The Prisoner 2009

- Where am I?

- You are back in the Village

- Who are you?

- I am Number 2

- Who is Number 1?

- Wouldn’t know, I don’t follow the pop charts

- What do you want?

- We want … information!

- You won’t get it!

- Look, don’t piss me about: did you watch the damn thing or not!

Several months ago, I wrote up my impressions of the lengthy trailer/preview of The Prisoner remake which premiered at this year’s Comicon. And while I was very impressed by the quality of the production, I did have several misgivings – documented here – and, on the strength of that footage, predicted that what we would eventually see was a decent slice of scifi hokum but would probably fall short of being The Prisoner.

However, now having watched all six episodes of this all new Prisoner, I am more than happy to admit that I was wrong. So, to redress the balance, let’s have another looks at the issues that concerned me about the trailer and how things actually panned out in the complete series.

My first niggle was that it appeared that the fundamental dynamics of the story had been significantly dumbed down; that the story would be focused on an action-led escape from the Village rather than the more metaphorical struggle from freedom of the original. It appeared the espionage paranoia had been lost and Number 6 who’d be Bourne-ised – a man on a mission with unravelling his amnesia.

Therefore I was highly pleased to find that the new 6 comes from a shady spy background, this time from the world of corporate surveillance rather the ‘Great Game’ of international governments. Considering how intelligence agencies are more concerned with the threat from within these days, the new background for 6 is very fitting. And just as the original was deliberately vague on the specifics, the new background gives us the flavour of intrigue and rather setting out a clear cut scenario and boiling the mystery away.

And this is an often over looked point – in the original, McGoohan’s 6 is as enigmatic as his captors; we never discover what exactly the information the Village’s masters are so keen to prise from him. Likewise in the new version, Caviezel’s 6 is from an equally murky background; we know he is a surveillance expert and that he has stumbled upon something unsettling but the exact nature of what he does, who he works for and what he has found is shrouded in mystery. But like the original, we discover enough about the kind of man he is to draw out sympathies. Again he is a character committed to his principles, a believer in honour and possessing a righteous moral indignation. From the trailer, it appeared that the new 6 had been significantly softened and made more of an ordinary guy, but in actual fact in the series he is as every bit as driven as the McGoohan version. Although Caviezel’s 6 is a warmer character there’s still all the anger, stubbornness and steely determination of his predecessor.

I had worried that Jim Caviezel would prove to be a little bland in the role and I did worry that he be out gunned by McKellen’s Number 2. Dramatically the original thrived on the battle of wills between McGoohan and all the myriad Number 2s and I did worry that the remake would miss the subtleness, the playing cat and mouse with either other, and reducing the relationship to a series of shouting matches. As it stands though, the remake captures all the intricacies of the original, with McKellen and Caviezel locked in a complex dance of bluff and counter bluff, each trying to discover each others weaknesses and press their advantage home. Quite simply, it’s marvellous to watch two actors locked in psychological battle.

And I have to say as the series progressed I became more and more impressed with Caviezel’s portrayal of Number 2. It’s a complex and many layered performance and if you are in doubt as to how impressed I was with his reading of the role, please note that I’m crediting him in this review with his proper surname rather than referring to him as ‘Jim Catweazle” as I did in my previous Prisoner piece! But I’ll leave the final word to Sir Ian himself – “You’ll see some of the finest performances from young actors gathered together. And the leading man, Jim Caviezel? Well, to die for.”

As for McKellen himself, well we always knew that Sir Ian would throw in a good turn. Let’s face it, an actor of McKellen’s calibre will is brilliant even when phoning in a performance or stranded in a ropey production. And from the preview footage it was clear that Sir Ian was more than up to challenge of appearing genial yet slightly sinister. However Bill Gallagher’s script gives Number 2 a great deal more to play with and McKellen rises to the challenge and gives the role all the dramatic and emotional weight he can muster.

There is some simply brilliant acting here, the likes of which we rarely see in genre productions. Even if nothing else about this production appeals, or if you feel that a Prisoner remake is an intolerable blasphemy, this series is worth checking out for the performances of the two leads alone.

However aside from 6 and 2, how does the new series’ treatment of the important third character – the Village itself - play out? Now I bitched at length about what we saw in the trailer and felt they’d dropped the ball big time. However in context of the full series the new Village works very well. To start with, in the preview footage, the landscape where the new Village is located in looked very like the wilds of Arizona or Nebraska. But as it is presented in the series proper, the desert setting is far more archetypal than what we saw in the trailer and once again this Village could be anywhere.

Furthermore I was concerned that the new Village would be an exercise in retro, effectively resetting the series in Pleasantville. As it is though, the reimagined Village does capture the same blend of nostalgia and modernity that made the Port Merion version so memorable. Like the original it is familiar yet strangely off kilter, with its peaked houses and its own distinct styles and fashions.

But there is a notable difference to the first incarnation: this Village is more of a real community, with people actually raising families here. Furthermore there are characters that have been born in the Village rather than shipped there by the powers that be. And although though the Village is less surreal in appearance than the original, it makes perfect sense in the context of the story that it should have a closer relation to the real world than the Mad Hatter’s tea party of the first incarnation.

However, a more realistic community does not mean life there is any less strange. There are still plenty of odd quirks in Village life. I did worry that a less surreal looking Village would equal a more mundane Village but thankfully that is not the case. Rover still lurks to hound those who stray too far but now there are also ghostly glass towers that sporadically appear. And there’s odd little details; off kilter minutia that I won’t spoil here. But one example I will mention is the fact that wraps seem to be the always the dish of the day in the new Village – now this has no bearing on the plot but it’s the kind of background detail that indicates to the viewer that although the Village appears like a normal small town, it’s actually somewhere deeply strange.

So then having done U-turns on every gripe I had about what was presented in the trailer footage, how does the series as a whole play out? And the short answer is very well indeed! As we’ve seen, the changes in this new version turned out to be far closer to the original than I initially expected. And better still, the cosmetic alterations mesh perfectly with the content of the narrative.

At first, the new style may seem a little choppy, but you soon adjust to the new rhythms, and each episode brings new twists and turns. Although this is a mini-series, the construction of the individual parts seeks recalls the episodic nature of the original. And from my sampling of the reviews out there, this seems to have annoyed and confused a lot of folk. However I thought that writer Bill Gallagher has pulled off a neat balancing act in creating instalments that could work as stand alone stories and yet still stack up as a satisfying story arc.

And the story does indeed satisfy. The acid test for any series that poses has mysteries as the backbone of their plots is how they pay off in the end, and the big problem is that too often you get to the end and are presented with a solution that inspires a deflating feeling of ‘oh, so that’s all it was’ rather than a genuine surprise/shock. Now the original Prisoner is the daddy of all these shows that feature a central puzzle, and as I was watching the episodes, I was very conscious of the fact that as good as the production was, if the ending bombed, the game was lost.

Now I must admit I did sort of guess where the ending was going, but in fairness if you’ve spent years reading twist-in-the tail stories you’ll probably be able to make a fair guess too. However working out ahead of time what was actually going on with the Village didn’t harm the end, as the way it unfolds doesn’t present you with a clean and neat explanation of everything that has happen. Rather the end blindsides you with answers that don’t diminish the story but opens the doors to a whole new set of questions. The answers presented tell you enough to be narratively satisfying but leave plenty of room for speculation, and I suspect some of the questions will prove to be enigmatic as the original, even with repeat viewings. And make no mistake, this is a show that when you get the end, you’ll want to start again at the beginning.

Generally it seems that the series has been met with somewhat mixed reviews. Partly this is down to ardent fans of the original being unable to get passed the changes I initially carped about, and partly because it doesn’t make sense. With the regards to former, I would say that it was more important that the new series creates its own iconography rather than slavishly ape the original, but more importantly it stays true to the philosophy of the show.

Although the new Prisoner takes its story in a different direction to the original, in terms of its underlying themes, it not only captures the same spirit but treats the subject matter with the same depth. It may be posing different questions about control, individual freedom and the human spirit but they are questions of equal weight and worth.

And as for the latter charges, would you really want a version of The Prisoner that makes sense! It’s a show that should leave you perplexed. After the final credits rolled and I sat scratching my head and was working my way through a myriad of questions and ideas about the series, I suddenly realised that against all the odds, what we have here is an honest-to-God new version of The Prisoner. Not a lame cash-in, not a Prisoner in name only, but an actual remake that works beautifully, honouring the original and yet presenting something new. It’s not just a rehash of the original but a show that works as compliment and companion to the McGoohan’s series – and that was something I really wasn’t expecting.

JIM MOON, 14th December 2009