Lost in the Movies: The Prisoner - "Dance of the Dead"

The Prisoner - "Dance of the Dead"

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.

It's Carnival Day in the Village and the idea seems perfectly suited for the bright, cheerful community. In theory, that is - in practice it means dozens of people in colorful costumes standing around aimlessly until they are told what to do (in this case, dance). If the first episode focused my attention on the mystery of the Village itself, this - the eighth episode aired and (on the advice of Christopher Yohn and others) the second I have watched - awoke my curiosity about the Villagers themselves. Who are they? How did they get there? Why do they do what they do (or don't do)? Are they like Number Six, desiring escape but having learned to bide their time until the right opportunity arrives? Or have the pleasant repetitions of the daily routine, the hospitalizations and other medical intervention ordered by the Doctor (William Lyon Brown), and the fear of violent reprisal effectively brainwashed these people? We get a variety of answers in "Dance of the Dead," but no definite conclusions.

One answer is provided by Roland Walter Dutton (Alan White), whom we see three times during the episode. During Number Six's interrogation, in which electrodes are attached to his head (the Doctor is eagerly pushing the new arrival's psyche to what he hopes will be a breaking point), Dutton is introduced as a vacant-minded pawn of the Committee. He speaks to Number Six over the phone, but simply repeats everything he is told by one of the authorities. In a second scene, in which Six runs into Dutton in a cave - having momentarily ducked surveillance - we learn that Dutton's previous mental state was temporary (although it will soon become permanent) and that he is an old colleague of Number Six. Dutton tells Six that he has been released from the hospital for twenty-four hours but that when he returns he is sure to be destroyed in the hunt for information (which, given his level of clearance in the agency he and Six worked for, he doesn't actually have). When we see Dutton one last time, during the Carnival itself, he is dressed in a jester's costume and his weary but still human countenance has been replaced by a blank stare.

Another, more ambiguous, answer is hinted when Number Six interacts with his Observer (Norma West). A sharp, pretty young woman with a humorless demeanor, she hovers around Six and resists his questions with an increasingly flustered insistence on the community's harsh bromides, particularly "Questions are a burden to others. Answers are a prison to oneself." But she isn't simply a robot (or a "computer" as Six teases), and when Number Six presses her - "How did you get here? What did you do to have yourself brought here?" - she initially softens into confused pleading. In one scene, she is humanized even further when she discovers that a previous subject is dead and she reacts with shock, "I got to know him quite well." With more than a small smirk, another woman replies, "He didn't get to know you, did he?" At the end of the episode, the Observer acts as Six's prosecutor (during a show trial at the Carnival), a shrill parrot repeating all of the Village's propaganda about itself: "Without [the rules'] discipline we should exist in a state of anarchy." When she is dismissed as Six's Observer at the end of the episode, he is told "Observers should never get involved." Though I doubt we will see her again (perhaps in the finale) the Observer has served her purpose, giving us some insight into how the community regulates itself, and is not simply regulated from outside.

The primary drama of the episode occurs between Number Six and the new Number Two, played with cheeky aplomb by Mary Morris (who is so memorable in the role that I have difficulty recalling either of the two Number Twos in "Arrival"). Unlike the Observer, she doesn't kid herself about any sacred communal pact or set of principles guiding the Village. She is a pragmatist, knowing what the goal is and shrewdly weighing each option to determine the best course. She doesn't want to break Number Six, she wants him to integrate into the community - or provide them with information (or both, it's not entirely clear) - of his own accord. Behind the question of who the Villagers are, the identity of the Village itself hovers in the background, as I'm sure it will continue to do throughout all the episodes. Number Six's most helpful interaction may actually be with a dead man, washed up on shore, from whom he steals a radio that delivers a cryptic message: "Nowhere is there more beauty than here. Tonight, when the moon rises, the whole world will turn to silver. Do you understand? It is important that you understand. I have a message for you. You must listen. The appointment cannot be fulfilled. Other things must be done tonight. If our torment is to end, if liberty is to be restored, we must grasp the nettle, even though it makes our hands bleed. Only through pain can tomorrow be assured." He doesn't understand it yet, but perhaps soon he will.

"Dance of the Dead" offers my first glimpse of how the show will unfold on an episode-by-episode basis. Given the confusion/contention about which episode order is best, it's clear the show is not going to have a straightforward narrative throughline: instead each episode will be like a short story taking place within this world, that will perhaps only add up to something larger at the end of the series. This does leave me with some questions - for example, at the end of this episode Number Two implies that Six will be presented as dead not only to the outside world but to the Village as well. How can this simply be forgotten in future episodes (episodes that have often been placed before this one)? After all, Number Six is sentenced to execution at his show trial, and the Villagers are eagerly chasing him down before he escapes. From now on will he be sequestered in his room? Will he be disguised in public? If the answer is yes, then how could these coming episodes ever be viewed before this one? Anything could happen; appropriately enough, the next episode in my viewing order is titled "Free for All"! It's sure to be a clever name in several ways; this episode already toys with the question of how free these people think they are; many of the Observer's defenses of the Village reference democracy alongside appeals to law and order, while Number Two readily mocks the concept of popular governance. 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? I look forward to finding out (or not finding out, as the case may be...maybe the hunt's the thing).

Previous episode: Arrival
Next episode: Free for All

1 comment:

Joel Bocko said...

James Cooray Smith left the following comments on Twitter:

"Interesting points on The Prisoner. UK TV doesn't really do pilots, and certainly doesn't have a pilot 'season', so Arrival was part of an initial six episode order. (The others are the other four directed by Don Chaffey, and then the order was extended to 13 before they decided on a sixth). The script for Arrival was given to other writers on the series and they all, essentially, wrote an Episode 2 for the series, all of which were made. The Prisoner essentially has four episodes 1.2 that are in sense mutually exclusive. It isn't a serial, as such.

IIRC it went from 6, to 13, then 17. It was run in the UK straight through, but with two weeks off between, I think, 13 and 14. Or maybe 14 and 15. I've never heard of anything quite like what happened on The Prisoner happening elsewhere in UK TV. Certainly not to the extent that they just made all the different versions. My take on the Prisoner is that he's kidnapped anew every week. I don't think the title sequence is a flashback. I think it's a different version every time."

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