Friday, July 3, 2009

Who is ‘seeing you’, thoughts on The Prisoner...

Making a connection between Patrick McGoohan's seminal late 60s BBC show, "The Prisoner" and "The X-Files" may seem a stretch. Yet from a thematic standpoint, there are general connections to be made. I should add, I can't claim there's any evidence that Mr. Carter, and Mr. Spotnitz, or any other writers who worked on "The X-Files", were influenced by "The Prisoner". Yet it would be difficult to believe that "The Prisoner" hadn’t left an impression with some of the regular writers that worked on "The X-Files".

For anyone who is not familiar with this series, and there are many, "The Prisoner" has remained one of the most critically praised series by fans and critics alike, as well as being the most misunderstood series to come out of the UK in the 60s. The show, which only ran for a specific number of 17 episodes, was first broadcast in Britain from September 29, 1967 until February 1, 1968. It used elements of science fiction, the spy thriller genre, surrealism and allegory, and the counterculture environment of the time as a vehicle to comment on the nature of modern society. The opening teaser brilliantly set up the premise. A British spy resigns his position in outrage, arrives at his residence to pack, is rendered unconscious by a gas, and wakes up in a strange residence, an island that is a resort-like prison and is only referred to as 'The Village'.



clips download by docwertham

Indeed, a number of shows owe a great debt to "The Prisoner", David Lynch’s "Twin Peaks" probably would not have been given as much latitude had it not been for the template established within "The Prisoner's" use of surreal dream imagery. Many of the themes in "The X-Files" were touched upon on "The Prisoner". A mistrust of government or corporate institutions, a criticism of social conditioning via mind control or drugs, comments on education being used as a social conditioning tool, comments on politics and the election process. Yet while these themes played themselves out in a subtle manner on "The X-Files" and over the stretch of 202 episodes. "The Prisoner" was very pointed and focused on these themes in the span of 17 episodes.



Clip download by 9umber6ix

This man, who is never identified with a personal name, is referred to as Number 6, and is told by the village authority, Number 2, that the reason why he has been detained is they are seeking "information" as to why he resigned. This task of getting the information and breaking him down is carried out by the ever changing circles of Number 2’s, who act as the village’ chief administrator as well as proxy to the unseen Number 1. Per episode each attempt to break Number 2 fails, and Number 6’s initial attempts to escape the island of the Village fail with dismal results. The village is secured by various monitoring systems, and security forces, as well as a device or entities called Rovers: bubbles that rise from the oceans, they can chase escapees at high speeds, and kill through suffocation.



Still pulled from AMC tv.

Slowly, Number 6 begins to figure out how to achieve his goals by integrating himself, to a degree, into the village. He begins to turn the tables on his captors. The various number 2’s become so desperate for number 6’s information that they take drastic measures. During the second to last episode, “Once upon a time”, extreme social conditioning under the name ‘Degree absolute’ is employed. The exchange between Patrick McGoohan and Leo McKern became so intensely emotionally that McKern had to be hospitalized upon finishing shooting. The final episode, ‘Fall Out’ triggered the greatest controversy and left many viewers outraged. All of the allegorical themes of the series play out in the final.



Still pulled from AMC tv.

An excellent interview was conducted by Warner Troyer in 1977, broken in four parts. McGoohan’s comments about individuals being conditioned to be ciphers is an interesting observation. McGoohan was an interesting man, he was approached by the James Bond producers in early 60s to play Bond, but declined. He had charming leading man qualities, but he had a fierce intensity and a strong rebellious streak, as well as intelligence that perhaps made him not fit in well with the more shallow aspects of the industry.



Clips downloaded by Dougo13.

Not every episode was flawless; such episodes as "Living in Harmony" and "Do Not Forsake me, Oh my darling" did feel like filler for my tastes. Yet there are few shows that have remained so interesting, has aged well, and manages to remain very relevant.

So, exactly how do I see thematic parallels between both shows? These parallels are general, but can be made.





Mulder, like Number 6, is a renegade within his field, you could argue that once Mulder abandons Bureau mainstream to work on The X-Files, he, in effect, resigns from a promising career track. Mulder, like Number 6 begins as a lone wolf. Unlike Number 6, he becomes dependent on Scully, thus she will go on to be his salvation. Of course his salvation plays out over 200 episodes, whereas the role of the renegade in played out in 17 episodes on "The Prisoner."

It should be noted, a better parallel can be made that The Lone Gunmen, throughout the series and their spin off show, follow the template of Number 6. Three non conformists who have confrontational, and cynical temperaments at some moments are closer to fitting Number 6’s renegade nature. I could see Langly, Frohike, and Byers having a real affinity for the show and McGoohan’s character

It’s true that while an organization seeks out "Information" from Number 6, thematically, it is played out in reverse on "The X-Files", Mulder seeks out information about broad government conspiracies. On the other hand, since the series works within allegories, once could make a broader connection. If the Village represents social conditioning to accept a certain fate, then the agenda’s of the Syndicate in "The X-Files", as well as the Millennium Group in "Millennium" tie in well globally with this theme. In the X-Files universe, we are imprisoned by the agendas of others.

Both shows included iconic slogans or phrases, "Be seeing you" has as much of a multiple meaning as does "The Truth is out there".

I’m certain others could find more parallels.

In essence, this series dealt with breaking out of the prisons and situations we entrap ourselves in. As well as the cyclical or Sisyphus subtext of breaking out of one entrapment to soon be ensnared in another.

For X-Files and Millennium fans who seek out shows than can entertain while remaining altruistic, and while realizing "The Prisoner" can be an acquired taste, the un-initiated will find a great deal of riches.

Not only must you not trust anyone, you might want to be weary of the phrase: "Be Seeing you."

4 comments:

Randal Graves said...

Excellent write-up. Even if the inspiration to Carter and Co. wasn't overt, the themes certainly had to exist subconsciously. Unless they never saw the show, which I highly doubt!

L. S. F. Xavier said...

Great text! Made me want to watch this Prisioner show... Do you have any idea where I can find it?
And, jeez, "be seeing you" is creepy!

RJNeb2 said...

That's a great analysis, Matt, really interesting.

I must confess to never having seen The Prisoner even if it is the stuff of cult TV legend. I see the Blu-ray is being released here in the UK on the 28th September so hopefully I'll be able to rectify that imbalance soon.

Orodromeus said...

The link between the X-Files and the Prisoner is not very strong, and it escapes you when you try to pinpoint it to specifics, like imagery on the medical experiments on 6/Mulder, but the influence is undeniable! Constant surveillance, the shadowy organization under the guise of goodwill, the loss of identity. XF and the Prisoner are the two major works of paranoid TV history!

By the way, AMC is doing a 6-hour remake this November. I started by shouting "sacrilege!" and then I saw that it looks completely nothing like the original. I'll watch to be entertained, but I expect nothing like the philosophical piece of art that McGoohan produced.

Number 6, like Frank Black, is for me a model of moral integrity.

Be seeing you!