THE UNMUTUAL PRISONER ARTICLE ARCHIVE
Falling Out Over Shattered Visage: A Second Look at Dean Motter and Mark Askwith’s Prisoner Sequel.
By Frédérik Sisa
More than forty years later, The Prisoner retains a distinguished place in the history of television for its memorable style, provocative ideas, and enduring mystery. Yet as with anything work that achieves a loyal fan base, questions arise that only the passage of time can ask: should there be a follow-up or remake and, if so, in what form?
Insofar as revisiting the Prisoner is concerned, there is always the perspective that the show needs neither sequel nor remake. Fall Out provided a measure of closure and the series’ treatment of critical issues of the time remains entirely relevant today: pervasive government surveillance, corrupted media and justice, and the subjugation of the individual to society’s need to achieve security through omniscience and control. If there is room for more Prisoner, it would arguably lie in the fact that while Fall Out rounded out the allegory it didn’t quite come to terms with the series’ literal plotline. Continuity problems in terms of episode order and overall conceptual coherence – the way and manner in which themes and “information” are presented to audiences – also offer an opportunity for a new series to deliver a more tightly conceived and executed story. Furthermore, the original allegory surely did not say everything that can be said on the topic of the individual in relation to society. With social networking, terrorism, airport security, biometrics, virtual reality, and other forms of technology that put the individual in a social context– not to forget the privacy concerns raised by corporate advertising and other activities – The Prisoner’s allegory would certainly find a home in a new millennium remake. A new version of The Prisoner using contemporary cinematic sensibilities, then, doesn’t have to be a horrific prospect for fans of the original…
It’s AMC’s Funeral
of course, that remake is AMC’s 2009 effort written by Bill Gallagher.
From a production standpoint, the new series is handsomely filmed and capably
acted, although the desert Village and its graphic identity lack the charisma
of Portmeirion. Ian McKellen delivers a fine performance without straining himself,
but Jim Caviezel's best effort at emotional intensity involves stuffing marbles
in his mouth – in his defense, the script asks for little more than befuddled
marble-chewing from Six, who doesn't so much drive the plot but endure it.
Critically, it’s the show’s plotting and underlying ideas that hurt a miniseries that is Prisoneresque only by name and through awkward references transplanted from the original (here’s looking at you, Rover). Ponderously inert, thematically aimless, Gallagher’s conception of the Village as a collective unconscious hardly does justice to Jung let alone coalesce on its own terms. Where most films would use the notion of multiple layers of consciousness as a story’s starting point – the better to explore and develop the concept –Gallagher trots it out at the last minute as an undercooked and unpersuasive explanation for six episodes of tedious posturing. Without knowing who the characters are and without being able to trust anything we might learn about the characters – does Three Hundred Thirteen really love Six or was she drugged? Is Summakor really trying to cure people or not? – the revelation of what’s going has even less impact than the series has meaningful drama. It’s a problem that stems from Number 2 in particular; Ian McKellen delivers every line with a knowing wink and a creepy affectation, enough that it’s impossible to view even Two’s most tender pronouncements – towards his son, 11-12, or comatose wife – as sincere. With Six suffering from a personality as bland as overboiled pudding, and thus unable to mount a successful challenge to Two, we are left with a one-sided battle (or is that Two-sided?) of wits culminating in the sort of tangible victory that would have been anathema to the original series and concept.
With Gallagher’s script tangential to the point of lacking substance, not only is the battle of wits one-sided, but it’s rarely clear what fronts Two and Six’s battles occupy and who wins. At most, it’s clear that Six – who is easily cracked throughout the series and brought into Two’s games except in his refusal to explicitly accept assimilation into the Village –never gains the upper hand. And so, after six grueling episodes, one wishes that Gallagher had taken his core concept – The Truman Show filtered through Jacob’s Ladder by way of conspiracy movies – and done his own series without forcing it into a reimaging of the original Prisoner. Neither his ideas, undeveloped as they are, nor the original Prisoner’s ideas benefitted from the union. The project ends up doing little to make the case for going beyond the original series.
Many Happy Returns
Setting the wayback machine for the 1980s, however, we find the so-called “authorized” sequel to the original series – the graphic novel Shattered Visage by Dean Motter and Mark Askwith. Unsurprisingly, the book has been received with mixed feelings on the whole, even disappointment as described in Harold Foy’s review for The Unmutual. The possibility is there, however, that the book offers more than might suspected on a first reading, and to delve deeper we can begin with Wikipedia’s debatable interpretation:
Out", Number One was unmasked to reveal the face of Number Six. This is
finally explained by Number Two's recollections. Number Two describes "Fall
Out" as the point where Six was driven mad, broken, and finally accepted
a number; Number One. This is very much in line with what is seen in "Fall
Out": Number Six is given a ceremony that lauds his revolutionary spirit
and the President describes Number Six as "the only individual" and
therefore the ideal leader of the Village. Shattered Visage explains that this
psychologically entrapped Six. Before, the Village sought to crush Number Six's
sense of identity. In "Fall Out", they claim to accept his individuality,
and declare he is therefore perfect as their leader; as Number One.
Presumably, Number Six's resistance has been brought to its weakest point by this time. Shattered Visage indicates that when Number Six unmasked Number One to find his own face, he accepted himself as Number One. The idea that his individuality made him a number, even Number One, broke his mind at last. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shattered_visage, retrieved 15/12/2010)
Visage were so easily reduced in this way, fan indifference (if not disdain)
would be enough and the book could be dismissed as DC’s shallow attempt
to cash in on The Prisoner’s cult status. Yet the Wikipedia entry displays
a superficial reading of the book.
The crucial question at the heart of Shattered Visage is whether or not the Village broke Number 6. To answer the question, we can first ask if the Number 6 of Shattered Visage displays behaves different from the Number 6 of the original series.
As portrayed by Patrick McGoohan, Number 6 was a suspicious and hostile individual, with good reason; it was often impossible for him to tell apart the trustworthy from the Village’s agents, his escape attempts were consistently foiled, and he was the subject of traumatic experimental interrogations. Number 6 wasn’t defined solely by anger and resistance, however. He was certainly capable of civility when not cornered and possessed a dry sense of humour that served him just as well as outright suspicion in trying to deal with the Village’s machinations. A propensity for sympathy towards women in distress, a reflection of his general concern for victims of unjust action, highlights a personality with a strong conception of right and wrong.
In Shattered Visage, we find a Number 6 who provides Alice Drake with hospitality and guarded friendliness. Number 2’s arrival, however, brings the suspicion that she is a plant to a boiling point - a suspicion that is correct, though only the reader knows it, in that Alice’s boat was programmed to pass by the Village without her knowledge. The initial meeting between Number 6 and Alice, in which Number 6 sits in Number 2’s bubble chair and christens Alice with the number given to him, at first glance may seem as if he’s been derailed. But considering that he doesn’t proclaim himself Number 2 and doesn’t push the scenario of Alice being a new Number 6 into anything resembling what he endured, it’s far easier to see the scene as an example of Number 6’s sense of humour employed in the understandable suspicion of a new, unexpected visitor.
Later scenes between Number 6 and Alice, such as the village tour and their discussion of freedom, confirm that Number 6 was not all that serious, and even indicate the forging of a bond based on mutual understanding. When Number 2 arrives on the island, however, Number 6 reacts with fury and hostility to his old adversary. No surprise here: this particular Number 2, though Degree Absolute, inflicted the most invasive and harrowing interrogation of all in a series of already brutal interrogations. Lastly, when all is said and done, Number 6 escapes the Village with Alice (by means unrevealed to us) to return to London, where the two are share a quiet, reflexive moment. Number 6 appears calm and contemplative, a far cry from the earlier violence of his encounter with Number 2.
Altogether, what we find in Shattered Visage’s Number 6 are the same character traits as in the original series: suspicious and hostile, or dryly playful and civil, as the situation warrants. If he was indeed broken by Degree Absolute, we find no clear sign of it in his behaviour or personality.
Of course, the argument could be made that since Shattered Visage is set twenty years after Fall Out, Number 6 could have simply benefitted from the healing power of time. But there is another reason to believe that Number 6 never broke, and that involves interpreting the events of Once Upon a Time and Fall Out in terms of what we actually see on screen. Specifically, we should consider Number 2’s view that Number 6 broke by adopting the Number 1 in violation of his own rejection of being numbered. However, is this what really happened? When Number 6 is taken to meet Number 1, he is presented with the infamous white-robed, masked figure. He pulls away the mask to reveal a chimpanzee mask, which he also pulls away to reveal his own face. If the scene stopped there, the case could be made that, in the hallucinogenic psycho-drama of Fall Out, he adopted Number 1 for himself while being split from it as Number 6, although we can’t eliminate the possibility that in the theatre Number 6 was actually confronted with a physical double as he was in The Schizoid Man. Yet the unveiling of Number 1 has to be contextualized by both preceding and succeeding scenes. Prior to the meeting, Number 6 witnesses an elaborate ritual emphasizing that he will no longer be referred to by a number, but by the respectful honorific due to an individual: “Sir.” Hallucination or not, this is an explicit rejection of being numbered. It’s what Number 6 does on seeing his own face as Number 1, however, that is most telling: “Sir” chases Number 1 up into the rocket’s nosecone then proceeds to launch the rocket and violently cut through the Village’s armed guards to make his escape with Numbers 2 and 48. Again, whether a hallucination or not, the chase and violent escape point to the same thing: Number 6’s rejection of Number 1, a rejection of himself as Number 1. With Number 2’s interpretation of events questionable in light of what we actually see on screen, we have even more reason to doubt that Number 6 ever broke.
Someone did break, however, and the case is strong that it was Number 2 who fell to pieces. Applying the same reasoning we used with Number 6, we can begin by considering Number 2 prior to Degree Absolute and Fall Out, namely, Number 2 as seen in Chimes of Big Ben. Here we see a jovial, even charming Number 2 who can be quick-tempered and menacing but also civil and philosophical. More so than other Number 2s, this Number 2 sees in Number 6 a worthy opponent deserving of respect, an opponent with whom he can forge a personal relationship that straddles friendship and rivalry. In Shattered Visage, however, we discover that after the events of Fall Out Number 2 wrote a book exposing his secret knowledge – an exposure that required extensive redacting by Excavations Office Thomas Drake in order to preserve vital state secrets. This exposé is so severe that Number 2 is imprisoned for twenty years for violating the Official Secrets Act. When he is released, he returns to the Village and his actions are revealing. He unleashes Rover on Alice for no apparent reason, indicating an attempt to reassert his authority as Number 2. He dresses up as Napoleon and engages in fisticuffs with Number 6. After surviving a plunge into the waters, he re-enacts Number 6’s rebellion in front of Thomas et al before proclaiming Number 6 to be dead. Finally, he initiates a missile launch while the dome remains closed, thereby destroying the Village and killing himself along with a handful of people (including Thomas). All together, these actions point to a very different Number 2 in Shattered Visage than the bon-vivant of Chimes of Big Ben; a shocking change in behaviour that crosses into the irrational.
Looking to the original series as we did with the earlier discussion of Number 6, we can find further support for Number 2’s breakdown, particularly in Once Upon a Time in which a defensive Number 6 ultimately gains the upper hand over Number 2, who physically collapses from the mental strain. If we were to attribute this as a mere performance in a theatrical tour-de-force, the whole Degree Absolute process would lose its significance and power as the life-or-death struggle between opposing wills. Still, whether or not Number 2 literally dies or not - and is later resuscitated or not - is not so important as the fact that, after delivering a rather unhinged rant against his masters, he collaborates with Numbers 6 and 48 in a violent escape. In other words, he participates in Number 6’s hallucinated/symbolic rejection of Number 1. The conclusion to be made from all of this is, once again, that Number 2 was the one who broke from the Village’s desperate last measure, and we have every reason to mistrust his interpretation of events.
there is an easier way to sort out what happened; recall that compulsive honesty
was never in the job description for the position of Number 2. All of the 2s,
including Leo McKern’s, relied on deception and misdirection to conceal
the truth from Number 6 and advance the Village’s agenda. From this alone
we have no reason to believe Number 2 in Shattered Visage.
But there’s an also an explicit reason to be found in Thomas Drake’s memo to Mrs. Butterworth, which prologues the book:
Number Six made several attempts to escape. The administration, in turn, interrogated him – repeatedly. And, as far as I know, he did not talk.
If Drake finds no reason to believe that Number 6 talked – presumably about either his reasons for resigning or the highly sensitive secrets he had knowledge about – then we have yet another reason to disbelieve Number 2’s version of events. And again, we can turn to the original series for clarification by considering Number 6’s intentions in resigning: as a matter of principle, not out of disloyalty to “our side” (Arrival) or to sell secrets to the enemy (A, B and C). If Number had sold out and betrayed his country, Drake would surely have known that Number 6 had talked. With no small amount of irony, it is made clear from the beginning that it is Number 2 who spilled everything he knew and thus betrayed his service to his country.
From this we can not only dismiss the “time heals” argument, but also examine Number 6’s decision to remain in the village. Whereas a surface interpretation - the perspective Number 2 shares with Alice - would see Number’s 6 choice as the result of being broken by the village, we can instead take Number 6 at his word:
6: I retired and found myself here.
Alice: Where are the other villagers?
Number 6: Free to go.
Alice: And you?
Number 6: Free to stay. I made my move. Fell out. I left the game. The game left me.
The point is again emphasized by Number 6’s insistence that he is free man, that freedom can be obtained simply by breaking the chains – and what better symbol of breaking those inner chains by confronting and overcoming the Number 1 inside? Although on the surface it may seem like a paradox, Number 6’s choice to remain in the village (as opposed to the Village) makes sense when we consider his character as a lone wolf, a man who wanted time to think. (The series established his loner personality several times, as in the use of his makeshift gym on the Villages’ outskirts in A Change of Mind.) Furthermore, since it was never Number 6’s intention to betray the secrets he held, why not stay in a Village evacuated of warders and fellow prisoners – of adversaries ¬– to tend a “garden of solitude for a solitary man?” In a sense, it’s a case of the Village getting the reassurances it wanted – the safety of Number 6’s secrets –without actually winning over Number 6 or establishing control over him.
Free For All
It would be churlish to flat-out accuse the Wikipedia entry for Shattered Visage of being the “wrong” interpretation, although it certainly doesn’t hold to a close reading of both the book and the original series. Instead, it highlights Shattered Visage as a more robust object of speculation than typically given credit for. As controversial as it was for Motter and Askwith to revise Fall Out as a hallucinogenic theatrical interrogation, the maneuver makes sense in terms of the Prisoner ‘s literal story of a resigned government agent. It affords the authors the opportunity to do what Fall Out didn’t, namely, provide a sense of closure for those aspects of the series on which the allegory was built. With readers already familiar with Number 6 and Number 2, the parallel story of Alice Drake’s resignation and unintentional arrival at the Village, framed by Thomas Drake’s investigation into the nature and fate of the Village, offers an interesting lens through which we can examine both the story and the themes of the series.
Among the questions Motter and Askwith answer is the issue of who runs the Village – “our side,” namely, the British – and the defensible answer has its roots in the series. Although it is clear, in Many Happy Returns, that some of Number 6’s former superiors were genuinely unaware of the Village, Chimes of Big Ben makes it clear that some of them not only were aware of the Village but active participants in its operations. What of Cobb, then, and his new master? Does this imply that he switched sides? Not necessarily. The simplest explanation is that he was transferred from his old job – presumably the one in which he once worked with Number 6 – to a new one in service of the Village. In other words, he moved from on compartment of British Intelligence to another. Shattered Visage reinforces this view by calling attention to these mysterious upper echelons – the “Gods” and the “Archangels” – and noting that lower echelons such as Excavations and Operations are aware of their existence but ignorant of their true motives, methods, and goals. That Mrs. Butterworth, a clear agent of the Village, was also someone to whom Thomas Drake reported to and worked with further highlights the Village as a British endeavour.
Another question answered by Shattered Visage consists of a clarification of what many Prisoner interpreters already knew: the Village is about power and control. Motter and Askwith’s revelation of the nuclear arsenal beneath the village - drawn from what we see in Fall Out - successfully adds a strong realpolitik dimension to the story, both literally and thematically. The stakes of a power struggle between individual and society are contextualized by the risk of nuclear Armageddon and the strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction – POP!
we are given greater insight into Number 6 himself, his reason for resigning.
That insight isn’t so much a literal explanation that rests on the specific
event or accumulation of events that led him to resign, but an emotional explanation
rooted in his desire for a peaceful state of mind.
Of course, none of the answers, however robust, are necessarily final in the sense of unveiling a murderer at the end of a whodunit. And in that ambiguity Motter and Askwith certainly raise new questions. On the issue as to who runs the Village, for example, a key element of the plot is the systematic assassination of people involved with the Village, such as Mrs. Butterworth. Those who are not murdered are otherwise presumably killed by being in the wrong place at the wrong time (e.g. Thomas Drake, Lee West), shanghaied by their own chain of command (Ross), or of dubious sanity (Number 2). Since we never learn who the mysterious “common denominator” of those events is, and no explanation is given as to how or why he takes over as the Colonel, we are left with the possibility that perhaps the Village is bigger than the British government – could Village agents have infiltrated governments around the world? Then again, when Mrs. Butterworth describes the Village as a prototype, it seems reasonable to assume that its existence and purpose were known and developed within British intelligence, which brings us back to the Village as a British facility.
for speculation is the Village’s evacuation by the UN and the rationale
for its eventual destruction along with most of the people associated. Maintaining
power and supplies makes sense given the Village’s hidden nature as a
nuclear missile station. That its destruction was sanctioned is debatable since
Number 2 shows every indication of being a dangerous loose end that other characters
struggle to tie up. Yet the Village is clearly being covered up, erased –
perhaps as a result of Number 2’s book, The Village Idiot? Or perhaps
the Village fulfilled its role as prototype and, having been surpassed by new
villages, it was no longer needed? Between these questions and the “calculated
intelligence” staging ominous actions, Shattered Visage presents a number
of facts that are sufficient to encourage speculation but not enough to provide
a solution that, once known, reduces the story to a mundane espionage thriller.
That we don’t know about the “Gods” or the grand scheme of
things is precisely the point; it is the unavoidable lacuna in our certainty
about the world around us. Yet Motter and Askwith don’t simply set up
a scenario where anything goes, where one interpretation is as good as the next
and the story could just as easily be meaningless as meaningful.
Best of all, nothing in Shattered Visage undermines The Prisoner ‘s allegorical significance. Quite the opposite: taking its cue from Fall Out, the story – which culminates with the Village’s destruction, Number 6 and Alice’s return to London, and the final shot of the two being observed from a different control center – reinforces the view that while the individual may not break – and may even triumph over himself – he or she will always be in tension with society. Similarly, that Shattered Visage attributes Number 6’s confrontation with Number 1 to hallucination doesn’t diminish the allegorical significance of a man confronting his own limitations. It doesn’t even diminish the psychological impact; the moment is arguably when Number 6 “breaks the chains.”
It’s interesting to consider that the nuclear aspect of Shattered Visage offers another avenue of thought; the possibility that society’s control over the individual may not be exclusively evil. When the consequence is the end of life on Earth, individuals have a vested interest in preventing other individuals from behaving dangerously. In other words, society has an interest in safeguarding the public good. As tempting as it is to view the “Gods,” the “common denominator,” or even the Village itself as unequivocally sinister, the question still haunts; could they be serving a necessary purpose in some respect?
Be Seeing You
The studied blend of insight and ambiguity, delivered through Motter’s impressionistic artwork, makes Shattered Visage a far more striking and memorable work then a first reading might suggest. Unlike Gallagher’s reinvention, the book meets the criteria one would expect a sequel or remake of The Prisoner to adhere to; faithfulness to the characters, an understanding and elaboration of key themes, and a connection to the original series’ essential philosophical core. When considering the number of possible routes a sequel can take – a continuation of Number 6 and the Village’s struggle, perhaps on an international scale – the risk of devolving the concept into a James Bond escapade becomes unavoidable, as does the risk of providing a resolution whose nature depends on how optimistic or pessimistic one is about the human condition. Shattered Visage ultimately avoids these pitfalls by assuming a realistic posture; the narrative approach of revisiting the original characters years later and through the eyes of new, impartial characters proves worthy of a second look.
Frédérik Sisa is the resident art critic and assistant editor of The Front Page Online, a newsmagazine based in Culver City/Los Angeles, California. His work can be found online at www.thefrontpageonline.com and at his blog www.inkandashes.net.
Click here to read Howard Foy's review
Click here to return to the Unmutual Article Archive
Click here to return to the Unmutual Home Page