Thursday, November 19, 2009

Culture Shock 11.19.09: AMC's new 'Prisoner' tries to undermine the 1960s original

The original. Accept no substitutes.

If Patrick McGoohan were still alive, I think his response to the people behind the remake of his classic 1960s TV series "The Prisoner" might go something like this:

"Unlike me, many of you have accepted the situation of your imprisonment and will die here like rotten cabbages!"

That's what McGoohan's character, Number Six, told his fellow inmates in an episode of the original series. But it applies equally to the writer and producers of AMC's six-episode remake, which aired over three nights earlier this week. AMC's version doesn't just fail to grasp what the original was all about. It deliberately subverts the message McGoohan was trying to get across.

In the original, Number Six is a spy who resigns for reasons unknown and is then spirited away to the Village, a surreal, dystopian prison camp for people who know too much.

Overseeing the Village is a parade of interchangeable bureaucrats who all go by the title Number Two. Each one tries — and fails — to get Number Six to conform. If Number Six can be persuaded to settle down and join this community of numbered inmates, he'll tell his captors everything they want to know. But in each episode, Number Six refuses to play along.

"I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered," he tells one of the Number Twos. "My life is my own."

Yet that uncompromisingly individualist message is apparently far too radical for today.

This isn't a case of six of one, half a dozen of another. The remake's writer, Bill Gallagher, revealed his hand earlier this year during a panel discussion at San Diego Comic-Con.

"McGoohan's version was about the assertion of the individual and freedom from the class society, freedom from authority. ... And I was interested in, well, what are the costs of that?" he said. "... What if that degree of individualism and selfishness is dangerous? What if it's reaching a breaking point?"

True to his word, Gallagher delivered a "Prisoner" that looks somewhat like the original, but thematically it's the polar opposite.

In AMC's version, Six (James Caviezel) has been stripped of his memories and must spend much of his time just figuring out who he is. As it turns out, he worked for a made-to-order evil corporation that spies on people, and he resigned after seeing something he shouldn't have. His fellow inmates, meanwhile, think the Village is all there is. As far as they're concerned, there is no outside world to which to escape.

The Village, as a result, is no longer a metaphor for conformist society. Instead, it's a stand-in for evil elites who manipulate an innocent, unsuspecting populace. McGoohan's struggle of the individual against society is transformed into a thoughtless, generic fight between society and corporate bad guys.

Appropriately, there is an episode of the original "Prisoner" that could serve as a nice allegory for what AMC has done to McGoohan's vision.

In "The Schizoid Man," Number Six's captors try to make him question his identity by bringing in an exact double. The doppelganger looks like Number Six, and Number Two treats him as if he is Number Six. But the genuine Number Six is too sure of who he really is, even after several brainwashing sessions, to fall for Number Two's scheme.

Ultimately, AMC's "The Prisoner" is just a doppelganger attempting to undermine the original. Accept no substitutes.

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