The Prisoner: Shattered Visage


I bought this when it first came out, four issues in the then new Prestige format, perhaps long enough ago that it was still being referred to as the Dark Knight format. I traded up for the graphic novel collection, getting it for free because the guy in the shop, a mate of mine, the kid who got me into writing for British comics fandom, hated the owner, and admitted that practically all of them did stuff like that from time to time, to fuck him over. I kept it for several years and then got rid of it, because despite being an Authorised Sequel, and Patrick McGoohan and Leo McKern consenting to the use of their likenesses, it simply wasn’t anywhere near good enough. When I was doing my series on The Prisoner some years ago, I referred to it under Other Media, feeding off twenty-odd year old memories. Now I’ve bought the collection again, cheap, in decent but not excessive condition, to refresh those recollections and write about it properly. One day, I may be able to afford the Marvel hardback collecting their two efforts to adapt episode one of the series.

Yes, I am a completist.

Shattered Visage is still not very good. In fact, it’s a mess on many levels, and it totally fails to get either the atmosphere or ethos of the series. Reading it, I wonder, given the intensity of his involvement with his ‘baby’, just what McGoohan saw in the project that led him to authorise it as an official sequel, because I’m hanged if I can see it.

The story is the work of writer/artist Dean Motter, a Canadian creator then noted for his serialised work, ‘The Sacred and the Profane’, with co-creator Ken Steacey, and then for creating and designing ‘Mister X’ (originally written and drawn by Los Bros Hernandez). Motter wrote the story with Mark Askwith, a Canadian television TV writer and producer, and drew the issues with colour by David Hornung and Richmond Lewis. The series first appeared in 1988-89, as issues A – D.

The set-up for the story is that twenty years have passed since the Village was liberated by the Americans and its inmates released. The Leo McKern Number Two was imprisoned for twenty years, the Village fell into disuse and was left empty, but for the former Number Six who, once free to go, elected to stay, and has remained there ever since. But Number Two is about to be released from prison. One of the conditions of his release has been that he was allowed to write his memoirs about the Village (‘The Village Idiot’), although apparently its relevance to the truth, after Britan’s Intelligence Services have been over it, is tangential at best. It is feared that Number Two intends to return to the Village for revenge. It is intimated that there are still secrets in the Village.

So: an interesting angle in that we’re not trying for another ‘lost’ episode effect. It’s a genuine sequel in that respect, but it’s also a possibly unconscious admission by Motter and Askwith that they couldn’t do a ‘lost’ episode, that they couldn’t begin to capture that wholly Sixties mixture of paranoia and holiday camp absurdity. Because they certainly can’t capture anything of the series in what they produced.

To begin with, they can only create their story by denying the original ending, reducing Number Six’s experiences to a drug-induced hallucination, a fantasy. Secondly, having him elect to stay in the Village once it’s liberated, may be superficially consistent with Number Six/Patrick McGoohan’s insistent upon the rights of the individual (My life is my own), but in practice it reduces the character to a contrarian, a figure without independent thought or opinion, merely a drive to do the opposite of everybody else.

But that’s before the story introduces its own characters and its contemporary view of espionage. The two most important figures are Alice and Thomas, the one a former spy for British Intelligence, the other still in the service, head of a small Department called Excavations, which seem to be a background operation. Alice and Thomas were married but are separated at Alice’s instigation, which seems to be linked to the reasons for her resignation. Alice has lost faith in what they do, affected by incidents that have happened to other agents: her reasons are only slightly more concrete than those of Number Six but seem to echo those he appeared to be about to expand upon in ‘The Chimes of Big Ben’. Late in the series, we will learn that Alice’s surname is Drake, but whether this is her married name, or whether she has reverted to her maiden name (something her character portrayal strongly suggests she would do) we are not told.

The story is deliberately unclear about everything it possibly can be, even more so than the series.

Thomas has edited Number Two’s book, having practically rewritten it for him, to eliminate active security issues, which appear to be manifold and include all sorts of modern issues. But he’s concerned about The Village, Number Two, an Agent who’s following him, the approval of his mentor, the now bedridden Mrs Butterworth, and the refusal of his superior, Colonel J, to officially support him. So Thomas ropes in a freewheeling American agent called Lee West (a steal from Joe Don Baker as Darius Jedburgh, in Edge of Darkness).

Alice meanwhile is celebrating her freedom by going on a solo voyage around the world in a super-yacht with all modern satellite system guidance. To do so, she has to put her tearful daughter Meagan (aged 8 or thereabouts) into the convent school that is Alice’s old alma mater, thereby making Meagan a prisoner. (She also gets her hair cut and swaps her elegant calf-length skirts for shorts and bikinis: Alice may be a strong, independent woman but she’s also eye-candy, at least so far as Motter’s art style permits). But Thomas distracts her long enough to enable Lee to mess with the guidance system, so that Alice’s course takes her past the Village.

That’s before the Hurricane that wrecks her boat, fries her guidance system and maroons her on the beach below the Village (now defined as being an island). Alice makes her be-shorted way through a dilapidated, boarded up, vegetation-shrouded Village, all the way to Number Two’s office (how does she know to go there?) where a heavily-bearded man sits in the Chair. He greets her, tells her she’s safe, and names her… (wait for it), Number Six.

The bearded man is our old friend, the original Number Six.

All of this so far has been set out in issue A. I’ve explained it in such detail because it’s been necessary to set up the premise of the story, and also because it’s a carefully-detailed, espionage oriented set-up. You can build a good story on what’s been laid out thus far, though little of it would have relevance to the series. But I shalln’t be going into anything like the same detail for the other three-quarters of the tale because from this point onwards, the story falls apart like wet tissue-paper.

Number Two turns up in the Village (how? Don’t ask stupid questions). He’s older, fatter, bearded as well (though not with either of the beards Leo McKern wore in the series) and has bad teeth. He’s being served by the Butler, although as poor Angelo Muscat wasn’t around to agree, the latter is only shown in shadow, with ratty hair and stooped shoulders. He’s there to provoke Number Six into a fight.

Not a psychological battle, a contest of minds trying to outdo each other, intelligence warring with intelligence and sharp dialogue, but a fist-fight. If ever the limitations of comics creators’ mentalities was exposed, it is here. Number Six beats Number Two up and shaves off his beard.

By now, the Village has been invaded by two military forces, an unofficial one led by Lee, with Thomas, that exposes the true secret behind the Village, the thing that it’s all been about since the very beginning: a nuclear missile. You know, the very thing that was fired during the ‘Fall Out’ episode that Motter and Askwith dismissed as wholly a drug-induced hallucination in order to tell their story becomes their big idea. It’s pathetically weak.

The other invading force doesn’t get anywhere. They’re sent by Thomas’s superior Ross, D.Ops (Director of Operations) to retrieve all information and people they find, but they find nothing because the beaten Number Two sets off the missiles without opening the silo doors, so the Village is destroyed, as it was when the missile was fired in ‘Fall Out’ that Motter and Askwith dismissed, etc., killing everyone in the Village but not necessarily the maverick Lee.

There are two codas to this conclusion. One involves a shift in authority in British Intelligence, involving a takeover by remote figures for whom, it appears, the seemingly detached Lee West was working: Ross is dismissed, gassed unconscious and removed in an undetaker’s hearse, presumably to The Village 2.0.

And Alice, who escaped with Number Six, is reunited with Meagan (whilst under surveillance), after a brief conversation with our erstwhile hero. She asks two questions which elicit two answers that sound clever but which, after the failure we’ve read, are functionally meaningless. In reverse order, to a question about how Number Six knows his secrets are still safe, he answers ‘None of us would still be here if they weren’t’, whilst to the $64 Million Dollar question of Who was Number One, actually? we get the gnomic response, ‘Does the presence of Number Two… necessarily require the existence of Number One?’ It’s cute, it has its appeal, it could actually be the basis for a serious story if you produce it early enough, but in context it’s as meaningless as everything else: just someone thinking that they’re being clever.

According to the Wikipedia entry, the story was ‘thoroughly evaluated’ by ITC Entretainment, and every page of Shattered Visage (title taken from Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’) and every issue was sent to Patrick McGoohan, who signed off on it but offered no feedback: the only thing Motter ever got back was, apparently, “He didn’t hate it.” Leo McKern sent a note to say how flattered he was to be a comic book villain for the first time. It’s a nice gesture, and I’m sure McKern was amused, but he did rather put his finger on it: Number Two is a comic book villain, with all the usual implications.

What of the art? Does this, in any way, make up for the inadequacies of the story? Unfortunately not: Motter’s art is sketchy and undetailed, his faces and figures awkward. He can catch enough of a likeness of McGoohan and McKern without being so simplistic as to topple into caricature, but his pages are open, lacking in detail, flat. There is no sense of depth to the panels, an effect muliplied by colouring that seems to be content with slapping wide expanses of plain, ungraduated pastels in sunshine, or muddy, lifeless shades in night conditions.

I’m torn over the decision to use treated photography for certain scenes, especially of the Village, and London, rather than have Motter draw these. Even with a deliberately degraded image, these scenes have too much detail to blend into Motter’s style, and the fact of their realness constantly drags the eye out of the story by reason of the contrast.

All in all, a pretty comprehensive failure, and called as such by most critics, especially among the especially fanatical fans, though the opinion is by no mean unanimous. In the end, the actual Village element seems like a sideshow beside the underlying story of power-shifts in British Intelligence. The twenty years on milieu, though an intelligence angle, proves to be determinedly anti-Prisoner-esque and the two worlds are too far separated to ever meet on their own terms.

At least they got it published.

The Prisoner: Titan Comics Mini-Series


The only decent art in the series

Delayed from its original July date, the fourth and final part of Titan Comics’ The Prisoner mini-series is now available and it confirms what I’d long since surmised: it’s a piece of shit and anyone who thinks this remotely worthy of the original series hasn’t got a clue about the original series.

I am, admittedly, a very harsh taskmaster about such things, but I am old enough to recall the series going out and this has been a ridiculous piece of work on all levels, starting from the rough and inconsistent art by Colin Lorimar and going up to the nonsensical story by Peter Milligan, who is talented enough to do better. Beyond the superficial trappings borrowed for the look of it, there is nothing that Patrick MacGoohan would recognise as being related to his vision, and the final issue introduction of a Number One of sorts is an insult to the original. Even Deam Motter’s ‘Shattered Visage’ of thirty years ago did better with its empty philosophic of “Does the presence of a Number Two necessarily require a Number One?”

What we did get was a penny-plain spy story that mistook convolution for complexity. Breen, an Agent of the Unit, under section, loses fellow and temporary lover Agent Carey in the Middle East, believed taken by The Village, defined as a completely independent organisation beholden to no-one. Breen is ordered to steal a vital but undefined secret (named Pandora, fairly banally but you could have just said The MacGuffin for all the real importance it has) in order to attract extraction to The Village.

He undergoes interrogation, finds Carey has first defected to The Village, then she’s assisting his escape, then she’s the new Number Two by murdering her predecessor, then she’s electrocuted then she’s a Unit Agent with no hostility to him who’s never even seen The Village. Which one do you believe? Unfortunately, to believe you have to care and I didn’t.

The great revelation, which I’d leave out if I could, is that Number One is a punch-card driven old supercomputer acting totally at random. You can tell that Milligan is just punching the clock because he pretends to offer randomness as a Political system of serious merit.

The climax features Breen accepting employment as the new Number Two and having section kidnapped and installed as Number Six. Very witty.

The problem is that Breen’s a cypher, Carey’s a cypher, and Section’s a silly ass cypher. Lorimar finds it difficult to make people look the same two panels running – his Carey is a different woman every single time you see her – and the minimal plot is weighed down with so much faux reality that it chokes any effort to equate it to a series that was the complete antithesis of reality: surreal, glittery, absurd, constructed out of iconic imagery and above all clean. A twenty-first century grim’n’gritty Prisoner is a contradiction in terms, and if there’s a sequel series, I shalln’t be acknowledging it without a complete change of every creative person associated. The editor and original plot provider is David Leach: I’m sentimental enough to hope he isn’t the one I used to know in UK fandom in the Eighties because I liked him.

You may bid for the set on eBay as from Sunday, though I can’t in all conscience recommend you do, unless you feel sorry enough for me to want to help me recoup the money I spent on this, or maybe even turn a small profit. A large profit would be even better.

 

The New Prisoner Comic 2


In which we see that Peter Milligan and especially Colin Lorimer do not have “have the chops to create the feel essential to making (Titan’s new The Prisoner comic) a success.”

All issue 2 is is 21st century ultra-cynical espionage without any new ideas or individuality, wrapped loosely in the clothes of the Village, and a piped blazer. Any resemblance to The Prisoner is a name.

The New Prisoner Comic


I am extremely protective about certain things, as my commentary about Doomsday Clock demonstrates. You cannot get away with doing them unless you do them exactly the way I want them to be. On that basis, Titan’s new The Prisoner comic, written by Peter Milligan and drawn by Colin Lorimer, is on an AI, triple-decker, double-secret hiding to nothing.

It’s a six-issue limited series of which issue 1 has been published with no less than six different covers. I chose cover 3, which is an image taken from the legendary unpublished Jack Kirby Marvel version in the mid-Seventies.

This is the third attempt at a Prisoner comic, after Marvel’s two failed efforts (the other was by Steve Engelhart and Gil Kane) and DC’s mid-Eighties ‘Shattered Visage’ by Dean Motter. The first were attempts to adapt the series’ opening episode, ‘Arrival’, the second a deeply inadequate attempt to bring the Village into contemporary times which tied it to British Intelligence.

That introduced a new, female central character, whose name was coyly revealed to be Drake, who was led to the location of The Village, where Number Six had chosen to remain after it was opened up. That story was a mess but it’s greatest crime was turning Number Six into nothing more than a cantankerous contrarian.

On the strength of issue 1 alone, ‘The Uncertainty Machine’ takes a similar approach to ‘Shattered Image’: contemporary setting, new central character, Breen, an espionage milieu pertinent to the Twenty-First Century, and by the last couple of pages, Breen is in the Village.

There’s not enough to go on to decide whether this is going to be any good or not. If anything, issue 1 reminds me more of Person of Interest, and John Reece’s black ops background, for all that Breen in part of MI5 (in a section called The Unit). Breen and his (female) partner Carey are caught in a trap, he gets out, she dosn’t, he wants to rescue her, refuses orders to terminate her.

This time, the concept of The Village is that of an ultra-mysterious independent organisation, whereabouts unknown, ‘loyalties’ random. Whether they have a physical location seems to be in doubt. Nothing is known about their controller, Number One. It’s suggested that they may have taken Carey, whose knowledge is vital, hence the orders to kill her.

Instead, Breen steals Pandora, an unknown, highly-guarded object, to attract the attention of The Village, and he gets it. He is gassed, wakes up in piped blazer, polo neck and slacks and In The Village.

The true test is going to be next issue, when we’ll see if writer Milligan and Lorimer have the chops to create the feel essential to making this a success. Milligan certainly the ability but this is my first exposure to Lorimer and I’m not impressed. His art is functional, rough-edged, unexceptional. But I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt for now.

There’s not enough even to guess at yet, especially not as to whether Number Six will appear. I’d prefer it if he didn’t: I have a sneaking suspicion that if he does, he will appear as Number Two, or even Number One. That’s iconoclastic enough for Milligan, but it would kill the whole thing stone dead if that’s what he’s got up his sleeve. We shall see.

So no rush to judgement on this issue alone because it’s all set up, and the all-action C21 running, jumping and shooting espionage stuff need not pertain to the hopefully archaic times inside The Village. That’s what I’m hoping to see. Time will tell.

Fifty Years After The Prisoner


Titan Comics have announced a publication date for the first issue of their new comics series of Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner. The series – apparently open-ended – will debut on April 25, written by Peter Milligan, who’s smart enough to maybe pull it off, and drawn by Colin Lorimer, about whom I know nothing (a quick Google art search suggests he might also pull it off).

I’ll be there to but it and here to comment about it. I’m not exactly looking forward to it: the only other Prisoner comics series was an unmitigated disaster. And it is neither McGoohan himself nor 1967.

But we’ll see when the time comes. At least I’ll be fairer to it than I ever will to Doomsday Clock

The Prisoner: Other Media – The Prisoner’s Dilemma


Several years ago, when I did my series about Patrick McGoohan’s landmark TV series, The Prisoner, I wrote about attempts to portray Number 6 in other media. I mentioned, in passing because I hadn’t then read it, a 2005 novel, The Prisoner’s Dilemma, written by Jonathan Blum and Rupert Booth and published by Powys Media, and intended to the the first of a series of new stories about everybody’s favourite Village.

Time has passed. The series never materialised. The anticipated book two, The Outsider by Lance Parkin, never appeared. Powys Media’s website list book three, Miss Freedom, written by Andrew Cartmel but not how to get it. Google turns up some mixed reviews of this, at GoodReads and Google Books, but a search of eBay, Amazon and BookFinder turns up no copies, and whilst Biblio.com lists a signed and numbered copy of the book, it is out of stock.

A mystery worthy of the series, perhaps?

Nevertheless, I had acquired and read a copy of The Prisoner’s Dilemma, and it’s time to supplement the series with a few words about it.

On balance, the book is worthy of its good reputation. It’s plot is complex and well-managed, springing from a single, ingenious action that involved Number 6 with Number 18, a tense, troubled young woman who is, in a completely different fashion, every bit as much a rebel against the Village as he is. The story starts with Number 6 on his ceaseless mission to monitor the Village’s ever-developing  surveillance for blind and deaf spots, when he is almost witness to Number 18 murdering a man: her Observer, it transpires, but also someone who has been sexually abusing her for some time.

This trigger’s Number Six’s chivalrous instincts, as do similar but less serious situations in the series, but it also triggers the classic impasse that forms the title of the book, and its underlying theme. Two prisoners are held in separate custody, facing common charges: do they trust each other in order to prevail against their captors, or race each other to sell out and shift the blame onto the other? Trust only works if both come to the same decision, but they cannot communicate with each other, cannot agree to trust.

Number Six finds himself accused of the Observer’s murder, both by reason of who he is and where he was and because Number Eighteen has, allegedly, claimed he killed the man.

Neither is charged. This set-up is but a preliminary to the main novel, a more-than-McGuffin that serves not only to connect Numbers Six and Eighteen but to introduce the central dilemma of the entire novel: does Number Six learn to trust Number Eighteen? Can he?

That’s as far as I’m going to go in describing the story. This pairing, having been forced by the Village, is put through a long series of variegated tests, designed to work on that question, as they try to combine opposing approaches to the objective of bringing down a new Village system that infallibly controls people by accurately predicting their responses. Can Number Six trust Number Eighteen? I’m not telling you, but the book itself gives away the ultimate answer in nearly every page.

Blum and Booth are good, very good indeed, on the minutiae of Number Six’s Village life and the overwhelming paranoia with which he has to live in order to survive on the terms he has demanded for himself. The book is thick with detail of what the Prisoner thinks and does, the extent to which he is completely self-isolated by the approach he has chosen.

Number Eighteen’s approach is radically different, and Blum/Booth provide plenty of arguments in its favour as a viable approach. And the further we get into the book, the more those arguments become objections to the flaws of the persona Number Six has adopted, that blind him to any option that is not generated by himself in accordance with what are very narrow criteria. The Prisoner’s Dilemma.

It makes for a dense, very intense book, sometimes a bit wearyingly so. Number Six’s attitude is complete and fully coherent, but the endless vigilance, the refusal/inability to compromise even for a second on the most minor of things asks the reader to raise their game to an inhuman level. Nor does the undisguised contempt for any alternate concept help us ease into the story: inevitably, some of what Number Six says comes over as the most rigid egomania, and the longer the book goes on, the more despairingly and more often Number Eighteen points this out to him and us.

Can he really trust her? That’s where the ending is really clever, making her disappear in ambiguous circumstances that could be anything from escape to reassignment, leaving us with the same dilemma as Number Six.

I do have some specific complaints about this book. The first is that its Number Two never rises above being a cypher, and that too much of the book leaves him on the sidelines, depriving us of the direct clash of minds that underlines each of the television episodes. At different times and in different ways, Number Six’s battles are against Numbers Fifty-four (the honest cop) and Number One Hundred and One (the ultimate double agent), so that when Number Two begins to play a direct role, in the last phase, it comes too late to share the personal element so important to the rhythm of the series.

And I am seriously concerned at the uneven tone of the book in one serious aspect. The Prisoner was made and set in 1967/68, in an era of Cold War rigidity, in the still-living aftermath of a War that had turned on ideologies, spawning a world in which ideologies were even more prominent. It took its politics from that, it took its colours and concerns from the edge of the counterculture that was feeling its way into being, it pointed us towards the future that was bearing down, as a warning that we all ignored.

Blum and Booth were writing almost forty years on, in a world in which the Village has spread to encompass our lives. There have been massive leaps in technology and culture. Unfortunately, the authors try to have it both ways, trying to retain the ambience and the politics of the Sixties whilst folding in the computerised world of the Twenty-First Century. It sets up a tension that they can’t resolve, with a Reality Show employing fantastic technology that resembles nothing but state-of-the-art CGI switching to an attack on high-powered computers so primitive that their back-ups are still on tapes.

And what Blum and Booth don’t seem to realise is that by introducing their Reality Show (and a coy reference to The Kumars at no. 42), not only are they irretrievably mixing incompatible cultural periods but the defeat they concoct for Number Six is as crushing and final as they portray it as being. Number Six’s credibility on every level is shattered, he is completely defused, his privacy is destroyed, in a manner that cannot be reset.

The idea is too good.

Overall, though, I’d rank The Prisoner’s Dilemma as much more representative of the series than any of the official, contemporaneous tie-in novels, and in its incorporation of futuristic themes, tons better than the Shattered Visage comic. It’s a shame the series wasn’t continued as envisaged, especially as the ending of this book looks to be foreshadowing the non-existent Lance Parkin novel. Or is it?

That is, appropriately, a matter of trust…

The Prisoner: episode 17 – Fall Out – the final discursion


Who is Number One?

Fall Out was the seventeenth and final episode of The Prisoner to be produced and broadcast. It was written and directed by Patrick McGoohan, although the Red Judge’s speeches were written (uncredited) by Kenneth Griffith, at McGoohan’s request.
This is the episode that makes The Prisoner. Without this, with something that made any kind of rational sense, it sinks. It goes into the shadows and is forgotten, all its good work forgotten. Anything, anything at all that is realistic and it can go ignored, filed away into the back cupboard of memory and never allowed out again. Only by breaking all the rules, by destroying everything that resembles any kind of compact with its audience does The Prisoner survive.
It answers by not answering. It ends by not ending. It promises and withholds, it infuriates and angers, it raises feelings. Its writer/producer/director/star takes his wife and children to Ireland, three days later, and then to America. He never works in British television again.
I was twelve years old when I watched Fall Out, at the end of the initial run. We who were served by Granada were the last in the country to learn what answers Patrick McGoohan had chosen, but we still had no idea what we were going to see. I have always wished that I had been older, old enough to understand the impact of that moment when Number Six rips the mask off Number One and finds himself staring back.
It’s a cliché now: our enemy is always ourselves, but it was not so then, not merely for twelve year olds.
Fall Out is a thing in itself that is almost too strange, too weird and wonderful to be criticised, to be analysed. It was an enormous hostage to fortune, a thing too easily open to contempt, to be dismissed as nonsense (and by extension everything that went before and beside it), to be contemptuously derided as not an ending at all, as proof only that McGoohan didn’t know what he was doing, that he was making it up all along and when the time came to make it make sense, he had no ending.
Didn’t we hear all of that about Lost?
Because the truth is that there is not a thing in Fall Out that makes sense. That connects to any part of The Prisoner on the ground upon which the series has stood since its beginning. The questions that had built up are thrown away, discarded as irrelevancies. The organisation that has held the Prisoner in its keeping for weeks prostrates itself and gives in to him for no reason whatsoever. It vanishes, like a puff of nuclear smoke, like the rag ends of a dream. England and home is down the end of a long, dark tunnel. The only thing anyone ever had to do was to shoot their way out. It’s guns, and bullets and All You Need is Love.
An old and once dear friend, with whom I’ve long since lost touch, married an ex-Army Physical Training Instructor turned self-taught Master Builder named Ray. They were an unusual pairing, for he was very solid and rational, and not at all imaginative or creative. Yet it was he who gave me the only explanation of the ending to The Prisoner that made ‘sense’.
It goes back to Once Upon a Time, to that moment in the caged room when Number Six’s demeanour changes, when he says the word six, when he tastes it, and relishes it, slings his jacket over his shoulder and walks out of the room, leaving a baffled Number Two behind. From that moment onwards, he is in control. Everything falls before him. First Number Two, then the Village, it all crumples away.
Because Number Six broke, because when he accepted the term Six, he went mad, and everything that followed is an unhinged fantasy.
Think about it. Because it does make literal sense, where nothing else does. Fall Out is the final escape, out of reality, it is the ultimate victory, irreversible, beyond any further restriction. The Village’s authorities become faceless, indistinguishable figures, in robes and symbolic masks. It’s demand for conformity applies to others – others that the Prisoner will, god-like, release – yet his rebellion is deified for no reason other than that it is by him.
It’s a set-up that can be destroyed by the burst of a machine gun, a hiding place that magically turns out to be virtually on his own doorstep. His only gaoler is, in fact, himself, a self that he can lock up and send away. And home is just the beginning, restarting the cycle, to be played put endlessly, over and again.
In its curious way, Fall Out is not the allegorical victory that everyone assumes it is, but a tragic defeat. The Prisoner’s only escape is into himself, a theme repeated years later in Terry Gilliam’s monumentally brilliant film, Brazil. In that visually astonishing mix of 1984 and Heath Robinson, hero Jonathan Pryce is ultimately captured, his girl killed, his life destroyed, yet in the midst of torture, he is rescued, he escapes, she lives and they drive away to a place of freedom, far beyond the bureaucrats: until two of them appear above the horizon, to agree they’ve lost him. For they have: he has never left the torturer’s chair. Not physically.
There are many people who will baulk at this interpretation, and indeed one aspect of its genius is that it can be read in so many ways, and their opinions are every bit as valid as mine. It is an allegorical gambol, and you may take that for the pun it also is.
According to McGoohan, the episode was written in thirty six mostly unbroken hours. Though he never had the ending worked out in the beginning, he has said that it represented what his ideas were running towards, and that he would not change a moment of it. It is an episode done in incredible haste, using what was at hand and convenient.
Coming hard on the heels of The Girl Who Was Death, Fall Out re-used and reinterpreted its sets and props in every way it could (underneath the globes in Number One’s room is the circular table with its map of London that belonged to Professor Schnipps, and that is, of course, his rocket, and the same clips of Thunderbirds in the countdown sequence). Guest stars Kenneth Griffith and Alexis Kanner were asked to stay on, though not Justine Lord (save for one or two extras dismissed from the Control Room in Once Upon a Time, the whole two-part ending is free from any female presence).
Leo McKern was, fortunately, available to repeat his role as the former Number Two, though in the year that had passed since Once Upon a Time his appearance had drastically changed, shaving off his beard and cutting short his flowing hair. As the actor objected to wearing wigs and false beards, the scene was written in where his appearance is changed.
This on its own symbolises the serendipity that creates Fall Out. It was a circumstance forced by chance, yet it becomes the outward symbol of Number Two’s two-way passage through death – another element of madness, the death and resurrection of the prevailing enemy so that he may congratulate you on your success and then join your cause. Written on the spot, made up out of whatever happened to be there: this was not a planned ending and sometimes we should wonder in amazement that it had any coherence whatsoever.
And we should not forget to congratulate Lew Grade who, when faced with this extraordinary thing, completely unrecognisable as any kind of television programme he had seen before, allowed it to be screened. True, he had a schedule to maintain, and an audience that, if anything, would have been even more confused and angry had he refused to let Fall Out be broadcast than it would prove to be after he did. But he broadcast it where many would have taken one look…
But in everything, in every single conceivable respect, Fall Out was a moment of its time, a prism through which the series would forever be seen, a thing that could not have happened in any other way, at any other time.
As is shown in Kanner’s dress, as the dandy-teenager, the proto-hippy complete with cowbell, as is demonstrated in his dialogue, and that of the Red Judge in trying to speak to him in his own terms, as is even shown in ‘Dem Bones’. This was 1967, and someone’s ear was not tuned in with perfect clarity.
What can we say? That there had been nothing like it before is a mere truism. That there has been nothing like it since is, in some ways, the most savage indictment of forty five years that we can make. That there never will be anything like it again is a despair.
As always, I come back to that moment, inevitable in retrospect, that I was too young, too immature to understand when I saw it. We have seen the face of Number One and it is ourselves. We are always and inescapably our own gaolers. It is still so for me, even now.