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In Association with
The Prisoner (2009)
Director: Nick Hurran

review by J.C. Hartley

It was probably a mistake having a drink before the final episode but, having followed things up to then to a degree, my sense of alienation, extreme tiredness, and three bottles of beer and half a bottle of red wine, shunted me into a waking-dream state not altogether inappropriate to the themes of this series.

I did wonder if we were watching things in reverse. Did number Six resign after seeing the Village? It's an obvious twist. Why did Six end up in the Village, did number Two just fancy a holiday? For God's sake I don't even know why Six resigned. Watching the series there was a growing sense that the makers would leave things swinging like in the original, but my daughter had already made it plain that unless there was a rendition of 'Dem Bones', and a scene featuring a man dancing with a tray of tea-things on the back of a tautliner, any half-assed denouement would be totally unacceptable.

Alison Graham writing in The Radio Times, when the ITV1 serialisation began, said that this remake/ re-imagining would be bound to upset fans of the 'overrated' original, which was not as influential as those fans liked to maintain. Graham has said before that she is no great fan of science fiction, and one assumes that this includes this particular form of spy-fi. To her credit she seemed to have kept an open mind and owned up to enjoying this new version.

But Graham, ditch your prejudices, the original may very well be overrated dramatically, but by no power on this or any other Earth can its influence be dismissed. A TV series still generating discussion and cultural transformation 40 years after the initial broadcast not influential? Wake up. Obviously the 1960s were a time when the subject of identity and state interference and control were coming into the spotlight, and The Prisoner wasn't the only series to consider this.

1968 also saw the great Nigel Kneale's The Year Of The Sex Olympics, usually credited with presaging our own 'reality TV'. Over its run The Prisoner featured a host of themes picked up by later writers, for new series like Lost, and Dollhouse, are working in the long shadow cast by the earlier show. Was this version as ground-breaking? Short answer: no.

A man wakes up in a desert and observes the pursuit of an old man by armed guards. The old man dies but says to tell someone that he 'got out'. Wandering into the Village the newcomer (Jim Caviesel, Outlander) is given the number Six and introduced to the sinister Two (Sir Ian McKellen, X-Men trilogy) who appears to be in charge. Over the miniseries, Six engages in a series of mind-games with Two while being haunted by memories of his previous life working for a surveillance concern called Summakor, and his one-night stand with a fellow employee (Hayley Atwell), after his apparent resignation, which resulted in her death.

Two denies the existence of any 'other place' outside the Village. Six is given evidence, including the existence of a brother, and various Village-based memories, that he belongs in the Village. However there are many signs of internal revolt within the populace including Two's own son 11-12 (Jamie Campbell Bower, New Moon), and 313 (Ruth Wilson) a 'dreamer' who sees visions of another life and place. There is a strong sense that the maintenance of the Village is somehow linked to a coma-state in Two's wife, and there are further signs that the Village is threatened, with the appearance of holes in the ground.

The hallucinatory aspect of the series is heightened, not always successfully, with cutting between the Village and Six's life in New York, and various rapid sequences in which Six has inconclusive adventures or is the victim of attacks or is drugged. Mysterious glass towers hover on the horizon, 313 visits an office block buried in the desert sand, 'Rover' the aggressive balloon from the original series patrols the Village perimeter with no explanation. There are other references to the original, including the use of episode titles. In Schizoid of the new series, a penny-farthing wheel is a feature of the club where 11-12 hangs out, and a shopkeeper accused of impersonating Two is dragged off to 'the Clinic' wearing the scarf and blazer which was affected by the original number Two.

This series gains credit for trying something different but with a host of freaky alternative series coming out of America it would have had to be something particularly radical to generate excitement. With the cancellation of Heroes and Flash Forward, and the finale of Lost, in the US, there are signs that this particular period in TV production is coming to an end. The UK hasn't really cashed in on the interest, with home-grown product. Doctor Who continues to throw up the occasional classic episode, and Primeval was enjoyable but formulaic and effects-driven.

In a sense this Prisoner was always on a hiding. Despite Alison Graham's contention, the original was new, witty, radical and ultimately frustrating. This version was intriguing, watchable but occasionally baffling and over-busy. Dominated by an effortless and sometimes languid performance by McKellen, it was hard to engage with the one-note hero as played by Jim Caviezel. The explanation as to what had been going on was somehow unsatisfying, far-fetched and illogical, not truly bizarre and liberating but fudged. It left more questions than answers with answers you frankly can't be bothered to pursue. An honest and valiant attempt to do something different, except it's been done before. It looked great but like the Village itself that was just a cosmetic appearance. Nice try. Be seeing you.

The Prisoner promo

The Prisoner poster

See also:
Patrick McGoohan profile

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