As I mentioned in my last post, we were just one episode away from finishing The Prisoner – the original UK series starring Patrick McGoohan, that is, not the remake with Ian McKellen and Jim Caviezel. The Prisoner may just be one of the Top 3 cult series of all time; it’s up there with the likes of Twin Peaks. And, as with so many things that are given the ‘cult’ label, it’s difficult to come to them with fair, realistic expectations, isn’t it?
Well, to begin with: you have to make allowances for the series’ age. Even though everyone talks about how original and revolutionary the series was and still is, in some ways it’s very much a product of its time. Sometimes that’s charming – as in the ’60s art and costume design, making the Village perhaps the hippest prison resort ever – but sometimes it is tiresome, as in the pacing (few of the episodes need to be 50 minutes long, and most would have benefited from cuts) or the fight scenes, which are tame, repetitive and overly long, not least because we’ve all seen better, more exciting fights by now. I imagine that these are less of an issue if you’re revisiting the series wearing nostalgia goggles, but then, they’re not my main problem with The Prisoner.
The thing is, the series was undoubtedly a pioneer – it’s still rare to find much on TV that mixes mystery, politics, psychology and metaphysics as The Prisoner does, and that is as willing, or indeed eager, to keep clear-cut answers from the audience. The series definitely wants us to think along and to form our own ideas on what is happening to McGoohan’s Number 6. At times it’s almost like watching a spy thriller penned by Samuel Beckett. However, looking at the series, its world and its puzzles more closely, I think that one of the main reasons why it raises so many questions is that it has little to no internal consistency: to be quite frank, much of the mystery stems from The Prisoner’s overall mythologybeing an incoherent mess. Remember all the accusations levelled at Lost, especially as they were approaching the finale? “They’re making it up as they go along!” Well, the very same seems to be true when it comes to its older fellow puzzle box of a series. It establishes few rules that it is content to stick with, which may work at the beginning as Number 6 is trying to escape the Village but is foiled over and over again because, well, the deck is stacked against him – but the longer the series goes on, the more it feels like The Prisoner‘s universe is random and arbitrary.
As a result, it became increasingly difficult for me to engage with or care about what was happening on screen. Why think along if the series can just put on a monkey mask and make fun of your wish, if not for answers then for some sort of internal logic? I’ve mentioned Beckett before, and I think there’s a definite similarity between his cruel, bleak and at times strangely funny universe and The Prisoner – but while I may have the patience and will to sit through 1 1/2 hours of Beckett (and even then only if the acting is impeccable), I’m not sure I could sit still for more than one episode of Endgame: The Series. (Oh, wait: I just did. Doesn’t mean that I was happy to, though.)
It’s a shame, because there are a lot of scenes and ideas that are fascinating. There are moments that are great, like Rover sitting (does a giant white ball even sit?) in Number 2’s chair or the sheer silliness of kosho (a sport played by Number 6 that makes sumo wrestling look dignified), there are some fascinating characters, and at times the mood is as menacing as in The Wicker Man (though with less Christopher Lee in drag). There’s a lot of ambition in the series and a rebellious spirit that a lot of TV programmes would benefit from even today. It’s just that these rarely come together to form something coherent – and as a result I’m left to wonder whether the people who profess to love The Prisoner see something in it that I’m blind to or whether there’s an element of weirdness worship going on, where the series is loved uncritically because it’s just so different. It’s very well possible that The Prisoner broadcasts much of its goodness on frequencies that I’m not able to receive, but even then I think it’s fair to say the series is deeply flawed, with its first four or five episodes being pretty exchangeable, the final four suggesting that the producers were getting tired of the format (leading to their use of a rather Trekkian conceit, the Western Episode), and the entirety of the series never quite deciding whether Number 6’s adversaries, the constant procession of new and improved Number 2s, are always a step ahead of him or whether they’re playing a futile game of catch-up, with the titular character just being so much smarter than all of them.
Oh, and don’t get me started on a computer that’s blown up by being asked the Deep, Unanswerable Question: “Why?”