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 have only been warned about two episodes of The Prisoner - and this is one of them (the other is still to come). As it turns out, I can see why...but I still enjoyed watching this. I got a kick out of the conceit, contrived as it was, and was curious to see where it would go. Given my viewing order, which seemed constructed to taper off before the big climax, I was also surprised to see an episode this conceptually ambitious and ranging so far afield. Granted, its concept is kind of screwy on several levels. The series has flirted with cheesy sci-fi shenanigans several times but this is probably the only occasion where it really does go over the line. In previous outings, say "The Schizoid Man," the theme always seemed to lead the gimmick. In "Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling" the gimmick is definitely punching above its weight. Above all, the convenience of the episode's device is pretty transparent. I was going to joke that perhaps McGoohan had pneumonia when this one was written and shot, but I stumbled across the real reason for his notable absence while looking up casting details. Apparently, he was off shooting a film, leaving the writers with the nearly impossible task of crafting a chapter of The Prisoner in which the central, title character, the only even vaguely consistent member of the cast, would be reduced to one scene and a few lines of dialogue. Given the absurdity of that challenge, I'd say they pulled it off as best they could. If you take this in the right spirit - I laughed out loud when I realized where this was going (and surmised why it was going there) - "Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling" is a bit of fun.
If the creator/star of the show is gone, the main character is not. Number Six is still onscreen throughout nearly the entire hour, but he is played by Nigel Stock - an actor about ten years older than McGoohan, and not much of a lookalike. But that's the point. We first meet Stock as "The Colonel," who arrives by helicopter at the Village to confer with this week's Number Two (Clifford Evans). Two tells him about Prof. Jacob Seltzman (Hugo Schuster), a mysterious scientist who has discovered a way for two bodies to swap minds, Freaky Friday-style. Unlike Friday and other similar movies (Face/Off or, ahem, The Hot Girl) "Do Not Forsake Me" isn't interested in milking the assumed-identity gag. Six-in-the-Colonel's body is returned to Six's apartment, so we never get to see him posing as the Colonel - quite the opposite in fact. And disappointingly if unsurprisingly given the production context, Six's original body stays behind. One wonders if the Colonel is simply sedated in his chair/new body for the time it takes Six to get back to the Village and if so, what the hell is the in-world explanation for that? So we don't get to see McGoohan pull any "Schizoid Man"-esque antics...instead we're stuck with Stock, although I actually enjoyed his performance. He's nowhere near as charismatic or entertainingly sardonic as McGoohan (at least not in this film; I've yet to see Brighton Rock, but stills of a young hoodlum-looking Stock are promising). But the actor and writers had me suspending my disbelief and I accepted him as a slightly repressed Number Six, probably a better approach than attempting an over-the-top impersonation. After Six tracks down Seltzman in Austria and both of them are carted back to the Village, the aging doctor pulls a nifty trick, restoring Six to his original body but transferring himself into the Colonel so that he can escape to safety. Which means that Stock actually gets to play three different characters before his guest gig is up.
Aside from the intriguing if not entirely satisfying casting stunt, the episode's primary significance is to tell us more - a lot more - about Six's past. I was particularly surprised to discover that he has a fiancee! Even more than the mind-swap, this is may be the episode's most unconvincing twist. Unless my memory is playing tricks on me, Six has never mentioned an engagement before. This is something you'd think would come up at some point: maybe on his previous trip back to London?! Instead, he generally acts as if he has no pressing personal attachments to return to, nor do the authorities ever try to break him by threatening his loved one. Compounding the confusion, Zena Walker (Janet Portland) is pleased to see Six's car outside his home but doesn't seem at all like someone who has been separated by her lover for a year (an idea they could have easily gotten around by shortening the ambiguous passage of time that Six has been gone - but for whatever reason, the show actively writes itself into this corner). Sir Charles Portland, Six's boss and Zena's father, also seems rather calm about his prospective son-in-law's longtime disappearance - and did it really take his daughter a whole year to ask if he sent Six on a mission? I know the Brits have a reputation for unflappability, but this is a bit ridiculous. Also, the show's stubborn if admirable refusal to tell us Six's name is strained to the maximum as everyone, including his fiancee, finds a way to avoid that reveal. Many of these strategies are clever (and one of them lends the episode its title) but c'mon.
That said, there is a surprisingly tender moment between Zena and semi-Six at a party when his caress and kiss convince her of his identity. It would be interesting to see McGoohan play this sort of scene, since he usually comes off as a more roguish, Bond-esque character (and indeed, he was apparently Cubby Broccoli's first choice for 007). As it is, Stock handles it nicely; plus we can finally score one for the distaff department - Zena is perhaps the first entirely trustworthy female character on The Prisoner. Anyway, even aside from the dramatic convolutions required for this romance subplot, I'm not convinced this was a wise development for Six's character and I won't be at all surprised if she's dropped in the remaining four episodes - rendering her appearance here even more pointless. Number Six tends to work better the less we know about his backstory, and the less he is tied to the outside world. He's the Individual with a capital "I," just generalized enough to be a(n idealized) viewer insert, while still particular enough to provide color episode-to-episode. But we'll see what the remaining episodes have in mind.
While I enjoyed the cold open and the final twist - even if I saw it coming - I could have done without Six's overexplanation, but I guess they wanted to give McGoohan something to say in his own show (also, couldn't Seltzman/the Colonel have gotten a little more time to get away?). I wish they had moved McGoohan's appearance to the beginning of the show, because the footage of Six silently pacing his room (and the apparent body double used when he is carted to Two's headquarters) make McGoohan's absence all the more obvious, undercutting the cleverness of Stock's substitution as a logistical fix. Further adding to the filler-episode feel is the lengthy, unnecessary montage of Six's greatest-hits as he looks in the mirror at his new visage. Nonetheless, even when crossing into self-parody and losing the actor who provides its central glue, The Prisoner has plenty of charm. With its extended stay in swingin' (well, ok, kinda square) London, bright palette, kooky high tech style (complete with thick brightly-colored wires in a basement laboratory) and touristy trip to a scenic Continental locale, this really fits well with an entire era of lighthearted capers from Help! to Hopscotch. Is it the series' worst episode? You could make a plausible case, with McGoohan's ludicrous absence as Exhibit A. But it's the kind of goofy guilty pleasure that any show longer than a few episodes better hope it has in its arsenal. It's also an interesting test of just how far the show can ride on fumes, losing both its star and its world (I've failed to dwell on the fact that not only is McGoohan MIA, so is the Village, but then we've already lost the community in several episodes). I'll give it a gentleman's C+, maybe a B- for effort. But if it tries to pull this trick again, I doubt I'll be so generous.
Previous episode: A Change in Mind
Next episode: Hammer into Anvil