THE PROJECTION ROOM (The Prisoner Compared...)


By Dr Andrew K Shenton

This article now forms part of a book of similar essays called "Unique But Similar" and can be found HERE.

At first glance the “cult” 1960s series, "The Prisoner", and the serial, "Cloud Burst", produced in the mid 1970s, appear to share few similarities. The former was a prime-time drama programme made for a mass audience, whilst the latter formed one of the stories within "Look and Read", the long-running BBC series for schools, the main purpose of which was to teach youngsters in the use of the English language, rather than to entertain. This educational aim is emphasised by the fact that in each of the ten episodes of "Cloud Burst" the drama was complemented by a didactic teaching segment that formed a significant part of the broadcast.

One man fulfilled several important roles in both "The Prisoner" and "Cloud Burst". This is particularly true of "The Prisoner", which is frequently seen as the brainchild of Patrick McGoohan. In addition to being Executive Producer and star of the show, McGoohan wrote three episodes and directed five. Furthermore, the programme was made by McGoohan’s own production company. Gregory (1997: 2) refers to the “unique chance” afforded to McGoohan “to take ‘authorial’ control over the series and to turn it into a vehicle for his own very personal vision”. Similarly, the importance of Richard Carpenter to "Cloud Burst" should not be underestimated. By the time he wrote "Cloud Burst", Carpenter already had a proven track record in "Look and Read", having contributed the earlier serial, "The Boy from Space". He would also write the next, "The King’s Dragon", and be responsible for such series as "The Ghosts of Motley Hall" and "Robin of Sherwood". As well as writing "Cloud Burst", Carpenter narrated parts of the story and presented the teaching element within each episode. These personal appearances gave him the opportunity to provide viewers with some insight into his thinking when writing the story.

Both "The Prisoner" and "Cloud Burst" can be understood on a range of levels. On the most superficial plane, each can be enjoyed as a tale of action and adventure, with "The Prisoner" following one man’s efforts to escape his captors and regain his freedom, and "Cloud Burst" featuring attempts to foil a plot to hold the country to ransom using a fantastic new invention. On closer examination, it is clear that there are many more themes within the episodes of these programmes. "The Prisoner" has often been interpreted as a comment on the relationship between the individual and society, and as a study of the nature of mankind. Although the issues tackled by "Cloud Burst" are generally less philosophical and esoteric, they are still substantial. Many take the form of contrasts: good and evil, positive and negative applications of science, altruism and terrorism, and loyalty and treachery.

Perhaps surprisingly, several of the issues addressed by the productions are, in fact, the same. For example, both may be seen to be concerned with the “duality” of man. In "Fall Out", the final episode of "The Prisoner", it is revealed that the person in overall charge of the Village in which the Prisoner is incarcerated is the Prisoner himself. It is widely believed that these two characters are intended to represent different sides of the same individual. A similar theme may be identified in "Cloud Burst". The hero, Ram Pandit, wants to use his new invention, a “rain-gun”, for the benefit of mankind, specifically to alleviate starvation by bringing rain to the dry land of India, whilst his evil twin brother, Ravi, seeks to exploit the machine as a weapon for his own ends. Again, the two characters may be interpreted as different sides of the same person, especially as actor Renu Setna played both Ram and Ravi. Indeed, in one of the many plot twists, it is implied at the end of the third episode, Rav 1, that the theft of a “firing program” which is necessary for the rain-gun to be used may have been masterminded by Ram himself. The theme of contrasting identities also emerges in the personality of Mrs. Green. Ostensibly she is Ram’s faithful housekeeper, yet she is ultimately shown to be in league with Ravi.

A second thematic similarity between "The Prisoner" and "Cloud Burst" lies in their exploration of the nature of science. As White and Ali (1988), Gregory (1997) and Davies (2002) have all observed, the use to which technology is put is a key issue in "The Prisoner", and in "Cloud Burst" the matter of how the rain-gun should be used is central to the entire serial. During his personal appearance in episode seven, "To The Mill!", Carpenter specifically draws attention to this theme and invites his young viewers to suggest other machines that may be put to “good” and “bad” uses. In an interview reported by Killick (1993), Carpenter has indicated that nuclear energy was foremost in his mind. In "The Prisoner", the use made of science is perhaps addressed most directly in the episode, "Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling", in which the following conversation takes place between the eminent scientist, Professor Seltzman, who is being held in the Village, and his captor, Number Two (extract from The Prisoner: A Televisionary Masterpiece, p. 164):

NUMBER TWO: Life is not due your sweet resignation.
SELTZMAN: Nor is it for many other scientists. Rutherford, for example.
How he must regret having split the atom.
NUMBER TWO: Yes... almost as bad as splitting the identity of two human beings.
Unlike all the king’s men, only you can put them together again.
SELTZMAN: Don’t rely on it.
NUMBER TWO: Why make this stand now? You must have known what you were doing when you invented the wretched process.
SELTZMAN: Only people like you make it wretched.

A similar dialogue, again involving a villain and a captured scientist, appears in the "To The Mill!" episode of "Cloud Burst". The following passage is taken from pages 30-31 of the pupil’s pamphlet, with the events told from Ravi’s perspective:

“Inside my control room, I told Ram my plans.
‘You could have been rich if you had worked for me,’ I told him.
‘Yes, but you wanted me to make new guns and rockets, Ravi. Guns and rockets to make you rich.
I will never work on anything that can kill,’ said Ram.
‘But that’s just what you have done,’ I said.”

The loss of individual identity is another theme within both productions. In "The Prisoner", virtually everyone in the Village is referred to simply by a number and a similar pattern emerges with Ravi’s team in "Cloud Burst". Ravi himself is addressed at various points as “Number One” and Mrs. Green as “Number Three”. The third member of the team is only ever known as “Number Two”. In both productions numbered badges enable the viewer to identify individual characters. Although in "Cloud Burst" the use of numbers in place of people’s names is very limited and is quite different from the situation in "The Prisoner", in which a whole society consists of individuals known solely by numbers, in each case the dehumanising use of numbers is applied to a sinister group which the hero is resisting.

In addition to the fact that certain general themes emerge across both series, "The Prisoner" and "Cloud Burst" include more specific plot events that are comparable. In the closing stages of each production, a villain is unmasked and, on both occasions, the revealed figure is familiar to the viewer yet entirely unexpected. In "The Prisoner", the person in question is Number One, the identity of whom the Prisoner has been striving to learn throughout the series. In "Cloud Burst", the true nature of Number Three is rather more incidental. For much of the story, viewers had been encouraged to think of Number Three as simply “the man on the motor-bike” and were not led to question the individual’s identity further. Ultimately, however, Number Three is shown to be Mrs. Green in order to provide a final, “twist” ending. Both climaxes prompt the viewer to reassess the events that they have witnessed. In The Prisoner we may well consider from a fresh perspective why the Village’s authorities have been reluctant to damage Number Six physically and why he often seems to have been treated as a special case. In "Cloud Burst" we now know how Ravi was able to able to steal Ram’s plans for the rain-gun, and the ability of Mrs. Green to turn off Ram’s computer despite her claim to be technologically ignorant is seen in a new and sinister light. The revelation also explains why, after Number Three gave instructions to “get rid of those kids” in episode five, In the Hut, the first person to arrive on the scene was Mrs. Green. We may remember, too, that, although Number Three was often seen in conversation with others, on only one occasion did we actually hear the character speak and even then the voice was distorted because it was heard over a radio.

The unmasking of the motorcyclist provides the final answer to a series of questions that viewers may ask about who can be trusted in "Cloud Burst". Again, the same question may be asked in relation to "The Prisoner". Although the issue permeates a range of episodes, it is especially apparent in "Arrival", "The Chimes of Big Ben", "Many Happy Returns" and "Checkmate". In "Cloud Burst" the integrity of several characters is questioned through the ten episodes. Long before the treachery of Mrs. Green is revealed, it seems at one point that Ram himself may be in league with the sinister “man on the motor-bike” (at the climax of the third instalment, Rav 1) and, on another occasion, Ram’s colleague, Dick Turner, is suspected of being the motorcyclist (in the cliffhanger of In the Hut). Ultimately, however, these suspicions prove to be unjustified. There are further similarities in the ways in which the writers of the two productions play with viewers’ expectations. In "The Prisoner" episode, "The General", for example, the eponymous character is shown to be a computer and a comparable revelation is made in the "Cloud Burst" instalment, Ram Pandit. Here the third member of the research team, whom Ram and Dick keep imprisoned in their laboratory, is also shown to be a computer.

The battle between the contrasting twins of Ram and Ravi is a major element within the "Cloud Burst" serial and in "The Schizoid Man" instalment of "The Prisoner" Number Six too comes face-to-face with his own identical twin. In both productions one twin impersonates the other. Number Six does this in order to mount an escape attempt but in "Cloud Burst" it is the evil Ravi who twice poses as Ram.

There is some uncertainty as to the times when "The Prisoner" and "Cloud Burst" are set. It is generally assumed that the former takes place in the present day, although this is never stated explicitly. Javna (1988: 49) suggests that it may be considered to be set “tomorrow”. Nevertheless, the themes within the programme are evidently meant to be highly generic and not tied to a particular period of time. A date on a wall chart (in the "To The Mill!" episode) implies that the events in "Cloud Burst" may be taking place in 1980, some six years after the story was originally broadcast, yet it is possible that the chart was simply referring to a projected situation forecast for 1980. Certainly, there is no dialogue to suggest that "Cloud Burst" was set in the future and overall the environment in which the action takes place is highly characteristic of the mid 1970s. It is, however, established that all the events in "Cloud Burst" take place within two days, whereas in "The Prisoner" it would appear that over a year separates the title character’s initial incarceration and his escape at the end of "Fall Out".

Both programmes feature futuristic inventions that seem incongruous with their general settings. In "The Prisoner", these include “Speedlearn” technology, a mind-swapping device, truth machines and hardware that enables a person’s dreams to be manipulated and represented as pictures on a viewing screen. In "Cloud Burst", the invention takes the form of the rain-gun. As Muir (1999) recognises, the theme of weather control has fascinated writers of television science fiction for many years. Before "Cloud Burst", the subject had been addressed in series such as "Flash Gordon" (in the story, "The Rains of Death"), "Fireball XL5" (in "The Day the Earth Froze"), "The Avengers" (in "A Surfeit of H20") and "Doctor Who" (in "The Moonbase" and "The Seeds of Death"), and in children’s literature weather control forms a major element within the novels, "The Weathermonger" by Peter Dickinson and "The Weathermakers" by Ben Bova. The plot of "Cloud Burst" is especially reminiscent of "The Avengers" story as here, too, a new rain-making machine forms a weapon when in the hands of an unscrupulous scientist intent on personal gain. Similarly, the theme of the use of new technology to reduce global famine is apparent in the "Doctor Who" serial, "The Enemy of the World". Lofficier (1992) explains how, in this Patrick Troughton adventure, an orbital “suncatcher” harnesses solar energy and beams it to barren parts of the Earth in order to transform them into productive, arable land. The machine is not, however, featured in the story to any real degree. Whilst there is much futuristic technology in the Village within "The Prisoner", especially in Number Two’s control room, in "Cloud Burst" it is limited to the rain-gun. In both programmes, other elements of technology are highly characteristic of the period in which the drama was made. Indeed, now-antiquated computers figure prominently in "The Prisoner" (notably in the episode, "The General") and "Cloud Burst". Plots to put new technology to sinister use are defeated in both programmes by human ingenuity, however. In "The Prisoner" story, "Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling", after a mind swap the captured scientist, Professor Seltzman, does not only use his mind swapping machine to return the Prisoner’s brain to its correct body but he is also able to use his device to effect his own escape. In the conclusion of the final episode of "Cloud Burst", "Fire the Rockets!", Jenny’s model plane is employed as an improvised missile to sabotage Ravi’s rain-gun and foil his scheme to flood the Fens.

In both "The Prisoner" and "Cloud Burst", the representation of people via numbers is used to conceal the true identities of particular individuals. In the former, we never learn the Prisoner’s real name, and in the latter the actual identity of Number Three is not revealed until the closing scene of the final episode. The attempts made to prevent the viewer from learning the truth on occasions lead to a certain awkwardness in both programmes. Gregory (1997: 142) notes the “farcical” results that arise in "The Prisoner" episode, "Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling". Here, in scenes outside the Village, the Prisoner’s fiancee makes inquiries about his whereabouts without ever using his actual name. Similarly, in "Cloud Burst", the figure with the motor cycle is always shown wearing a crash helmet, even when this is hardly appropriate to the situation. The use of her designation as “Number Three”, which eliminates the need for Ravi to refer to her as “Mrs. Green”, works rather more successfully and is consistent with practices within Ravi’s team, as we never learn the real name of Number Two.

Little is revealed of the motivations of particular characters in "The Prisoner" and "Cloud Burst". Indeed, one of the biggest mysteries within the seventeen episodes of "The Prisoner" is why the Prisoner resigned as a secret agent. It is his continual refusal to discuss this matter that results in his long-term imprisonment in the Village. In the same way, in "Cloud Burst" it is never apparent why Mrs. Green has betrayed Ram and joined forces with Ravi.

Portrayals of women are generally negative throughout both programmes. Many critics have noted this to be the case in "The Prisoner". White and Ali (1988: 21) write that the “untrustworthiness of women” is a key theme within the series, and Gregory (1997: 199) highlights the “fear and suspicion” with which women are treated. Gregory (1997: 205-06) goes on to suggest that females within "The Prisoner" fall into one of four categories: “authority figures”, “temptresses”, “dupes” or innocent victims. Just three females are involved in the plot of "Cloud Burst", the most prominent of whom is the girl, Jenny. Her mother, Mrs. Barber, is mentioned in the third episode, Ravi 1, but never actually appears, and Mrs. Green, the only woman seen on-screen, is ultimately revealed to be in league with the story’s villain. Whereas the adult male characters tend to be scientists, the sole woman is a lowly housekeeper. Nevertheless, Jenny emerges as a bright and resourceful girl, even though in the early stages of the story she seems more timid than her brother, Tim, who of the two is much keener to learn more about the house that they notice when the are searching for Jenny’s model plane. In "The Signal", she realises much more quickly than her brother that the man who is apparently Ram Pandit is not all that he seems to be. Furthermore, many of the children’s best ideas come from Jenny. In the penultimate episode, "Escape", it is she who suggests creating a diversion that she and Tim may use to free Ram and Dick Turner, yet it is Tim who effects it, and, in the conclusion of "Cloud Burst", it is Jenny who thinks of using her model plane to sabotage Ravi’s scheme.

One area in which major differences emerge between the two productions lies in the involvement of children within the plot. Youngsters are largely absent from "The Prisoner". In fact, as Fairclough (2002) notes, only in the closing moments of the episode, "The Girl Who Was Death", do any children appear. In contrast, youngsters have a prominent role within "Cloud Burst" and reflect the audience at which the serial was targeted. The opportunity is clearly presented for viewers to identify with Jenny and Tim, who are two of the first people viewers meet at the beginning of the opening episode, "Out of Control". In both the television serial and the pupil’s pamphlet, Richard Carpenter uses the children, along with himself, Ravi and Dick Turner, as characters who narrate the story of "Cloud Burst". Both Jenny and Tim figure significantly in the plot itself. Although the real hero of the tale is probably Ram, the children play major roles in the action by rescuing him from imprisonment by Ravi and by providing the idea that enables Ravi’s plot to be defeated.
The on-screen conclusions of both "The Prisoner" and "Cloud Burst" avoid a neat resolution to the drama and imply that there are further events to come. The whole of the final episode of "The Prisoner" is highly controversial and open to different interpretations, although many believe that the way in which the final scene repeats what the viewer has already witnessed implies that the themes of the programme, if not the actual events, will recur. In the same way, in "Cloud Burst", whilst Ravi’s scheme to flood the Fens is thwarted, he evades capture and appears free to carry out similar acts in the future. Nevertheless, a closing voice-over narration offers a more satisfying conclusion than the on-screen action provides: “And so Ravi had been stopped. No-one knew where he went, and he was never seen again. But because of Jenny and her plane there was no cloud burst. No rain. No floods. The Fens were safe”.

Over the past twenty-five years, in particular, "The Prisoner" has been subjected to minute analysis and has been scrutinised in a wealth of books and articles. Seldom can a series occupying only around fourteen hours of actual screen time have generated such a volume of literature. Whereas to this day "The Prisoner" is frequently repeated on television and all seventeen episodes have been released on both VHS video and DVD, for over twenty-five years between the Autumn term of 1977 and June 2003 "Cloud Burst" was not broadcast. Until its belated repeat screenings on the digital channel, CBBC, there was little opportunity either for the drama to find a new audience or for nostalgic adults who remembered the programme fondly from their primary school days to revisit it. "Cloud Burst" has never been made available on video, and, unlike some of the later "Look and Read" stories, it has not been adapted into a full-length novel. Apart from video recordings of the recent transmissions made by eager fans, the only real lasting reminders of the story are web sites devoted to the "Look and Read" programme and the 48-page pupil’s pamphlet produced for schools.

One of the explanations frequently advanced for the continuing popularity of "The Prisoner" is that its themes remain as pertinent today as when the show was made in the 1960s. In particular, Davies (2002) draws attention to the modern day relevance of issues pertaining to constant surveillance and the increasing amounts of administration and bureaucracy in everyday life, both of which were prominent concerns in "The Prisoner". Despite the fact that many of today’s thirty-somethings who watched it as youngsters have probably forgotten it, similar comments may be made of "Cloud Burst". Indeed, the current speed of technological progress increases the importance of issues surrounding the use to which new science is put, and the devastation caused by the increasingly familiar floods throughout the world render a “rain-gun” perhaps a more chilling invention now than in the 1970s. Moreover, in today’s post-September 11th era, the thought that such a device could be used as a weapon of mass destruction by a group of renegades appears significantly more credible than twenty-five years ago.

Carrazé, A. and Oswald, H. (1990) The Prisoner: A televisionary masterpiece. Virgin.
Davies, S. P. (2002) The Prisoner handbook. Boxtree.
Fairclough, R. (2002) The Prisoner: the official companion to the classic TV series. Carlton.
Gregory, C. (1997) Be seeing you... Decoding The Prisoner. University of Luton Press.
Javna, J. (1988) The best of science fiction TV. Titan Books.
Killick, J. (1993) Richard Carpenter: A Catweazle start. TV Zone, 46, p. 17-19.
Lofficier, J-M. (1992) Doctor Who: the universal databank. Target.
Muir, J. K. (1999) A critical history of Doctor Who on television. McFarland.
White, M. and Ali, J. (1988) The official Prisoner companion. Sidgwick and Jackson.

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