In remaking the Patrick MacGoohan classic series, the AMC production had an unusual number of impediments working against them. From the obligation to the source material to the need to make a definitive and meaningful statement of its own, this new version of a time honored classic will anger some and confuse other right from the start.
Keeping in mind that the original program was a post-modern existential statement on television itself (amongst other things), any attempt at a similarly bold and insightful program would be an arduous task to say the least.
That said, the 2009 series does alright.
In Arrival, we are given very little preamble to No.6’s life as he awakens in a vast desert, far from his metropolitan lifestyle. Discovering an old man dressed in a black jacket and tan pants (the uniform of the original No.6), he is immediately in danger. The old man dies but No.6 is on the run from unseen pursuers. This establishment of paranoia and the vagueness of its reality straight away is brilliant. No.6 arrives in the Village late at night and after an encounter with a cab driver and a No.313 at a nightclub, he begins to suspect that he is in some strangely foreign land. In a bizarre sequence, he attempts to escape his pursuers and catches a brief glimpse of No.2 watching from the street, tossing a hand grenade as one wood handle a lucky coin.
No.6 is then given over to the care of No.313 at ‘The Clinic,’ as much a place of healing as it is one of discipline and control. While No.6 is more relaxed due to his exhaustion, he is nonetheless frantic to escape and get back home. Almost as a dig at his independence, No.313 calmly tells him that he is a free man.
The bulk of the first episode is concerned with establishing the Village and the determination of No.2 to uncover what No.6 knows concerning the old man he encountered in the mountains (referred to as No.93). No.2 does not seem all that interested in No.6 at all at first and merely wants to know where No.93’s body is (No.6 buried it in the mountains after the old man died). With very little to go on, No.6 seeks out No.554, a waitress at a nearby diner that only serves wraps. After some back and forth, No.6 eventually learns that there are others (called ‘dreamers’) who have visions of the outside world consisting of iconic images of New York City. This becomes very important over the course of the opening episodes as NYC is almost representational of the outside world as a whole.
One wrinkle to the otherwise spotless No.2’s character is the inclusion of a wife and son (something that none of the No.2’s had in the previous program). No.11-12, No.2’s son, is a confused and angry youth who seems on the verge of saying something in each scene that he shares with No.2 yet he also seems afraid to give himself away. No.2’s wife is bedridden, but it is unclear to me if she is ill or kept in a drug-induced coma by No.2.
No.6 attempts to escape from the Village on foot but is attacked by a massive white bubble (called Rover in the original program) and finds himself back in the care of No.313. No.2, with the charm of a concierge interviews No.6 and tries to make him at ease, but nothing doing, not only is he determined to escape, No.6 refuses to acknowledge that he is just a number. After No.554 is killed in an explosion, No.2 must think that No.6’s spirit is crushed, but finds to his surprise that the newcomer is more convinced than ever that there is a way out. No.2 reminds No.6 that there is no ‘out,’ only ‘in.’
In the following episode, No.6 is introduced to his brother, No.616. No.6 insists that his brother died as a child by drowning which saddens No.616 who seems sincere in his desire to reconnect with his lost brother. Introduced to his ‘family,’ No.6 is frustrated and annoyed yet finds that he should not go out of his way to upset people who seem to only want to make him happy. Avid viewers of a soap opera entitled ‘Wonkers,’ the family has a wholesome and friendly air that pervades the Village as a whole.
No.616 attempts to help his brother open up by taking him to a therapy session which No.6 of course refuses to take part in. Seeking a more practical method of obtaining his trust, No.616 procures a job for No.6 as the driver of a tour bus bearing the word ‘Escape’ on the side. During one trip, No.6 is astonished to see a rusting ship anchor in the middle of the desert. Seeing it as sign of hope that there is an outside world not concerned with the Village, he tries to get others to acknowledge the oddity but they adamantly refuse to see anything unusual about it. No.616 calls it a ‘desert folly.’
During another tour, No.6 meets a woman who confides in him that she ‘heard the sea’ during a tour and is convinced that there is a way out. Convincing No.616 (who breaks down to No.6 that they are not related and he was just playing along out of fear of No.2’s reprisals), the trio attempt to find the ocean and succeed. As No.616 walks backwards into the water beckoning No.6 to join him, No.6 has a vision of his memory in which his brother drowned and finds himself frozen solid. Before his eyes, No.616 is swallowed up by a Rover and disappears.
Hurrying back to the Village, No.6 attempts to tell No.616’s family of the disaster but they are so busy watching Wonkers that they ignore him. Detained by the Clinic staff, No.6 finds himself strapped down and confronted by No.2. No.6 tries to put the shattered pieces of his mind together and fails, finally accepting that he is indeed No.6, nothing else. Screaming his new identity at No.2, he is wheeled away for treatment.
Throughout the first two episodes, No.6 has several dreams in which he regains parts of his memory of his last night before his arrival in the Village. He remembers meeting a strange woman and bringing her to his home to celebrate his resignation from his job in security. He confesses to her that he resigned because he saw something he shouldn’t have and was told to keep his mouth shut. It turns out that his chance encounter was actually not by accident at all as his new friend is connected to No.6’s previous employer. It seems that she came home not to compromise him or do him harm but to warn him that even though he quit, he was not free of his employer.
This is an interesting spin on the previous story that involved a James Bond-style secret agent as the hero. It also seems that there is something very peculiar about this woman and No.6’s previous life that will no doubt unravel over the six part series.
The phrase ‘follow the Towers’ is repeated several times throughout Arrival and Harmony. The vision of a glass-like reproduction of what appears to be the World Trade Center is absolutely haunting. It seems to represent some kind of hope of escape and is also a concrete connection to what No.6 believes to be true. As I had imagined, the 2009 Prisoner is not perfect but it is very intelligently produced and opulent with imagery and meaning. Whether the entire miniseries will have a complete story I don’t know. After only 6 parts I wonder if AMC is hoping to gain enough interest to produce more episodes. James Caviezel is a solid leading man (though his attempts at high drama come across as over-the-top at times). The real strength of the program is Ian McKellan as No.2, a character so overbearing and full of texture that you could watch him in the part forever.
The new Prisoner series operates on several levels, which will no doubt put off the casual viewer. Nevertheless, it is one of the most thought-provoking programs I have seen on modern TV in ages. So much so that I didn’t think much of it at the time but have not stopped thinking about it since.