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Intersection of Life and Faith

The Prisoner: It’s All in Your Head

  • Alex Wainer Contributing Writer
  • 2009 24 Nov
<i>The Prisoner</i>: It’s All in Your Head

I'd been anticipating the re-make of the 1960s cult classic because it had two stars I like to watch, James Caviezel in the title role and everyone's favorite magnetic mutant and Middle Earth wizard, Ian McKellan.  The ten-minute trailer of AMC's The Prisoner released last summer promised a story rich in production values and suggested an interesting theme.  However, after watching the six-hour narrative, I was left with more questions than answers, and I don't mean that in a philosophically challenging way.

The original British series was a brain-teasing summer thriller when it debuted on American television in 1968.  The Prisoner was the culmination of several threads in the decade's fascination with spies and espionage spawned in the Cold War culture.  The James Bond films really kicked  off the fad and there followed a slew of movies and television series with variations on the secret agent hero, including The Man from U.N.C.L.E., I Spy, and the British import hit, The Avengers.  Another popular import was Danger Man, starring Patrick McGoohan as the spy hero which inspired a sequel series, Secret Agent.  The show's theme, Johnny Rivers' "Secret Agent Man," captured the era with its famous line, "They're givin' you a number and takin' way your name."   This theme of trading one's identity for the impersonality of doing your government's dirty work opened the way for McGoohan's next series, The Prisoner.

Tapping into the countercultural ethos of rebellion, it opened each week with a stylish sequence of McGoohan's secret agent angrily resigning only to be gassed and spirited away where he wakes up in the Village. At this "island resort" he is now referred to as "Number 6," his every move is watched and he is faced with as scheming inquisitor referred to as "Number 2" who demands that he give "information" on why he resigned.  Each week the battle of wits between captive and captor resulted in fascinating studies of personal freedom vs. society's demands, among other engaging themes.  (This video documentary neatly captures the show's unique place in television history, a series part spy thriller, part science-fiction and infused with a cool sixties style.)

The AMC remake takes the basic premise and tries to update it.  Instead of an island resort, the village is set in the middle of a vast desert.  The new Number 6 played by Caviezel, awakes on the sandy desert floor and eventually makes his way to the Village where he meets McKellen's  Number 2, who seems the omnipotent ruler of the community.  6 is sure there is a world, a reality outside the Village, but 2 is determined that 6 will submit, and conform to the only permissible reality of the Village.

What follows is 6's various attempts to escape along with 2's schemes to either coerce, seduce, compromise or crush 6 under his power.  All of this is done in a strangely distancing editing style, that is apparently supposed to depict 6's disorientation. But soon the main narrative begins to grow so disjointed and non-linear with many flashbacks to 6's prior life that I was frankly confused about what any of it meant.  In fact, the show it took on a persistent dream logic that simply stopped making sense.

James Caviezel, who played the victimized protagonist in The Count of Monte Cristo and of course, Christ in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, excels at playing characters under duress.  His 6 is quite earnest and heroic in his opposition to Number 2's efforts at control but despite his movie star attractiveness, he lacks a charisma here that keeps you invested in his character.  McKellen, who could make reading the back of a cereal box sound dramatic, certainly holds your attention but the dialog merely mystifies with little advancing of the plot.  He spouts vague musings about freedom and control but there's little there for the audience to grasp hold of.

Early on, Number 2's insistence that there was no other reality outside the Village reminded me of C. S. Lewis' The Silver Chair, in the Chronicles of Narnia, where Puddleglum the Marshwiggle and the two children Jill and Eustace, face the enchantment of a witch who tries to seduce them into believing that there is no reality except the underground world they are in. In order to enslave she attempts to convince the characters there is no world above the ground and no Aslan, until of course, the noble Puddleglum bravely breaks her spell.  Unfortunately The Prisoner only dabbles with this concept that Lewis handled so deftly, rather than providing clear cut resolution.

Half-way through the six hours of this series, I realized any heartfelt interest I had in these characters and their situation had devolved into baffled bemusement. A series like Lost, which thrives on feeding its audience one mystery after another, evokes curiosity and a sense of intrigue largely because we ultimately care about the characters. They must confront these enigmas which in turn force the characters to confront their own flaws.  But the new Prisoner is as much a mystery to us as he is to himself. As we have trouble relating to the one-note character, his situation lacks larger significance for us.

Only toward the end of the fifth hour did I get a glimpse of where the plot was heading and it still didn't arouse my interest; the show feels more like working on a jigsaw puzzle than following a compelling story.  When the final hour revealed the why and the wherefore of Number 6's predicament, I still didn't quite understand exactly how it all fit.

Of course, the original series' famous ending wasn't the clearest denouement either, but it had a very proactive hero who took action to resolve the conflicts as the audience understood them.  And because the whole series was intended as a vehicle for presenting the anxieties of the age—must like an extended Twilight Zone episode—explaining it all in a totally coherent way was probably impossible.  McGoohan, the primary "agent" behind the series, created a floating metaphor (symbolized by Rover the big round security balloon) to represent any number of ideas.  "I suppose," McGoohan was quoted as saying, "that (The Prisoner) is the sort of thing where a thousand people might have a different interpretation of it . . . that was the intention."   But the plot premise demanded a solution, however flawed and McGoohan supplied one that has kept people talking for decades.  The resolution supplied by the remake only reveals that we have been watching the ultimate psychodrama, only far less entertaining than the original.  There's little real comic relief during the bleak existential crisis of the hero, just the vague idea that it might take a village to raise a people out of their private crises.  If you watch the encore presentations, you'll know what I mean… I think.

You can check for scheduled encore presentations of The Prisoner, also available on iTunes.

Alex Wainer, Ph.D. teaches media and film at Palm Beach Atlantic University.  He is a regular contributor to

Review posted November 23, 2009