about Six?
Number Two: Too obvious.
Duck: How about 3.14... y'know, Pi.
Number Two: Too nerdy.
Duck: How about Two?
Number Two: That's my job.
Duck: Well, it was worth a try. How about Number Five? It was Homer Simpson's number in their Prisoner spoof and the robot in the Short Circuit movies, and...


Number Two: All right, all right, Number Five is fine, will you get on with the review, please! Give us information!
Number Five: What were we talking about?
Number Two: ARRRRRRRRRGGGGHHH.
Number Five: Just kidding. Let's talk about "Arrival".

The word you hear most when talking about The Prisoner is "Panopticon" (okay, "bicycle," "umbrella" and "bizarre" are all probably more common, but "panopticon" is definitely up there). Eighteenth century prison reformer Jeremy Bentham coined the term for a prison he designed where one is observable at all times and knowing that, one conforms one's behavior to the norms demanded. The key is that you do this because you never know when you are being watched. Popularized by Michel Foucault in his 1975 book Discipline and Punish, it has become synonymous with the all-observant society which seeks to force the individual to conform. The Prisoner, as a series, is about the struggle of one man not to conform.

Of course, this sort of thing is hardly relevant anymore, is it? I mean, can you imagine a society where your every move is watched by shadowy figures who exist outside the realms of normal accountability, and reduce each of us to nothing more than a number to be stamped, filed and sorted? Or a society where our every life event is photographed without our knowledge and we are tracked everywhere we go with devices hidden on our persons? How about a place where there is no anonymity or privacy? Oh wait, we all live in the Village these days, don't we?

Back to Billie for bits and pieces:

-- Like nearly all good British sci-fi series, The Prisoner was filmed in Wales. Or at least the exteriors were.

-- The not-dead Cobb's very strange funeral on the beach involved a brass band and black umbrellas. Maybe a black umbrella is a sign of mourning. Cobb said he was off to his new "masters". Masters?

-- Six's daily calendar was already filled in for him with meaningless tasks.

-- A man in coveralls came to fix the broken loudspeaker in Six's flat. As Six stormed out, he ran into an identical man in identical coveralls gathering plants. Very suggestive of clones. I'm getting Lost vibes. Especially since the food in the Village has its own name brand, like the Dharma Initiative. Actually, reverse that, since, of course, The Prisoner came first.

-- Two's diminutive and mute butler is also a helicopter pilot.

-- When Six was in the hospital, the doctor punched buttons on a machine. The buttons had Greek letters on them.

-- Were the Admiral and Six's personal maid both given the number 66?

-- I liked the unreality of "Pop goes the Weasel" in a jazz tempo.

-- Judging from what Six was tossing in his briefcase before he was taken (passport, photograph of a tropical spot), this isn't the vacation he was planning to take.

-- Is Number Six the character McGoohan played in Secret Agent a.k.a. Danger Man? McGoohan always said no, but it seems like an interesting coincidence. "They're giving you a number and taking away your name."

Signs in the Village:

"Welcome to your home from home."

"Walk on the grass."

"Of the people, by the people, for the people."

"A still tongue makes a happy life."

"Questions are a burden to others, answers a prison for oneself." This is a particularly interesting sign to see in a prison, isn't it?

In the opener, when Number Six was about to resign, he walked through double doors labeled "Way Out."

Quotes:

Taxi driver: "Be seein' ya." It's what everyone says. Because you can't leave, so I know I'll be seeing you around.

Six: "The time of my birth is missing."
Two: "Well, there you are. Now let's bring it all up to date."
Six: "4:31 a.m. 19th of March, 1928. I have nothing to say. Is that clear?"
This is actually McGoohan's date of birth. You think he identifies with his character?

Six: (re: Rover) "What was that?"
Two: "That would be telling."

Six: "I am not a number. I am a person."
Two: "Six of one, half a dozen of another."

Admiral: "We're all pawns, my dear. Your move." Chess is another huge metaphor for what's going on in the Village. Duh.

Four out of four smashed loudspeakers,

Billie
---
Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.

8 comments:

ChrisB said...

I had never heard of The Prisoner until Billie mentioned it a while ago on the site. I decided to give it a try simply based on the age of the show and the fact that once I did some research on it, I was astonished at how often it has been referenced in popular culture. Although the story itself has not yet grabbed me, there was so much about this episode that I found very interesting.

The first is how forward thinking the show is. As Ben mentions, the fact that there are cameras everywhere -- certainly something those of us who live in Britain live with every day.

Money is spoken of in units. Today, we all use cash cards and credit cards. I can't remember the last time I had more than about £30 of cash in my wallet. Everything else is plastic.

The threat levels are given colours -- yellow and then orange are both mentioned. I'm not sure whether or not it was used at the time, but this same colour system is now used in the US to determine terrorist threat levels.

It is interesting that the hero is not given a name. In today's world, it is all about numbers. Our Social Security or National Insurance number, our phone number, our bank account number are all used to identify us much more often than our names.

I was struck with how rich the colour was and how bright many of the costumes were. At the beginning, there is actually a scene where Number Six can choose between a colour map or a black and white map. Of course, in 1967, many of the television sets on which this was viewed for the first time would have been black and white. Shooting in such rich colour was certainly forward thinking.

But, we are brought back to the sixties full force in a couple of ways. The first is that the basic plot is cold war/spy genre. Cobb mentions that he has been taken from Germany, where the most obvious example of the border between East and West was. The wall had not yet come down and there was a pervasive sense of fear of the other side, another theme that is explored in some detail.

The women are, well, women of the sixties. As such, they are there to show off in bikinis (modest by today's standards) and to cry when trying to manipulate Number Six. None of them has burned her bra yet, I would wager.

One visual effect that was extraordinary was the weather. As the episode goes on, the clouds begin to gather and the sun dims. If that isn't a metaphor for the show, I'm not sure what is.

Finally, I loved the "Be seeing you." As Billie points out, it is the only appropriate form of goodbye in such a claustrophobic world. Interestingly, Number Two and Cobb use the same phrase at the end, only in French and German. Is Cobb's use of German a hint that he is returning there?

The Village is a scary place. But, on a lighter note, there is something to be said about a place where an electrician will come to your home for a repair so quickly! :-)

So, although the story has not grabbed me by the throat yet, I am interested to see what happens next.

Billie Doux said...

Thanks, ChrisB. What a great comment. I didn't realize until I put it together that the review was so long -- it's fascinating that Ben and I had so much to say about a show this old. And clearly, you did, too.

Mark said...

I just dusted off "The Official Prisoner Companion" by White & Ali, so I'll try to find answers to some of your questions.

- "In comparing the character Number Six in The Prisoner with his previous role as John Drake in Secret Agent, McGoohan has said that both men get in trouble, but that John Drake was always able to bully or think his way out of the situation by the end of the show. Not so for The Prisoner..."

- "In numerology, the number six represents ambivalence and equilibrium. Could this by why McGoohan chose this particular number for the central character? If so, he's not saying. McGoohan claims that the number six was chosen because it is the only number that, when turned upside down, is something else."

- "Patrick McGoohan, on discussing the meaning of the penny-farthing, has said: "I came up with the penny-farthing bicycle because I thought it was an ironic symbol of progress. The feeling is that we are going too fast... I wish we could go a bit slower, but we can't." "

Mark Greig said...

So happy you're reviewing The Prisoner, guys. I love this show. It's one of British television's true greats. There is so much that is brilliant about this. But everyone has already mentioned them so I'll just talk briefly about the opening sequence. It is just brilliant. A masterclass in condensed, wordless storytelling. It's so good they use it in every episode. No show made today would dare have a three minutes long title sequence. That would get in the way of all the adverts.

Billie Doux said...

Mark (as in Greig), I totally agree about the opener. It is still stunning 45 years after it originally aired.

Mark (the other Mark), thanks so much for posting the info from the Prisoner companion. I hope you'll continue to do so because it will be a great addition to the reviews.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe how long it's taken me to see this show, given how influential it's been. I saw the travesty of a remake first..With that in mind this was great, and every bit as unsettling as I'd imagined. Fantastic opening episode. Loved the review.
Anna

Juliette said...

I love The Prisoner. I also love Portmeirion, which is a weird and awesome place all by itself - the boat and all the statues came with the town and are still there (my parents live not far from it).

Anonymous said...

There are very strong moments in this first episode, very confusing too.
This Number 2 must be a parody of Superman, I mean:
Ordering people to stop on the street shows big power.
Ordering the water to stop flowing shows impossible power. But:
Stopping or pausing a movie is of course much easier :)

Mike