After years of rumours and news snippets, the first footage from the new remake of cult ‘60s classic show The Prisoner has been unveiled. And look what we got – heavy weights Sir Ian McKellen and Jim Caviezel squaring off, a mysterious plot, and some distinctive visuals. In short a highly intriguing quality production.
However as a longtime fan of Patrick McGoohan’s enigmatic original, what was my first reaction? Well to (mis)quote Chuck Heston -
You finally really did it! YOU MANIACS! You blew it! GODDAMN YOU! GODDAMN YOU ALL TO HELL!
Now I am not generally opposed to remakes in general, but The Prisoner falls into that category of classic works which become a tough sell for me. The original series is such a unique piece of television, you automatically have an awful lot to live up. But on the flip side, The Prisoner is such a confounding and ambiguous work, there is a good deal of scope for a remake to stretch its wings. Naturally I was sceptical when the project was announced but I could see the potential in a remake of this classic show.
However the first viewing of the 9 minute preview frankly got my goat. Several viewings later, I have stopped pounding the sand and surf by the overgrown Statue of Liberty, and it’s safe to say that I will be watching avidly come November. But I suspect what we are going to get is a mini series loosely inspired by The Prisoner rather than a real remake/reboot/reimagining. And here’s why…
Firstly it would appear that the key dynamics of the show have been changed. In the original series, Patrick McGoohan’s Number 6 was a spy (possibly John Drake, his Danger Man character) who after resigning his post was abducted and taken to the mysterious Village to be forcibly debriefed. In the new version however, it would appear that 6 has actually woken up there sans memories a la Jason Bourne.
Now this is a workable alternative start, but it would seem that the new production has lost the espionage paranoia theme. The thrust of the plot is now 6 trying to remember what he knows rather than the refusing and resisting revealing what information he holds. It may seem a subtle difference, but it is a big one; the ’60s Prisoner was a battle of wills between McGoohan’s 6 and the forces behind the Village personified by a series of different Number 2s.
And this difference is carried through in the characterisation of Number 6. McGoohan was a symbolic Everyman figure, representing the individual versus society, whereas Caviezel is literally playing an average guy. The original Number 6 was in many ways as single minded and ruthlessly intelligent as the Village’s secret masters and as a character just as mysterious. Jim Catweazle (as he is known in this parish) is far more the ordinary man in the street, displaying none of the icy determination, the intellectual prowess and the grasp of strategy of the original version. And this softening of the character is inevitably going to rob the production of a lot of the dramatic interplay between 2 and 6 – it’s hard to see the sparks flying with a 6 who is more Joe the Plumber than Sherlock Holmes – which is particularly a shame when he’s paired with an actor of the calibre of McKellen.
Now in fairness, these elements may actually be present in the actual series and the preview has been specifically cut to present an appealing face to a general audience. But I can’t help feeling that the memory loss aspect of the plot is drawing more from Dark City and The Bourne Identity than the original series. And there also seems to be touches of The Truman Show and Pleasantville thrown into the mix too.
However, the afore mentioned mix of elements could work together very well. Certainly it’s drawing from some very fine sources, all of which could fit nicely into The Prisoner universe. But the main change besides the different plot and character dynamics, the single thing that overwhelmingly struck me on first viewing, the key element that had me crying ‘misbegotten travesty’ on Twitter, was the new production’s mangling of a very important character – the Village itself. And it’s this fumbling of it’s portrayal that loses the new version its essential Prisoner-ness.
Basically, the look of the new Village is just all wrong. The point of the original Village was that you couldn’t be sure exactly where it was. Geographically it could anywhere in the world that have green fields and woods. Architecturally, the Village offered no clues either – the original was filmed in the unique location of Portmerion, Wales, a custom designed town which blends many different building styles into a beautiful and dreamlike whole.
However the new Village is clearly in the middle of an American desert. Though I am so British if you cut me I bleed Earl Grey, the problem here for me is not that a British show has been ‘merkinised’ but the fact that an element of the mystery of the Village has been lost.
However this isn’t the only problem with the new version of the setting. The producers seemingly have looked at the style of the original series and thought “right, retro is the Village style”. Now looking at the ‘60s Prisoner now what strikes you visually is the mad hatter’s tea party of pop and op art designs and space age lounge styles. All very retro – but the point is at the time the series was made this look was cutting edge contemporary. The original Village’s stylings evoke a parallel society where everything was slightly futuristic, homogenised and new, reflecting a holiday camp, an artists' colony and an idealised communistic state farm all at the same time.
The new version seems more like a like Disney’s Celebration, a town built around nostalgia for a golden age than never was. Again this is a concept that could work with the Prisoner mythos but ironically would have worked better if they had filmed in somewhere like Celebration with its identikit suburbs and white picket fences.
But the key thing here is trading pop art futurism for retro nostalgia. Quite simply the new Village does not seem to possess the strange displaced atmosphere of the original. The Port Merion version not only could be anywhere in the world but had an unearthly quality which meant it was equally plausible for it to be located in an alternate dimension, the afterlife or even within a dream. Just as Jim Evelknivel is too much the ordinary man to be Number 6, the new Village is just too mundane to house the existential high strangeness that is at the heart of The Prisoner.
In the 9 minutes of footage from the new show, there are brief inserts that hint that the actual series does contain some of the mind bending aspects of the original, and one can only hope that the weirdness balances out the rather conventional escape from the odd place storyline the preview presents so strongly. But even if the show does deliver the confounding puzzles of the original, I can’t help feeling that not creating a setting of similar otherworldliness will severely limit it.
Now obviously I’ve inferred a lot from essentially a very long trailer but I suspect these points will stand. And I can’t really see the show delivering anything like the enduring mysteries of the original which are still being debated to this day. The change in the character concept of Number 6 and losing so much of the unique look and location of the original would suggest that the plot line will similarly be ‘normalised’. I think we’ll get a decent show but it will be The Prisoner in name only.
JIM MOON, 30th July 2009