Balladeer’s Blog continues its examination of the science fiction/ existential drama The Prisoner. For Part One, in which I examined the themes and concepts at play in the series click HERE
Episode Title: ARRIVAL
Fans of The Prisoner know that the exact order of the 17 episodes is up in the air since not even Patrick McGoohan, the show’s creator, star and prime creative force, was certain. However, there is no doubt that Arrival is the very first episode of the show (for obvious reasons).
The opening credits sequence is repeated for each episode (except for variations for Living in Harmony and for the very last episode, titled Fallout). That sequence presents our protagonist, the Prisoner (real name never revealed), disgustedly resigning from the Intelligence Service. Back at his home he is gassed into unconsciousness and awakens in an isolated, high-tech and dystopian prison-city that is called the Village.
The program’s nature as a Kafkaesque tale with science fiction trappings is established in this debut episode. The Prisoner is taken aback by the seemingly cheerful and storybook surface nature of the Village and the way that surface is at odds with the underlying air of fear and paranoia.
All inhabitants/ captives of the Village are either former Intelligence Operatives like himself, or scientists or figures from the government or military. And from all around the world, too, not just the West.
In the Cold War attitude of the time the Prisoner is obsessed with finding out “which side” the Villagekeepers are on, but as the series progresses it becomes clear that the Free World vs Communist World paradigm is merely part of the deception being played on the Village’s prisoners. And possibly the world at large, intriguingly enough.
After learning that only local phone calls can be made and that the only maps for sale are limited to the vicinity of the Village, the Prisoner returns to his designated residence: Number Six. To the officious and efficiency-obsessed bureaucrats of the Village, this represents the height of practicality. The Village prisoners’ new “identities,” addresses AND phone numbers are encapsulated in their numerical designation.
Part of the fun in the series’ dialogue involves the verbal fencing between the Prisoner and the Villagekeepers. He rejects the numerical identity through which the Villagekeepers seek to dehumanize their captives and NEVER answers to nor uses the identity Number Six.
As just one example, when called on his phone and asked “Is this Number Six” McGoohan uses dodges like “That is the number of this phone.” Similarly, if neighbors or officials drop by and ask if he is Number Six he replies “That is the number of this residence.”
At any rate, the Prisoner receives a telephone summons (and back then the wireless phones used in the Village were considered a sign of how “high tech” the place was). That summons instructs him to enter the Green Dome, where he meets a figure identifying himself as Number Two. (If you can’t keep sophomoric jokes out of your head every time you hear “Number Two” you may not fully appreciate The Prisoner.)
The scene between the Prisoner and this first in a series of rotating Number Twos lays out the primary theme of the series: the conflict between the Individual and the forces of conformity, especially governmental forces. McGoohan masterfully conveys the feeling of violation that his character feels as Number Two coldly lays out all of the intimate information that the Villagekeepers possess about the Prisoner.
Here in 2018 this scene strikes even closer to home after the revelations about governments and corporate techno-fascists like Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk violating people’s privacy in hideous ways. “Data harvesting” as they call it. Also see the Robert Ludlum novel The Prometheus Deception about techno-fascists and governments working together against private citizens.
The Villagekeepers just need one piece of information to complete their extensive files on the man they call Number Six: the reason he resigned from the Intelligence Service. He refuses to tell the Villagekeepers why.
This type of defiance is unacceptable to the totalitarians, so they set out to use all the forces at their disposal to MAKE him tell them. If he tells them why, it will symbolize his defeat and acceptance of their authority over him, much like surrendering to The Party in Orwell’s 1984 by saying “2 + 2 = 5” symbolized one’s defeat and surrender to The Powers That Be.
This element of The Prisoner is one that removes it from literal reality and establishes it firmly in the realm of allegory and metaphor. We all know that in reality there are certain drugs or electronic tortures that no human body could resist. The drugs alone could manipulate a person into revealing information without any conscious thought involved.
However, since this is allegory and not reality, the Prisoner’s successful defiance in the face of all the technology and drugs and torture that the Villagekeepers will throw at him over the course of the series is meant to show that the human spirit, especially one’s adamantine individuality, can triumph over the forces of conformity and oppression.
This first episode lays out many of the other recurring features of the program. The first Number Two that the Prisoner encounters takes him on a helicopter tour to show him how truly isolated the Village is … and to point out that the prison-city even has its own graveyard.
The theme of rotating Number Twos is established, too. Like so many aspects of the show, this element has both a real world AND a storytelling purpose. The real world purpose is that this allows a long line of British television stars to portray each episode’s Number Two/ Main Villain.
The storytelling purpose is that it reflects the way that political changes in leadership often seem to be “just for show” since no matter how much the parade of faces at the top changes the plight of the suffering underclasses NEVER improves. This will be dealt with in much more detail in the episode titled Free For All.
And it goes without saying that the very designation of a “Number Two” forever begs the question “Who is Number One?”
Arrival also introduces us to Rover, the weather-balloon shaped item which may LOOK utterly ridiculous but is some form of bio-energy/ synthetic organism which is the ultimate means of keeping the captive Villagers in line. Rover is the most widely ridiculed aspect of The Prisoner – even by fans like me – because it is so obviously REALLY a weather balloon.
Storywise, you can justify the absurdity of Rover by telling yourself that it represents the facelessness of authority and authority’s instruments of enforcement. I try to look at Rover from a Eugene Ionesco slant.
Or I tell myself it’s part of the never-ending mental chess match played by the Villagekeepers: After all, what could be more demoralizing than having to shake in fear over such a silly looking object. The pain it clearly inflicts upon contact is no laughing matter, though.
All Villagers are subjected to constant video and audio surveillance and even people who seem to be fellow captives may be secretly working for the Villagekeepers, thus discouraging attempts at organized resistance. In Arrival, a maid trying to pump Number Six for information tries to get him to disclose his secret and even resorts to tears in the end. She is pretending that she will be fearsomely punished if she can’t tell the Villagekeepers why the Prisoner resigned. He isn’t fooled and tells her nothing.
The biggest Head Game of this debut episode (and each episode features one or more Head Games) is nicely done. McGoohan encounters a former associate from the intelligence field in the Village. The man is nearly broken by the Villagekeepers but the encounter leads to the man’s female co-conspirator becoming known to the Prisoner.
Shortly after, that former associate kills himself, since death seems to be the only escape from the Village. The female co-conspirator of McGoohan’s late friend sets our hero up with a watch-like device that will enable him to override Rover AND the controls on one of the Village’s helicopters so he can pilot it to freedom. She can’t fly so the device is useless to her personally.
The Prisoner tries it but in the end the Villagekeepers override HIS device and bring his copter back to the Village. Our protagonist then cruelly judges the woman, assuming she is in league with the Villagekeepers and set him up to try to break his spirit.
We viewers assume the same thing until we are shown that the woman was sincere. The one who betrayed the Prisoner was the friend who supposedly killed himself but is now shown to be working with the Villagekeepers. The female co-conspirator – who would have made a genuine ally for Number Six – is slated for execution and our hero won’t even miss her since he thinks she set him up.
Meanwhile, his presumed friend is being rewarded for his cooperation by being released from the Village to serve as one of the Villagekeepers’ many agents in the outside world. Like real life Powers That Be, the Villagekeepers always dangle various privileges as motivation to surrender to their will, even if it means betraying one’s fellow prisoners.
Even if you don’t like the overall series The Prisoner it is tough to deny Arrival its due as one of the best debut episodes of ANY television series, especially in terms of establishing tone, themes and storytelling approach. +++
I’LL EXAMINE ANOTHER EPISODE SOON. KEEP CHECKING BACK.
FOR MORE LOOKS AT NEGLECTED TELEVISION FROM THE PAST CLICK HERE
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