November 30th, 2009


The Prisoner (With Spoilers)

This weekend I finally watched AMC's revisionist miniseries of The Prisoner, and it was such a mess I don't even know where to start.

I suppose we should start with Number 6. Or as we eventually learn his name to be, Michael. I'm already bored just writing that, but the miniseries' treatment of 6 is even more boring than his real name. As portrayed by James Caveziel, 6 does precious little throughout the six-hour miniseries except angst out, do some slow-motion noooooooos, and throw handfuls of sand around. He is the least compelling hero I can imagine.

As I see it, the problem stems from changing 6 from a secret agent to an information analyst at one of those shady security corporations that always seem to be up to no good in these things (and with unlimited amounts of money, apparently, to fund that no-goodness!). The issue here is that by not making 6 a secret agent, he no longer has the training to beat Number 2 at his own game, which is where the original Prisoner succeeded. Instead, we get a whiny schlub who's confused and angry a lot, and whose nemesis, Number 2, has nefarious plans for him that include...making him fall in love and go to therapy. But of course, 6 outwits him. He doesn't want to go to therapy, and so he doesn't. How's that for spellbinding action?

Number 6's resignation from said corporation is fetishized to the point of absurdity--he spraypaints the word "resign" on the glass wall of his office; is that how people are doing it nowadays?--and then turns out to be completely unimportant to the plot. No one cares why he resigned. They barely care that he resigned at all. In fact, 2's reasons for bringing 6 to the Village, and making sure he's kept safe from harm, are less than fully realized. His plan for 6 at the very end of the miniseries hardly seems the same as what he had planned for 6 at the start, whatever that was. Therapy, I guess. And a wedding. Look out!

Ian McKellen does a fine job of rising above the material as Number 2 because he's a good actor with tremendous presence. James Caveziel has no presence, at least in this project, and without a strong 6 to oppose 2, it becomes 2's show. And as awesome as Ian McKellen is, The Prisoner can't succeed if it's 2's show, because then we have no one to root for. 2's son? He's a whiny emo hipster with annoying Fallout Boy hair. 2's wife? She's asleep most of the time. Jane Eyre 6's doctor love interest? She's not a well developed enough character to care about, especially since she apparently falls in love with 6 off-camera. The viewer is never treated to any scenes of the chemistry between them, and so her sacrifices in the name of love never ring true.

Like the rest of The Prisoner, fan-favorite Rover has been turned into a mess too. Rover now has no single purpose other than what the story needs at any particular time. Rover as guard that prevents escape? Sure. Rover as transport back to the Village if you get too far? Yup. Rover as killer beach ball? Okay, I guess. Rover as something that can zap people with bright lights and make them disappear? Uh... Rover as something that can zap people with bright lights and make them vaguely remember who they are? Whaaa? The script can't seem to figure Rover out because, as with the resignation, they have fetishized it beyond comprehension. Thus, when 2 tries to convince 6 that 6 conjured Rover himself through the power of his own fear, it makes even less sense than it sounds like because Rover is undefined in any meaningful way.

As for the secret of the Village itself, all I can say is ugh. It's an interesting idea, but it belongs in a completely different story. In fact, all the miniseries' interesting ideas--and there are a few, like revealing the flashbacks not to be flashbacks at all but rather simultaneous action, and the concept of the holes that form around the Village whenever Mrs. 2 (or Number 1, I suppose) wakes up from her medically induced disco nap--belong in a different, better story. But by making the Village essentially imaginary--a different plane of consciousness, a different dimension, Mrs. 2's dream, however you want to explain this nonsense--while the real versions of everyone go about their daily lives "outside," there's absolutely nothing at stake. When 2 shoves a grenade in his mouth at the end and his head explodes, we learn that if you die in the Village absolutely nothing happens to you in the outside world. So where's the threat? Everyone who died in the preceding five hours of the miniseries is apparently fine. 6 could have died and still been fine.

Which reminds me, the whole idea of calling people by numbers instead of names in this version rings false. Patrick McGoohan's original Prisoner was a counterculture, antiauthoritarian story, and the numbers had thematic resonance--6's resignation stemmed from wanting to be an individual again rather than a cog in a corrupt machine, and to reduce him to a number was a slap in the face. Here, it's just another fetishized idea left over from the source material. And like everything else in the miniseries, nothing comes of it.

Similarly, when it's revealed in the original that Number 6 is also Number 1, it was McGoohan's way of saying your destiny is in your own hands. The whole series can be interpreted as a therapeutic exploration of one man's psyche. After all, we eventually come to realize that the Village was specifically created for 6; there were no other prisoners. Here, when 6 takes over as Number 2--and as head of the shady security firm--it's an empty gesture. Worse, it's essentially a failure. 6 has basically lost. He's turned into the very thing he was fighting, and the viewer is left with a profoundly unsatisfying ending.

I'm just scratching the surface of all the wrongness here. The TV Nerd says skip AMC's The Prisoner like your life depends on it. In fact, I'm trying very hard to forget I ever saw it myself.