Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The Prisoner - "Checkmate"

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Prisoner - "Checkmate"


Welcome to my viewing diary for The Prisoner. Every Wednesday I will review another episode. This is my first watch-through of the 1967 British cult TV show so there will be NO spoilers for upcoming episodes. But I will be watching the series in this order so if you are watching along with me, keep that in mind.

As I watch The Prisoner for the first time in 2016, I am struck by how unflappable and strong-willed Number Six is. Today's media landscape tend to prefer ambiguous antiheroes or more sensitive self-questioning protagonists but Six is very much an assertive, unapologetic Cold War-era British alpha male. His suave but still relatively square demeanor and arch sense of humor reminds me of Sean Connery's James Bond (although Six doesn't quite seem to be having as much fun as 007 - maybe that extra digit makes all the difference). This marks him out not only from later trends in pop culture, but also his environment on the show itself - where most of the other Villagers appear meek or voiceless, either placidly accepting their condition or actively working to perpetuate it. Reflecting on this quality in "Checkmate," I was pleasantly surprised to see that the episode itself actually incorporates this discrepancy into the plot: Six's take-control, unintimidated nature sabotages his escape attempt when it convinces his collaborators he is actually a mole. Six's greatest virtues are his intelligence and his stubborn will but this time at least they work at cross-purposes. In an episode that centers - none to subtly - around the metaphor of chess, his claim that "good old-fashioned brute force can be very effective" seems to be disproved by the outcome.

The episode proper opens and closes with one of my favorite "characters": the giant bouncing white ball dubbed "Rover" by fans (or the show itself - I can't recall if this moniker was established in the premiere). Accompanied by a roaring sound effect that sounds like a cross between a tiger and a jet plane, Rover is as chilling as it is absurd: the perfect illustration of The Prisoner's deft mix of humor and sincerity. It is also a subtle reminder that the Village is a surveillance state - a fact more overtly demonstrated by the frequent cutaways to Number Two's headquarters (Number Two is played this time by Peter Wyngarde). Over the past few episodes, my perspective on the Village, and Number Six's situation, has been shifting. Initially, my attention was drawn to the excitement of this environment. Six is essentially free to move about the Village, studying its habits and and testing for weaknesses. The quintessential free agent, he has no job or family obligations to attend to - and the connection to a video-game avatar struck me immediately. But the longer Number Six grapples with his surroundings, the clearer it becomes that he is exactly what the title describes: a prisoner. The terror of Rover can strike at any moment. Every move he makes is watched and listened to. All power is in the hands of the authorities, and their willingness to let him resist carries the air of a cat toying with a mouse before feasting on it.

Most importantly, as this episode makes abundantly clear, there is little sense of who can and can't be trusted. Several episodes ago, I asked "Do most Villagers think they have been freed from another prison, are they aware of themselves as prisoners - are they even prisoners, or are they Number Six's guards?" "Checkmate" makes that question explicit and takes it as its central subject. After Rover's first appearance, Number Six finds himself on a massive chess board in the park, assigned the role of pawn. In this game he meets two characters who will accompany him through the rest of the episode, testing loyalties and possibilities within the community: Number Fifty-Eight ("the Rook") (Ronald Radd) and Number Eight ("the Queen") (Rosalie Crutchley). Following an impromptu "move" (the players are only supposed to advance when ordered) Fifty-Eight is immediately escorted to the hospital and treated like Pavlov's dog, conditioned to accept commands - a process Six is brought in to witness. Number Eight attempts to befriend Six and plan an escape alongside him, but he is skeptical of her overtures. Eventually, she will be brainwashed into thinking that she and Six are in love, given a tracking device in a keepsake necklace so that Number Two can follow Six's movements.

Perhaps the most important person Number Six meets at the chess match is Number Fourteen ("the Man with a Stick/Chess Master") (George Coulouris - Citizen Kane's own Walter P. Thatcher). Fourteen has apparently been in the Village a long time, despairing of escape although he is still mentally resistant to the authorities. He tells Six something extremely important: "You must be able to tell the white from the black" - in other words, you can't play chess until you know which side you are on and which pieces belong to the opposite side. Six takes this advice to heart and then recognizes an important clue: prisoners are meek and deferential, guardians are assertive and arrogant (but apparently not duplicitous enough to hide these qualities)! There's a paradox here, of course, as Six assembles a team of trustworthy fellow prisoners to stage a mock shipwreck so that he can seize a rescue boat and ride to safety. The paradox is that Six himself is very domineering, which leads Fifty-Eight to suspect a ruse, tipping Number Two off on the assumption that Six is a guardian trying to prove Fifty-Eight's loyalty. It's a good twist, not only clever but thematically revealing. If Six is going to escape he must learn to be more cunning, and perhaps more humble.

"Checkmate" provides a sterling example of how The Prisoner can, in a sense, advance its story and build its world even in a standalone narrative piece that doesn't rely on what's come before. So far the episodes I've watched have treated Six as a lone wolf with the occasional, questionable interloper (usually someone from his past or a female attendant or watchdog assigned specifically to undermine him), but "Checkmate" opens up the possibility - and reveals the risk - of interacting with the larger community. I hope more episodes take this approach because as much fun as it is to watch Six stand up to and outsmart Two, it's even better to see him make complex moves and strategize around various other pieces on a multidimensional chessboard. However, I did notice something interesting about the characters in this episode. At least in my viewing order, I hadn't seen any of them before (and Six's reactions to them suggests they won't be in any other episodes). The opening of each episode makes a big deal out of the "new Number Two" but come to think of it, I'm not sure any of the characters continue from episode to episode. Certainly the doctor we see in "Checkmate" is not the one we met in "Dance of the Dead," and others like Dutton or Cobb. In fact, when I look back over my previous reviews, I discover that "the Rook" has the exact same number (Fifty-Eight) as the woman Six met in "Arrival"! Something fishy is going on here, and some questions and theories are beginning to percolate for me. I'll save them for next week's entry; best to make one move at a time...

Previous episode: Free for All
Next episode: The Chimes of Big Ben

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