The Prisoner: Reconciling the Irreconcilable


I’ve never joined in any active fandom (that’s not quite true: I was a small part of Midnight Voices for several years but, as may be expected from the devotees of the music of Pete Atkin and the lyrics of Clive James, it was not a conventional fandom by any means). To be honest, I’ve tended to avoid organised fandom, except for glimpses from the outside that have usually been fascinating and horrifying in equal measures.
On the one hand, there can be the in-depth analysis of issues that opens your mind to possibilities previously unglimpsed. On the other hand, there can be the in-depth analysis of issues that opens your mind to to the extent to which an obsession with the trivial and meaningless can occupy someone’s life.
Frequently, it’s merely a matter of perspective as to how any such essay should be regarded.
The Prisoner attracted a voluble and active fandom early on, Six of One forming in 1977, shortly after the first series repeat by ITV, and being the only official Appreciation Society. They’ve published a regular magazine devoted to the series for decades, hold annual meetings at Portmeirion and have contributed heavily to books and DVDs about the programme, and they deserve a lot of respect.
But they’re still a fan club, and the problem with fan-clubs is that they tend to attract fans. The first free gift that should be given away by any fan club is peripheral vision glasses, to counter the effect of the blinkers fans walk in wearing.
For instance, I once subscribed to a Shawn Colvin fanzine (of which I’m still owed two issues), through which I was able to buy some superb compilation cassettes. But it appeared that, to be a Shawn Colvin fan, you had to have a hate on for Alison Krauss. And I like Alison Krauss too much for that.
However, to my knowledge, no-one involved with Six of One has ever been remotely that crass. But the tunnel-vision endemic to fandom does display itself in theories too bizarre and remote to be taken seriously only by fans, determined only to see perfection in the object of their devotion.
Such as the theory that the seventeen episodes of The Prisoner happen to seventeen different Number Six’s.
I mean, the theory does have the single undeniable advantage of explaining away any inter-episode discrepancy. In this recension, there is no need for concern over the correct sequence of Colin Gordon’s contrasting appearances since, if Number Six begins anew every episode, a tabula rasa to whatever extent is required in this next story, so logically must Number Two be renewed.
And it does provide a logical explanation for the central issue that links The Chimes of Big Ben, Many Happy Returns and Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darling. In all three episodes, the Prisoner makes contact with his former superiors in British Intelligence. In all three episodes, they are different men, played by different actors, and yet not only does the Prisoner make no comment upon this constantly shifting hierarchy, but at no time does either he or any of them refer to any other contact.
If Number Six is a new man in each episodes, then not only does the discrepancy vanish, but each meeting becomes the first one, with no others having taken place at all.
It’s a beguiling theory, as I ought to recognise. After all, in another context I relished and applauded it. Because it’s Earth-2, and the Justice Society of America, and what it boils down to is a theory that every episode takes place on a different parallel Earth, so that whilst The Chimes of Big Ben takes place on Earth-1, and Many Happy Returns on Earth-2, Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darling must take place on Earth-4. (If you know anything at all about DC’s once-and-former Multiverse, you’ll understand why I skipped over Earth-3).
Convenient as it is in this respect, the whole idea is plainly hooey. Rather than explaining discrepancies, it destroys the integrity of the series. What involvement in the central character’s fate can be expected if every episode leads only to some magic, off-screen reset button, deleting the effects of each day’s events time and again.
What is really needed is perspective, and a willingness to accept The Prisoner for what it was: a 1967 ITV espionage/thriller series, made on a budget appropriate to the period and, more importantly, to a television deadline. That it was dedicated to ideas and notions that were forward-thinking and different, that still resonate today, is only part of the reason we still discuss and show it today. That final episode, ending the series in an explosive fashion that eschewed reality on every level, is a bigger part of what causes us to recall the series than many would like to acknowledge.
But it was still a Sixties series, written, produced and directed by men and women who worked in Sixties television. The programme’s fans make a tight, internal continuity a fetish, because they are unable to accept anything that falls short of their intensive perceptions when, in the reality of 1967, that very continuity was not, and would never have been, in the foreground of anyone’s thinking.
That perception is something that belongs more properly to the last twenty years, to the post-Twin Peaks world of television, when first programme-makers then audiences began to pursue a more sophisticated approach to stories, in which tight inter-episode continuity became important: in part, for itself, to enhance the verisimilitude of the series, and because viewers were being taught to watch carefully for little hints clues and mysteries, and therefore the shows had to be tighter because the series itself was asking for greater scrutiny.
People simply did not think that way in 1967. Note the current controversy among some Dr Who fans about the (superb) casting of Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor, when he – shock, horror! – has already appeared in the series in a supporting role. Well, that’s far from new, as we will see when we come to consider the future Prisoner episode, Hammer into Anvil.
Great as The Prisoner is, to spend so much time trying to reconcile the irreconcilable is to demonstrate the well-known tendency to fail to see the wood for the trees.

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