THE PROJECTION ROOM (The Prisoner Compared...)


By Dr Andrew K Shenton

Given that neither The Prisoner, nor the movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey, can be considered a conventional work of drama, it is hardly surprising that in his book on “radical film and television in the 1960s”, Rakoff (1998) mentions the latter at several points, even though he is primarily concerned with the former. The two productions are seldom directly compared by commentators, however. Bizony (1994), in his study of 2001, refers to Irwin Allen’s 1960s television series, Thunderbirds and Star Trek – all roughly contemporaneous with 2001 – but any mention of The Prisoner is conspicuously missing. Yet, 2001 and The Prisoner share several significant similarities. Their times of production overlapped and, geographically, many of their scenes were filmed in close proximity. At the time of writing, the fiftieth anniversary of each has recently been celebrated. An Archive on 4 radio documentary has just been broadcast to commemorate fifty years since the original screening of 2001 in cinemas (Frayling, 2018a), while events such as conventions at Portmeirion and Elstree Studios, and the publication of a spate of new books (see, for example, Langley, 2016; Cox, 2017; Davy, 2017; Fordham, 2017; Pixley 2017 and Shenton, 2017) have coincided with The Prisoner’s fifty-year milestone. The first showing of the programme had ended in Britain with the transmission of the last instalment, Fall Out, in February 1968. Fairclough (2002) reports that not only were 2001 and The Prisoner made in adjacent studios at MGM Borehamwood; the production personnel used the same facilities and their interaction even led film librarian Tony Sloman, who was working on The Prisoner, to acquire from Stanley Kubrick’s staff material that he initially intended to be employed for a night sky shot in The Chimes of Big Ben. Ultimately, however, the scene involved survived no further than the first edit.

Much is often made of the lack of openness surrounding the making of The Prisoner. To a considerable extent, this can be attributed to the personality of Patrick McGoohan. David Tomblin refers to his “secretive” nature and how he had lots of ideas but never explained them (Ricks and Hora, 1990a). Moreover, McGoohan was at first reluctant to acknowledge that he himself had written what became the penultimate instalment, Once Upon a Time, employing the pseudonym, Archibald Schwarz (Fairclough, 2006), and the identity of Number One was not revealed until the script of Fall Out had been copied and made available to the crew immediately after it had been written (Rodley, 2017). An unforthcoming attitude to information-sharing extended to other members of the production team. Prisoner propsman Mickey O’Toole recalls, “If there was anything wrong [in terms of behind the scenes problems], they never told you. They kept it to themselves” (Ricks and Hora, 1990b). The outside world was also left largely in the dark during much of the programme’s making. Langley (2010) reports that in the time prior to the 1967 press conference that launched The Prisoner, “the studio had been banned to visitors during filming”. Despite their neighbouring operations and some interaction between the respective crews, Prisoner production personnel learnt virtually nothing first-hand about the making of 2001. In the words of Rakoff (1998), “Between our own tight schedule and Kubrick’s, little was ever seen or heard by us of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The production occupied plenty of studio space in a big block, at the far side of the studio, that butted onto the vast back lot. We rarely saw anything, however. At one stage, I glimpsed a couple of actors in monkey suits but that was all.”

In sum, Rakoff (1998) feels that the making of 2001 was shrouded in even more secrecy than was that of The Prisoner.
There are some connections between The Prisoner and 2001 that relate to their links with other productions. Ice Station Zebra occupies an important place in the history of The Prisoner, of course, and the movie is also significant in terms of the 2001 story. Agel (1970) recalls that when the run of 2001 at the Cinerama Theatre on Broadway ended in late 1968, there was speculation within the trade that this was to allow the by now long-completed Ice Station Zebra to open “in time for Christmas business”.

Whilst it is generally agreed that both 2001 and The Prisoner have stood up well over time, there has been much criticism of the ways in which the computers featured in the productions were realised. Even as far back as thirty years ago, White and Ali (1988) described that seen in the latter’s episode, The General, as “quite a scream” and indicated that, at the time of their writing, Patrick McGoohan had already admitted that by then the computer “would probably fit in a briefcase”. In scale, HAL, meanwhile, has today been compared by Frayling (2018a) to the military mainframe computers prevalent in the 1940s and 1950s, and he asserts that the film’s designers scarcely offer a realistic view of what might have developed some thirty years after the movie had been made. In the interests of balance, though, we should also take cognisance of Frayling’s observation that it was important for HAL to meet the audience’s expectations with respect to how a computer should look. For all its datedness, the computer in The General certainly meets this criterion. In the Prisoner story, this was an important issue since the audience had hitherto been led to believe that the eponymous general was a person, rather than a machine, and the revelation disclosing the actual situation provides a surprise ending. The personification of computers is a common feature within the two productions, with HAL referred to throughout 2001 as “he” and often treated as another member of the crew of the spaceship, Discovery.

Thematically, perhaps the most obvious link between 2001 and The Prisoner is the fallibility of science, and computers especially. In The General, the inability of the titular machine to answer the question, “Why?” immediately leads to its destruction, and, as Fairclough (2002) recognises when he notes that the potentially fatal implications of new technology are explored in 2001, HAL proves unreliable in Kubrick’s film. Just as HAL is less than cooperative when given certain direct instructions by Bowman, the commander of the Discovery, the Village computers are unhelpful when asked to provide particular information. We learn in the episode, It’s Your Funeral, that the machines responsible for generating activities prognoses have twice been asked to give “percental appraisals of their own efficiency” but on each occasion they have not returned the requested data to the Village authorities (Fairclough, 2006). Although the scene revealing this problem is rather whimsical, we may conclude that there is a degree of scepticism with regard to science in both 2001 and The Prisoner and in the latter this extends to distrust in terms of the use that may be made of it, as well as there being doubts about science itself. The Archive on 4 programme suggests that the darker aspects of 2001 derive from Stanley Kubrick’s involvement in the film, rather than that of co-writer Arthur C. Clarke (Frayling, 2018a). As the same documentary points out, however, if the resolution of 2001 is understood to represent rebirth, the film concludes optimistically. The Prisoner, in contrast, ends on a much more negative note, since, somewhat ominously, in the dying moments of Fall Out, a hearse similar to one that we see in The Prisoner’s title sequence cruises past the camera, the door of Number Six’s home in London opens and then closes behind The Butler automatically with a soft whirr, in much the same way as would the door of his house in The Village, the hero is still labelled as “Prisoner” at the beginning of the closing credits and, ultimately, the final scene of the episode repeats the first part of the standard opening for the programme. Real freedom has not been achieved and, it seems, never will be.

From an audience perspective, the spectacular nature of 2001 and The Prisoner can scarcely be overstated. When it became known that Big Finish’s Nicholas Briggs was to make an audio, “reimagined” version of The Prisoner, an interviewer challenged him on how the content of the original, which was so visual in in its emphasis, could be recaptured despite the limitations of a sound-only format (Nick Briggs – Big Finish Audios undated). Briggs himself acknowledges that “the incredible visual style” of The Prisoner is one of the characteristics that has ensured the enduring popularity of the first version (Smith, 2016). Kubrick, meanwhile, describes 2001 as “a nonverbal experience” (Agel, 1970), and points out that in a film lasting some two hours and nineteen minutes, only around forty minutes include dialogue. The fact that there is no conversation until over twenty minutes into 2001 may well remind Prisoner fans of the episode, Many Happy Returns, whose opening twenty minutes also has no comprehensible dialogue. Furthermore, the first part of The Prisoner’s initial title sequence goes a long way in establishing the whole premise for the programme without a word being heard by the viewers. It is striking, too, how much of Fall Out features no conversation. This is especially true of the later scenes. Both The Prisoner and 2001 make unusual use of existing music. The latter’s incorporation of such established compositions as Thus Spoke Zarathustra and The Blue Danube is often regarded as a highlight of the film, providing much of its elegance and grandeur, and coverage of this area forms a significant element in the Archive on 4 celebratory programme (Frayling, 2018a), whilst in The Prisoner music as diverse as the Radetski March, For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow and My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean heightens the whimsical aspect of the show. The use of existing pieces which are not especially associated with the 1960s helps to ensure that, when watched today, neither 2001 nor The Prisoner show their age.

Perhaps the most startling similarity and the main reason why both productions continue to attract substantial cult followings is that 2001 and The Prisoner each culminated in a baffling climax which shunned the conventional and the expected. Anyone seeing the former for the first time may well have anticipated that Bowman would meet a race of aliens of the kind that had populated countless science fiction films previously, and McGoohan has recognised that many of those watching The Prisoner envisaged that Number One would be unmasked as a “James Bond villain” (Rodley, 2017). Yet, as the final credits were presented, 2001 left the public none the wiser in terms of the significance of the monolith, the star gate, the planet whose surface Bowman witnesses, the white room and the star child. This was the intention of Arthur C. Clarke, who has commented that if any of its viewers completely understood 2001 then he and Kubrick had failed, as his hope was to raise far more questions than were answered (Frayling, 2018a). Kubrick, however, has gone on record as saying that he does not agree with Clarke’s words, which, he suspects, were meant “facetiously” (Agel, 1970). Certainly, only limited attempts were made by the creators of the two productions to clarify matters subsequently. Frayling (2018b) reports that Kubrick “disliked talking publicly about what [2001] amounted to”, and McGoohan’s daughter, Catherine, attributes her father’s reluctance to reveal more about The Prisoner to the fact that he thought the work spoke for itself and should be left for individual interpretation (Rodley, 2017).

If we ask what might have been done to render the respective climaxes more comprehensible to contemporary audiences, two very contrasting answers emerge. In the case of 2001, Zebrowski (1988) blames much of the film’s impenetrability on the loss of some seventeen minutes of content that was cut by Kubrick after audience previews. Zebrowski (1988) explains that had this material been retained, it “would have oriented many viewers and produced a more immediate audience understanding”. Nevertheless, he concedes that “the sense of mystery gained is not entirely out of place”. In evaluating the last Prisoner episode, Tomblin suspects that Fall Out could have been changed quite substantially had more time been available to fine-tune it. He reflects, “normally, I suppose, you sit down and you’d sort of discuss it, plot it and polish it and round it and change it and eventually the final episode may have been, well, it would have been very different and it may have made more obvious sense at the end” (Ricks and Hora, 1990b).

Over the last fifty years, a wide range of theories has been suggested to explain what we are watching in 2001 and The Prisoner. One of the most rigorous approaches in the quest to establish the former’s meaning can be found in Margaret Stackhouse’s highly structured essay. In a series of speculations that drew praise from Kubrick himself, Stackhouse sets down various possibilities under a set of headings (Agel, 1970). Others have sought to understand 2001 in terms of existing conceptual frameworks. Frederic P. Lyman, for example, interprets the film on the basis of a four-act development that he associates with Carl Jung’s work on dreams (Agel, 1970). Commentators on The Prisoner, such as McLean and Stansfield (1976), have also proposed that individual episodes of that series can be interpreted in Jungian ways. Lyman’s progression bears comparison with the three stages identified by Joseph Campbell in a “monomyth” and which Gregory (1997) employs to dissect The Prisoner. Gregory’s approach has not won universal approval, however, with Dunn (undated) especially critical of the writer’s stance. The possibility of ever arriving at a general consensus of opinion in relation to 2001 now seems remote – as Frayling (2018b) points out, the film’s deeper meanings are still being debated today. The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Science Fiction maintains that understanding 2001 is best achieved if the viewer makes a conceptual leap and appreciates the plot in “alien, non-humanological terms” (Pringle, 1996). A similar argument can be made in relation to The Prisoner. Anyone who seeks to make sense of the series as a conventional work of drama will be thwarted and needs to shift their orientation from a “realist” position to one that is receptive to the programme’s allegorical nature. With a refreshing bluntness, Sandifer (2012) concludes, The Prisoner “wasn’t supposed to make sense, and if you think it did, you definitely did it wrong”.

Many would say that The Prisoner involved McGoohan using drama as a means of conveying his own, provocative thoughts on modern Western society. McGoohan (1979) himself regards the series as “a moral and social comment”, whilst Fairclough (2013) goes so far as to describe the programme as “McGoohan’s rage against modern society”. 2001 is perhaps less didactic, with the viewer invited to construct their own understanding from the evidence put in front of them. Star Keir Dullea believes that Kubrick deliberately left much of the film ambiguous so that “each person can bring his own experience and interpretation to it” (Agel, 1970). Still, others suggest that the film is underpinned by a distinct agenda. Prisoner art director Jack Shampan maintains that 2001 may have been officially funded to prepare America for the space race (Rakoff, 1998). Such a notion seems fanciful but Kubrick himself may well have been mindful of the role the film could assume as a valuable propaganda tool. In a 1968 interview, he voiced the opinion, “at a time when man is preparing to set foot on the Moon, I think it’s necessary to open up our Earth-bound minds to such speculation” (Agel, 1970).

There can be no doubt that both The Prisoner and 2001 were concerned with contemporary issues, whether they be man’s explorations into space or surveillance, depersonalisation, bureaucracy and the extent to which the citizen may rebel. Although we may well form the view that the right of a person to assert their individuality is more of a theme within The Prisoner than in 2001, observations made by Driver (undated) with regard to the latter are pertinent in this context. He recalls a scene from 2001 in which the astronaut, Frank Poole, keeps himself fit by running around the Discovery and practising his boxing skills. According to Driver, he is “doggedly affirming his humanity in a sterile environment”. The Prisoner does much the same in The Village. Indeed, in the episodes, It’s Your Funeral and A Change of Mind, we see him working out in a makeshift outdoor gymnasium that he has constructed. In A Change of Mind, this soon leads to an accusation from Village enforcers that he is anti-social.

2001 and The Prisoner are essentially extrapolative. Tame was among the first to recognise that, in The Prisoner, the “Village is a portrayal of the essentials of our own society” (1974). Page (2008) adds that here social control has reached “technological perfection”. Meanwhile, 2001’s publicity director, Roger Caras, explains that Kubrick’s film was “a logical extension of today’s rapidly developing techniques and technologies” (Frayling, 2018b). With the exceptions of Number Six and Bowman, people are for the most part unimportant in the two productions. Whilst the individuals occupying the position of Number Two in The Village and the British intelligence officers whom The Prisoner meets beyond its confines seem to be ever changing, the men who serve as the crew of the Discovery in 2001 are largely anonymous, so much so that even Dullea admits, “HAL is more human than I am in the picture” (Agel, 1970). Dullea’s comment also, of course, contributes to the earlier discussion on the personification of the computer in 2001.

In both productions, elements that have been assumed in certain quarters to suggest a religious orientation have now generally been discredited. We may laugh at the story that has been told by Gary Lockwood, who played Poole in 2001, that he has been approached by nuns firmly convinced that Kubrick’s film was “the most inspirational religious movie” they had ever seen (Frayling, 2018a). Today, the oft-cited incident that, after watching the denouement of 2001, a young member of the audience ran down the theatre’s aisle and through the cinema screen convinced that what he had watched offered a representation of God and his influence (Agel, 1970) is frequently ridiculed, and it may be significant that, in one of his diary entries documenting the making of 2001, Clarke (1972) refers to there being a “Cosmic Consciousness” in the film, rather than “God”. It is difficult, however, to separate the two concepts entirely satisfactorily, and any attempt to do so may remind us of how Clarke himself famously declared, in January 1968, not long before 2001’s release, any “sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” (Westfahl, 2005). Ultimately, as Lockwood recognises, the way in which the viewer understands 2001 is dependent on the personal agenda that they bring to watching it (Frayling, 2018a). Meanwhile, Norma West, who appeared in the Dance of the Dead episode of The Prisoner, recalls that McGoohan intended the “Be seeing you!” salute to be modelled on the sign of the fish used by the early Christians (White and Ali, 1988), and commentators such White and Ali have investigated possible allusions to The Bible in Fall Out at some length. Nevertheless, McGoohan has emphatically denied that the final episode has any religious basis whatsoever (The Prisoner: Patrick McGoohan Interviewed By Warner Troyer – The Troyer Interview, Part Two, 1977).

For all their esotericism, both The Prisoner and 2001 have long been accepted parts of mainstream popular culture. Today, it is all too easy for those who do not grasp the allegorical elements of The Prisoner to laud Number Six as almost a comic-book style superhero, given his many and varied skills, all honed to an exceptionally high level. There is, in fact, some evidence in the literature to encourage such a view. Commenting on the episode, Many Happy Returns, White and Ali (1988) detect “a superman aspect to Number Six that becomes more and more apparent with every episode”. Although the programme is difficult to classify, The Prisoner is almost always covered in even the most cursory surveys of science fiction television and it formed an obvious choice for inclusion in the first volume of the Starlog Photo Guidebook: TV Episode Guides – Science Fiction, Adventure and Superheroes (Hirsch and Weyn, 1981), even if many commentators would no doubt maintain that it does not sit entirely comfortably in any of these categories (1). Around the same time, 2001 was one of twenty-five productions/franchises, predominantly from the worlds of film and television, featured by Harry (1981) in Heroes of the Spaceways, and takes its place in a sequence that also addresses such conventional material as The Black Hole, Doctor Who, Flash Gordon, Star Trek and Star Wars.

If Number Six has now come to be regarded as an archetypal hero, errant computer HAL is frequently represented as one of the classic genre villains. In a book intended for children, Miller (1977) treats the computer as a “monster” alongside such classic creations as Godzilla, King Kong, Frankenstein and Jaws. This is a simplistic and perhaps draconian view. A fairer appraisal of HAL’s behaviour, made just three years after Miller’s judgement, is offered by Hefley and Zimmerman (1980), who clarify, “HAL has been given an additional set of secret instructions and somehow construes them to mean that his human passengers are non-essential. Logically, he decides to eliminate them before they foul up the mission with their unpredictable behavior and emotionalism.”

HAL’s dilemma is emphasised in the sequel, 2010, in which his programmer explains to crewmates on a follow-up mission that the computer’s actions had been due to his receiving conflicting orders and HAL was doing all he could to interpret them.

As we near the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century, both 2001 and The Prisoner are often regarded as quintessential instances of late sixties psychedelia. The possibility that The Prisoner’s experiences in The Village are no more than a dream is frequently raised (see, for example, Davies, 2002; Gregory, 1997; Hora, 1989; McLean and Stansfield, 1976; O’Brien, 2000; and Sandifer, 2012). Certainly, the surreal elements, vivid Village colours and an apparent lack of “sense” in The Prisoner add fuel to the argument that Number Six’s experiences are no more than some kind of delusion. For Foy (undated), though, “Looked at from a “psychedelic” perspective […] The Prisoner seems much more likely to be a televised re-enactment of an LSD ‘trip’, or series of ‘trips’”, rather than simply a bad dream. Beginning with the premise that some of The Prisoner’s most baffling riddles may begin to unravel if one approaches them from a drug-related viewpoint, Foy cites a range of episodes that he feels exhibits hallmarks of an LSD trip, before describing Fall Out as “a ‘psychedelic’ experience par excellence”. Gregory (1997), too, points to Fall Out’s “‘hallucinatory’ imagery, music and dialogue” as evidence of the influence of the “psychedelic” era in which it was made. In 2001, Bowman’s journey through the star gate and the bizarre scenes that follow provide stunning visual evidence in support of the claim made in the film’s publicity poster that this was “The Ultimate Trip”. Clarke (1972) stresses that while he is assured by experts that the “‘psychedelic’ sequence […] is best appreciated under the influence of various chemicals”, neither he nor Kubrick conceived it in these circumstances, and were keen to leave much to the imagination, mindful of how, in Clarke’s words, “so many ‘horror’ movies collapse when some pathetic papier-mâché monster is finally revealed”. It is difficult to envisage a production as revolutionary as either 2001 or The Prisoner being made today for the first time. In retrospect, they were products of the unprecedented wave of experimental creativity that we especially associate with the late 1960s, where well established norms, boundaries and expectations were not only challenged but overturned.

In much the same way as no previous science fiction film is comparable to 2001, even the most knowledgeable television aficionado would struggle to name a small screen series that may seriously be considered a forerunner to The Prisoner. Some commentators find it easier to draw parallels between the two works on the one hand and the characteristics of the mythical journey conveyed in Homer’s The Odyssey on the other. Indeed, the full title of 2001 invites the viewer to make such a comparison. Hall (2008) highlights how, specifically, Bowman’s name “is an obvious compliment to Homer’s champion archer, and the monocular computer HAL has Cyclopean features”. In a more abstract vein, she notes that just as Odysseus was the first great hero with a claim to global status, in 2001 we are “Odysseus as we travel collectively from ape to human and eventually, after leaving the planet, to starman-angel”. Kubrick himself has equated the excitement that must have been experienced by the ancient Greeks as they crossed the vast oceans with that felt by modern day man when travelling through space (Frayling, 2018a). It is rather harder to detect characteristics of The Odyssey within the overall Prisoner saga but Nobel and Goldsborough (1978) nevertheless point to the similarities between Homer’s story and the episode, Many Happy Returns, in terms of its themes of escape, survival and return home, and prompt their readers to look for comparisons between the protagonists seen in that instalment and those Odysseus meets, such as the Lotus Eaters, Circe, the Laestrygonian cannibals and the Sirens. Hall’s observation on how 2001 deals with the evolution of man once more emphasises the film’s optimism and this again contrasts with the pessimistic view that underlies The Prisoner. In Fall Out, McGoohan is apparently suggesting that man will always be imprisoned by his more animal-like nature.

Both 2001 and The Prisoner have left strong legacies. Short (2011) summarises a range of features within The Prisoner that recur in subsequent telefantasy. Specifically, she cites “the subversion of expectation rendered by mixing generic signifiers; high production values; a measure of playfulness (including baroque excesses, dream sequences, and extravagant ruses); allusions made to familiar tropes (referencing other media, fairy tales, and popular culture); a refusal to “pander” to audiences (with complex plotting and unanswered questions); and an insistent ambiguity”.

In a television context, there are clear links between 2001 and how, in the first season of Space: 1999 (1975-76), a cosmic intelligence seems to guide man’s development. The use of Adagio for Strings and Organ in G Minor in the episode, Dragon’s Domain, rekindles memories of the classical music we hear in 2001, and, as Gerani and Schulman (1977) note, the resolution of the Black Sun instalment brings to mind the closing scenes of the film. It is said that, for one critic, “Space: 1999 was Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 every week” (Wood, 2010). Even, it would appear, television series that were well established when 2001 first arrived in cinemas borrowed from the film subsequently – Sandifer (2012) posits that the “bizarre space-acid trip at the end” served as “direct inspiration for the title sequence of Doctor Who featured in the bulk of the Tom Baker era”. In terms of individual serials, Cornell et al (1995) cite The Space Pirates (1969), The Ambassadors of Death (1970) and The Invisible Enemy (1977) as Doctor Who productions that may have been influenced by 2001, although the authors offer little or no elaboration to substantiate their claims. Still, the influence of The Prisoner and 2001 goes far beyond the making of drama. The manner in which the former has stimulated thought, debate and scholarship about television series has now long been recognised.

(1) In all, a dozen series are featured in the book. In addition to The Prisoner, those covered are Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who (the Tom Baker era only), Galactica 1980, Logan’s Run, Lost in Space, Man From Atlantis, The Outer Limits, The Starlost, Star Trek (the animated version), Thunderbirds and Wonder Woman.

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