Monday, November 16, 2009

TV REVIEW: The Prisoner: "Arrival" (2009)

"Breathe in. Breath Out. Village Life Goes On."

-- Number 2 (Ian McKellen) in AMC's mini-series, The Prisoner.

Railing against remakes and re-imaginations is becoming something of a full-time job around these parts, and yet, as a blogger, I have no desire to write the same review over and over again.

That review consists, basically, of my disappointment that a remake of a popular, even classic property has been dumbed down for modern audiences by sacrificing the subtext and social commentary.

You may have read that particular review in regards to ABC's V, of late.

And yet, here I am, confronted with AMC's new mini-series, The Prisoner, which is based on one of my favorite genre TV series of all time, Patrick McGoohan's The Prisoner (1967-1968).

And once more, I am conflicted between my real, heartfelt desire to embrace new genre television and my objective critical reaction; essentially a wholesale rejection of that which has been delivered to us because, simply, the quality of the thing is not up to snuff.

Regarding the original Prisoner's first episode (also entitled "Arrival,") I wrote: "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 new Prisoner is so confused, so hopelessly muddled, you can't tell what it's about (or even what it wants to be about).

On a purely literal reading, you can't even easily discern what information, precisely, Number 2 (Ian McKellen) hopes to extract from the new Number 6 (Jim Caviezel). The original program saw sharp-tongued McGoohan match wits -- week-after-week -- with a different, desperate Number 2, over the reasons behind his resignation from the British secret service. Even in apparent surrender to brain-washing, emotional betrayal, and outright torture, the original Number 6 remained...indomitable.

The new Number # 6 isn't cut from the same stubborn cloth. "Please, I'm nobody," he whimpers pitifully in the first hour, making a personal admission McGoohan's character would just never make, under any circumstances. Then, this Number 6 actually has to be told otherwise by his doctor at the Village clinic. "You're a free man," she insists helpfully.

If this Number 6 is that close to the breaking point at the beginning of his stay at the Village, where's the fun of watching Number 2 go at him for six episodes?

But -- okay, fine -- Hamlet gets re-interpreted all the time. Mel Gibson even made him a man of action, so perhaps this Number Six is going to stiffen his spine in the course of the mini-series.

But a more egregious sin committed by the remake is that it unnecessarily muddles the crisp premise of the original. For instance, the new program adds mysterious Crystal Towers (which look like the World Trade Center towers...) to the skyline of the Village, as well as the not-very cryptic instruction to "follow the towers" to find escape. If that's all it takes to escape, grab a few inmates and that tour bus and go. On foot, the Rover (still a big white ball...) might get you, but in a large vehicle?

The mini-series also resorts to frustrating, momentum-halting, Lost-style flashbacks so audiences can see this Number 6 working on the job he unceremoniously quit, and learn about his reasons for resigning (something we were never, EVER told on the original series).

Again, in the original series, Number 6's refusal to reveal the the reason of his resignation was about a larger, thematic issue. About privacy. About the fact that a government that catalogued, numbered and tagged people still didn't have the right to be privy to individual, personal decisions. Number 6's reasons were his own; and that's why he didn't share them.

Here, I suspect we're going to discover some noble reason for Number 6's resignation. That -- as a data analyst observing human behavior -- he was asked to do something immoral; or that he saw something that he didn't like. That's a corruption of the original program's philosopy. It wasn't that the original Number 6 was trying to do something good, necessarily, by resigning. It's that he believed he had the right to make personal decisions independent of Big Brother. He fought to preserve that right -- the liberty of the individual to make choices for himself.

The new mini-series also throws in mind-altering drugs, and cripples the new Villagers with an arbitrary case of selective amnesia. This means they can apparently remember Thomas Edison and Darwin (mentioned by name...), but have only vague flashes of the Statue of Liberty or Big Ben (images scrawled in secret by Village rebels). This means that the denizens can quote the number of stars in the heaven, but not the source of that information.

You see, this Village isn't just an inescapable burg that happens to be geographically isolated. On the contrary, Number 2 makes the case that the Village is the only civilization in the entire world; and that it is the only civilization where any of the prisoners have ever lived; that has ever existed in human history. This makes no sense, because human memory is a web of connections; a network of context. Can you remember Darwin without remembering the idea of evolution? And if you think of evolution, might you not also think of the Scopes Trial? And Tennessee? And then the American South? See my point? You can't know Thomas Edison, but not know how his inventions were put to use.

In broad terms, the new version of "Arrival" follows the outline of the original premire episode. In other words, Number 6 arrives in a daze, takes a taxi that travels to "local destinations only," and then buys a map that shows only the territory of the Village.

Finally, he becomes entangled with a woman who might be a traitor (the doctor at the clinic) and matches wits with Number 2. But the new show -- in a telltale sign of our age -- also mistakes soap opera-storytelling for mature drama.

Therefore, we are introduced, at length, to Number 2's family, including his sick wife (or rather, a wife he may be keeping sick...) and his curious son, who may be ready to rebel against his Dad and the Village.

Therefore, the cab driver and his family become recurring characters too, and we see their home life as well.

Therefore, we get those disruptive flashbacks showing Number 6 hooking up with a strange woman following his resignation.

The lovely female doctor at the clinic is also apparently a regular character here, a prospective love interest.

Again, this is all just totally unnecessary and burdensome material. The original Prisoner concerned one individual bucking the system in the here and now of the Village; battling his incarceration in the present. He had no friends. He could trust no one. He was a man alone, and his mind -- and his privacy -- were his own too. The new Prisoner spreads the focus around, both in terms of characters and of time line. The result of this unnecessary opening-up is that a sense of immediacy and place is sacrificed.

The thing I most disliked about this new version of The Prisoner is that it is edited exactly like everything else you see on TV these days. It relies on flash cuts, shaky-cam action, and sped-up/slowed-down footage. There's nothing original in the execution And that too is a betrayal of the surreal qualities inherent in the original (right down to production design). Again, this is how I wrote of the original series: "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. This is the oddest "jail" you've ever seen, yet it feels real, not gimmicky or the product of special effects.

Well, the new Village looks like a typical movie construct; and because it has been made so large -- more "The City" than "The Village" -- it's impossible to get a real feel for it. The original Village was small enough that Number 6 could explore it, prod at the boundaries, and become familiar with every aspect of it. The new Village -- of greater size -- could never be fully explored by one man.

In fairness, this new Prisoner is much better than the remake of V. And I enjoyed how it attempted to position itself as a sequel to as well as a remake of the McGoohan series. On the latter front, note that old Number 93 is dressed as Number 6 from the original series, that he lives in a similarly-decorated house (down to the lava lamp), and was also obsessed with escape. More importantly take a look at his number. 93. 9 - 3 = 6. Get it?

But overall I found this new Prisoner unnecessarily lugubrious. It is underwhelming from a visual standpoint; soap-opera-ish in the extreme, and it layers too many complications upon the franchise's clean, vibrant premise.

Be seeing you? Perhaps not...


  1. It's a shame. If they can't add something really new and exciting, why bother remaking a classic? If only Hollywood spent as much energy and imagination on creating NEW science fiction / fantasy stories with fresh ideas to grip today's audiences.

  2. Anonymous4:05 PM

    Critiques of the strorytelling and plot aside, here's something that just ruined it for me all by itself.

    6 arrives in town knowing at least one thing. He's in the middle of a great big desert and the last guy that tried escaping across it is now buried in it. He gets it in his head he's going to escape by crossing it to whatever is on the far side. Fine.

    He proceeds to attempt do this with no water, no food, and no supplies at all. When all of these things appear to be easily accessible. What the hell is that?

    Then, ending up lying in the sand and having to be retrieved and hauled back to the village by the doctor for his efforts what's his follow-up plan for escape?

    To do the same damn thing again! Run straight off into the desert towards the towers with nothing but the clothes on his back.

    Escape plan number 3 when that amazingly fails to meet with success? Maybe we can find the ocean in another direction! Hey guys, let's go run off into the desert *this* way... once again with not one of the three people who do this carrying ANY supplies except whatever that lady had in her purse. What the hell did they think they were going to do when they hit the ocean?

    Are these people brain damaged?

    I'm sorry, but that alone made it damn near impossile for me to take anything else that was happening seriously. These aren't escape attempts, these are 5 year olds "running away from home"... except even most 5 year olds would think of packing a sandwich or a juice box or something even when they're not running away into the middle of a harsh desert environment. Geez.

  3. Hah! You're absolutely right about that, anonymous. A bit silly, to keep running into the desert without any supplies...


  4. I'm going to look at this tomorrow evening during its replays as I missed it last night. Given your review, and similar thoughts on current remakes, I'm not in a hurry, John. I hate dumbed-down remakes, and doing it to such a classic, is a travesty. Recently, I read an interview of Ian McKellen and discovered that he's no fan of the original (in more ways than one) The Prisoner. Oh, well. Everyone is welcome to their opinion.

    When I read of this series, and it's use Swakopmund, Namibia for the remake, I thought it clever by the producers. But, as Anonymous mentions in his/her comment, having Number 6 run off into the desert without rhyme or reason shows off some pretty inane plotting/writing! Thanks, much, JKM for the review (and the warning).

  5. I haven't had the chance to see this yet, however, I can say one good thing has come of it. If they'd not been making this, it's somewhat unlikely that AMC would have put the original series up on their website for streaming, letting me and no doubt countless others born too late to see the original, get caught up.

  6. Another genuinely excellent review.

    You hit all of the main points of criticism, esp. the idea that the village is the only civilization that has ever existed--yet the inhabitants have knowledge that seems contextually impossible. (In philosophy the idea that propositions cohere together in a larger nexus of belief is called coherentism).

    I have one point of defense for the show, however. The use of psychotropic drugs makes much of what happened seem plausible. Clearly they're "tampering" with his consciousness and with his cognitions. What's also clear is that the drugs are interfering with his ability to separate fact from fiction. So it does seem reasonable that he could come to believe what he's experiencing is real. Moreover, it seems reasonable that he could doubt events in his past.
    The drugs, however, don't seem to impair his reasoning ability to any great extent.

    Given this, I ask myself, and your readers, "What would I do if I were in this situation? What would I do if I thought I may be drugged and that was altering my belief structure? What would I do if I thought that it was possible that I could be insane or delusional?" Well, I'd start with the premise that I was being drugged, and attempt to find empirical evidence that supported my speculation. Again, this gets tricky because being drugged impairs one's ability to make these sorts of judgments. That said, here's what I'd do: try to find where the buses are manufactured. If this is all there is, then the buses must be made somewhere. What about the pool? How was the pool installed?

    Perhaps I digress. Perhaps this would make for boring television. I'm not sure. But I do know, I'd *never* react in the way he reacted. It just doesn't seem realistic to me, and it certainly doesn't seem rational. Then again, it could just be the drugs...

  7. I'm waiting until the whole series has aired so I can watch it as a piece; what I hear worries me but I have faith in AMC and Sir Ian and I hope that the piece in its entirety will add up to something interesting.
    From your review, I suspect that (perhaps inadvertantly) the piece is a comment on the death of the Individual in a sea of "individuality"; that is, we know nothing about No.6 except that he is Himself and will fight to stay that way (we infer a Moral Code as well, which is confirmed in the course of the series). We don't need to know more. The new No. 6 and his environs are presented, it seems, as a series of personal tics and detailed past histories... but these things fail to give them definition, they're just baggage, props like George Carlin's "stuff". Caveziel's Milquetoast 6 runs because he can't think of anything else to do (I'm inferring this from the trailers); MacGoohan's 6 fought constantly and incessantly, even when drugged (the cowboy episode, a personal favorite). I'm hoping the series is going to attempt to metaphorically address the failure of American (and British) populaces to rise up in fury after the soft repression that unfolded in the wake of 9/11 and 7/7 (what does stoke the teabag fury? The threat of Free Health Care!); or, barring that, to address the change in society's idea of what constitutes a "Free Man" - are we, at last, just a sum of our xbox scores?

  8. Anonymous9:54 PM

    It is trully hard to compare the two to each other at first I was like "uggg why go and do that"! overall in comparision to all the tripe on tv this is a good disturbing show and thats what counts in my book anything that can actauly make people think is a plus.Just the pick of using the crystal towers is a brilliant thought I have stopped and zoomed on them and hmmmm they are not clear, something is embeded in the crystal