THE UNMUTUAL PRISONER ARTICLE ARCHIVE
PETER DUNN'S A-Z OF PRISONER ALLEGORY
D - Die, Six, Die.
this month could, and perhaps should, be read as a prequel to my last one as
it is time for `D' which brings me to ruminate on the subject of death.
The Prisoner had its fair crop of deaths. Almost every episode had someone being done away with - and usually in a fairly unpleasant manner (three suicides - if you count Cobb, one lynching, several suffocations by Rover etc.). Even in the very few episodes in which nobody actually dies, or appears to die, it is not for want of trying (i.e. the failed assassination attempt in "It's Your Funeral", and the possible death of the pilot in "Many Happy Returns"). One could say "So what? - every ITC series was filled with deaths." I would argue however that "The Prisoner" had a singular preoccupation with the theme of death. The only ITC series that could match this morbid obsession was "Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased)" - a show with a somewhat less allegorical mission!
Death pervades "The Prisoner". Three episode titles use clearly morbid terminology ("Dance Of The Dead", "It's Your Funeral" and "The Girl Who Was Death"), character deaths are common and often brutal, and the series ends in an orgy of death led by Number 6 himself. The Village also often delights in celebrations of death. One of the first things Guy Doleman's Number 2 points out to Number 6 is the Village graveyard, which we get to see again in "Hammer Into Anvil". Funerals take place in both "Arrival" and (briefly) in "Living In Harmony" and Village officials can be seen in a number of episodes dressed in the style of undertakers ("Arrival", "Free For All" and in "The General" where even Number 2 adopts this garb). The decision to kill a redundant prisoner is even made by the overly dramatic and ceremonial issuing of a'white text on black paper' death order (Dutton in "Dance Of The Dead").
The issue of death is one often faced personally in many forms by Number 6. He is threatened with the death of his intellect in "A Change Of Mind", the death of his identity ("Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling"), his metaphorical death ("Dance Of The Dead"), and his actual bodily death in a number of episodes. I think however that we only need to concentrate on two episodes to find the answers to why death is such an important theme in the show. What sets these episodes apart is that they are the only two episodes in which there is a clear plan on the part of the Village to actually kill the Prisoner. What do I mean kill him? Surely everyone was under strict instructions "not to damage the tissue" (though I notice they are allowed to punch, kick and electrocute him and simulate him being dragged by a galloping horse - but I guess he had pretty resilient tissue). Surely the death of their prize prisoner was clearly out of the question. Perhaps not...
We have often seen "The Prisoner" episode "Dance Of The Dead" compared with Roger Corman's "Masque Of The Red Death". Edgar Allan Poe's book and Corman's film both clearly have death as a running theme (in fact as an actual major character) and there are significant, parallels with "Dance Of The Dead". These parallels include the eerie dream-like quality of parts of both stories, the isolation of Prospero's castle, the costumed carnival, the way Number 2/Prospero toys with the concept of death, and both stories use of an imprisoned hero. There are however some major differences between the two tales - not the least of which is the fact that at the end of the Masque Prospero and all his courtiers lie dead and the hero escapes in an ending more akin to "Fall Out" than any other episode.
In "Dance Of The Dead", the Village clearly wins - but in what way? Number 6 has not volunteered any information, he has damaged a bit of equipment, and he is not actually dead at the end of the episode despite the Villagers' attempts to kill him. All we are left with is the fact that the teleprinter seems to still be working despite Number 6's efforts, and Number 2's laughing response "Then how very uncomfortable for you old chap," to Number 6's assertion that the Village will never win. If these images are there to stress that the Village has won, what exactly then is it that it has achieved? - and how does this achievement fit, if it fits at all, into the episode's deathly theme?
The answer is simple - they have broughtt about the death of Number 6. I am not referring to his physical death, that was not Number 2's aim (yet....). "Dance Of The Dead" is the episode that contains one of the strongest assertions bythe Village authorities that they do not want the physical death of Number 6 and that he is to be protected from any physical or mental attack that would permanently damage him. This assertion comes right at the start of the episode when Number 2 interrupts the Doctor's unauthorised experiment on Number 6 and clearly outlines the Village's concern not to "damage" the Prisoner. With such a clear warning right at the start it comes as quite a shock to us when, in the last few minutes of the episode, Number 2 happily acquiesces in a sentence of death on Number 6 - a sentence to be carried out immediately by a lynch mob of fellow prisoners. This death sentence completely threw me when I first saw "Dance Of The Dead". It went quite contrary to all that had gone on in the rest of the episode. This is one of the many instances in the show when "The Prisoner" grabs the attention of both one's mind and one's imagination and which gives it its place in the history of cult television.
How then can we understand the Village's two mutually contradictory wishes both to kill Number 6 and yet not to harm him? The answer lies in fact in the conversation Number 6 has in the cave with Roland Walter Dutton. Here we learn that Number 6 is a relatively recent arrival to the Village. This is confirmed by the fact that he is still trying to ask questions about the basic operation of the village (i.e. where the milk and other supplies come from) and he tells us that he has so far failed to stay awake after curfew every night he has spent in the Village. Later episodes show that he does learn how to break curfew. He is, in short, still a relatively new prisoner and the Village has yet to complete his initial assimilation into Village life. This assimilation process is inevitably going to be more painstaking than for the more 'normal' prisoner. Number 6 is very special to the Village - simply gassing him, abducting him and depositing him in a piped jacket in a Village cottage is not going to be enough to break him and he is too important for blunt, heavy-handed methods that could damage him. His absorption into the Village will only be complete when he has died - at least died in the bureaucratic and metaphorical senses of the word. The bureaucratic death is simple. The Village, of course, knows about the body that Number 6 has discovered and they use it to fake his apparent death so that no-one from the outside world will come looking for him. It always amuses me when I see Number 6's surprise at finding the body he took such pains to get rid off stacked away in the Village morgue. How could he possibly hope to keep it secret? Even if he had not been spotted on the monitors Dutton is going to inform on him. Dutton admits quite freely that he has told the Village everything he knows about Number 6 and that if he does not come up with anything else they are going to kill him. Does Number 6 not think that the first thing Dutton is going to do when he gets back to the Village is inform on Number 6's acquisition of a body in the hope of being let off?
The second death is much more profound. The events of the carnival are pre-planned to show Number 6 that he is totally alone, he can find no help from his fellow prisoners or from outside. Not only will he receive no help but, as long as he maintains a confrontational, individualistic approach, he will stand out from the other Villagers in a way that will make them fear him and even hate him for the disorder he brings. Hence their readiness to turn into a lynch mob following his death sentence. This is very similar to the organised hate hours in Orwell's "1984" when Big Brother's subjects are urged to curse and rail against the hate figure of Goldstein. To all intents and purposes he is metaphorically dead and his metaphorically dead status is confirmed by the fact that he alone has no carnival dress other than his own suit. When he asks Number 2 about this he is, of course, told that it is "Perhaps because you don't exist". This view perhaps shows that there is even more meaning underlying a later conversation - when the prisoner concedes that the Village's plan for the body will convince the outside world that he is dead she replies that it will be simply "a small confirmation of a known fact".
Unfortunately for Number 6, the Village authorities did not stop at his metaphorical death - they later sought his real physical demise. There are three occasions when Village authorities seem to want to see him dead in every sense of the word. The first of these occurs in "The Schizoid Man" when Rover appears to be programmed to kill the real Number 6 if the Schizoid Man experiment goes wrong. However the script leads us to believe that this is incompetence on someone's part. (hmm...that could explain why we never see the Haitian Supervisor again!). The second attempt to kill Number 6 comes in "Hammer Into Anvil" but the story line is clear that is just an aberration on the part of a virtually mad Number 2. However the most heartfelt attempt by a Village authority to kill Number 6 comes in "Once Upon A Time". Here, the Village authorities allow Leo McKern's Number 2 to take himself and Number 6 into a process called 'Degree Absolute'. It is quite clear that probably only one person will come out alive from the process (hence its title). McKern constantly refers to the risks and points out, in sombre tones that the embryo room will take the two of them from the cradle to the grave...
Number 6 himself also clearly realises that someone probably has to die in the process. Why else does he cry out "Die, Six, die," during his final count-down speech. while simultaneously threatening and verbally torturing McKern's Number 2? Clearly the Village fully understand the fatal consequences of the process for one of the two characters or they would not react in such a passive manner following Number 2's death - indeed there is some suggestion that they accelerated the path to death (i.e. in "Fall Out" McKern is obviously still unsure how his death came about but he suspects that the Village may have doctored the drink). One could say that the Village was sure that Number 6 would be the victor so they were not then at any time threatening his life. I am not convinced by such an argument. I believe that the Village authorities have reached a point where they are taking reckless chances to either break or make Number 6. Too much time has gone by and they need a resolution (well that is certainly what Lew Grade thought anyway!). In this episode they break all their previous rules as regard not endangering the Prisoner. First we must remember it is not the Village authorities that come up with 'Degree Absolute' it is McKern's Number 2 - not only do they almost recklessly agree to this dangerous plan they also heighten the danger by demanding an accelerated timescale for the completion of that process. Time has obviously become particularly pressing. We should also note that if the drink is doctored there is just as much chance that Number 6 could have consumed it under pressure - after all, his character has not exactly presented a teetotal lifestyle in previous episodes ("Free For All", "Living In Harmony", and "The Girl Who Was Death" in particular). The Village clearly knew the danger and, of course, one particular Village figure actually wants him dead. McKern's Number 2 must see that only one of the two characters will emerge from the embryo room alive or at least unbroken. He has a clear self interest to protect, no matter how self sacrificing he appears to the Village authorities. I think perhaps he lets his guard slip on this point in more ways than one during the fencing when he dares Number 6 to kill him, suggesting that he will not "step over the threshold". Indeed, Number 6 does not kill him but he does inflict a significant injury on McKern's Number 2 with his unguarded weapon. This event clearly takes Number 2 aback and for the first time it really comes home to the character that he may not get out alive.
By this stage Number 6 has had enough of the Village's attempts to impose various forms of death on him. In "Arrival" they impose the first metaphorical death by abducting him in a hearse, in "Dance Of The Dead" they complete the final details of his bureaucratic death and finally get the point across to him that, whilst in the Village and whilst he continues to try to act as an individual in the Village, he is essentially walking dead ("in my country we would say they have stolen his soul" to quote one short lived supervisor). In "Once Upon A Time" they then finally try put his physical life on the line. The character realises by "Fall Out" that both he and the Village have come to the end of the line. There seems to be no possibility for victory, and no escape for either side, so he indulges in the deliberate acts of death and destruction that in earlier episodes he has sought to avoid ("It's Your Funeral" and "Living In Harmony"). An orgy of death follows, not just as a result of his machine gunning of Village staff, but also because he has just launched what looks to be a Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile at goodness-knows-who. The title of the episode ("Fall Out") does lead us to suspect that this is a nuclear-armed device and the panic evacuation of the Village suggests that someone somewhere might be retaliating with their own 'nuke'.
So death all round then. Metaphorical, bureaucratic, actual and possibly global. A bit depressing really. Is there anything we can look at that might perhaps give us a more cheery ending to this column rather than death, death and more death? What was that concept we looked at in my last, column? Oh yes I remember now - "Resurrection". Why don't you go back and read that column again now. Well I did warn you this instalment was something of a prequel....
Click here to return to the Unmutual Article Archive
Click here to return to the Unmutual home page