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The Prisoner: Living in Harmony

"Interesting that he can separate fact from fantasy so quickly."

This was the second completely atypical Prisoner episode in a row, and although I give them points for creativity, I must admit I wasn't on board at all. At least until the end.

Since Six has experienced virtual reality before (although that wasn't what it was called in 1967), it was clear from the first frame what was going on -- especially since it started with Six as the sheriff resigning his post and turning in his badge and gun. It was even easy to pick out the player that had to be the new Number Two (the Judge), and to recognize all of the typical Village propaganda and paranoia in the town of Harmony: the lynch mob, the kangaroo court, Six transgressing but Kathy the saloon girl being punished for it. Kathy was used, as other women in the Village have been used, to tap into Six's natural chivalry, although perhaps more effectively this time.

It was the ending that redeemed this episode. Six was able to immediately shake off the fantasy, and didn't even comment on what had happened. The Kid and Kathy? Not so much. They both voluntarily returned to their fantasy obsession roles and ended up dead on the saloon floor, their bodies sprawled in positions reflective of each other. Very cool.

At the time of this writing, I am reviewing the last season of the original Star Trek, which was also filmed in the late 1960s. They also did a virtual reality kind of episode set in the old west. In my opinion, The Prisoner's version was much better. The thing that worked best for me wasn't Six again being manipulated by the Village; it was the bad guy, "the Kid." His wordlessness, strange mannerisms, inappropriate passes at Kathy, and his odd, distinctive clothing (red long underwear and top hat) made him exceptionally creepy. Kathy was also more sympathetic and easier to like than a lot of the female obstacles they've thrown in front of Six.

The other item of interest was that the townspeople kept begging Six, the sheriff, to clean up their town. It appeared that Number Two was expecting the same thing. Do they really want Six to become part of the power structure of the Village? It has certainly been mentioned before, but now it seems to be a course more aggressively pursued.

Ben P Duck Number Five says...

Number Five: Forsooth, ye fiend who doth hold me against my will.
Number Two: For why didst thou leaveth the service of the king?
Number Five: Oh, forsooth, forsooth, forsooth, and other medieval-ish sounding words.
Number Two: Okay, maybe The Prisoner format doesn't translate into every genre.
Number Five: Are you sure? I think I have a couple more forsooths in me.
Number Two: I am sure.
Number Five: Oh... um... forsooth.

I've always kind of hated the science fiction western episodes, whether they were Star Trek's "Spectre of the Gun", TNG's "Fistful of Datas", or (may the Lords of Cobol help us all) that classic Battlestar episode where Starbuck has the gunfight with the Cylon. In fact, I even planned on hating Firefly (that is, right up until I heard the theme song).

So, not surprisingly, I was really sure this episode was going to be as stinky as a day old horse biscuit (as we say down in west Texas), but it actually really worked for me. Not the end where it's all a mind control trick, which was just a silly coda on what used to be referred to in comic books as an "imaginary" or "what if?" story (which is itself silly because aren't most Spiderman stories imaginary... okay... where was I?)

Most of the time, the old west is used in science fiction as a statement of the iconic nature of the concept of frontier. With Star Trek, this was particularly the case, with Roddenberry frequently referring to the show as having the same structure as the old Wagon Train show. The characters struggle to establish justice, face new challenges, be self-reliant, and overcome violent conflict. Firefly obviously calls on all these things in a very self-referential but unselfconscious (not to mention post-modern) way.

What they do here is a bit different. They are making the point that their theme of freedom and identity could be explored in any setting. Oddly, I kept thinking of the movie The Quick and the Dead as I was watching this, where the two leads, Sharon Stone and Russell Crowe, are both essentially stuck in the town and have to struggle through the same moral dilemmas to eventually do what needs to be done. (It's not a great movie, but it has some fun gun-slinging and thorny existential issues). I mentioned in an earlier review that the spy-genre just happened to be the medium that was available to the show's creators to tell the story. This episode was telling us that if it had been a western that they had to work with, they could have done it that way. Indeed, they probably could have made a case for it in other genres as well (space opera, hard-boiled detective noir, or even horror).

Back to Billie for bits and pieces:

-- No opening, no credits, and a Western-like musical score. The name of the show was given at the end. That's pretty progressive for 1967.

-- Patrick McGoohan did a respectable American accent, but he's pretty much always awesome. Some of the others? Not so much. I know the British guys who write for this site are always complaining about bad British accents in American shows, so I feel I need to do my part for the other side of the pond. :)

-- The saloon had a sign, "The Silver Dollar: Prickley Pear Beers." Prickley pear beers? And isn't it spelled "prickly"?

-- That was some hat with plumes that Kathy was wearing. In fact, all of the saloon girls were wearing various shades of pink accompanied by white and black. Interesting costume choice.

Two out of four prickley pear beers,

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


  1. An observation from the Companion:
    - This episode has the distinction of being the only one that was not aired in the United States during the original broadcast run, owing to censorship problems. There have been many theories as to why this specific episode caused so much concern. A network censor cited the drug-related aspects of the program, although this seems somewhat difficult to believe considering the fact that over half the episodes concern drugs. A more pertinent reason is probably the refusal of Number Six to arm himself in defense of the community; remember that this was at the height of the Vietnam War. Indeed, an ITC official has stated that this was the major concern of the U.S. broadcasters. It may also be that the setting of this episode- a small American town in the western tradition- hit a little too close to home. It's easy enough to overlook potentially subversive ideas when they are proclaimed in a fantasy world like The Village, but when they are enacted within a mythical western town, they take on a keener sense of reality. In many ways, however, the setting was simply chosen to let McGoohan play out a fantasy- he always wanted to star in a western.

    (The book has a section called "The Great Debates", where the censorship of this episode is discussed in greater detail.)

  2. The "Companion" appears to have completely made that censorship story up.

    The event that caused one week of the 17 weeks of The Prisoner to be lost was the June 8, 1968 State funeral of Senator Robert Kennedy. The passage of the funeral train and the night-time Arlington interment was covered by the prime-time American networks on the very evening that 'Chimes of Big Ben' was due to be shown.

    Not surprisingly the postponement of an episode of a new summer season TV show passed by entirely unremarked upon at the time. The loss of one week of the schedule did however mean that one episode had to be dropped, sooner or later. We are still left with the question why did CBS choose to drop the cowboy episode. Perhaps the reason was exactly because in the land of the cowboy this episode seemed most disposable, but that would be my speculation. What is demonstrable is that the dropping of an episode was actually not even noticed in the whirl of those historically tragic but then current events. If you take a closer look at the article scan I posted on blog, you will see that even after the 1968 broadcasts were completed the commentator is still referring to the 17 weeks of the series.



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