Balladeer’s Blog continues its examination of the 1967 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: CHECKMATE … In the ongoing debate about the exact numbering of the 17 episodes of The Prisoner I place this as the 4th in the series.
Peter Wyngarde portrays this episode’s Number Two, the rotating series of executive figures running the futuristic prison city called the Village. Balladeer’s Blog’s readers may remember him from my reviews of his shows Department S and Jason King. X-Men fans will recognize him as the obvious model used by Chris Claremont and John Byrne for Mastermind’s “Jason Wyngarde” persona in The Dark Phoenix Saga.
The episode begins with the Prisoner witnessing yet another sudden unleashing of “Rover” the bioelectrical synthetic creation which the Villagekeepers use to subdue outbreaks of disobedient behavior among the Villagers. As usual everyone freezes in their tracks, knowing Rover will attack anyone perceived as resisting.
For once, one of the residents shows no fear of Rover. An elderly man with a walking stick (George Coulouris from Citizen Kane) continues strolling along, ignoring Rover, who shows unprecedented deference to the man before moving on to subdue whichever Villager has raised the ire of the Villagekeepers.
Our protagonist is intrigued by this and follows the Man With A Walking Stick. The two share a casual conversation in which each man is wary of the other, given that nobody can ever be sure if a fellow Villager is secretly working for the conspirators behind the Village.
Walking Stick Man invites McGoohan’s character to a game of chess he is heading to. The Prisoner goes along and finds that the game is played with human chess pieces in one of the least subtle of the program’s metaphors.
Walking Stick Man is one of the two “players” who sit above the game shouting their moves through bullhorns. The Villagers serving as chess pieces move accordingly.
Despite his distaste for the nature of the game being played, the Prisoner agrees to participate, motivated by his desire to learn more about the Walking Stick Man. Our hero is assigned to play the role of Queen’s Pawn, very appropriate for a character whose protective nature toward women gets him into trouble as many times as fellow Cult Show character Dale Cooper on Twin Peaks.
The woman playing the Queen (Rosalie Crutchley) informs Number Six that Walking Stick Man is from a Blue Blooded family which had wielded global power long before the Village was even constructed. NOTE: This is one of the ways The Prisoner, like the later X-Files, thrived on incorporating pre-existing conspiracy theories into its own story. The notion of x-number of “powerful bloodlines who rule the world from behind the scenes” is well known in conspiracy kook lore.
At any rate, the Aristocrat (as I’ll call him from this point on) has fallen far enough from power that he is held captive in the Village but as the incident with Rover showed, he obviously still enjoys certain privileges. Playing this human chess game like his ancestors did is one of them.
As the game goes on, the Prisoner continues pumping the Queen for information on the Aristocrat. Presently a Villager playing a Rook makes a move without being ordered to. As always, such independent thought is forbidden in the Village, and confusion breaks out.
An ambulance takes the Rook away for “treatment” since, to the Villagekeepers, he clearly suffers from the mental illness they call “the cult of the individual.” This is a way The Prisoner has become more relevant, because today such derogatory attitudes toward individuality are actually being taught in colleges and universities.
Individuality is presented in Critical Race Theory (“Bigotry with a self-constructed halo”) as one of many harmful “White Mythologies” and in Women’s Studies individuality is dismissed as part and parcel of “Toxic Masculinity.” Hilarious!
The chess game came to an abrupt end after the uproar surrounding the Rook, and in the aftermath the Aristocrat discussed with the Prisoner one of the ways he judges who is and is not secretly part of the Villagekeepers’ conspiracy. Genuine fear in the eyes and reflexive submissiveness are often easily told from a mere surface show of such characteristics. The fakers are probably not true captives.
Adapting this approach for himself, our hero begins to recruit a tiny cabal of co-conspirators in a plan to escape. First up is the Rook, after he is released following various tortures that constitute the Village’s usual “treatment” of supposed mental disorders.
It turns out the Rook was abducted to the Village for refusing to share with his government’s military his invention of a device for electronic defense against mass nuclear missile attacks. The Rook wanted to share the technology with all nations. The secret behind this defense system is the information that the Villagekeepers are trying to force out of the Rook.
The Prisoner spends the next few days covertly recruiting two more Villagers as accomplices. The Villagekeepers, as always using constant visual surveillance of their prisoners, can tell Number Six is up to something but don’t know what.
They want to intensify their scrutiny of our hero but know he might grow suspicious and go even further underground with his activities. Therefore, they coldly use their advanced technology to program the Queen, an older but not quite elderly woman who developed a crush on Number Six during the human chess match.
The programming deepens the woman’s feelings for our hero to full-blown love and will make her follow him around all of the time while her locket not only lets them control her, but will let them detect even whispers from Number Six. They know our hero will compassionately attribute her following him around like a puppy dog to her feelings for him.
Again we see the cold, inhuman way the Villagekeepers regard their captives as guinea pigs for mind control technology. Their horrific way of exploiting even something like love and affection by way of science is horrifying. It’s like the callous, dismissive attitude that Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk show toward people.
At any rate the escape plan being put together by the Prisoner, the Aristocrat, the Rook and the two extras proceeds, step by step. Finally, all they need is a transistor to complete their communications device for contacting ships at sea.
Through good fortune our hero realizes the Queen’s locket is really a control device used by the Villagekeepers. The conspirators deactivate it, use one of its components to complete their communications device and launch their plan.
SPOILER: The enacted plan falls apart because the Rook has come to believe that this is all just another head-game played by the Villagekeepers, whom we’ve seen in previous episodes love to let Villagers think they’re on to a good escape plan only to crush their hopes at the last minute.
The Rook just gives up, wryly addressing the Prisoner as if he (the Prisoner) is one of the Villagekeepers’ undercover agents, just leading on him and the others to help break their spirits. This allows Peter Wyngarde’s Number Two to thwart the escape attempt, taunting the Prisoner that his own lack of fear and submissiveness helped convince the Rook that he must be a Villagekeeper agent.
The horrified Rook now realizes that Number Six is NOT one of the Villagekeepers and that he and his fellow prisoners might have genuinely escaped. His spirit thoroughly crushed, he abandons all attempts at resistance.
He will give the Villagekeepers the secret of his missile defense invention. We never see the Rook again, so presumably he is one of the Villagers who is killed once the Villagekeepers get what they want from him. This final breaking of the Rook always puts me in mind of the old show Fantasy Island, on which multiple visitors’ fantasies sometimes intertwined.
Despite the Rook’s utter surrender our hero tries to complete the escape attempt by himself, only to see that it was anticipated by the Villagekeepers, who decided to co-opt it as a way of possibly breaking the Rook. It never stood a real chance of success.
As a final taunt to our hero, Number Two’s midget butler (Angelo Muscat) makes a great show of letting the Prisoner see that he is brandishing a pawn from a chess game whose pieces he is putting away. +++
I’LL EXAMINE ANOTHER EPISODE SOON. KEEP CHECKING BACK.
FOR MORE LOOKS AT NEGLECTED TELEVISION FROM THE PAST CLICK HERE
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