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

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Prisoner - "The General"


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.

I'm trying to avoid too many conversations about The Prisoner until I complete the series (at which point I'm planning to devote about a month to weekly chats with the show's fans). However, I did mention "The General" recently with Bob Clark, who will be one of the conversants. He said that this was one of his favorite episodes and then made an interesting observation: "I really like the ones that aren't really about him trying to escape, but him essentially righting a wrong in the Village. Makes a great use of the setting, turning it into a place where any kind of crazy spy thing can happen." This is, I think, a useful distinction. Of course every episode I've seen so far incorporates Number Six's desire to flee the Village alongside some effort to understand and/or subvert the Village's rules. Nevertheless, there are strong variations in the emphasis. "The Chimes of Big Ben," for example was very thoroughly escape-driven, taking an extended close look at the mechanics of Six's elaborate plan (and the even more elaborate plan to deceive him). "Free for All" on the other hand was far more concerned with how the Village functions than how Six could get away from it - although both "Free for All" and "The Schizoid Man" put Six in a mostly reactive rather than proactive position. "The General" may be the most active Six has been in an episode not devoted his escape attempt.

That said, Six is not acting alone. He has the support of Number Twelve (John Castle), a self-described "cog in the machine" who seems to prefer being a monkey wrench - explaining the situation, encouraging Six to subvert the authorities, and assisting him when he attempts to destroy the Village's educational program (in return, Six refuses to turn Twelve in when he is caught). Twelve is the first to inform Six about the titular General, who runs the Village's school system, and the Professor (Peter Howell), a televised teacher whose Speed Learn program subliminally communicate three years of education in three minutes. Anticipating the brainwashing sequences of A Clockwork Orange and The Parallax View, among others, the Professor's "lecture" is one of the show's great stylistic flourishes so far. It begins innocuously enough as - after a delay in which the Professor's wife (Betty McDowall) drones on about the upcoming schedule - the Professor himself appears onscreen and speaks excitedly into the camera. But even here, there is something eerie, something slightly "off" about the composition. When the camera pushes in, it leaves plenty of head space at the top of the frame so that the Professor's intense gaze is placed at the exact center of the frame, and the lighting casts a shadow under his chin so that his face almost seems to be floating, disembodied.

There follows a quick fifteen-second, eighteen-shot demonstration of Speed Learn, beginning with a sustained shot of the Professor's black-and-white portrait before we slowly push in to his eyes. Cut to Six, staring intently as the camera echoes this movement, slowly dollying toward his own face. Return to the portrait onscreen, holding for several seconds on the eyes, before zooming in to the right one. As it fills the frame, cut to a green light with the white center expanding, in the place of the eyeball in time with a blaring, warbled musical note. Zoom out quickly to the rest of his face, in time with another pulsing note. Return for the second reaction shot of Six's eyes, as he watches (cut with the third note). Repeat the zoom from the full face into the right eye, very rapidly this time and in one shot (with no musical beat), time third pulsing note with the green light and sustain it over a Six reaction shot, the black-and-white eye, the green light. Six's eyes slightly flinching, the green light with the white center contracting, zoom all the way out from the eye to the Professor's full face (end the long-held pulse). Six drops his orange glass and spills it on the floor, followed by a shot of Six's gaze still fixed on the TV before his eyelids flutter.

For some reason, it seemed necessary to break the quick sequence down into its individual components - measuring its escalation and progression - because in its immediate aftermath, neither we nor Six are quite sure what we just experienced. It does work, however, at least for him: he is able to repeat a number of previously-unknown facts about post-Napoleonic Europe as if they had somehow been implanted in his brain. As it turns out, the Professor is also a prisoner who would like to liberate his students from this dreadful, mindless form of pedantry, but he and his wife are kept in check by fear (it also turns out that "the General" is in fact a massive computer, driving home the inhumanity of this educational method). Six's plan to disseminate the truth about Speed Learn fails at the very last minute, he is captured and interrogated while Two grows more suspicious of Twelve, and in an effort to conceal Twelve's betrayal (Number Two, played by Colin Gordon this time, is about to feed the General leading questions that will demonstrate this), Six comes up with a gambit to destroy the General first. He asks it a simple question which causes it to malfunction (unfortunately killing both the Professor and Twelve in the process, turning Six's victory into at least a partial failure and concluding the episode on a melancholy note when he informs the Professor's widow). The question? "W...H...Y...question mark."

That's a lot of description, something I usually like to avoid in favor of reflection and analysis in these reviews (consequently, I'll make this one a bit longer than the usual format). But in some ways this a hard episode to get my head around. The Professor's - and his wife's - predicament remains a bit enigmatic, for one. Neither one seems to believe in the cause of the Village or Speed Learn (indeed, the first time we meet the Professor he is fleeing down the beach, leaving a tape-recorded confession in the sand which Six will discover), and it is implied that they cooperate out of fear and concern for one another's predicament. But if the process is entirely mechanized anyway, why do they need the Professor at all? I'm also not entirely sure why the wife makes a plaster cast of her husband to pretend that his sick or asleep (if no one's supposed to enter the room to see him anyway, why the unnecessary front)? Frequently the episode falls into the occasional trap of "The Schizoid Man," setting up extremely elaborate situations just a few scenes before they are needed, in a manner that plays as all too convenient. This is, I guess, one of the risks of telling such a complex story in standalone episodic fashion. While the approach is generally intriguing, it can also lead to a rushed, somewhat forced form of storytelling: suggestion/exposition/twist/denouement without any real sense of building a mystery or allowing for multiple possibilities.

On the other hand, I was taken with the weirdness of the episode's world-building. The viewer's question of "why?" (as vexing to us as to the computer, it seems) can be frustrating on a story level but it seems almost irrelevant in other ways, with the hypnotic technological processes carrying a dazzling sixties sci-fi kick. The hodgepodge of ideas about propaganda, brainwashing, and rote learning sometimes work at cross-purposes; when the Professor's wife informs Six of the educational purposes behind the Villager's leisure activities she sounds less like a totalitarian schoolmarm and more like a freethinking hippie. I've watched the episode once all the way through and have revisited quite a few of the scenes independently (I'm hesitant to process these episodes too much before writing about them, as the point of this viewing diary is to reflect relatively immediate impressions). But something tells me this will be one I'm compelled to revisit during future discussions. I'll try to unwind all the strange things "The General" programmed into my head, things I can repeat without quite understanding. Excuse me while I clean my orange juice up from the floor...

Previous episode: The Schizoid Man
Next episode: A., B., and C.

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