October, 2011. Emily and I are celebrating our anniversary in Harlech. The bedroom in our B&B is all frills, pink and a myriad fragile-looking ornaments. It is like Dolores Umbridge’s study. We go out for Indian food, wander round the castle and watch trashy TV.
Sunday morning the two of us take a hike in the drizzle over to the estuary. In the distance, Portmeirion looms: a picture postcard collection of patchwork models glued to the forest. We make it within throwing distance before the sand becomes too deep, sucking and gurgling. I suggest going back to the car and driving round to the village’s entrance, if she wants.
Emily smiles. “No,” she says. “I think I like it better this way. It’s more authentic.” And back we head, pursued by a large balloon.
The Prisoner is one of those shows that entered and left national consciousness without anyone ever really noticing. It was all going so well. Navy striped blazers? Check. The threatening, omnipresent Rover? Check. All this, and the show’s best-loved catchphrase: “I am not a number,” bellows McGoohan, running across a beach at sunset, “I AM A FREE MAN!”. It was the perfect soundbite to stick at the end of a newsgroup post, a middle finger extended eloquently against authority. Even Matthew Corbett was at it. (Sooty does The Prisoner. Wonders will never cease.)
These days everyone just uses the word ‘Sheeple’ and thinks they’re being terribly clever. These days, I’m having to explain what The Prisoner is to a whole new generation – actually two generations if you count my mother, who systematically denies repeatedly saying “I am not a number” when my brother and I were growing up despite my insistence that it was a stock part of conversation (along with “No” and “Were you born in a barn?”). Outside the family circle I’m met with a blank stare whenever I do that ‘Be seeing you’ thing. Honestly, Star Trek never had these problems.
Perhaps that’s part of it. Gene Roddenberry didn’t just create a TV show, he created an entire universe and filled it with planets and civilisations. The world of The Prisoner is comparatively small – micro, rather than macroscopic. It has to be: by its very nature the Village needs to be enclosed, and the bulk of Number 6’s adventures taking place there, while those that aren’t are usually hiding something. (‘Living In Harmony’ is about the best known example of this, predating the holodeck by a good twenty years and showing that there’s very little you can’t do with a few cardboard cut-outs, some mild hallucinogenics and a raid on the ITV props department.)
I’m not a big fan of the words ‘cult following’ – they seem to imply a kind of snobbery in one direction or another – but perhaps that’s the most appropriate terminology to explain the programme’s mass appeal among its fan base, even after all these years. Certainly there can be few programmes as impenetrable, and few endings as discussed and dissected. The Prisoner was either captivating (no pun intended), or challenging, or just plain weird, depending on the level of commitment you were willing to offer. It was uncompromising television that explained very little and then subverted what you thought you knew.
It’s the sort of programme I wish they’d make more often, but that doesn’t seem to be the way that the world works now: there is an expectation that every gap should be plugged, every flashback explained, every origin story given flesh. “Worst bit of nerd culture: the need to fill in the blanks,” tweeted Gideon Defoe on 21 September. “Ooh, the Kessel Run, sounds evocative, must see it in grindingly prosaic detail.”
Doctor Who fans are no better. It’s not enough for Turlough to have attended a private school while on the run from the authorities: said school now has to be established (step forward, Nick Briggs) as a school that deals especially with alien children, so we can know how he got there. It’s not enough for the Doctor to have left Gallifrey: we need to know why. And it’s not enough for the random women standing behind Rassilon to be whomever you’d most like them to be: we have to have fan fiction explaining who they are and how they got there and which of the high council they shagged along the way (because this is fan fiction, and thus Rule #34 applies in abundance).
There is an episode of Sherlock that annoys me immensely, because we get to see not one but three resolutions to the Sherlock Falls From The Roof story. One of them is (probably) the truth, although it’s told to us by a madman, which rather tests its narrative reliability. The others are fanwank – quite literally, as one of them seems to rely on a fan suggestion. It is possibly the most meta of all the Sherlock episodes, dealing as it does with the public reactions to the detective and how he interacts with his audience, allowing them to make up the history for him. There is a laziness and smugness about it that is unbecoming. Far better it would have been, surely to have the detective sweep back into Watson’s life and refuse to explain anything at all, even to the audience?
But a blank slate is maddening, and perhaps that’s the reason that The Prisoner is now called ‘obscure’ (one unnamed publication, three days ago). The planned origin story for Number Six’s arrival mercifully never materialised, and all we had to go on was that iconic opening montage, largely wordless: Patrick McGoohan drives his car, storms angrily in and out of an office and is then rendered unconscious in his London home before waking up on the Welsh coast. (In 1987, twenty years after The Prisoner, ITV launched Knightmare, in which a series of would-be adventurers ventured through an artificially generated dungeon. Every time a fresh room was entered the kid in the over-sized helmet would ask “Where am I?”, and watching years later it’s almost disappointing that the answer was never “In the village”.)
There is a rule about TV: give your programme a historical setting and you instantly sidestep the likelihood of it becoming dated (which is why Dad’s Army is frequently repeated while Bless This House is not). The Prisoner sidesteps this by giving the show’s location a timeless feel: there are elements of Connery’s Bond, and a Beatles track that plays over the final episode, but we could be watching this in any decade. Most of it works. The writing is consistently good, and the show takes risks that you generally don’t see in contemporary British TV (episode seven, ‘Many Happy Returns’, features no almost no spoken dialogue for the first twenty minutes).
If you’ve never seen The Prisoner I am about to ruin it for you, and I strongly suggest that you drop to the end of the section I’m just about to write, but we need to talk about ‘Fall Out’. Not every show is defined by its finale – The Avengers wasn’t – but when, in early 1968, Number Six was taken to meet Number One, a nation of jaws dropped. Everything about the programme’s closing instalment is baffling – the hooded rabble in the courtroom, the apparent resurrection of Leo McKern, the obfuscating speech by the judge, the song and dance, the jive dude…and fact that Number Six barely utters a word throughout, although on the few occasions that he tries the mob are quick to silence him.
Then there’s a huge gunfight and Patrick McGoohan in a gorilla mask, and then that long drive home, with Angelo Muscat closing the door. Roll credits.
There’s a legend that says that when the series finale aired, the public backlash was so ferocious that McGoohan had to flee the country to avoid the mob. I still don’t know if I believe that, but it makes for a nice story, and the sort of fitting scene that closes a docudrama – rather like Ed Wood driving away with Kathy just after the screening of Plan 9, oblivious to the reaction it presumably received. Certainly ‘Fall Out’ is one of those stories that remains impenetrable, perhaps the only episode of the series that was. It doesn’t help that Alexis Kanner is playing a completely different character to the one he played in ‘Living In Harmony’, and yes, I know this sort of thing happens in Doctor Who all the time without any explanation, but this was one occasion I really felt we deserved one.
Seriously. God knows what’s going on here. I mean, I get the rest. I don’t care why Number 6 / John Drake / whoever the hell he was resigned, or what the purpose of the Village really is, but I can at least follow the narratives – even ‘A, B and C’, which is a head trip best enjoyed under the influence of alcohol, or at least a notepad and biro. But then we get here, and all hell breaks loose. You thought the Twin Peaks finale was weird? You don’t know you’re born, kid, although right now I’m not entirely sure whether Laura Palmer was either.
Gareth says that it’s simply a question of punctuation: when McGoohan asks (every week) about the identity of Number One, he’s told “You are Number Six”, but if you add a comma it reads “You are, Number Six”, which makes a whole lot more sense, or at least as much sense as anything in The Prisoner ever really did. Whether there’s a conspiracy, a case of mistaken identity, or whether the whole thing was simply a fugue state in the mind of a delusional man we’re never really sure.
[Spoilers more or less end here.]
Perhaps it’s better that way. Perhaps giving an answer to a story like this is the quickest way of killing it. That’s what happened in Lost – a programme that attempted to explain its own mythology and came apart at the seams as a result, to the extent that no one really talks about it now. Perhaps that’s what McGoohan learned during his time on the show: by steadfastly refusing to explain what’s going on, you give people something to talk about for the rest of their lives.
That’s a lesson that the fans, if not necessarily the writers of Doctor Who will eventually lead to learn as well: it is a children’s show, and thus deserves a degree of transparency, but a programme can become consumed by its own mythos and wind up drowning in it. As I write this I am attempting to convince a well-meaning chap in Dakota that when Timothy Dalton spoke about the two dissenters being “like the Weeping Angels”, he didn’t mean they were actually Weeping Angels, and no, we do not need to know where the Weeping Angels came from. Similarly we don’t need to know the Master’s backstory. Nor what Rory got up to in the two thousand years he was humping Amy round Europe. Nor about the adventures the Doctor and Martha had while holed up in 1969 (particularly whether or not they had sex, an inexactness which some fans seem unhealthily desperate to have resolved). We watch a show that has a question for a title: questions do not always need to be answered, and not everything needs to be connected.
Maybe that’s why I do things like this: if Doctor Who aficionados are obsessed with in-universe continuity, perhaps this is a drive to counter-balance that. It’s funny, because if there’s one thing The Prisoner really doesn’t have, it’s a sense of continuity. One clever conceit the show employs is to pit Number Six against a succession of chair-dwelling superiors – everyone has their favourites, and most of them are Leo McKern. It allows for an ever-changing dynamic: you want panicky incompetence, you cast Patrick Cargill (‘Hammer Into Anvil’); if it’s polite dignity, you cast Anton Rogers. In the background, Muscat lingers and serves tea, leading to speculation that he may be more than simply a butler. The shifting cast reminds me, for obvious reasons, of a certain Other Programme, which led to this.
Logically the only possible response is “Who is William Hartnell?”. And logically the only possible response to that is “You are Colin Baker.” Or, if you want, “You are, Colin Baker.” Which is closer to the truth than anyone might care to admit.
Meanwhile, over in the Village, the poor old War Doctor is ruminating.
Now, John Hurt as Number Two. That would have been something.