The Prisoner: episode 5 – The Schizoid Man – discursion


jane-merrow

The Schizoid Man was the fifth episode of The Prisoner to be broadcast, and the seventh to go into production. It was filmed almost entirely at Elstree, with the minimal ‘exterior’ scenes being shot on the MGM lot at Borehamwood, rather that at Portmeirion. The episode was written by Terence Feely, who was invited by George Markstein to submit a script, and so impressed Patrick McGoohan that he invited Feely to join him and David Tomblin in partnership in Everyman Films.
Apparently, Feely was inspired to write this episode by his discovery that he had a physical doppelganger in Germany.
I’ll admit immediately that I’m biassed about this episode: The Schizoid Man is one of my favourite Prisoner episodes for its cunning and intricate plot, and the degree of intelligence with which it approaches the somewhat hackneyed story of the double agent who is identical to the hero.
It’s a storyline that seems to have dropped out of favour these days, but which was once a staple of thriller series – by a coincidence of scheduling, in 1975 or 1976, it appeared on The Six-Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman and The Gemini Man (if you don’t remember this one, you haven’t missed much) within a period of seven days.
I suspect that one reason for the fascination with such episodes was the thrill and disorientation that the audience experienced seeing the hero (or heroine) playing against themselves on screen together. The fact that this can be achieved so much more easily has made the trick that less interesting than the days when it could only be achieved with spit and baling wire.
The three afore-mentioned series all used the bog-standard double agent plot: the other side intend to infiltrate the hero’s organisation by using an agent who is the hero’s duplicate. The hero is kidnapped, the double introduced, he/she gains access to classified information/starts acting to destroy the hero’s reputation, the real hero escapes and confronts his/her duplicate in a short climactic scene (that uses as little as possible of the budget on split-screen technology), quickly demonstrating why they are so much superior in every way to their inferior double: run closing credits and forget.
Not so The Schizoid Man. For one thing, the Village’s objective is not physical or external, but rather psychological. For another, McGoohan appears on screen as Number Six and Number Twelve for over one-third of the running time of the episode, constantly battling against himself for one single thing: ownership of his own identity.
Because the purpose is to shake the Prisoner’s innate sense of self, and to do this the impersonation is constructed to take place on several levels simultaneously, starting with the ingenious twist of turning Number Six into his own impersonator.
From his perspective, Number Six goes to sleep one night, and wakes in the morning as Number Twelve, aka Curtis. Number Twelve is, apparently, an old friend and colleague of Number Two, a former Village resident that everyone recognises and responds to, a top Agent for the Village’s side, left-handed, and has tastes in food and cigarettes that are completely alien to Number Six. The kicker is that Number Twelve wears a moustache, a genuine moustache, that cannot have grown overnight!
Having been turned into an impersonation of Number Twelve, Number Six is then called upon to formally impersonate himself. His response that this is a rather obvious farce is brushed aside in Number Two’s blithe assumption that this is simply his friend getting into the part. He’s physically turned (back) into Number Six and taken to his cottage, his territory.
But any assumption that this will be easy is rocked by the sheer perfection of Number Twelve, in action, thought and deed. An attempt to gain the advantage by demonstrating his possession of his territory comes to grief when nothing is where Number Six keeps it, and nothing tastes as it should.
This is rapidly followed by a series of short, sharp shocks that demonstrate that Number Twelve is a far better Number Six than Number Six himself is!
And these prompt him into the test that ought to be decisive. It’s the moment when Number Six stops buying into Number Two’s game, stops letting him and Number Twelve dictate the play. It’s Number Six’s great psychological play, when he demonstrates his superiority, beats off the Village’s insidious attack, confirms his identity beyond all doubt (especially his own). And it blows up in his face.
Caught in the enormity of the moment, the audience is steered past the plot’s only significant hole. It’s a bit of necessary smoke and mirrors, a wholly to be expected but, when it comes, still devastating betrayal, as Alison gives the nod to Number Twelve, undermining the credibility of everyone engaged in the surface plot.
How close does Number Six come to actual doubt? The montage of scenes that end the third act do suggest that he has taken a heavy blow, that an actual crack has been made, which is there for exploitation. These moments emphasise the skill, the sophistication of the techniques the Village are using, the comprehensiveness of their attack in ‘bending’ reality around the Prisoner to a point where his capitulation seems inevitable.
But once again, a tiny piece of luck, an inadvertent moment, unforeseeable and, when it happens, not understood for what it represents, just as it did in The Chimes of Big Ben, goes in Number Six’s favour. Alison’s accident with the soda bottle in the opening scene, the fortuitous blood-bruise under his nail, whose change in position from the base of the nail to halfway up, inserts a tiny crack in the Village’s manipulation of reality. The photo is objective evidence of the state of things ‘yesterday’, and as such proves that ‘yesterday’ was oh so long ago.
Once Number Six absorbs that, the way is open for him to recover the memories of the conditioning that has turned himself into an inferior version of himself, which enables him, crudely but effectively, to reverse these and, crudely but equally effectively, overcome Curtis and extract from him the real password.
There’s even a fleeting chance of escape. With the real Number Twelve dead, Number Six’s game as an impersonator enters another phase, as he moves ever onwards on an inwards turning spiral by impersonating the impersonator who was impersonating the self he had been wrenched from in order to impersonate (head aching, yet?). But, in an ironic reversal of the B phase of A, B and C, the Prisoner is unable to make the impersonation stick: he is caught out by the simplest lack of knowledge in his head.
Reading the original shooting script for this episode, in The Prisoner – the Original Scripts, Volume 1, is fascinating for its revelations about the substantial differences between the episode as originally envisaged and as finally shot. The changes are not in themselves significant: the most important is that the montage of brainwashing scenes Number Six recalls after he understands the significance of the bruise was originally planned to be twice as long and detailed, and to be placed between his drugging in his own cottage and waking as Number Twelve: not only is the detail excessive and dragging, too much knowledge too soon would distance the viewer from Number Six’s experience of dislocation.
Two other lengthy sequences – an extended version of Numbers Six and Twelve competing with each other, including a mini-moke race round the Village, and an extended journey with additional obstacles to Number Six’s cottage after Number Six has recovered his self – were cut because they would have required extensive location footage and The Schizoid Man is an episode that never set foot in Portmeirion.
In each case, the sequences are unnecessarily long and detailed and would have served to dilute the impact of the story by, firstly, slowing down its development and, secondly, dragging it away from the true level of the battle. It’s a psychological attack, in concept and execution: chase-sequences would have been a severe mistake.
No, where the story does leave itself open to being undermined is in two areas of weakness. What disturbs me about this episode is that Twelve-as-Six leaves himself open to challenge by his insistence that he IS Number Six. Not ‘your Number Six’, as Six-as-Twelve carefully states, refusing in every moment to accept his reduction to a mere Number. Twelve-as-Six not only asserts his status as Number Six, as a cog within the Village’s system, several times over. Hell’s bells, he even wears a Number Six badge! Contrast that with the real Number Six who, the moment he picks up Number Twelve’s jacket, rips off the badge, exactly as he did with his own in Arrival.
The badge wearing can be justified, externally, by the need to distinguish Six from Twelve when McGoohan is playing both, though the neat trick of having Twelve wear a reversed colour jacket (again blurring the psychological between Hero = White and Villain = Black) is surely enough.
But the bigger issue is Alison herself. She’s absolutely essential to the story. Her rapport with Number Six is genuine, not just because Number Two says so: their last two encounters, when Number Six is again pretending to be his impersonator, make that subtly but abundantly plain, but this only intensifies the question that jeopardises the entire story: how and why does Number Six trust her in the first place?
We know he’s paranoid. The situation demands he trust only himself, and Nadia in The Chimes of Big Ben has only reinforced this, so under what circumstances did the Prisoner ever even begin to trust Number Twenty-Four in the first place, let alone come to use her first name?
Jane Merrow, who enjoyed working with McGoohan, having appeared in three episodes of Danger Man, treads a very fine line in playing Alison. She’s at her most natural in the opening scene: Alison is serious and intent when concentrating upon the zenner cards, but the moment the test is over, she’s up and bouncing around, excitable and eager. It’s a very schoolgirlish performance (Merrow was 26 when The Schizoid Man was filmed), puppyish rather than kittenish. Though Merrow was very attractive, there’s absolutely nothing sexual about her performance (McGoohan wouldn’t have countenanced it for a second: indeed, Feely’s initial and extremely clumsy idea that Alison would identify the real Number Six by kissing both, was right out of the window and good riddance).
After that, Alison is very different, sober and serious throughout, on a faint but still discernible edge (though her shock at seeing two identical Number Six’s is too extreme to be put on). She’s playing her part in the plot now, and that edge is not her fear of getting her part wrong, as it first seems, but instead her pain at betraying Number Six. The utter seriousness of her final words, assuring ‘Number Twelve’ that if she had a second chance, she would not betray Number Six again, switches our perceptions again.
At the end, it’s plain that Number Six kept company with Alison because he simply liked her, from an avuncular viewpoint. She was nice to have around, she amused him, and they did have a genuine rapport. It’s a pity that some way could not have been found to establish that ahead of time, rather than us have to take it on trust, when the great theme of this series is that trust is impossible.
One final point: this is the only episode in which Rover’s name is ever used. McGoohan has confirmed that the Weather Balloon security system was entitled Rover, but in extreme isolation, and the context of it’s use here, for many years I took it that Number Six was making a private, sarcastic joke: not Rover but ‘Rover’.

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