The Prisoner: episode 1 – Arrival – discursion


As an opening episode, required to established situation and character with an absolute minimum of plodding exposition, Arrival is a complete success. It may be eclipsed by many later episodes, but they can perform in the luxury of knowing that the series has been set up on a firm footing. And the episode also delivers in terms of established the surreal, other-worldly, almost fantasy aspect of The Prisoner. From the moment it appears before Patrick McGoohan’s shocked eyes through the window of a room that, by all rights, ought to be in London, the Village exudes a fascinating combination of chocolate box cuteness and utter sinistrality.
The basic set-up – the spy who resigns and is kidnapped to somewhere completely disconnected from the world – is established (almost) wordlessly in the opening credits (the sequence is silent, but the filing cabinet drawer card Resigned is still necessary to pinpoint what is happening for much of the audience: at this stage, the programme cannot afford to lose those not sharp enough to infer it from the sequence). Later episodes will use a slightly shortened version of this sequence, trimmed of unimportant detail and succeeded by the famous catechism that débuts in the second episode.
Even then, it’s still some time before the first words are spoken, when Number 6 addresses the waitress in the café. There’s a quick build up via the telephone, the taxi and the store, establishing the Village as a place of enigma whose seemingly ordinary inhabitants are, firstly, far from ordinary – the Chinese girl, her willingness to assume that people here may come from either side of the Iron Curtain, the shopkeeper who speaks a foreign language until Number 6 enters his shop – and secondly, may be a complex part of this uncomfortable set-up – the bland evasion of such questions as they don’t intend to answer, the immediately suffocating nature of their fundamental acceptance as normal of what is not in the slightest a normal situation.
We are also exposed for the first time to the Village ritual of parting, the phrase, “Be Seeing You”, accompanied by the gesture of forming thumb and index finger into a circle, with the other fingers raised stiffly, the circle brought to the eye and and flicked away.
It’s a simple, almost banal sign, and the programme brilliantly makes no big deal of it: it’s just something that happens, simply and unconsciously, over and over again. It’s a social nicety, and a constant reminder of the fact that this is a closed community, that the speaker will be seeing you again, because neither you nor they are going anywhere else.
From there, we are introduced to Number Two, in his surreal bubble, hidden inside an ornate building. He explains what else we need to understand, enabling McGoohan to articulate the basic principle upon which he and this series will rest: that the Prisoner will not accept imprisonment, that he will not conform, that he will remain forever in possession of his own identity and his own will.
The series’ most famous, and iconic line will not be introduced until the following episode, but it is preceded here by a longer, less pithy, but equally important and no less insistent creed: I will not be pushed, stamped, filed, indexed, briefed, de-briefed or numbered: my life is my own.
What might the world have been now if we’d heeded those words and attempted to live by them?
As part of the episode’s overt introduction to the Village, we are also shown their advanced, seemingly independent, unbelievable and destructive security system – the white roaring ball. It’s called Rover, though the only time the name is used is in episode 5. Our more sophisticated eye for special effects has long since identified it as a weather balloon, being dragged around on a camouflaged cable. On the old 425-line b&w tellies, this was far from obvious, but the success of the apparition (which was originally intended to be a ground based white Volkswagen-beetle shaped craft, that broke down whenever it was moved) is the same as the Daleks: a simple, recognisable shape but an utterly alien, strange thing.
The sequence with the Maid is the first reinforcement that he is not merely being paranoid, and that he cannot trust those who seem to want to assist him, and also that he is under surveillance, in a manner that we recognise in 2013 but which, in 1967/8, was alien and strange – only to be glimpsed in spy films and, yes, television series but never for ‘real’.
This is followed by the first, crude and simple, attempt to escape. It’s checked twice by Rover, once in the woods, once on the sands, although to get to this point, Number 6 has succeeded in knocking over two security guards and stealing a Village vehicle.
The hospital multiplies the air of oddity around the Village. Cobb’s appearance reinforces the aims of the authorities behind the Village, and his seeming death underlines the fact that, despite the surreality of the Village – further reinforced by cutaways in the Hospital showing absurd tests being carried out, one on a shaven headed man wearing Number 6’s old clothes, singing wildly at a ping pong ball bounced in a fountain – there is a real danger underlining things here.
The Prisoner storms off as soon as possible to see Number 2, only to be confronted with a different, younger, less sympathetic man, marking Number 2 as being not a person but rather a Position: Number 6 demands Number 1 but is not only curtly brushed off but is first addressed by his number: all Villagers are known by numbers instead of names, and the interchangeability of such numbers further demonstrates the dehumanisation implicit in this conforming society.
McGoohan’s resistance to this notion has been made physical by his almost instant rejection of his badge when issued to him: I am not a number. I am a person, he emphasises to the new Number 2, stating one of the most important underlying beliefs of the series.
The final third of the episode centres upon a second escape attempt, this time with the assistance of the attractive, dark-haired woman who purports to have been Cobb’s girlfriend and his collaborator on an escape plan. Though never referred to as such, her badge bears the number 9, an appropriate inversion of McGoohan’s never-displayed number. Number 6 is instinctively suspicious, the more so when Number 9 leaves him to meet Number 2. And when the escape via the helicopter is frustrated by superior technology, Number 6 (and the viewers) would be expected to have reinforced the idea that he is absolutely alone in the Village, that he cannot trust anyone. Ever. In any circumstances.
That’s a necessary point that the episode establishes, but it’s further complicated by our own insight, denied to Number 6, that Number 9 may be a Village agent who was assigned to Cobb, but that she is only assigned to play a similar role with Number 6 after she has offered him a method of escape. It adds another layer for the viewer to contemplate: can everybody else be trusted to be an enemy?
And in a second important sequence that the viewers, but not Number 6, are privy to, we learn that Cobb is not after all dead, but on his way to meet his ‘new masters’, with glowing reports on the Village operation. Number 9, it seems will be dealt with: Cobb murmurs that he was afraid of that. So, just who was fooling who between Cobb and Number 9? At what point did Cobb turn? The simple exchange hints at a back-story that will never be explained, but which briefly illuminates the world in which we, and Number 6, are now living.
Of necessity, Arrival is an episode of complete failure on the Prisoner’s part, but then his attempts are simple. All they prove so far is that the Village will not be easy to escape. And that there is more, far more, under the surface of what we have already seen, to be learnt.
Arrival was scripted by script editor George Markstein (his only writing credit on the series) and Producer David Tomblin (McGoohan’s partner). The original script is set out in The Prisoner – the Original Scripts Volume 1, edited to show the main changes undergone during filming. The 35th Anniversary DVD box-set, The Ultimate Collection, includes an alternate version of the episode, a rough mix that was actually broadcast in Canada two months before the series appeared in Britain in ATV’s area. The differences are minor – it includes scenes in the original script that were dropped from the finished episode, the panicky man sequence is absent and the classic theme music has not yet been applied: the theme used here is generically Sixties thriller series material, and undistinguished. Enthusiasts will enjoy the slight expansion of the episode.

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