The Prisoner: New Vs. Original Part 1

Jim here.

What is the purpose of a remake? Honestly, other than to make money, what is the reason behind re-doing something that has been done before?

Sometimes there are ideas that would be interesting if viewed in a context different from the original. As much as I love "A Face in the Crowd," I think framing that in today's media saturated culture would be fascinating.

Other times there are glairing oversights in the original, like in the case of "The Karate Kid." Why did they move? What happened to his father? Questions like that are sometimes unanswered or answered so ambiguously that it can be distracting. I know that many out there disagree with my general thesis on LaRusso and "The Karate Kid," but put that aside and see what I am saying here.

Still other times there are foreign titles that get a redo in the native language (we are far from the only country that does this, and we don't really do it that much by comparrison). Look at films like "The Departed," which took "Infernal Affairs," and translated it brilliantly.

These, sadly, are the exception. The rule is, "People know it, so half our marketing is done. Put it our cheap and back up the money truck." It's a tried and proven formula.

Then, occasionally, you get a remake that has no apparent reason for happening. Something that has a decent sized cult following but is fairly obscure gets a flashy reboot/reimagining and everyone is left scratching their heads. These ideas might have seen great at first, but something is just... missing.

Such is the case with...


The Prisoner






The 2009 AMC/ITV remake of the spy/science fiction/allegorical masterpiece "The Prisoner," makes absolutely no sense. I mean, I can see where the idea seemed good, hell it's something I've even thought about in the past, but the execution was so far off that I really can't make heads or tails of it.

Right now I am only half way in, and so this essay is more of a halftime show than full analysis. But here are the thoughts I have so far.

1) Really, why the hell would you do this?

Patrick McGoohan's "The Prisoner," was conceived as a seven episode series. The network wanted more, so McGoohan agreed to 26, of which 17 were made before the plug got pulled. There is speculation that Patrick told the producers that there weren't another six stories, so they let it go. Why is this important? Because the original idea was to not over commercialize it, just tell the story that McGoohan had in mind and then let it go. He could have mounted a remake/reimagining/sequel series/what have you at ANY point in his life, but he chose not to because the story had been told, and told well.

This is a total curiosity to me because a remake, even in theory, spits in the face of the very idea of this show. Yes there are books and even a, completely bizarre and indecipherable, comic, but those were either extensions of Six's time in The Village or, what I believe in the case of the comic, intentionally maddening and nonsensical continuations to further the subversive nature of the show. Why does the follow up comic not make sense? BECAUSE IT'S VERY EXISTENCE MAKES NO SENSE!!! You might disagree with me, but if you'd read it you'd understand.

2) Where's all the, you know, allegory and stuff.

The original is crazy with the allegory and social commentary. Honestly, it goes on for days. Every episode has some sort of commentary on society, or an idea that it is trying to deconstruct. The show took on everything from the nature of identity to the role of the individual in society to the corruption of elected government to... I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

McGoohan used The Prisoner to hold up a mirror to certain aspects of our culture and possibly make us think about them. Yes it was an entertaining show, and if that was all you took away from it that's fine, but there was a lot more going on. This is what made the show relevant and important. Even though the look is dated the ideas are still resonant.

3) So, there's only one Two?

Another thing that made the original so intriguing is that in 17 episodes more than 17 actors played Number Two. There were a few episodes with more than one actor playing the part, and only two actors (Colin Gordon and Leo McKern, who is possibly the most famous) have played the role in more than one episode. This made the conflict in the show about more than one man versus another man, it became about one man against the system. Each Two had different ways of doing things, different ways of relating to Six, different ways of interrogating him, and different ways of running The Village. The constant replacement and acceptance of the new Two made The Village more ominous and made the powers that be seem all the more powerful.

As good as Ian McKellen is, and he is outstanding as always, making Number Two a single person rather than just a title strips him of his power. Now he isn't an instrument of a bigger machine who couldn't be defeated, just replaced, he is the single symbol of the oppression of The Village. It is a one on one fight that can be won.

4) His arrival

Number Six's arrival was originally unsettling in it's banality. He wakes up in an apartment and goes out into this bizarre world. By dropping him into this slightly abnormal world without a word of explanation, only to have him greeted as if he were just another citizen gave everything a very ominous feel.

What was this place? It seemed normal. Everyone went about a routine and treated Six's appearance as nothing special. They acknowledged he was new, but didn't behave as if that were any big deal. This was a world where people, apparently, came and went all the time. It had a vaguely military feel, people are transferred all the time so it isn't that big a deal for a new person to show, but was so completely removed from our notions of a normal society that it became creepy.

In the new version Six wakes up in the desert, witnesses a man being chased and shot at, talks the man before he dies, buries the man, then wanders around before stumbling into The Village, where he is greeted as if he had spent his life there. This is confusing in all the wrong ways. It takes so long before you have any real idea what is going on that by the time you are clued in it's all become too muddled for it to really resonate.

Not only is his presence there unclear, but the layout of The Village is a bit chaotic. Whereas in the original everything was very close together with Number Two's house in the middle, rising above everything like a Panopticon, looming over everything, the new Village is massive, spread out, and has Two living in a mansion on the edge of town.

5) The Village itself.

Originally The Village was on an island, making escape impossible, and was surrealisticly idyllic. Portmeirion, the Welsh resort used as The Village, didn't like a vivid dream. The layout, the colors, the landscaping, and the buildings themselves looked and felt more like a theme park than any place people would actually live.

The surreal behavior of the other residents , people there didn't behave like normal folk, added to the overall unsettling feel of the place. It feels removed from reality, but is also polished and well maintained. No place could ever look like this.

The new one looks like some odd, dirty order town with a bunch of A frame tract houses. It's an interesting visual, but ends up feeling more like an underdeveloped suburb than some intricately designed prison. You don't have the same dreamlike quality that made the other show so disquieting. Which brings us to...

6) The other residents.

The Village was supposed to be a kind of purgatory for spies and other people who know too much. McGoohan came up with this show at the end of his "Danger Man" ("Secret Agent Man in the US) as an answer to the question, "What happens to a secret agent when he retires? Is he just allowed to wander around with all those secrets in his head?" The premise is simple and opens up questions about everyone else there. What did they do to end up in this place? What do they know?

The level of paranoia this brings about in the characters is amazing. Nobody knows who they can trust. They don't even know who is pulling the strings. All they do know is they were living normal lives, then one day they wake up here.

In the remake it appears that families have been living in The Village for generations. They have jobs, families, a history there, and no idea that anything outside that world exists. The idea might be to create this scary world where people lose their identities and perhaps this will be explained in a brilliant and thrilling way in the end, but I very much doubt it.

7) Job/Resignation/ "Real Life"

This one is still a little unclear at this point in my viewing of the new show. McGoohan's Six was a secret agent with an unnamed agency (most likely MI6 given that he is, you know, British), who resigns out of the blue one day. By the time he returns home and begins furiously packing his belongings his personnel file has been moved to the "Resigned" drawer and a man dressed as an undertaker and driving a hearse approaches and sprays a gas into his apartment. He blacks out and wakes up in The Villiage.

That is all you ever get. You don't know why he resigned, although there are many theories, my personal favorite being from co-creator George Markstein who claimed that Six resigned after learning of the existence of The Village, which was idea he had submitted to his superiors many years before but had since decided was monstrously inhuman. You know nothing of his life off the island other than what his apartment looked like and a vague sense of what his job was.

This ambiguity is, to me, the absolute lynchpin of the show. If you knew why he was there I don't believe the show would have as much weight. He simply refuses, on principle, to say why he resigned. That is the key to Six. Simply saying why he left would be easy and probably not have any real negative impact, but to do so would be contrary to his very nature. By not giving over this small piece of information he is able to maintain his autonomy making the struggle to retain individuality all the more poignant. Six is a man who has to stand for something.

In the new one, admittedly I have not made it to the end, he works for some consulting group, I guess, and is an analyst who reviews surveillance video from around the world. For some reason I find the potential for a story about a surveillance analyst to be lacking some of the punch of a story about a secret agent. Training and field experience alone make this one hard to swallow.

McGoohan's Six was a very Bond like guy who had his field experience to help him resist and fight back. The new Six doesn't seem to have that, and in not having those abilities there isn't variety of situation to explore in regards to his situation. It just feels like it's lacking something.

You also see the new Six in a social setting before The Village. Granted this ties to the reasons he is in The Village, but it is still more of Six in a social setting where he seems more like a regular person. Six isn't supposed to be a normal guy. He's smarter, he's tougher, and he's more determined than we are. That's what makes him awesome. Pulling the curtain back and showing him being awkward takes away from him.

8) Rover

Rover. Ah, the sentient balloon that roams the streets of The Village causing havoc. They were the absolute height in low budget. They were born one night when McGoohan and Markstein were enjoying a few gin drinks, pondering what would work as the highly mobile, ominous rovers, when one looked up and saw a weather balloon. It was cheap, easy, and creepy as hell.

They were also somewhat every present. You never knew when everyone would have to freeze as one would go bouncing past. It was impossible to predict them unless you were trying to escape, then you knew one would show up.

As iconic to the show as they are I have only seen them twice in the first three episodes, and they were... well, different. The low tech angle is gone and they have been replaced with shiny new CGI versions. As with everything CGI they have all the cosmetic benefit and absolutely nothing else. They don't seem real or menacing. They have only been there when someone was trying to escape and then they weren't really visible. Rover has always been a very tangible incarnation of an abstract idea, but now they feel like an abstract variant that has no real weight. I also anticipate a detailed description of what they are and how they work in the next few episodes.

9) What do they want from six?

This is a big one for me. The show has always been about the opening voice over,

Number Six: Where am I?

Number Two (not identified as yet): In the village.

Number Six: What do you want?

Two: Information.

Number Six: Whose side are you on?

Two: That would be telling.... We want information...information...information!

Number Six: You won't get it!

Two: By hook or by crook, we will.

Number Six: Who are you?

Two: The new Number Two.

Number Six: Who is Number One?

Two: You are Number Six.

Number Six: I am not a number; I am a free man!

Two: [Sinister laughing]

What this gives you is a show about a man standing against authority, fighting to retain his identity, and struggling against powers that are beyond his. This is the overall allegory of the film. How do we retain our identity in a world that is determined to make us a number.

"I will not make any deals with you. I've resigned. I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own."

This is one man taking a stand against the system. In having this as the thesis of the film everything else falls into place and makes sense because everything hinges on this. Why is Number Two different every week? Because it's a system, not a person who is against Six. How were they able to get to him so quickly after his resignation? Because it is a VERY powerful organization. Why does The Village not resemble any real place? Because it is entirely removed from the real world.

The new angle seems to have something to do with Six being forced to accept a role in this society. If I had to place a bet at this point in the proceedings, I would wager that Six is part of some behavioral/mind control experiment to see how much a person can be reprogrammed. Interesting idea, but this is supposed to be about a man taking on the system out of his own sense of moral order. Making the focus his assimilation strips some of the power from his struggle.

10) The idea of control

As evidenced by the poster the main theme of the new version is resistance to the idea of blind obedience. This is interesting because obedience was not really a theme of the original. Number Two was looking for Six to comply and conform not obey. There is a subtle difference. The powers that be knew that a man like Six would never obey and his obedience was unnecessary. Information was their only goal, and by not complying with their wished to just hand it over, as it were, he threw their entire structure into disarray. They didn't ever do anything to break his will or "put him in his place," rather they manipulated him into revealing what he refused to reveal.

The new series is a puzzlement because there isn't such a clear objective for Two. It appears that his only goal is to keep Six in line, to test the limits of his control over him. That is the real problem at the root of the new show. It's not about anything yet. I know that it sometimes takes a while to get to the point, but I'm halfway in and have no idea what it's about. That is a problem, and a fairly big one. By no means am I suggesting that the details should be spelled out for me, but some clue as to why this is going on would be nice. There are hints about the "why did you resign" angle, but those are provided in needless flashbacks that distract from the plot. What was once a very clear cut, albeit surreal, struggle between an individual and the powers that be has been turned into a muddled and surreal conflict between two individuals with no clear reason as to why and that just doesn’t work as well.

Essentially, the problem with the new version is that it lacks meaning. It seems like there is no desire to make a comment with it. And while not presenting commentary might work for some shows, it decidedly does not work for this one because it is all about commentary.

Well, I shall watch the remainder before too long and post my thoughts on it once I've seen it all.

Be seeing you.


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