THE UNMUTUAL PRISONER ARTICLE ARCHIVE
"THE REGRETTABLE BULLET", By Peter Dunn
The historic 1989 speech by Mikhail Gorbachev to the United Nations was hailed by some commentators as the end of the Cold War. Certainly, a nuclear holocaust seemed less likely than at almost any time in the preceeding 40 years. The world in 2005 is not the same - politically - as the world in which The Prisoner was born in 1967-68. Then, the Cold War was at its height, and it had a profound effect on the series...
entertainment, "The Prisoner" truly stands the test of time, and as
a thought-provoking allegory, it continues to this day to inspire debate and
disputation. With its central theme being the nature of individual freedom,
it could hardly fail to stir continuing discussion, even after 20 years. But
the series does not exist in some timeless void, however. We would do well to
consider the historical context of "The Prisoner" and how this historical
context manifests itself. Numerous aspects of the central theme are examined
over the 17 episodes - physical freedom, psychological freedom, and even spiritual,
intellectual, political and economic freedom are considered. It should come
as no surprise that many of these issues are examined in a Sixties context,
and that the issue of the Cold War should appear as part of this context. Obviously,
the clearest comment on the Cold War comes in the conversation between Leo McKern's
No 2 and No 6 during Nadia's escape attempt in "The Chimes Of Big Ben":
No 2: It doesn't matter which side runs the Village.
No 6: It's run by one side or the other.
No 2: Both sides are becoming identical. What in fact has been created is an internatio-nal community. A perfect blueprint for world order. When the sides facing each other suddenly realise that they're looking into a mirror they will see that this is the pattern for the future.
No 6: The whole world as the Village?
No 2: Yes, that's my hope. What's yours?
No 6. I'd like to be the first man on the moon.
This is an unusually clear comment for "The Prisoner". Most comments of a similar nature are more subtle, if not downright obtuse! But we do see a very clear description of the Cold War as it stood in 1967-68 in this statement. Firstly, we see that the Cold War at this point is a polarised conflict between two mutually-adversarial blocs or powers. Both are concerned firstly with internal order and secondly with preventing the other power from advancing. One wonders if this point is more subtly indicated by the continual contrast of black and white in The Prisoner - on the chessboard, blazers, Fall Out masks, Butler's umbrella etc. Could this represent good and evil, or is it East and West? Let us simply note for now that when this contrast is used, the two colours seem strangely dependent on each other. We shall return to this point.
McKern's No 2 also seems to be-lieve that there is little difference in the nature of both East and West. Both are concerned with order, stability and the maintenance of their continued existence. Should individual freedom threaten these central interests, that freedom itself is then threatened. No 6 tries to convince himself that only one of the two sides, the East, could sink so low as to put order above freedom to the extent of imprisoning him in the Village. He continues to put his faith in the West with his continued attempts to escape to London. But even he begins to have his doubts as he asks the Colonel in "The Chimes Of Big Ben":
I risked my life and hers to come back here. Because I thought it was different. It is, isn't it? Isn't it different?
the conclusion of this episode seems to prove that it isn't different. Either
that, or an awful lot of British intelligence personnel are double agents! (Considering
the post-war record of the UK's intelligence services, this may indeed be the
case!) Infringements of freedom occur much more frequently in the East (possibly
because the East has always felt more threatened by the West and thus seeks
to minimise internal dissent to a greater extent than the West). There can be
little doubt, however, that Leo McKern's No 2 had plenty of evidence to support
his assertion that East and West were equally capable of overbearing repression.
Just 15 years previously, Stalin was in the midst of his last round of purges before his death. In roughly the same period McCarthyism was in full swing, and both the House Committee on Un-American Activities and McCarthy's own Senate Subcommittee on Investigations engaged in their own brand of show trials. The difference, if any, between these two events was nominal. It is important to note, however, that these acts of internal repression (to maintain order) often requires a pre-text in the form of external threat to provide a rationalisation for such drastic action. In McCarthy's case, the Alger Hiss spy case provided the rationalisation.
It would appear that even the Village sometimes needs a pretext for repressive action. In "It's Your Funeral", the "Jammers" are provoked into an assassination plot which will both rid the Village of an over-powerful No 2 and allow and excuse "reprisals" against the perpetrators. As Steven Maher pointed out in his article "A Study in Tyranny" (issue 16 of "Number Six" magazine) the similarities between this episode and the murder of Sergei Kirov in Russia in 1934 are striking. Kirov's popularity was seen as a threat by Stalin and his death not only rid Stalin of this threat, but it also provided a useful pretext for the first round of purges. Andre Van Gyseghem's No 2 had become a threat because he had acquired too much power in his position as the permanent No 2 (all other No 2s being referred to by him as "acting" or "interim" No 2s during his "absence"). His death would rid No 1 of a threat and provide the pretext for persecution of the "Jammers". The question that then arises is - why does the Village need such a pretext? It hasn't needed one up till now to rationalise its actions. Perhaps the plan was designed to fail. Perhaps No 1 knew that by forcing Derren Nesbitt's No 2 to include No 6 in the plot, the plot would then fail. But at least No 1 would then be free of three threats - namely, the far too powerful old No 2, the cocksure ambitious young new No 2, and the unfortunate No 100, who finds himself on the wrong side at the wrong time! The "Jammers" could also be dealt with, although they don't pose a real threat to No 1.
It would seem, then, that No 2's comments in "The Chimes Of Big Ben" are correct. Both sides, East and West, seem identical at least in their willingness to restrain and undermine individual freedom. The State, and/or the system, does seem to come before the individual. But is there any evidence in reality of his claim that both will eventually join together? We must remember that The Prisoner was created at a very interesing period of the Cold War. 1968 was to see the beginning of detente, a period of limited Superpower co-operation. Anyone looking at world affairs in 1967 would have had much to fear. China was emerging as a threat to both Superpowers, war was raging in IndoChina, both East and West were developing anti-ballistic systems which destabilised the concept of deterrence, and the Middle East was exploding. Either the powers came together to manage the system, or we could all go down the tubes. The Superpowers did come together to stave off disaster, in much the same way as Gorbachev and Reagan did in the wake of the Iran-Iraq war, Afghanistan, Angola and Star Wars.
Perhaps Leo McKern's No 2 (and, more importantly, scriptwriter Vincent Tilsley) mistook the need for mutual policing of the world's trouble spots for what he saw as the certainty of future unity of purpose and being by the two blocs. The Superpowers can never unify without destroying the current purpose of their existence. They exist to sustain their particular ideologies. They maintain internal discipline, and thus sustain the ideology, by using the threat - real or imagined - of the other ideology. Their grip on their allies is also maintained by the use of external threat (NATO was formed to secure Western Europe from Communism, the Warsaw Pact to secure the East from capitalism). Each needed the other as an adversary. The only way they could sustain internal discipline in a unified system would be to find and consistently persecute some internal enemy, real or imagined. Such a role is played by the "Jammers" in the Village. Perhaps McKern's No 2 was right in a sense. The whole world can become like the Village. All it needs in an internal threat to be created.
But let us look back to the world's position in 1967. Remember this was just five years after President Kennedy threatened nuclear war over Cuba. The world was still looking over the edge of the atomic abyss. Either the Superpowers came together to manage the world, or they would very soon destroy it. We have seen how The Prisoner explores the first option. Let us now examine the second...
If we take it that "The Prisoner"'s allegorical representation of the Bomb is the gun, some interesting, if not disturbing, points emerge. Two episodes deal with firearms and both episodes have a similar pattern. In "Living In Harmony", we have a figure of authority - a sherriff - who refuses to deal with his town's problems by using a gun. Eventually, even though he is morally repelled by fire-arms, he is forced by circumstance to take and use these firearms to kill his opponent, the "Kid". But he is killed himself in the aftermath. If we see the gun as representing the Bomb, we can then note a clear parallel between this and the nuclear deterrence doctrine of MAD - mutually-assured destruction. In other words, any user of nuclear weapons assures both the destruction of both his op-ponent and himself.
A clearer coverage of the Cold War concept comes in "Fall Out". The very title of this eposode evokes the atmosphere of atomic doom and gloom following the Cuban missle crisis. It is quite clear that the gun is meant to represent the Bomb in this episode as the President points to the revolving machine guns and says:
" We draw your attention to the regrettable bullet... The community is at stake and we have the means to protect it".
the word "Bomb" for "bullet" and you have a rather succinct
comment on the theory of nuclear deterrence. "Fall Out" goes further
than this, however, in that it also shows the inevitability of atomic apocalypse,
given the inherent evil of man and his nuclear creation, and the continuing
possibility of breakdown in Super-power world management. For the first time,
the Village guardians are forced to use their ultimate deterrent, the gun (note
there are no Rovers in the throne room!), in response to the almost manic use
of such weapons by No 6, No 2, No 48 and the Butler. Here we have the spectacle
of a character who spent almost the whole of one episode, "Living In Harmony",
refusing all pressure to use a gun now gleefully mowing down people with a machine
gun. Clearly this scene is, in part at least, meant to represent the chaotic
final apocalypse which would follow a collapse of deterrence. Just in case we
still haven't got the message, we see the take-off from the Village of a rocket.
But it isn't just any old rocket. It is in fact, Blue Streak, the proposed British
nuclear deterrent of the early 60s.
When this rocket is launched, we see the Village evacuate. Why is this? After all, the rocket seems to do no damage. Is it perhaps because this launch has triggered off a reciprocal launch from an "opposing" Village and that both Villages would be destroyed? How better could No 6 fulfil his pledge in "The Chimes Of Big Ben" to "eradicate this place from the face of the earth - and you with it"? (He doesn't even have to come back after escaping, although he does seem to have spared Leo McKern's No 2 after all!) We must also acknowledge at this point the comment of the Rook in "Checkmate", who revealed that he had invented "an electronic defence system", and was brought to the Village because of his view that it should be shared with all nations. Here we see shades of SDI (Star Wars). Most analysts (especially Soviet ones!) agree that any system which makes nuclear war "winnable" destablises the deterrence doctrine of mutually assured destruction and thus brings the prospect of nuclear war closer.
This was the view taken by the West of the East's attempts to develop an anti-ballistic missile system in the 60s. The threat such a system posed for deterrence resulted in the ABM test-ban treaty of 1972. Clearly, the Village was not so keen to maintain the nuclear balance. Perhaps this was part of its downfall (pardon the pun) in "Fall Out". There is much else one could say about "The Prisoner"'s view of the Cold War, and there are many other equally valid meanings to some of the aspects of the series outlined here. But I think we have sufficient evidence that "The Prisoner" had (and still has) something to say about the Cold War. It should be no surprise that a series designed to inspire discussion and debate should include the precarious state of the world's atomic balance as one of its major topics.
Click here to return to the Unmutual Article Archive
Click here to return to the Unmutual home page