Dead Reckoning

© 1996 Rosemary Camilleri This edited version ©2011 Rosemary Camilleri, with thanks to Linda Schley.


“The very profusion of quantity in television creates innumerable dilemmas of evaluation: the silliest parlor game may be infinitely more entertaining than an artistic masterpiece which—and here is the rub, and the measure of the dilemma—may in fifty years time be appreciated as an immortal work.”
—Theatre historian Martin Esslin, in “Television: Mass Demand and Quality,” Impact of Science on Society, 20:3, 1970.

“There were a lot of hidden messages there, about control, about losing your identity, and selling out—a lot of morals there. It was a mirror on life, really.”
—Bernard Williams, Production Manager of The Prisoner, in interview with Chris Campbell, Number Six, 31, Spring 1992.

Dance of the Dead (DOTD) is a puzzling episode. At first viewing, it lacks the artistic unity of Free For All or Hammer Into Anvil. But does it follow that DOTD is a mere farrago of death images? Let’s recount some of the facts about this strange episode and then try to assemble the pieces.

1. In Steven Ricks’s fine Prisoner In Depth video series, Film Editor John S. Smith tells how he came to edit DOTD. Smith remembers that Patrick McGoohan rejected the original cut and ordered it shelved indefinitely. Later Smith got McGoohan’s permission to re-cut the episode, and the result won McGoohan’s approval.

2. DOTD is full of machines, and in its released ending the key figure is an uncannily dancing machine. In the original script’s ending, the Prisoner threw an ashtray at the telex, (“Being dead does have its advantages”) and let Number 2 pair him up with his ex-observer. The two joined a wild Dance of the Dead with other costumed Villagers. By contrast, in the released cut, there is no hint that the Prisoner accepted such choreography. Instead, Number 2 laughs at the Prisoner’s defiance, and the gutted telex comes to life.

3. Originally Number 2 was to be played by Trevor Howard, dressed at carnival as Jack the Ripper. When Howard could not play the part, it went to Mary Morris, whose carnival persona was Peter Pan. Ostensibly, this switch might seem to lend the episode playfulness or detract from the horror. But Morris’s Peter Pan is subtly as sinister as Jack the Ripper; after all, J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan lived with other lost boys in a violent, sexless, ageless limbo. And Morris’s chilling Peter Pan fits DOTD’s aura of mechanical death-in-life.

4. Steven Ricks reveals that DOTD was the fourth episode filmed during the first Portmeirion shoot, in September-October 1966. Thus it was among the earliest episodes to be commissioned through George Markstein. Now in Markstein’s idea of the Village, an important feature was that inmates were publicly believed to be dead. This belief is accented in Markstein’s 1983 novel Ferret, where captured spies went to a hidden camp and were “dead as far as the world knows,” “lost men who had permanently disappeared in a void.” For one of his spies in Ferret, Markstein even concocted a publicized death by air crash. This practical aspect of the Village may well have generated the idea for DOTD. But that idea changed during the filming and editing. From what we know about DOTD, it seems the result of many efforts: those of Markstein, Writer Anthony Skene, Star/Producer Patrick McGoohan, Production Manager Bernard Williams, Producer David Tomblin, Director Don Chaffey, and film Editor John S. Smith. “Final cuts” went, of course to Mr. McGoohan.

5. It has been observed, in Number Six and elsewhere, that DOTD is replete with death and with women. Let us first summarize the obvious death symbolism. One symbol for death is night. As the episode opens, it is night when sinister figures assault the sleeping Prisoner. In fact, night shrouds both the episode’s start and its end. At night the Prisoner “escapes” to the beach. In Greek mythology Night was the mother of Death.

Of course, the episode sometimes refers directly to death. The evil doctor tortured patients to death: in the shooting script we see the doctor bury one of his victims. There is a man’s body at water’s edge and later in a morgue drawer. There is the series’s only suggestion that the Prisoner might think of suicide. There is a death sentence. There is much talk of sleep.

For further death symbolism, there is the ubiquitous black cat. It is the only female to whom the Prisoner is sympathetic. Of course, it too seems to betray him, perhaps by following him and thus leading Number 2 to the morgue. There may be even more than one black cat, since when the Prisoner escapes his cottage at night, the cat on his bed reappears with uncanny speed in Number 2’s office.

Some of the death symbols are less direct. Many of the carnival costumes are, if not figures from limbo like Peter Pan, then dead and deadly figures: Queen Elizabeth I, a Caesar—perhaps Julius Caesar or Nero?—and Napoleon. And Dutton appears at the cabaret carrying a stick with a white balloon that resembles Rover; Dutton is dressed as a harlequin—a symbol of death. The Italian arlecchino, although a comic figure, is “a later variant of Herlequin, leader of the Wild Host or troop of demon horsemen riding by night, which has been plausibly referred (as if for *Herlechingi) to Old English Herla cyning King Herla, whose characteristics have been identified with those of Woden” (Harlequin, in Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, T. F. Hoad, 1993). And Woden or Odin, who presided at Valhalla, was the Norse god of the dead. (A writer who knew well this sinister side of the harlequin was Dorothy L. Sayers, whose Murder Must Advertise uses it to dazzling effect. There her main character assumes the name Death Bredon, and in his off hours, at night, investigates murder while dressed as a harlequin. In that novel, Sayers also mentions the classical link between Pan and panic fear.)

On the subject of traditional death imagery, DOTD borrows from centuries of European theater. It takes its title from the medieval French danse des morts and German Totentanz. In a danse des morts, amid the grue of the bubonic plague, death dragged into its dance the old and young, rich and poor. In the Totentanz, death stole your possessions and your senses, one by one. And of course, the encounter with death is the entire plot of the morality play called Everyman, from which McGoohan’s and Tomblin’s film company took its name. Like some major morality plays, DOTD even includes a trapdoor to an underworld—see Karen Langley’s admirable “Going Underground” in Number Six, 28, Summer 1991.
Another symbol of death is darkness. DOTD has dark rooms that hum with sinister mechanisms. And DOTD ends with the usual face shooting toward prison bars—but here that frame dissolves to a full six seconds of blackness. Out of that blackness, the hub of the pennyfarthing’s rear wheel spins to construct the closing credit backdrop.

DOTD’s death symbolism is consistent with the omnipresence of females. When death enters life, it appears as a woman in some cultures, such as Baltic and Japanese; in the Greek myths, the male Thanatos had sisters, the Keres, who oversaw death by violence, according to Wikipedia, “Death (personification).” In DOTD, most inmates are women, and all women are warders or at least collaborators. There is the domineering Number 2, the weak Bo Peep, the seductive maid, the icy Day Supervisor; even the treacherous black cat is explicitly female. Every one of them takes part in bringing Number 6 to his Kafka-esque trial. In many cultures, death has been archetypically feminine, a fact that The Prisoner’s creators acknowledge in the episode titled The Girl Who Was Death. Perhaps this female-death symbolism captures some unconscious attitudes: we may think that we hate death, but it seduces us. John Keats was not the first to find himself “Half in love with easeful death.” Freud spoke of the sex drive as a drive toward repetition and death. And if death is our decline into the material, “materialism” shares the same root as “mother.”

Machines and the Living Dead

All in all, DOTD seems to comment about the ways people are dead even in life. It constructs an awful limbo where machines are uncannily human, and people function like machines.

The episode starts with one sinister machine, a sort of EEG for brainwashing; and it ends with another sinister machine, a living telex. The telex may even allude to an onstage telegraph machine in another frightening play, Strindberg’s A Dance of Death. But in DOTD, the telex’s elegant Instruction Room (so the script names it) is the same room where Number 2 went to make her nocturnal report. Other rooms, too, seem to hiss or thrum with mechanical sounds: the room from which the older woman delivers Dutton’s death notice, and the dark room the Prisoner faces a minute later.

Between these sinister machines at the beginning and end, we see more pseudo-living mechanisms. There is of course Rover; but there is also an eerily humanoid Town Hall: “It’s fussy about who it lets in.” There’s an observation TV that screeches when the Prisoner muffles it. There is a radio that seems to broadcast a message (or is it dictation?). Perhaps it was planted along with the corpse itself (Is it the dead number 34?) to delude the Prisoner. The radio has a voice, but who is speaking—a machine or a person? And to whom? If the message is dictation, it is words spoken for a purpose other than meaning—a surrealist idea exploited famously in The Bald Soprano by Ionesco.

Just as machines act like people, so people seem mechanical. The three blondes offered to the Prisoner seem to be identical recreation machines. The carnival crowd is anonymous, mirthless, and even murderous. During the carnival dance, the Prisoner asks Little Bo Peep, “Is that you talking, or the computer?” and tells her, “Don’t act human; it would only confuse people.” Even during the dance, the Day Supervisor (dressed as Cleopatra) stands monitoring the dancers; and at the trial she testifies to spying on the Prisoner. The one inmate with a name and a personality, Roland Walter Dutton, speaks and acts like a zombie. He has given up life even before he dies. Mechanical roles persist; personalities are gone.
In DOTD, a subtle sign of this death-in-life motif is that, in the cabaret trial, people have lost not only names but even numbers. During the cabaret, the Prisoner is told, “No names are used here.” But no numbers are used either. Number 2 refers to Number 6 as “this person”; the judges call him “prisoner.” The prosecutor hesitates before identifying Number 2, and then calls her only “the defender.” Thus the cabaret takes Village anonymity to an extreme.

It is an extreme that McGoohan, writing Once Upon a Time, may have repeated in the figure of the Man With Umbrella. That man, played by John Cazabon, seems to have no number. His encounter precedes the Prisoner’s descent “till death do us part” into another underworld. And earlier, in Once Upon A Time, when Number 2. Is screening the Prisoner’s dossier, we see a clip from DOTD’s cabaret trial: “I want to call a witness—a character witness.”
To accentuate this death-in-life, we see occasional reminders of real life. There is the Prisoner standing on the beach, dressed as himself, not in Village uniform. He scans the night horizon for a reminder of “my world”—a sharp contrast to the Village. Number 2 addresses him as “Mr. Tuxedo,” so already he’s lost his Village number; and she attacks his assertions of another, living world. The other reminder of life is the dead man’s wallet photo of a couple in sunlight. That couple are the only people in the episode who obviously care for each other; their picture underscores the awful coldness of Village people. In DOTD, no one really likes anyone else: the doctor and Number 2 speak to each other sarcastically; the maids ride their trailer together in silence; no one at the Carnival talks or jokes; the observers are icy; and if Number 2’s three blondes smile, they smile at nobody.

As for the Prisoner, the mechanical Villagers try to annul him. I believe this is the only episode in which he is addressed as “Prisoner.” And during the carnival, he is the only one, except for the Butler, without a costume. But is it because he is still himself? Or because he doesn’t exist? Or do the two, in this dead world, amount to the same thing?

More puzzles remain. What is the function of the maid, that poisonous young flirt who reappears dressed as Queen Elizabeth I with Caesar and Napoleon? Why has she been dancing with Caesar? Why the 18th century furnishings and the mention of the French Revolution? Why the talk of democracy, the people, and rule without opposition? Iain McKay, writing on the Internet newsgroup “,” suggests ingeniously that these political nuances portray the Prisoner, in this episode, as hounded by republican, monarchical, and dictatorial governments.
Why does DOTD refer so often to “the rules”? And why the death trial, thinly disguised as cabaret? Perhaps they relate to the authoritarian hocus pocus and the trial-like scenes in Once Upon a Time and Fall Out? Both rules and trials are ways of reducing human situations to mechanisms.

Joining the Dance

There are many pieces of DOTD to be assembled, so my conclusions are necessarily tentative. First, I think that DOTD is not primarily about physical death; after all, we never see anyone stop breathing. Physical death appears only in the floating corpse, which we glimpse only briefly; and in the script’s secret-burial scene, which is cut entirely.

Instead, DOTD seems to be about the death-in-life of losing your identity, of joining the mechanized dance of materialism. Everyone joins it but the Prisoner. For example, Neil Allan (ITV 2, p. 37) asks why the Prisoner attacks the telex instantly, not even reading its message. A good question. It’s worth examining how the Prisoner’s attitude to machines develops from beginning to end of the episode. First he is assaulted by a brain machine, but he doesn’t know it. Then he tentatively throttles the television that watches him. Later he finds a radio, which he treats with casual curiosity and calmly surrenders to Number 2 on the Belvedere. But by the carnival’s end he seems fed up with all mechanisms, including the deadly, mechanical dances—literal and figurative—of Number 2, Bo Peep, the evil doctor, and the Villagers. In gutting the telex, is he reflexively attacking mechanism itself? Is the medium—the telex—really the message? Perhaps McLuhan had watched McGoohan.
Neil Allan also asks why so much of DOTD takes place in the Town Hall. Perhaps it’s because, for this episode, Town Hall is both a machine and the home of machines. It is the place of government and of the morgue.

Second, DOTD suggest, that, to a living person, “everything’s elsewhere.” For the Prisoner, “my world” is like the couple in the photo: a sunny world of real affection, a world that Peter Pan and her nasty carnival persistently deny. DOTD seems to say that the Prisoner, like any living man in this mechanized dystopia, must feel exiled. He enacts the only real life in the episode when he befriends the cat and sincerely questions his observer; but the cat betrays him and the observer prosecutes him.

Third, DOTD’s carnival resembles modern materialism: it looks wonderful but it does not fulfill anyone’s deepest longings. It does not keep us from killing each other. And it certainly will not give us freedom. Everyone in DOTD gets flowers and opulent costumes; the carnival even serves vintage wine; but no one is happy. And the Prisoner may have read about Persephone in the underworld, because he refuses to drink there.
Finally, is it too far-fetched to say that DOTD is about modern life: its material seductions, its political fist in the velvet gloves of “democracy,” and its sometimes dehumanizing mechanisms? Although The Prisoner is not science fiction, it works like the best science fiction in that it shows us ourselves from the outside. And in science fiction today there is a trend away from robots as “other,” toward a world in which we humans make ourselves robots. Have we begun to imitate machines?

Think of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and its film version, Blade Runner. There the people are possibly less human than the androids. (In Dick’s novel, the people who reflexively murder poignantly human androids similarly lust after possessing a sheep, a mouse, or a spider; is this a lesson about conservationism in the face of Cambodian, Bosnian, and Rwandan massacres?)

Next, think of the fiction of William Gibson such as Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive. Gibson goes one step further than Dick: Gibson’s heroes have heads slotted for software, grafted muscles and teeth, or blades built into their fingers. They can be programmed and rebuilt endlessly. His cyberspace cowboys despise “meat” and long for the “bodiless exultation” of virtual reality, where they become data among data. Even their gods are online: these people don’t pray, they jack into the matrix. Their immortality is an afterlife as a ROM construct, a black box that imitates them electronically. In short, do we now love to imagine ourselves and even our gods as machines? Is it less painful than facing and using our finite freedom responsibly?

In DOTD, the Prisoner is the one who can take machines or leave them. He is tried and nearly executed for owning a radio—one that he never fought to hide or to keep. And when he is accused of owning that “antisocial” machine, he merely calls a character witness from among the living. That is, his defense is not “I am innocent,” but “I am myself.”

The Prisoner appeals to a reality of personal loyalty. That reality opposes the Village’s mechanical dance and its engineered or virtual reality.
McGoohan’s production team may have lacked the technology of virtual reality, but they had the vision. In DOTD, they showed Number 2 reporting and getting her orders from an autonomous telex, a sort of god from a machine, deus ex machina. Today we risk being appendages to our machines. Perhaps DOTD, like the best theater of every generation, foretold our cultural fortunes.

To me, DOTD still seems fragmented, unified primarily by that aura of dead mechanism in which one man fights machines that usurp human powers, and people dance like automata. But that very fragmentation links DOTD to a surrealist theater already well known in the U.K. of the 1950s and 60. One thinks of the disjointed nightmare worlds of Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, and Eugene Ionesco. (In fact, Ionesco, too, drew upon the Totentanz tradition for his play Le Roi Se Meurt—Exit the King.) These surrealist plays expose our modern predicament: flirting with deadly seductions, we end up imitating our dead machines.

The surrealist tradition, and its morality-play antecedents, would have been well known to Patrick McGoohan. Understandably, he declines to explain his allegorical conundrums. But I believe they remain for anyone who cares to seek them. DOTD has not yet yielded all its secrets.

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