Lost in the Movies: The Prisoner - "Arrival"

The Prisoner - "Arrival"

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.

Patrick McGoohan certainly knows how to kick off a TV show. In a quickly-cut montage with no dialogue (the only word even printed onscreen is "Resigned"), it is established that the main character (played by co-creator McGoohan) is leaving an ominous organization - probably a spy agency - and that they don't want to let him go (packing his bags for an exotic getaway he is gassed and knocked out). The aesthetic with which this information is presented seems unusual to modern eyes. From my admittedly small sample size, many acclaimed 00s TV shows employ moody lighting or eccentric (usually drawn-out) pacing but they seldom employ the fast-paced visual storytelling embraced by "The Arrival"'s cold open. The Prisoner was made in 1967, and occasionally it's very 60s fondness for montage feels excessive, with multiple cuts covering action that could be more effective if economical. Still, for he most part I found this style much more refreshing than dated; the first few minutes got me very excited for the seventeen episodes to come.

Even better, once our hero - henceforth known as "Number Six" - awakens, he is trapped in an apparently idyllic prison colony whose bright colors, midcentury techno-luxury, and cozy communitarian layout combine the charms of a resort village with the dazzle of a futuristic utopia. This appeal, however, barely conceals an enclosed totalitarian surveillance state which Number Six wants no part of. The episode contains at least two or three escape attempts, constantly thwarted by the cheerful but absolute control of Number Two (Guy Doleman), the community's benevolent dictator who becomes an entirely different person (George Baker) halfway through the runtime. The conceit of this location is invigorating, reminding me very much of the superficial freedom and hidden boundaries of video-game worlds (this video - jump to about 34 minutes - by Harun Farocki provocatively explores the possibilities/limitations of such environments). The concept seems perfectly focused yet also excitingly open, with endless avenues for exploration in upcoming episodes.

If The Prisoner's TV antecedents are apparent (Twilight Zone leaps most immediately to mind) its descendents are even more obvious. Seeing this pilot a decade after Lost is like finally meeting the parent of a longtime friend and thinking "Ah, so that's where that comes from!" Lost reflects not only the conceit of being trapped in an isolated, mysterious locale with unexplained phenomena, it also presents a polished, suburban neighborhood, with all kinds of amenities, in the middle of a wilderness. A few weeks ago I watched an episode of The Leftovers, created by Lost's Damon Lindelof and it too bears a strong resemblance to The Prisoner, trapping a character inside of a hotel that serves as sort of...well, what exactly? A dream world? An afterlife? An alternate reality? If I wasn't sure in The Leftovers, I'm even less sure in The Prisoner, although so far there is no reason to believe the reality of this prison colony doesn't coexist with the reality of the opening sequence. The only doubt comes courtesy of the colony's wildly advanced technology; the young-looking Number Six says he was born in 1928 so the show can't be set that far ahead of its air date).

I can't quite explain why everything is clicking for me so far except to observe that I am greatly amused by the giant white balloon-y bouncing ball that regulates and punishes the populace, delighted by the cheerful Disneyland quality of the simple street signs and well-scrubbed homes, and simpatico with the hero's ability to navigate and explore but not escape or understand his world. The combination of a self-enclosed microcosm with a lack of constricting structure hits the perfect sweet spot for me. A slow, mysterious pace can also be absorbing (see The Sopranos, Lost to a certain extent, and and obviously Twin Peaks) but I am so intrigued by how quickly The Prisoner moves through its plot points. This first episode contains at least a half-dozen twists, enough to fill a whole season of any show more worried about running out of ideas.

We learn that the village authorities, immediately established as part of the agency Number Six abandoned, want information but prefer observation to direct questioning. We discover that Cobb (Paul Eddington), an old associate, fakes his death to conceal his part in the anti-Six conspiracy. And we meet two women whom Six suspects of being plants: a maid (Stephanie Randall) who is trying to deceive him and Cobb's grieving friend (Virginia Maskell) who despite being assigned to spy on Six actually seems to be on his side (unless I misunderstood, which is certainly a possibility!). If I had to predict where the show will go in the following episodes I'd guess that Six will make various discoveries about people and places within the community, none of which will necessarily lead him closer to escape or comprehension (at least not until they are all pieced together in the end). The fact that most of the show doesn't have a set viewing order suggests the story will be far more episodic than serialized. Honestly I don't really know what to expect, a feeling I always enjoy. All I know is that I am going to enjoy poking around this happily menacing Sim City, a candy-coated puzzle that can be arranged any number of ways to create the bigger picture.

Next episode: Dance of the Dead

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