Nov 30, 2009

TV Review: The Prisoner (2009)

So let’s talk about the elephant in the room, shall we? Two weeks since it aired and I still haven’t mentioned this. That’s because I only just got around to watching AMC’s new miniseries remake of Patrick McGoohan’s classic 1967 spy series The Prisoner this weekend. Well, I saw the first hour when it first aired, but only just caught up on the remaining five. It’s impossible for me to view this objectively as a modern TV viewer because I’m such a fan of the original series. Therefore, unfair as it may be, I’m not going to be able to help indulging in a little “compare and contrast” as I attempt to review the new version. Then again, it seems probable that most readers of this blog are also fans of the original, so that approach doesn’t seem so off-base. And if you’re not, what are you waiting for? The original is one of the cornerstones not only of spy television, but of the television medium at large. It’s a must-see for pretty much everyone. (And it’s just been released on Blu-ray in both America and Britain!) There, now that that’s out of the way, let’s examine the 2009 incarnation, written by Bill Gallagher and directed by Nick Hurran.

When I first heard about this remake, I was apprehensive. Excited, but also fearful. Messing with a classic is dangerous territory. Then again, I’m not opposed to remakes on principle, and the SciFi Channel’s recently-concluded reinvention of Battlestar Galactica proved that modern takes on old cult shows could sometimes even improve upon the originals. (Although, let’s be honest: the original BSG, enjoyable as it is, is by no means comparable to The Prisoner.) Despite my attempts to keep an open mind, however, I couldn’t help but become more fearful as the event grew closer. That is, until I saw the nine-minute presentation reel at the 2009 Comic-Con. I was blown away. The visuals were cool. The show looked good! I became more excited than apprehensive. Then came the reviews... and the mainstream critics weren’t kind. In fact, the American reviews were nearly uniformly negative. When I finally sat down to watch the first hour, after such a roller coaster of feelings about the miniseries, it was with greatly diminished expectations. And, happily, I ended up liking that first hour in spite of myself, quite a bit more than I’d expected to. If only that had remained the case.

By the time I saw the first episode, I was prepared for the drastic changes. Foremost among them, Number 6, or simply “Six,” as he’s known in the new version (making it easy to distinguish between old and new when writing about them), now has some sort of amnesia. He can’t remember much of his life prior to waking up in the mysterious, inescapable community known as the Village, wherein every inhabitant is known by a number instead of a name. The basic premise of the McGoohan series was that a revolving roster of Village chieftains, each one known as “Number Two,” tried elaborate methods of interrogation, torture and psychological trickery to extract from former spy Number 6 the reason for his abrupt resignation from the Secret Service. If the new Six had no knowledge of his past life, then obviously he couldn’t help them out with that. And his resistance to do so wouldn’t be an act of defiance against the System; it wouldn’t even be his own choice. It would just be because he didn’t know. The change seemed weird to me, since it undermined the very foundation of the original, but I was prepared for it.

So when I actually saw the first hour, I was pleasantly surprised by how many similarities it had to its illustrious antecedent. The opening titles reflect the original a bit: Six (now portrayed as an American by Jim Caviezel) still drives a car into a garage, but now it’s the Suburu that sponsors the show rather than a cool Lotus, and he needs to use a modern keypad to get in. He doesn’t drive down an up ramp, but instead charges up a down escalator for some reason. For no reason, actually; there’s no possible explanation for that other than just to be a cool reference to what’s gone before, and I appreciate that. Instead of banging his fist on a desk to resign, Six proceeds to very dramatically spray-paint “I RESIGN” (or maybe just “RESIGN”) in red letters across the glass walls of his ultra-modern office. Okay, that was a little weird. No, it doesn’t seem like a very practical way to quit. But the overall effect was a good one; despite lacking a theme as compelling as Ron Grainer’s original title music, the new sequence sent the message that the new series would be somewhat faithful to its predecessor. Which was really more than I’d hoped for.

Six wakes up in a desert outside the Village, and immediately encounters an old man trying to make his escape. The old man is dressed in the traditional Village garb of the original series: a black jacket lined with a white edging. And he looks kind of like the older, bearded Number 6 of the DC comic book sequel to the original series. Clearly, the part was meant to be a cameo for the late Patrick McGoohan, who supposedly gave his blessing to this series and hoped to be involved before his heath declined. But the role is not that of the original Number 6; there’s no point in trying to somehow make that connection work. The two series are radically different, and even set in radically different worlds. But the intention is definitely once again to at least evoke the original. Unfortunately, the costume designers on the new series got a small but crucial detail wrong: this jacket has white edging on its cuffs as well as its collar. To the only people this coat could have been included to amuse, it’s noticeably wrong. Suddenly I realize why the original costumers decided against doing the cuffs: it’s distracting. That’s a nitpick, but Prisoner fans are probably second only to Star Trek fans in terms of nitpickiness, so it bears mentioning.

When Caviezel finally makes it into the Village, it’s a pretty cool Village. Clearly, the producers of the new series couldn’t reuse Portmeiron, the iconic Welsh setting of the original series. They had to do something new. And production designer Michael Pickwoad deserves a lot of credit; the new Village is very well done. A series of identical, triangular buildings in the middle of the desert (it was shot in South Africa), it’s just as unique as Portmeiron, but in its own way. If that could be said for the whole series, then it would have been a success. Unfortunately, it can’t, but I didn’t realize that yet in the first hour. White cuffs aside, things were off to a good start.

In the Village, Six meets Two (not “Number 2"), played by Ian McKellen. McKellen is his usual amazing self, so it’s easy to see why the producers of the new series would eschew the old formula of having a different Number 2 every week if you could have just one with the gravitas of Gandalf. Six’s first encounter with Two was promising, as were further nods to the original series. Just like in that version, the pilot episode is entitled “Arrival,” and it’s actually a fairly close remake of the original “Arrival.” Six immediately tries to take a taxi out of town, only to discover it offers local rides only. He jumps out. Six goes to the general store to buy a map and asks for the biggest one they have, only to unfold a truly giant sheet that shows only the Village, but in a large scale. There’s a lava lamp in one scene. And, of course, Rover makes an appearance: the mysterious, iconic white balloon-like thing that emerges from the depths of somewhere and hovers menacingly, patrolling the Village perimeter. Like the original version, this Rover is pretty terrifying for a big beach ball–and it’s huge. Much larger than the one McGoohan faced. It’s cool. Before the episode’s over, Caviezel even utters the famous line, “I am not a number! I am a free man!”

So all the nods in the first hour were cool. But as the series progressed, it became clear that they were far and away the most fun parts of the new series. And is there really a point to a remake when it’s just little nods to something better that you look forward to? Unfortunately, less and less, it seemed to me, as the miniseries progressed. Eventually the cute references weren’t enough to hide its many flaws.

On a story level, Six’s inability to remember his previous life is a real killer. The old Number 2's all had a clear objective: they wanted to know why Number 6 resigned. The new Two has much more nebulous motives. All he really seems to want is to get to know “the Six inside.” Okay. Well, Six himself doesn’t seem to really know the Six inside, so you lose the diametrically opposed titans dueling out their difference on the giant chessboard that is the Village. (Quite literally, I’m afraid; there is no giant chessboard in the new Village.) Even Six’s own objective is less clear. In the old series, he wanted to know who was running the Village in which he was a prisoner, and he wanted to know who Number 1 was, but first and foremost he wanted to escape. The new Six also wants to escape, but not nearly as singlemindedly as McGoohan did. For one thing, he’s not even sure that the Village is a prison, so escape seems less necessary. Mainly, he seems to want to remember where he came from. He recalls chunks of his final hours in his old life, which unfold chronologically over the course of the miniseries in convenient Lost-like flashbacks. He resigned. Not from a government spy agency, but from a private, Haliburton-like security and surveillance corporation called "Sumakor." At one point someone asks him why, but that just seems like more lip service to fans of the original. No one really seems to care why he resigned. Motives on all sides remain a mystery, which makes it tough to sustain six hours.

Technically, the editing of the miniseries is also a real problem. It’s edited in a manner designed to be purposefully confusing. Viewers are kept disoriented. Sure, this sustains the mystery, but only for so long. Since the narrative revels in constantly providing new questions but no answers whatsoever, it doesn’t help that the editing seems equally impenetrable. We cut between the Village and “real world” flashbacks with few visual clues to let us know where we are, and characters in each location who look confusingly similar. Abrupt cuts place Six in entirely new circumstances with no explanation as to how he got there. Nowhere is this more frustrating than at the end of each episode. He ends one episode strapped down to a gurney like a madman, declaring that he’s not a number as he’s wheeled off into the frightful “clinic,” yet he begins the next episode by waking up beside a road. He ends another one down in the terrifying tunnels beneath the clinic where “dreamers” (people who insist that there is a world outside the Village) are sent for “treatment.” Six is trying to escape with a woman and a girl, fierce guard dogs are barking at them, and Rover is closing in at the end of the tunnel, already doing whatever it is that Rover does to people to some other would-be escapees. How will Six get out of this? It should be an exciting action sequence, but we never find out because the next time we see him, at the start of the next hour, he’s back in the Village carrying on as if he’d never been down to the tunnels, as are the other characters who were with him. And the audience is robbed of their action sequence. (Two gives a brief explanation in passing, but it’s hardly satisfactory.) I assumed that these gaps would be filled in later on, providing us with an explanation so awesome that everything made perfect sense, but alas that never happens. It’s just sloppy cutting–and sloppy writing. The same holds true for individual moments. When Six first declares that he’s not a number, the moment is rapidly cut, with echoey sound overlays giving the statement far less clarity than McGoohan’s defiant exclamation.

Of course, it doesn’t help that Caviezel is, let’s be honest, no McGoohan. No matter what crazy scenario the old Number 2's threw at McGoohan, he remained implacable, utterly nonplussed. He remained defiantly resistant. And pissed off. He had a serious chip on his shoulder–and who wouldn’t, in those circumstances? His crisp, syncopated delivery made it clear that he was always in control of any situation, even with all the odds stacked against him, and that drove his jailers nuts. Caviezel just looks bewildered most of the time. He even asks in the fifth episode, when he should be used to all the weird stuff that’s happening to him, “Is this some kind of dream or something?” He seems genuinely perplexed, which McGoohan’s Number 6 never let on to be. At one point, a woman asks Caviezel, “Did anyone tell you, you have the most enchanting eyes?” And, unfortunately, it’s not true. His eyes–especially compared to McGoohan’s expressive, defiant stare–are blank. It’s sadly ironic that a version of The Prisoner that depends much more on audiences caring about who Six was as a person before he came to the Village depends on an actor who doesn’t really make you care much about him as a person. Caviezel is fine as a number, but as a free man he’s unconvincing. And whereas McGoohan had no problem standing up to the most imposing authority figures of his day (Guy Doleman, Peter Wyngarde and Leo McKern, to name a few), Caviezel never measures up to the towering McKellen. To be fair, though, few actors could.

Who would have been better in the lead? Clive Owen has expressed a desire to play The Prisoner, and I think he has the glowering intensity necessary for the role, but I doubt he’d ever go back to TV. If Christopher Nolan ever makes his Prisoner movie, Russell Crowe is another force of nature who could stand up to just about anyone, as, of course, is Daniel Craig, who would bring the proper “ex-spy” baggage to the part. But you probably couldn’t get any of those guys for TV. I think Matthew Macfadyen would have been good. I’m sure AMC insisted on an American lead, but the part just seems better suited to native of the British Commonwealth. (Yes, I’m aware that McGoohan was born in America, but his transcontinental upbringing allowed the Irish actor to play Number 6 with a commanding Anglo accent.) Macfadyen has demonstrated the requisite intensity before, and thanks to his stint on the early seasons of MI-5 (Spooks), he would also bring the proper “Secret Agent” extra-textual baggage to the role. Oh well. Caviezel isn’t a terrible actor; he’s just hopelessly miscast.

Many of the supporting performances fare better. Lennie James makes a likeable Village cab driver, number 147. The two female leads, Hayley Atwell and Ruth Wilson (both British), are both compelling. The only problem with them is that they look a bit too similar, which is confusing at first. And the guy who plays the proprietor of the Village store is great. McKellen, as mentioned, is as good as ever, but the character is certainly not one of his best. As with Six, Gallagher attempts to humanize Two more than any of his predecessors on the old series, largely by giving him a teenage son (who’s mainly involved in a completely extraneous subplot until he serves a crucial role near the end) and a wife (in some sort of mysterious coma), but, ironically, this Two comes off as less human than many of the original frustrated Number 2's, and more like the rote Bond villain-type baddie that McGoohan always strove to avoid. (Except, of course, when he was specifically parodying it.)

Each episode of the new Prisoner is titled with one word from an episode of the classic series. Sometimes the episode has echoes of its namesake; other times it doesn’t, but after “Arrival” there are no direct remakes. In fact, the whole premise and world of this new version are so substantially different from the original that direct remakes generally wouldn’t be possible. And what would be the point of them, anyway? The point of a remake in general is to bring something new to the table. And this miniseries does succeed in doing that in some ways.

For one thing, there is sex in this Village, unlike the Village of the chaste, ultra-Catholic McGoohan, who famously eschewed the sex usually associated with the Sixties spy genre in both Danger Man and The Prisoner. The addition of sex to the Village provides interesting opportunities, mostly explored in “Darling” (which bears no resemblance whatsoever to “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling”) about a Village match-making service. It’s another way for Two to get at Six that’s not really explored in the original series, and for that reason “Darling” is probably the most successful episode. It’s the only one that invents a whole new game for Two and Six to play, leading up to Six’s potential marriage–and potential heartbreak. There’s even a Village strip club (possibly mixed gender), with a Penny Farthing bicycle hanging from the ceiling, glimpsed only very briefly. (I think it’s the only one in the show.)

“Schizoid” remains closer in concept to “The Schizoid Man,” but the explanation for Six’s evil doppelganger is far less satisfying–and the doppelganger sadly doesn’t wear inverted versions of Six’s clothes. The classic episode “A, B and C” doesn’t get a name homage (how could it, really?), but there are threads of it successfully woven throughout the entirety of the new series. Due to the concurrent flashback and Village storylines, it’s possible to weave people from Six’s past and present fairly regularly, and he never knows who to trust. “Anvil” is the most spy-heavy episode, wherein Six is recruited by Two to serve as an “undercover” and asked to spy on other “dreamers.” He knows it’s a trap; Two acknowledges that of course it’s a trap, and he wants to see if Six is smart enough to turn it into an opportunity. As in the classic series, pretty much everyone in the Village turns out to be an undercover, and most of them are at least double-agents if not triple. Everyone is spying on everyone, even–chillingly–the schoolchildren. Unfortunately, this concept of Six spying for Two, which holds a lot of potential, is dropped after “Anvil.”

Even on a micro level, there are some clever new touches in the remake. Six is interrogated by twin psychoanalysts, which is a cool, weird touch. One of them sits in the light (in a chamber whose production design owes quite a bit to the original series); the other sits in shadow behind him and only pipes up in occasional outbursts when he’s displeased with something Six has said.

There are also a few clever references to our own post-9/11 world, in many ways very different from McGoohan’s Cold War setting. When mysterious black holes start opening up around the Village, for instance, the authorities insist that these “atmospheric phenomenon” are best combated by the presence of pigs, and every family is encouraged to get a pig. There are even neat propeganda posters posted around the Village urging people to get pigs. The pigs, of course, have no real effect on the strange phenomenon, and I was reminded of how Americans were urged after 9/11 to acquire lots of duct tape. It was supposed to serve some purpose in the prevention of terrorism; what, exactly, I can’t recall. But for every clever jab at our own society, there are far more blantantly obvious, hackneyed ones–like the ubiquitous Evil Corporation, the 21st Century’s favorite fall guy. There are enough similarities between Cold War paranoia and privacy concerns and post-9/11 paranoia and privacy concerns that the original series remains completely relevant today despite its setting. I think the producers of the new version would have been better served exploring those similarities than trying to find applicable differences.

Whether it’s because the original seemed out of date, or out of a legitimate fear of repeating themselves and a desire to do new things, the producers of the new version choose to take the miniseries in a completely different direction than the original. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling either conclusion, but I will say that the ultimate explanation offered in the new version is cliched, overused and generally lacking in plausibility, even within the world of the show. It was a disappointment through and through. It’s difficult to discuss it without revealing anything, but I will say, somewhat obliquely, that the overall concept behind the new version has the potential to be intriguing. But to live up to that potential, it would have to be carried out in a manner different than several other recent movies and TV shows that explore similar themes, and it simply isn’t. It fails in the execution rather than the concept... although the concept is at least sixty percent iffy to begin with. (In the interest of fairness, I should disclose to those who don’t know that the finale of the original series generated substantial controversy when it first aired more than forty years ago, with many viewers hating it. Personally, I think it is brilliant and perfect.)

There is a lot to admire in the new Prisoner–more than many critics have acknowledged. But there is very little to actually like, and that’s the problem. Even after harping on so many flaws, I would actually watch it again (though maybe not all the way through, and maybe with the sound turned off) just to appreciate the fairly stunning visual ingenuity on display. The production design of the Village, from its buildings to its unique (and presumably locally-produced) vehicles to the fonts on its signage, is truly impressive. And a few of the more original battles between Six and Two (like “Darling”) play out as, at worst, intriguing fan fiction additions to the original seventeen classic episodes. But the overall concept, unfortunately, does not justify this remake, which ultimately has more in common with later cult television like Lost or Oliver Stone's shortlived Wild Palms (which I kept thinking of while watching it) than with the original Prisoner. Even so, I feel that the premise of McGoohan’s series is still relevant and still ripe for further exploration, and I would still love to see Christopher Nolan’s mooted theatrical film version come to fruition. I hope this exercise hasn’t dissuaded him from pursuing that.

AMC is re-airing their version of The Prisoner quite frequently right now, so if you missed it and you want to check it out (I certainly encourage all fans of the original to judge the new version for themselves), there are still more chances. You can find the schedule on their Prisoner website, which, incidentally, is quite good. Poke around and find other cool stuff like production diaries and video blogs, a cool interactive Village map and even an original online graphic novel sequel, making another addition to the short pantheon of official Prisoner comics. You can also pre-order the new Prisoner on DVD on Amazon.

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