I was first indoctrinated into the world of The Prisoner by accident.
It was a Tuesday night in the late 1980’s and I was nearing the end of my high school days. Mom and Dad were watching the television in the family room while my brother was watching something entirely different on the smaller tube we had in the basement.
With nothing to do, I stole away to my parent’s bedroom and turned on a tiny UHF set, a lost object from a bygone, pre-cable world. It only ever received four or five channels and I played with the rabbit ears, attempting to get a clear signal – any signal – from one of them. Serendipitously, I landed on the opening sequence of the show that would dictate my Tuesday nights for the next seventeen weeks.
Who could ever forget the images of that cinematic, opening montage? A well-dressed government man, mercilessly driving a beautiful sports car through the streets of 1960’s London. A deliberate walk down a long, dimly lit corridor. A look, painted with stern expectation. A fist, slamming the desk of the government man’s Director. A typed letter, boldly stating the word “resignation.” A packing of a suitcase. Noxious gas delivered through the keyhole of a door. Waking up in a place, enigmatically called “the village.” A new life under a new name. A number.
The 1967, British series would fuel my imagination and dictate conversation with friends for years to come.
And now the American channel, AMC, has remade the series, starring Ian McKellan and Jim Caviezel as the characters of “Two” and “Six” into a 3 part, 6-hour mini-series. And I, a fan-boy prisoner of fond remembrance, had to watch.
The new series is different from the cult classic it was based. Where the original protagonist was a British government agent, the twenty-first century edition is an American employee of an enormous security conglomerate. Where the setting was once an idyllic, quaint (if not strange) village situated along the Welsh seaside, the new version is nearer to a large town, dropped in the middle of a dessert. It contains bars, strip clubs, bus depots and cafes – all the amenities of home.
Yes, the walls that confine this new prisoner have definitely widened in size, but, interestingly, not necessarily in scope.
The original Prisoner was inherently about individuality and overcoming the personality traits that we all grow attached to as we age, the beliefs that society instils upon us. It was always about the breaking of self-imposed bonds, a psychedelic 1960’s LSD-enhanced metaphor of the emancipation of the individual, by the individual, against the individual. The Beatles’ All You Need Is Love scored the series’ final scene.
This new version, however, has narrowed its raison d’etra, focusing and expanding instead upon only certain, more minor ideas (that its predecessor had also incorporated into its tapestry of story), namely: self, the interpretation of memory, observance and scrutiny. This is The Prisoner for a CCTV generation: a post-Thatcher England, a “Twittering” America, an orbiting-satellite reality. And, to keep true to its predecessor’s psychedelic tradition, Brian Wilson’s music punctuates the series’ musical score.
All the scenes here move with brisk pace, cuts jumping from the village to a half-remembered dream, to Caviezel’s character ambling up a desert slope. Still, that doesn’t stop the feeling that each two hour instalment runs a little long, a little slow. AMC would have been better to showcase each of the three parts into six (no pun intended) hour long episodes – for episodes are what they truly are – not movies, even through the slick production value would have you think they were.
Interestingly, there was quite a bit of dispute over the production of this new series. Sky1 in Britain was originally set to produce The Prisoner as a new, ongoing series, but when US-based AMC came aboard to help with financing, it became a mini-series. A year later, Sky1 backed out, stating that the “quintessentially British” program was being co-opted into something it should not be – namely, American. And you can see some of that on the screen, most glaringly in the lead actor, his occupation and his role in the tapestry of story.
But that’s not to say that this hurts the premise or the entertainment value of the show. This version of The Prisoner has been mercilessly ripped in entertainment reviews – but that all seems a little unfair. It was never going to be the counter-culture cult classic that its precursor was. These are different times, indeed.
The one new element that this version has incorporated is found in the relationships between characters: unlike the 1960’s version, this Six has them and that is, perhaps, the greatest a strength of the series.
Over the span of the 6 episodes, the relationships and the plot threads between the characters of Six and the village’s doctor, cab driver and resident rebellious teen, deepen, evolve and often confound. Still, the heart of the show is the connection between the characters of Six and Two. In the original version, theirs was a captivating game of cat and mouse. Here, Two is a wall – a simplified impediment, blocking Six’s escape from the village. It’s just not all that compelling and, unfortunately, the show slips because of it.
This new Prisoner is watchable. It is entertaining. But you won’t be viewing the series a second time, looking for more meaning. That’s something that was and remains inherent in the original. A testament to its timelessness.
If you’re a fan of the original Prisoner series and need a hankering for more, then I would heartedly recommend the DC Comics authorized sequel miniseries, Shattered Visage. Written and illustrated by Canadians, Mark Askwith and Dean Motter and compiled as a trade paperback a few years ago, it will certainly return you to the “village” that you remember – and have missed. In the meantime, dedicated fans can still hope on a long in development, Christopher Nolan-directed, big screen adaptation.
Apparently, we’re all still prisoners of the sixties, in one way or another.