The Prisoner episode 1 review

The new version of The Prisoner arrives, and here's what we thought of episode one...

1. Arrival

Every day I plan my escape. I dream of another life, free from the rules and responsibilities I live by. I’m constantly looking for a way out. But I’m scared, too. Scared of losing the cushy life I’ve built around me, the love of my family, the three squares a day. I may hate my humdrum life sometimes, but at least I know what’s coming. Out there in the unknown, terrible things could happen. I could get sick. I could go hungry. Worst of all, I could be lonely.

A lot of people feel the same way I do. They aren’t content with their lot. They want something more. They want exotic adventures and a new romantic fling every week. So The Prisoner is as resonant now as it was when it was created over 40 years ago, a comment on the dehumanization of society. It foresaw a world where citizens lost their rights, were watched and listened to by the authorities, identified by number instead of name, a slick and groovy twist on Orwell’s 1984. Most disturbing of all, many of the citizens had accepted the new order. It was safer that way.

The Prisoner was set in a remote village that contrasted everyday British parochialism with strange, futuristic elements: a huge, suffocating guardian ball called Rover, a monitoring room that looked like a Bond villain’s lair, and machines that could control or swap minds.

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The Village’s most troublesome inmate was Number Six (Patrick McGoohan), a spy who might or might not have information that the Other Side – or was it his side? – wanted him to reveal. Too well-trained to break under physical torture, this cooler king had to be broken by other, more subtle means, through bizarre mind games.

The original Prisoner only ran for 17 episodes but it had an irrevocable influence on our popular culture, not least because of the hard core fans, who constantly examined its themes and gave it more credence than a typical short-lived TV show.

Recently, TV producer JJ Abrams showed his fan colors by including some of those themes in his hit shows Alias and Lost (which even has its own version of Rover, a big black smoke monster). The popularity of these paranoia-filled programmes, along with concerns about loss of civil liberties (tolerated by complacent citizens), make this the perfect time to revisit The Village.

Sadly, the makers of ITV’s 2009 version of The Prisoner have made a lot of mistakes. They’ve decided to rehash the old show instead of using it as a strong thematic foundation to build something new. The first episode title, Arrival, is identical to the ‘60s premiere. The same plot is followed, but it’s not told as effectively.

The opening of the show – Six (Jim Caviezel)’s resignation from an office job – is garbled. The theme tune (different from the original) is a so-so flow of string music.

Six finds himself in a strange village, but it’s a world of brick buildings and beach huts. The architecture could be described as art deco movie theatre meets ‘50s Palm Springs. It seems more influenced by The Island or Mad Men than Portmeirion, the original location for The Prisoner.

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Another major influence is Lost, making this a show that homages a show that homages another show. There are flashbacks, hallucinations and dream sequences, all cut together in a confusing stream of consciousness meant to visualize the uncertainty in Six’s mind. That would be fine if this was a movie, but as an episode of a TV show, it’s too jarring to follow. The ending of Arrival is equally messy, cutting from the action before it can have any emotional impact.

The show isn’t all bad. Caviezel is an efficient everyman, a guy that we can relate to in this strange land. Two female characters played by Ruth Wilson and Jessica Haines are engaging, making an outlandish concept seem more real. Ian McKellen doesn’t get a chance to test his acting chops here, but he adds his knowing brand of gravitas to the mix. The flashbacks will be built upon in future episodes, so they work as teasing images, if nothing more.

I wanted to view this show as a standalone from its predecessor, judging it on its own merits. But because it uses so many elements from the ‘60s show without explaining them, it’s hard not to compare it with its superior forebear.

If I hadn’t known what the Village was for or what Rover was, I would have been mightily confused and frustrated. Worst of all, I wouldn’t have cared. I don’t know enough about Six’s plight to relate to him – even though I’m a prisoner myself.