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: ONCE UPON A TIME … This installment is PART ONE OF THE TWO-PART SERIES FINALE.
This time around we at last learn why the Prisoner resigned from British Intelligence, PLUS the significance of the Penny-Farthing Bicycle symbolism is explored.
NOTE: This episode is sometimes confused with The Girl Who Was Death because that episode began with a child’s story-book being opened and the title Once Upon A Time understandably puts some viewers in mind of that opening.
Leo McKern returns as the same Number Two he portrayed back in The Chimes of Big Ben. The Number Twos are the rotating series of executives who manage the prison-city called the Village. The midget Butler (Angelo Muscat), the only character besides Patrick McGoohan to appear in every episode of the series, serves McKern breakfast right there in Number Two’s office inside the Green Dome.
Number Two is too fidgety to eat and continues studying the viewscreen, with live surveillance footage of the Prisoner pacing like a caged tiger in his residence. At length McKern reacts to Number Six’s unflagging intensity and indefatigable sense of purpose by calling him on the cordless phone.
“Why do you care?” he asks our protagonist when he answers. (I’d have preferred the more specific question “Why do you STILL care?”) McGoohan makes it clear he recognizes the voice and when Number Two asks the same question again he tauntingly replies “You’ll never know.”
Number Two settles back into controlled fuming as he continues watching our hero pacing. As I mentioned in another recent episode the advantage in the war of nerves between the Prisoner and the Villagekeepers has definitely shifted to Number Six at this late stage.
McKern has the Butler run brief clips of our protagonist withstanding the various chemical, electrical, physical and psychodramatic tortures and inquisitions they’ve subjected Number Six to in their efforts to break him. Their goal since they abducted him has been to force him to tell them why he abruptly resigned from British Intelligence.
(For newbies I’ll rehash the fact that The Prisoner is a science fiction version of Kafkaesque allegories combined with Orwellian narratives about the Individual versus the forces of conformity – especially governmental forces.
If the Villagekeepers manage to force Number Six to tell them why he resigned it will symbolize his surrender to them and his recognition of their authority over him. This is similar to the way agreeing with Big Brother’s false math “2+2=5” in 1984 was a sign of submission to The Powers That Be.)
When the rehashed footage is over Number Two uses the cordless phone to call the Board or the never-seen Number One. McKern demands that he be given the okay to subject Number Six to a procedure enigmatically called Degree Absolute.
There is apparent resistance to this request on the other end of the conversation but Number Two insists that since his superiors have brought him back to try once again to break the Prisoner that he should be allowed to use this ultimate, dangerous gambit. He refuses to take no for an answer (and we know how much the Villagekeepers bridle at any form of disobedience or insubordination) and at last is told he may proceed with Degree Absolute.
That night while McGoohan sleeps the Villagekeepers use their futuristic devices to impose upon him an intense state of hypnotic trance. The Village Supervisor oversees all this. When morning arrives he is deemed ready and is placed in the Embryo Room with Number Two and the Butler as the only other occupants.
We viewers learn that Degree Absolute is the most potent and (almost) prohibitively expensive interrogation method in the Villagekeepers’ considerable repertoire. (Heard of the Third Degree? This procedure is far, far beyond that, hence the label Degree Absolute.)
The Prisoner has been mentally reverted to childhood. As Degree Absolute goes on, Number Two will psychologically walk him through his life in a hybrid of an interrogation and a psychodrama. Number Two’s objective in this ordeal is, of course, to at last learn why Number Six resigned.
The catch? Only one of the two actual participants in this interrogation procedure can emerge from the Embryo Room alive. (The Butler is exempt.) Number Two is brave enough to lay his own life on the line to extract the information his superiors are after.
Once Upon A Time is another of the many Prisoner episodes that could be adapted into an experimental stage production by simply removing all the story elements specific to The Prisoner television show.
This episode also bears similarities to the much later (1991) one-on-one interrogation drama Closet Land starring Alan Rickman and Madeleine Stowe.
McKern’s step by step, age by age interrogation of McGoohan serves as an excellent repeating metaphor for the program’s central conflict between authority and dissent:
When talking Number Six through his childhood Number Two serves as the father figure against whom our hero rebels. When talking Number Six through his academic years Number Two serves as the stern schoolmaster against whom our hero rebels.
And so it goes, with the same “authoritarian figure vs the rebel” dynamic repeating itself as the Prisoner is talked through his life: coach vs athlete, boss vs employee, officer vs soldier, all the way up to our two participants’ current real-life roles of captor vs prisoner. Along the way Number Two tries to pounce on every opportunity to subliminally extract why Number Six resigned but is thwarted by our protagonist’s continued defiance.
With the Prisoner now mentally back in the present, he comes to have the upper hand on Number Two. Both figures are exhausted mentally and physically, McKern more so than McGoohan.
With Number Two swiftly approaching death, Number Six lords it over him. The Butler has acknowledged the change in the dynamic and has begun obeying McGoohan instead of McKern.
With the duelists face to face, McGoohan reveals to Number Two alone his reason for resigning. He is willing to do that because it is not being forced from him since he is emerging victorious. Also, presumably our hero knows the revelation will do the dying McKern no good whatsoever.
The Prisoner resigned from the Intelligence Service … for peace of mind. There is no traumatic experience or sudden, disillusioning bombshell of a discovery behind his resignation like the narrative has always led us to believe. Even if Number Two had won and extracted that explanation as Number Six died instead of him, the information would be useless to the megalomaniacal Villagekeepers.
The only elaboration we get on the Prisoner’s desire for “peace of mind” comes in how he has seen what Intelligence Agencies REALLY do and how they – and therefore the governments they work for – know too much about all of us. Real spy work is much darker and nastier than Number Six’s youthful fancies about a heroic Secret Agent organization called P.O.P. for Protect Other People. (I could imagine myself playing at such make-believe as a kid, too.)
That may have been as far as 1967 British tv would let McGoohan go in delivering an indictment of the ugly side of Intelligence Agencies aka the well-known “shadowy men on a shadowy planet.” It’s one thing to insert messages about non-conformity and rebellion inside a science fiction dressing but to imply the West’s spy outfits were every bit as dirty as their Soviet counterparts might have been verboten that deep in the middle of the Cold War.
Back to the story. The defeated Number Two dies, collapsing to the floor. The Embryo Room at last opens and the Village Supervisor enters. He asks the triumphant Prisoner what he desires and our hero replies that he wants to be taken to the never-seen Number One. The Village Supervisor accedes to this request and tells Number Six to follow him.
With the supervisor leading our hero to meet Number One, the first part of this Two Part series finale comes to a close.
COMMENT: I decided to wait to address the Penny-Farthing Bicycle symbolism in this comment to avoid breaking up the narrative flow of the Degree Absolute ordeal between McGoohan and McKern. (And don’t worry, I’ll cover POP.)
Throughout the one on one duel of wills we viewers had our attention drawn to illustrations on the Embryo Room’s walls. Those framed illustrations are of various cars, trucks and other wheeled vehicles drawn in the same recognizable artistic style of the Village’s ubiquitous Penny-Farthing Bicycle logo.
On top of that, while interrogating the Prisoner, Leo McKern occasionally toys with what look like Tinker Toy constructs of windmills, ferris wheels and similar creations.
Wheels. Get it? What is the major tool used by the Villagekeepers in their crusade to impose a Global “Village?” Technology. What is the fundamental technology from which virtually all other technology proceeds? The wheel.
Two wheels together – a bicycle. Four or more – carts, wagons and other means of transport. Think of windmills, water-wheels, dynamos, spinning wheels, pottery wheels and on and on. Add “teeth” to wheels and you get gears. From there the possibilities expand exponentially.
Clockwork and the internal mechanisms of watches. Steering wheels on ships and land craft. Conveyor belts. Phonographs and phonograph records. Rotary phones. CD’s. Reel to reel tapes. VHS Cassette tapes. Hell, even DOOR KNOBS are essentially just wheel technology applied in a particular way. Throw in Lazy Susans, swivel chairs and anything else you can think of.
Horizontal wheels in the form of circular, orbital movement govern all heavenly bodies AND the make-up of atoms. Technology capable of splitting an atom leads to McGoohan’s POP (as opposed to P.O.P.) moment.
The wheel may be the PERFECT symbol for technology. And since The Prisoner was a British show, what more quintessentially BRITISH wheel-oriented logo than a Penny-Farthing Bicycle? (I’ve often wondered if McGoohan or his creative team ever read Henry Adams’ deep, deep contemplations of wheels – including Ferris Wheels – at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.)
At any rate, considering that the Penny-Farthing Bicycle is on every Village product AND on the Village flag, it becomes a very, very appropriate logo for the conspiracy run by the Villagekeepers. One might even consider it … a corporate logo.
Trans-National. An organization like Robert Ludlum’s corporate globalist conspiracy in The Matarese Circle, as well as their technological descendants in Silicon Valley. Think of Ludlum’s Prometheus Deception, in which Zuckerbergian techno-fascists work with governments to impose global tyranny. Both are excellent – albeit much later – examples of the kind of cabal represented by the Villagekeepers.
(Remember, the Villagekeepers’ organization even includes a body called “the Board.”)
From a more blatant standpoint the Penny-Farthing Bicycle’s prominence on the Village’s flag PLUS all consumer products epitomizes the notion of switching national loyalty (allegiance to a flag) to corporate or “brand” loyalty. Or maybe even a devious hybrid of the worst aspects of capitalism AND statism.
I don’t believe McGoohan necessarily meant the Penny-Farthing Bicycle and its use as the Villagekeepers’ logo to cover ALL of the examples I just cited. They are still fitting, however, and very, very valid, no matter what McGoohan’s initial intent was. Even if he considered it just an excellent symbol for the Villagekeepers’ conspiratorial organization and for technology. Especially technology forever perverted by the world’s malefactors.
I’m young enough that I never got to see The Prisoner until the 1990s but ever since I did that logo has sprung to my mind every time I see an international corporate logo, or symbols of other trans-national organizations. The Prisoner‘s Penny-Farthing Bicycle imagery RESONATES!
I’LL EXAMINE THE FINAL EPISODE OF THE PRISONER VERY SOON. KEEP CHECKING BACK.
FOR MORE LOOKS AT NEGLECTED TELEVISION FROM THE PAST CLICK HERE
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