Tuesday, January 22, 2008

CULT TV FLASHBACK #47: The Prisoner (1967-68): "Arrival"

In the Valhalla of genre television there is nothing even remotely like The Prisoner, the late-1960s British allegory that focuses explicitly on the idea that "no man is just a number." 

With steadfast zeal and an almost radical sense of dedication and single-mindedness The Prisoner devotes itself to the ideals of individual freedom and liberty, and finds that contemporary Western society -- here represented by a hermetically-sealed Village -- doesn't measure up.

The Prisoner opens with a beautifully-photographed and symbolic montage that is seen in every one of the seventeen hour-long segments. 

Images of dark clouds form before our eyes as a thunderclap blares on the soundtrack. Next, we are gazing at an image of pure personal freedom: a solitary man driving a small sports car down a long, empty road, the wind blowing his hair. 

He appears confident and liberated, unfettered by anything or anyone. 

The driver then pulls into 1960s metropolitan London, enters a parking deck, and marches decisively through two doors marked with the legend "way out" visible in the frame. It's clear at this point that the man, Patrick McGoohan has a full-head of steam and -- in his quest for self-determination -- indeed seeks a "way out." We see him walk a long, narrow hall, his feet accelerating. A low-angle shot reveals him swinging open double doors with anger; the angle telling us he is powerful, menacing even, and about to establish his independence.

This man is next depicted in what appears to be a government office as he lectures his superior, and throws down a resignation letter in a white envelope. 

Two things about this portion of the opening montage feel ominous. First, there is no "live" sound (meaning no voice), so that even as this courageous man asserts his freedom of self-determination and free speech, the audience is denied the substance of his arguments. Literally, his individual voice is squelched. 

Secondly, the only sound we do hear is another series of menacing thunderclaps.

 Clearly, this is a portentous moment. All is not as the Man believes it is. He is expressing himself loudly, but to the audience this is futile...he is silenced. His words are drowned out.

The man, a government agent we presume, then leaves the office and returns to his apartment, where he begins to pack his bags. 

Here, The Prisoner's opening montage trenchantly inter-cuts between a free man who has asserted his will and the automatic mechanisms of a vast, overreaching, impersonal bureaucracy.

As the man plans his future his own way, the State initiates a contradictory strategy: a robotic machine stamps out his personal ID Card with a row of "XXXXXX", and then dumps it in a file cabinet marked "RESIGNED." 

A plan is set into motion.

In short order, our protagonist is then gassed by strangers (representatives of a government either foreign or domestic...) and rendered unconscious. He awakes some time later to find himself in a different locale, a strange little burg, "The Village;" a place that's a bizarre melange of Old World architectural-styles and modern conveniences. It's an odd combination of idyllic past (where almost everyone wears a hat and carries an umbrella) with the impersonal technological present (public telephones, information kiosks, etc.).

As the Prisoner soon learns, everything about this place is uncomfortably generic. There are labels everywhere, but the labels are so vague as to be virtually meaningless. There's "The Cafe," "The Restaurant" and so forth. When the Prisoner reads a map (which he gets at a "General Store"), it is equally useless, pinpointing landmarks such as ""The Mountains," "The Sea," and "The Beach."

On the map, the strange town is labeled not merely as the Village, but importantly as "Your Village," meaning it ostensibly belongs to the denizens; meaning it belongs to the Prisoner himself.

As "Arrival" continues, The Prisoner begins to explore his digs ("your home from home," a welcome card reads on a small table in his new apartment), and as he takes a taxi through the center of the town there are several point-of-view, first-person subjective shots of his ride.

This selection of angles is efficacious for a number of reasons. The first-person perspective puts us in the Prisoner's position, permitting the viewer to feel as though we are the ones trapped. 

However, it also affords us a continuous look at the Village, so that as viewers we immediately understand this is not some Hollywood set or constructed sound stage. 

One of the facets that I've always admired about The Prisoner is this powerful sense of place, of another world (and the Village is, in fact, a place called Portmeiron in North Wales.) The series would not be so effective if the Village seemed fake or like a set. This is the oddest "jail" you've ever seen, yet it feels real, not gimmicky or the product of special effects.

The taxi ride ends precisely where it started, and returning to where we started is a common theme on The Prisoner, taken right up through the climax of the ultimate episode. 

The Prisoner is then left to learn more about his odd new environs on foot. Loudspeakers in the public square pipe in generic music and make civic announcements. A disembodied voice makes selections for the denizens. "The flavor of the day is strawberry," is an example of one such proclamation, indicating that all the denizens - regardless of personal preference - will enjoy strawberry on this occasion. 

Welcome to the totalitarian village, where the State regulates every aspect of private, public and civic behavior. Even your ice cream will be chosen for you.

The Prisoner is invited to the building with the green dome to share breakfast with a man who identifies himself as # 2. 

Inside the traditional interior of #2's house is a bizarre inner sanctum reflective of some 1960s concepts of futurism. There are bowl-style rotating chairs, giant view screens (displaying strange floating globules...) and James Bond-ian low ceilings and interiors; ones where chairs rise suddenly from subterranean platforms.

It is here that # 2 and his diminutive manservant -- a silent dwarf -- seem to be aware of the Prisoner's meal preferences before he states them aloud. This is another indicator that Big Brother - the State - has been paying close attention. The State knows their new ward prefers lemon in his tea and two eggs with his bacon. 

Nothing has gone unnoticed.

Before long, this "working breakfast" gets down to business. Number # 2 reveals that The Prisoner is being held at the Village (his Village, mind you), over a "question" of his resignation. He has had a "brilliant career," and "impeccable records" and is now a "valuable property" on the open market. It is Number # 2's job to check his motives and allegiances. Why did this man, this loyal man, resign his post?

The Prisoner informs Number # 2 of nothing, but then sees images from his entire life (his schooling, his youth, his morning bathroom routine...) displayed before him on a large screen. His society has been watching him all along, collecting data, gathering information. 

"One likes to know everything," asserts Number #2. 

He makes it sound harmless, but it isn't. Privacy is a myth. A government that believes it knows what is best for you needs to protect you at all times...and to do that, it needs to watch you at all times, doesn't it?

At this intrusion, the Prisoner responds with a comment that has become the mantra of this classic series: "I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, debriefed, or numbered. My life is my own."

Bold words, and this Prisoner, who is designated uncooperative and aggressive by the Powers that Be for his refusal to comply with the State, refuses to bend. He is given a number (Six), and subsequently refuses that number. "I am not a number. I am a person," he insists.

"Everyone has a number," #2 counters. 

And he's right. Today (in America), we all do have numbers. They're called Social Security Numbers. They're called Driver's License Numbers. If you want to own a business, they are called Tax ID numbers, or Employee Identification Numbers. If your computer breaks down, the first thing you have to do is give a tech (in India) your model number and serial number. If the police want to find you for some reason, they will key off another number, your license plate number. If someone wants to contact you, they dial your telephone number. Want to access your bank account, well what's the account number? 

You get the picture. The numbering and filing (and thus categorizing) of people has increased exponentially since the time of The Prisoner and in that sense, this classic series certainly qualifies as prophetic.

The remainder of "Arrival" follows Number Six's attempts to escape the Village by air, by sea, by whatever means necessary. Blocking his path is a roaring, whistling, bouncing white balloon of colossal proportions. 

What is it? 

"That would be telling" is the only, cryptic answer.Those who disobey or attempt to escape are absorbed by this strange device. Number Six also learns that various denizens of the Village are agents, double agents or spies with their own agenda. He can trust no one.

In accordance with this realization, the episode (and all episodes of the series) end with a highly expressionistic and powerful image. 

As we gaze at a high-angle, long-distance shot of the spires and towers of the Village (a shining city on a hill?), we suddenly spy the Prisoner's determined face racing towards the camera, increasing in size and velocity as it hurtles at us. 

Just as it is about to break the fourth wall and smash into us, two grey doors -- barred jail doors -- slam shut on his face (with a reverberating clang), demonstrating his continued and eternal entrapment. 

And make no mistake, this represents our entrapment too, according to The Prisoner.

At the heart of "Arrival" and all the episodes of The Prisoner is the notion that modern Western Civilizations are making inappropriate intrusions into the private lives of citizenry.

The Village is a perfect example of a totalitarian state because of the methods it utilizes to control the people it "benevolently" safeguards. 

One such method is propaganda. For example, in "Arrival," Number Six visits the Labour Exchange and there are several placards hanging on the wall, ones decorated with Village slogans. 

Among them: "a still tongue makes a happy life," and my personal favorite, "Questions are a burden to others; answers a prison for oneself." 

Such slogans are a mind-numbing short-cut to thinking for ourselves.

Another way a totalitarian state controls its people is by the use of mass surveillance, again another tact demonstrated by the Village. There are whole control rooms filled with technicians watching the citizenry. 

In fact, even Number # 2 is being watched. There are bugs in the phones, in the lamps -- everywhere.With GPS technology, satellites in space and the NSA, there is no such thing as privacy in America anymore. We are the Village or soon will be, in a very real sense.  And again, this isn't about being a Democrat or a Republican, a liberal or a conservative.

I also had to laugh at a moment in "Arrival" when a bald technician announced an "orange alert" since in this War on Terror Age, we have quickly grown accustomed to color coded alert systems just like this to tell us just how afraid we should be. Again - inciting fear and citing security are other ways a totalitarian state grasps and holds power.

But most importantly, a totalitarian state truly comes into power when the state begins to control religion and the media, blurring the separation between church and state and controlling the messages people receive. In The Prisoner, the Village runs its own newspaper, has its own health care system (which looks a lot like torture...), controls commerce and job creation (through the Labor Exchange) and yet claims to have democratic elections. Again, in the last eight years, we've seen government pushing propaganda as legitimate news reports ("this is Karen Ryan reporting..."), and the line between government and religion was crossed with "faith-based" initiatives. Again, The Prisoner has been proven positively prophetic in its depiction of a totalitarian state in which technology wipes out personal freedom and individual liberties (not to mention privacy).

Patrick McGoohan, star and executive producer of the series has gone on record saying (in a 1977 interview with Warner Troyer): 

"I think progress is the biggest enemy on earth, apart from oneself...We're run by the Pentagon, we're run by Madison Avenue, we're run by television, and as long as we accept those things and don't revolt we'll have to go along with the stream to the eventual avalanche… As long as we go out and buy stuff, we're at their mercy. We're at the mercy of the advertiser and of course there are certain things that we need, but a lot of the stuff that is bought is not needed…We all live in a little Village… Your village may be different from other people's villages but we are all prisoners."
In explicitly discussing "progress," I believe McGoohan was pointing out the ways that so much new technology - especially in the hands of Big Government - can be corrupted or perverted to steal away the things we hold most precious; the freedom to do as we choose, when we choose, with whom we choose. Men like Number Six find this social contract unacceptable. Do you? If so, I highly recommend The Prisoner, an artistic series that is to science fiction television what Orwell's 1984 is to literature.

The Village's salute -"Be seeing you" - is not just a pleasant way of saying au revoir, it's an acknowledgment that your neighbor and "democratically elected" representative will - in fact, be seeing you. On monitors, in computer rooms, on spread sheets. You are being watched.


  1. I apologize if this is the wrong forum, but I am a new viewer of The House Between and absolutely love it! Unfortunately, only the first five minutes of the final episode (Departed?) seem to play on The House Between's website. I would love to see the rest of it, and I'm looking forward to season 2!

  2. Hey Foolio

    No problem! I always want to hear from House Between viewers, on any forum!!! Glad you are enjoying the show.

    I think that to watch "Departed?" you have to hit, "watch on Veoh TV," (which means you may have to update your computer to add Veoh TV.)

    I hope that helps. Let me know if it works.


  3. I just wanted to follow-up with a thank you and congratulations on the debut of Season 2!