THE PRISONER (1967-1968), PART THREE

This is Part 3 of a 3 part survey of “The Prisoner.” Part 1 can be found here, Part 2 is here.

“A Change Of Mind,” (directed by Patrick McGoohan) opens with the Prisoner confronted by thugs from the gymnasium (which is fairly typical for workout fundies). Seeing that No. 6 would rather exercise in the woods, they accuse him of being “unmutual” (not status quo) and ferociously pick a fight with him. The Prisoner reacts by beating the hell out of them. Then, like all bullies who get whupped, they go and tattle. Of course, No. 2 (played by John Sharp this week) and his gang threaten a spanking,  in the form of a lobotomy for No. 6—a literal change of mind. Unfortunately, they haven’t found out yet what they need from No. 6: why the Prisoner resigned as an agent. The solution? Make the Prisoner believe he has been lobotomized. The episode uses Rod Serling circularity, with another confrontation in the woods and a table-turning that leads to the charge of “unumutuality” going much higher.

“Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling,” (directed by Pat Jackson) is a genuine oddity in a genuinely odd series. Its contrasting textures are off-colored, with the presence of “star” McGoohan kept to a minimum. He’s hardly even in it, as he was busy filming Ice Station Zebra (1968). Of course, the production team could have simply waited for McGoohan’s return. Instead they found an opportunity for a change of pace. Whether they succeeded or not is intensely debated.

On paper, the plot sounds fatigued. Yet another mind-swapping thriller, the type that “one idea” Universal hack Curt Siodmack wrote repeatedly.  When the Colonel (Nigel Stock) arrives in the Village, he is informed by No. 2 (Clifford Evans) that a professor Seltzman (Hugo Schuster) has invented a mind-swapping machine. Unfortunately, Seltzman is missing and, apparently, once done, the process cannot be reversed, which is hardly going to stop No. 2, if it means obtaining information from the Prisoner.

Yet again, the Prisoner is abducted and drugged, only to awaken in the body of the Colonel. It doesn’t take him to long to do the math and go looking for Seltzman. Along the way, No. 6 has his only love scene in the entire series, played by Stock (because the hyper-Catholic McGoohan refused to ever do a love scene). Stock plays the Prisoner throughout most of the episode without resorting to impersonation. His performance is an effective one, matched by Evans’s charismatic No. 2.

Apparently, the script was loathed by almost everyone, and many “Prisoner” fans rank it as the low ebb of the series. There’s no denying that it doesn’t quite come together, but it is a compelling effort.

The Prisoner, "Living in Harmony"“Living in Harmony” (directed by David Tomblin) is another episode which sounds wretched and could be dubbed “the Prisoner goes west.” However, as when the original “Star Trek” crew relived the gunfight at the OK Corral (in “Spectre of the Gun,” also from 1968), the end result is among the most refreshingly ludicrous in the show’s run.

The Prisoner finds himself in the guise of a recently resigned sheriff in the town of Harmony, which has a corrupt judge (David Bauer as No. 2) and an upstart trigger-happy gunslinger, known as The Kid (energetically played by Alexis Kanner).  The Kid, of course, wants to challenge the Sheriff’s reputation. Every western genre cliche is tapped: from an unruly, hysterical mob, to a trial, to a brutal beating of the pacifistic protagonist. There’s even a Wyatt Earp-like call for gun control, a damsel-in-distress saloon girl for the Sheriff to protect, and a despicable murder, which forces a reluctant hero to put his guns back on. The real question, after a heterodox resurrection, is: “why did the sheriff resign?” The answer is hardly going to be located in acid-induced visions of cardboard cut-outs.

“The Girl Who Was Death” (directed by David Tomblin) is yet another mind-boggling episode that plays silly putty with formula writing. We are taken away from the Village to (apparently) the Prisoner’s past as a “Secret Agent.” This episode is in full satire mode, with a femme fatale Lady Death (Justine Lord, looking like a prototype from the modish 60s) and her mad scientist father Schnipps (Kenneth Griffith, AKA No. 2) wanting to blow up London with his big rocket. Death could be a dominatrix villain straight out of Adam West’s “Batman” series (or any Fu Manchu plot): threatening our hero with spikes, trapping him in a room of exploding poisoned candles, and locking his head in a fish bowl.

The macho spy, detective, and serial genres are all mercilessly parodied, and references abound to Sherlock Holmes (McGoohan in comical mustache), “Mission Impossible,” “The Avengers,” and even the Prisoner’s predecessor “Danger Man.”  It’s delightfully corny and kinetically paced, like any good children’s action book should be.

Leo McKern returns as No. 2 in “Once Upon A Time” (directed by Don Chaffey), which usually makes every fan’s top ten list. In addition to  pop/abstract editing and sumptuous visuals, one major reason for this episode’s broad acclaim is a tour de force performance from McKern (who reportedly suffered a nervous breakdown due to the role’s intensity). No. 2 has sworn to “Degree Absolute,” meaning that he will engage in a battle of wills, to the death, with No. 6. McGoohan also gives one of his most determined, sustained performances in this despair-laden entry.

Drugged again, the Prisoner finds himself regressed to a childlike state with an unwanted paternal figure in No. 2, who fatally discovers, through the seasons of life, defiance and resistance accompany knowledge in his contentious student. The cruel secrets and dark purpled heart of the Village lie dead on the floor in the Embryo Room.

As the new No. 2, the Prisoner is finally asked:

“What do you desire?”

“Number One.”

Still from The Prisoner, "Fallout"Aptly, the two-part “Fallout” (directed by McGoohan) is a “Looney Tunes” finale that, in hindsight, couldn’t have been anything else, which is why it was nominated for a Hugo award. A tying up of loose ends or satisfying narrative conclusion would have rendered the entire series hypocritical. Fortunately, McGoohan is too vital an artist to solicit any kind of applause for the ending.

For the last time, we are subjected to the opening ritualized credits, but the Prisoner has evolved. He is no longer even No. 2. He is a cool-toned rugged individual. McGoohan throws in the allegorical kitchen sink with his Prisoner facing the temptation to become the Village idol.  As a simian No. 1 is blasted into outer space, the previous No. 6, with the resurrected Kid from “Living in Harmony” (Kanner) and No. 2 (McKern) rumba to “Dem Dry Bones.”  It’s a final image that ingeniously provokes even its most rabid fan base: paradoxically of its time and relentlessly contemporary.

One thought on “THE PRISONER (1967-1968), PART THREE”

  1. I knew this installment would touch upon both the series’ nadir and zenith. Funny how those episodes were grouped into the final offerings of The Prisoner.

    Mr. Eaker, you’ve done a great service and one of which I’m greatly appreciative. I have enjoyed reading your installments of the series. Muito obrigado!

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