Lost in the Movies: The Prisoner - Final Conclusions w/ Christopher Yohn

The Prisoner - Final Conclusions w/ Christopher Yohn

Eight months ago I finished The Prisoner, a cult British show from 1967 - 68. I followed up my viewing diary by talking to a couple big fans but right around then my blogging activity came to a grinding halt (I never even published the second conversation until months later). I always hoped to share a concluding entry, less for my own thoughts (most of what I have to say on The Prisoner has been said) than for further input from Christopher Yohn. He designed the viewing order I used to watch these notoriously difficult-to-organize episodes, and below he explains his reasoning in detail.

I thank him and others who encouraged and aided this endeavor. This was only the second TV series I wrote about during a first viewing, an exciting, fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants approach. The Prisoner itself was a delight, perfectly balancing thought-provoking and (surprisingly) light-hearted moments. Is that an appropriate description of a series with such a deeply engaged and uncompromising philosophical outlook? With its air of play and amusement, I think so - certainly the show's colorful aesthetic and zippy sixties style were quite refreshing to me last year. I know when I eventually return to the series it will nostalgically take me back to the winter and spring when I first watched, discussed, and eventually read (and listened to podcasts, and watched videos) about The Prisoner. It already seems quite long ago, across the much-bemoaned chasm that was 2016, but I remember it fondly.

I don't have anything deeper to say at the moment. Perhaps someday, when I inevitably try out a different viewing order, I will offer some more observations. Until then: Be se...

Well, I don't really need to say it again, do I?


“Other people choose...It’s a game.”
--The Maid, Dance of the Dead

The fact that viewers can even debate the viewing order of The Prisoner is one of the unique traits of this show. Most shows fit into an episodic or serial structure with little question about the order in which they should be watched. The only recent exceptions I can think of are shows that had an incomplete or different broadcast order than what was intended. One such case is Firefly, which had its complete order restored upon DVD release. Another is the Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated series, which had many episodes created throughout the first few seasons intended to fit between earlier episodes and fill out story arcs. After the series ended an official chronological story order was released to make sense of it all. In the case of The Prisoner it seems like the show was produced mainly to be episodic as with most television of its time, yet details within episodes suggest at least the possibility of a serial-style order to tell a larger story. (Patrick McGoohan even said he initially wanted a short serial of only around seven episodes and that the rest may have been stretching the concept.) Those story clues and details along with the general mysteries of the show and its difficult production have driven fans to rearrange the episodes for decades.

Since it wasn’t actually produced as a serial, any alternate viewing order is completely subjective. It comes down to what kind of story you think The Prisoner is trying to tell (and there are plenty of different theories about that as well), but that puts us in the quandary pointed out perfectly by James Cooray Smith in a previous post: “...we have to make our own choices, but we can only do that once we've seen it all already. Someone else has to choose our first viewing order for us, unless we go into it genuinely randomly.”

The show tried to be several things at once and the final results are sometimes very contradictory. So, where do we start? There are a few “official” options: the actual production order, the Original UK Broadcast order (the most common), and following that was ITC’s suggested order for repeat and US broadcasts. There are also some higher profile fan orders such as the one used for A&E Home Video’s Region 1 DVDs, and from television and websites such as KTEH Public Television in California, the UK Sci-Fi Channel, and The AV Club. All of these can be found online (and most are collected on Wikipedia’s Prisoner episode page).

Considering these, and in the absence of anything truly definitive, if we want to diverge from the packaged orders how do we construct a satisfying viewing experience? We could try to figure out what the creators intended--many books and blogs have been written with that goal. We could decide that the purest order should follow the production, but there were many problems and much overlap throughout the process that prevent a clear sequence. The original broadcast order itself was shifted due to production issues while it was airing. And exactly whose idea was ITC’s "official" order--was anyone from Everyman Films even consulted?

Perhaps it does make more sense to have the "authentic” experience of watching it in the Original UK Broadcast order first and then deciding whether any episodes should be rearranged. That was how I first saw The Prisoner and, as flawed as that is, it was still effective enough to intrigue me beyond a single viewing--unlike most television. Despite inconsistencies in the details it generally succeeds in presenting a balanced blend of the different styles of episodes. The original broadcast order was probably the best they could do at the time. So maybe the disjointed nature of the story in that sequence is actually a good thing in that it might invite viewers to try to “fix” it.

Obviously I prefer my order over the others, but despite spending a lot of effort revising it over the years I don’t believe there really is any “correct” way to watch it. Honestly, there can't be. The show just wasn't made that way. This is one Prisoner puzzle that was unintentional, but I still think it is fun to try to solve. (That might actually say more about me than the show--or maybe that is completely in keeping with its spirit.) For my sequence I tried to piece together an evolving storyline on the literal level while remaining mindful of the larger allegory of the series as a whole. These are some of the story elements and recurring themes I used to do this:

Dance of the Dead
Free For All
The Chimes of Big Ben

I don’t think there is an ideal second episode. It seems like there should be just one more follow-up to Arrival in which Number Six tries to get his bearings before the larger spectacle of events in Dance of the Dead and Free For All--the strange cabaret trial and the election campaign. (Then again, who ever accused this show of being subtle?) Throughout these five episodes there are many references to Six being “new” and he is obviously not yet familiar with Village customs and power structure, nor the lengths to which they will go to keep him. In all of them he is very determined to find a means of escape and/or getting a message out of The Village. They do a lot to establish the way The Village works for the audience as well.

Dance could be Six’s ritual initiation into the community. They’ve taken him away from the outside world in Arrival and now they are trying to take his notion of the outside world away from him. It is meant to be the death of his old life as he receives a theatrical death sentence costumed in his own clothes, as well as manufacturing evidence of his “death” for the outside world to discover in the form of the altered body from the beach.

There is also a lot of discussion about the rules and the duties of members of the community, and of The Village being democratic “in some ways”. So, I prefer Dance take place before Free For All where we actually witness interactions with the Town Council and the process of their so-called democratic elections. In Free For All Six states his intention to determine who are the “prisoners” and who are the “warders” and in Checkmate he puts this into action as he assembles a group of conspirators. His methods backfire, but his early attempts to escape almost come to fruition (he believes) in The Chimes of Big Ben.

In Chimes he is more aware of Village methods, less trusting of community activities, and very skeptical of the new Number Eight/Nadia. He’s been burned by putting his faith in a group of like-minded rebellious citizens in Checkmate so it takes more time for Nadia to earn his trust, but eventually she succeeds and they plan their escape. Being another Village set-up from the beginning, with Nadia’s participation as well as that of members of Six’s former agency, this doesn’t end well for him and this also ends the “beginning” of the series and Six’s constant attempts to plan a physical escape.

The Schizoid Man
The General
A. B. and C.
Many Happy Returns

(We covered this section a bit in our first discussion, especially the contradictions of certain plot details, so I’ll just cover the main story points of this sequence as they relate to my order.)

This group rounds out the first half of the series well for me. There is an escalation in The Village’s methods of interrogation without being too invasive (yet). In these four episodes Six has regrouped after previous setbacks and calmed down somewhat, and he no longer attempts escape except when an opportunity presents itself (The Schizoid Man and Many Happy Returns). He even begins to have some minor victories culminating in an actual “escape” by sea back to London.

In Schizoid, in order to test Six’s sense of identity, they use brainwashing capabilities only hinted at in Dance and implemented on him to a lesser degree in Free For All. In The General we see their ability to implant information in people’s minds on a mass scale as well as the supercomputer behind it, technology not seen but probably in use prior to this episode. We also see that there are still others, some in high-ranking positions, who are also trying to subvert The Village’s plans. And in A. B. and C. and Returns they try to learn more about Six’s resignation and the possibility of his selling out, first by invading his mind and dreams to see how he would react to specific associates from his past, then by actually letting him leave The Village to find out where he would go, what he would do, and with whom he would communicate.

I think Returns is the ideal mid-way point for the series. Despite getting away and contacting people he should be able to trust, he is still returned to The Village, a further demonstration to him about the futility of escape. From this point forward he does not attempt escape again until the end. And from this point forward Village methods against him become more insidious, strange, and extreme.

It’s Your Funeral
Living in Harmony
A Change of Mind
Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling
Hammer Into Anvil
The Girl Who Was Death
Once Upon A Time / Fall Out

It’s Your Funeral, Living in Harmony, and A Change of Mind are about Six’s changing relationship with the community. He takes action to protect individuals and the community as a whole, even going so far as to save a Number Two’s life. The Village masters also test the degree to which Six may actually serve the community’s interests and under what circumstances or coercion.

Watched in this order, I think Six has been back from London for a while before the events of It’s Your Funeral. He’s had time to settle back in to Village life again and create new habits, maybe to give a false sense of routine to Village surveillance. (Funeral, Change, and Hammer all include references to Six’s “usual activities” such as using his forest gym and participating in those weird Kosho matches, activities not seen in earlier episodes.) In Funeral Number Two is only manipulating and hoping to discredit him, but not trying to break him--not a very big plan so soon after his return. From a production standpoint Funeral was very troubled and as a result is one of the weaker episodes in terms of a clear plot. The new Number Two’s plan to assassinate a retiring Two is so convoluted that I wonder whether that is even the goal. It seems foolishly arrogant to even risk involving Six in the scheme. Was the intent really to have an excuse to punish the community for the long-tolerated actions of “Jammers”, actions that Two manipulated in this case? Or was the actual goal to find out what Six would do--help the Jammers plant the bomb or help the citizens as a whole by exposing the plot? They’ve played the damsel-in-distress card with him a few times before and failed, but would Six actually help the old Number Two in order to protect the community he rejects from unjust reprisals?

Living in Harmony is a daring experiment for television of its time, one genre of program swapped for something totally different. While it reinterprets and restates the basic premise of the entire series in American Western form, Harmony is another episode about Six’s grasp on his identity and what it might take to convince or coerce him to serve The Village. That is why I think it should follow Funeral as an expansion of that theme. As a scheme, though, this is just a more involved virtual reality roleplay experiment similar to the A. B. and C. procedure.

A Change of Mind is an interesting exploration of how “individual” someone can really be and still function within a community, echoed later by Number Two’s words in Once Upon A Time: “The lone wolf belongs to the wilderness.” Change reveals Six’s precarious place among the other citizens and his reaction to being excluded from the very thing he wants to leave, as well as the threat of physical punishment by his fellow prisoners rather than warders. Six is especially prickly in Change, almost like he was in the very beginning. His confrontational and uncooperative behavior results in his being declared “Unmutual” and shunned. The Committee separates him socially from the rest of the community just as they intend to rehabilitate him by separating his “aggressive” frontal lobe from the rest of his brain. It is a trick orchestrated by Two to convince Six to be passive and cooperative, and for a while he is uncertain how far they will actually take it--after all, he saw what happened to his colleague Dutton in Dance. Six eventually figures out the ruse and tricks the Committee into turning against Two, declaring him Unmutual instead, and inciting a mob to attack him. This is a serious win for Six and also why I think it belongs later in the series.

Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling, Hammer Into Anvil, and The Girl Who Was Death are an odd bunch. Darling uses a classic sci-fi trope to work around an absent Patrick McGoohan. Hammer is a straightforward battle-of-wits spy story. Girl is a campy romp through 1960s England. But as different as these episodes are from each other I think they represent the final turn in Six’s struggle against The Village. After causing an actual uprising (however small) against a Number Two in Change, Six is finally forced to endure a strange and difficult challenge with heartbreaking connections to his past. He comes out of it maybe more determined than ever to see an end to his captors. This is followed by a focused breaking down of another Number Two. And Girl acts as a bizarre interlude before the finale.

The procedure in Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling is one The Village had to work toward over time. After the events of all of the mind-bending episodes before this, they must be confident that Six should be able to handle the process with his mind intact. (I wonder whether they’ve tried this on anyone before. It would make sense to test it before putting their prized prisoner through it. Maybe that could even explain some of the characters with double-identities we see throughout the series.) Six’s connection to the scientist Seltzman, and the importance of the mind-swap project to The Village’s global agenda may also be one of the reasons for his capture to begin with.

Darling also suffered production challenges. McGoohan was unavailable due to filming Ice Station Zebra in the United States. And as good an actor as Nigel Stock is, he just doesn’t quite capture the force of Six’s personality. I rationalize that as being a side-effect of the intensity of the experiment, the regression of his memory, and the sadness of the circumstances. There is a melancholy and defeated tone to this episode, reinforced by the musical score. Six is like a ghost visiting his old life. He is put, disoriented, back into the “outside world” but cannot hold on to any part of it, just some tentative recognition from his alleged fiancĂ© Janet. He’s out of The Village but still a prisoner inside The Colonel, the vessel for his mission. I think this should be placed later in the episode order due to the time reference of just over a year since Six’s disappearance, the extreme nature of the procedure, and Six not even trying to get away. He knows they’ll bring him back somehow and continue to hunt Seltzman anyway. In the end Seltzman puts things right for Six and finds a deadly means of escape, his secrets safe from The Village. After this cruel ordeal I think Six is ready for a fight.

Hammer Into Anvil begins with Six going to the aid of a Villager in distress and finding her driven to suicide by a sadistic Number Two. He vows vengeance for her death but Two won’t tolerate his impertinence, aggressively confronting him and putting him under even heavier surveillance. Six defeats Two by using his (now extensive) knowledge of Village procedures and Jammer tactics, and using Two’s own paranoia and fear of his masters against him, concluding with Two reporting himself for removal. This is an absolute victory for Six, one of the reasons I think it belongs later, and I think it sets up The Village’s desperate endgame, after one final detour for the audience.

The Girl Who Was Death is another subversion of viewer expectations like Harmony and Darling. Using elements from history, nursery rhymes, and fairy tales, it pokes fun at many spy adventure tropes, including a few references to McGoohan’s previous series, Danger Man. I think Six’s bedtime story can be interpreted any number of ways, but the simplistic plot is that Two believes Six may let his guard down and share some kind of information with Village children about his time as an agent. (Not the most ingenious plan they’ve had...) Obviously Six shares nothing, and merely tells them an altered bedtime story mocking the very things Two hopes to overhear. After the loss of the Seltzman project and the failures of so many Number Twos, The Village is out of options and there’s only one thing left to do about Number Six.

I think of this as the light-hearted episode before the heavy finale. It’s something I’ve seen a lot of shows do. Since Girl is so hard to place in the order anyway and could go just about anywhere, I think it works here just fine. Besides, it even gives us a typical spy thriller ending, blowing up the mad scientist and his lair/weapon in the end, which might be what a lot of people wanted from the show.
But story time is over.
Once upon a time...

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