The Prisoner: Arrival   Rewatch 
June 11, 2014 7:36 PM - Season 1, Episode 1 - Subscribe

The Prisoner was a British series which aired from 1967 to 1968. Although only 17 episodes were produced, it is widely considered one of the most influential series of that decade, if not in all of television. In the first episode, a British secret agent heatedly resigns. He returns home and packs to leave quickly, but before he can, he is gassed and kidnapped. He awakes to find himself in a mysterious Village... Also, an invitation to discuss the preferred viewing order for this rewatch in the thread.

The Prisoner is available for free streaming, with ads, from Crackle, or for purchase from Amazon or iTunes.

The Prisoner previously on The Blue:
April 5, 2000: Early rumors of a remake
December 5, 2001: Great 'The Prisoner' Site
October 1, 2007: 40th anniversary post
August 30, 2008: On the then-upcoming remake
January 8, 2009: AMC places the original episodes online, for a time
January 14, 2009: Patrick McGoohan obituary post
July 12, 2011: Shot-by-shot remake of the opening as a music video

Be seeing you!
posted by DevilsAdvocate (35 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
The best viewing order for The Prisoner is a matter of no small dispute. The first episode and the last two are agreed upon, but beyond that it's a matter of debate. The original broadcast order is poorly regarded, but there are several suggested orders; the Wikipedia article lists a handful of suggested orders, and others can be found by Googling. It's not really a matter of plot, as the episodes tend to stand alone in that regard, but thematically the alternate orders tend to work better than the original broadcast order — the main character's goal shows a clear progression over time, rather than jumping back and forth.

I'm inclined to have episodes posted according to the "6of1" order from the Wikipedia article — suggested by The Prisoner Appreciation Society — but I'm open to arguments in favor of other orders, including the original broadcast order if that's just less confusing.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:37 PM on June 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

posted by the man of twists and turns at 7:37 PM on June 11, 2014

Excellent, yet shouldn't we first watch the entire series of Secret Agent?

And a meetup next April? at Portmeirion!
posted by sammyo at 9:48 PM on June 11, 2014

Oooo... this is gonna be a good one too!

I'm inclined to agree with DevilsAdvocate on the episode order, with the exception that "The General" should come before "A, B + C", if only because in the credits to "A, B + C" Number Two says "I am Number Two" and not "I am THE NEW Number Two" as per custom, meaning he has been there before, and he has (in "The General")!

This is my favorite show of all time, and I love that there are so many readings to virtually everything in the series.
posted by theartandsound at 10:45 PM on June 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Holy shit, a Prisoner rewatch. This is what the world needs. I've just been rewatching it with friends anyway, though considering the frequency with which I do that, it's not much of a coincidence.

I've never viewed it in any but original broadcast order, despite the obvious problems with this approach -- on some level I think I just enjoy telling people, "So this is the second part of a loose two-parter featuring Colin Gordon as Number Two, and we'll see the first in a couple of weeks." That said, the 6of1 order sounds like a good plan. I feel like while the anachronic order is an amusing curio and suits The Prisoner's air of anxiety and emotional dissolution, it wasn't intentional and takes away more than it adds. Unless you've committed the episodes to memory, it tends to obliterate any sense of 6 as a character with an arc, rather than a series of reinterpretations (which he also is, but there's an arc there, too).

I did the Portmerion pilgrimage this spring, and it's totally worth doing if you're at all close by. An astonishing percentage of the Village is very much real and very much the same, and there's a shop where you can see artifacts from the series and buy kitsch like a mug that says "A Still Tongue Makes a Happy Life" and the official Prisoner beach towel.
posted by thesmallmachine at 10:49 PM on June 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

Oh, yeah, I didn't even notice that the 6of1 order keeps the Gordon two-parter out of order even though it places it back-to-back. I second what theartandsound says.
posted by thesmallmachine at 10:50 PM on June 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am absolutely dying to go to Portmeirion. I bet once I get there it will be the most surreal experience of my life. Like I've taken acid or something.

Regarding the episode order, I've always rationalized my preferred order as such:
Arrival: He arrives, we see the Village, get a lay of the land.
FFA/Dance/Checkmate/Chimes: Several episodes of him trying to escape, confronting all the apparatuses of the Village, culminating in Chimes where we meet the best No. 2 (McKern) and have 6's hopes of escape dashed for now.
General/ABC: Explorations of the concept of knowledge, as well as the Village's biggest attempt yet at breaking 6.
Schizoid Man: As punishment for his antics, 6 is faced with "himself."
Many Happy Returns: A birthday present "escape," as well as building more on the power structures in the Village.
Funeral/Mind/Hammer: While the early episodes dealt with 6 as a special case individual, these episodes integrate him into large scale Village society frameworks, expanding the scope of the series.
Darling/Harmony/Girl: Eclectic voyages into trippy territory, as well as picking up pieces of iconography and individuals that will be used in the final confrontations.
Once Upon A Time/Fall Out: The final battles, the natural end of course.

Obviously, one of the interesting things about the series is the varied ways people watch the series, and how that impacts one's reading of it. Naturally I'm an advocate of this order, but am most amenable.

I was doing a kind of Concordance to the show filled with all sorts of trivia/observations/details from undergoing a close reading, so this is a perfect opportunity to get off my ass and pick that back up again.

Be seeing you!!!
posted by theartandsound at 11:09 PM on June 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

I have less to say about the actual episode than I will in upcoming posts, since so much of "Arrival" is simply about introducing the Village, its denizens, and 6. It begins a series tradition of interesting and well-played one-off characters, and of 6's complicated interactions with women -- which are often rough or patronizing, but also unique in their range of emotion. McGoohan's objection to playing romantic scenes meant that 6's conversations with women weren't conventionally flirtatious or seductive, and it left things open for the characters to bond and spar in less TV-typical ways. I've always appreciated that a lot.

Other themes that recur: suicides that aren't. 6 encountering a trusted colleague, only to witness his final degradation (I don't believe 6 ever finds out that Cobb's not dead). The madman chattering away in 6's clothes is reflected and bookended at the end of the series by the revelation of Number 1's face.
posted by thesmallmachine at 11:32 PM on June 11, 2014 [5 favorites]

The second Number Two is played by George Baker, Ian Fleming's first choice for the role of James Bond (a role famously offered to, and refused by, McGoohan). I don't know if this was deliberate or the coincidental result of a smallish casting pond (like the fact that 6 befriends two of the main cast of The Lion in Winter), but it's worth noting that The Prisoner enjoyed the occasional in-joke casting, whether it was Marry Morris reprising the role of Peter Pan or John Drake showing up in "The Girl Who Was Death." It seems in line with that to end the episode with two near-Bonds at odds.
posted by thesmallmachine at 11:53 PM on June 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

In fact, 6 is constantly being doubled or parodied. There's the babbling man in this episode, the literal double in "The Schizoid Man," the corpse altered to resemble 6 in "Dance of the Dead," 6 being body-swapped and played by a different actor in "Do Not Forsake Me," the phantom of John Drake in the Danger Man-parodying "Girl Who Was Death" -- all foreshadowing the finale. The double is one of those literary devices so hoarily universal that it can happen without human intervention (of course some of these are intentional, but some, like the financial emergency that led to McGoohan dashing off to make Ice Station Zebra and leaving his show briefly without a lead, can't possibly have been). But it's hoary because it's great and supports endless riffs, and I'm sure I'll notice more of them as we continue to rewatch.
posted by thesmallmachine at 12:50 AM on June 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

such a badass. I feel like this show should have been re-aired in the late 90s, it would have fit in so well with the adbusters/No Logo climate of the time.
posted by Hoopo at 10:30 AM on June 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

For McGoohan's Prisoner, as the only proper heir on TV to Kafka's Trial, it's fitting that there should also be a dispute over its ordering. Naturally we all have our idiosyncratic ideas about this. Is there any way that we could use a voting site like Survey Monkey to reach a consensus?

Having recently bought the full set on DVD, I'm all in favor of a rewatch!
posted by Doktor Zed at 12:17 PM on June 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Shouldn't we watch Ice Station Zebra in place of "Darling"?
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 12:22 PM on June 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

...I am seriously doing that from now on. Call it an alternate history; it makes as much sense as anything that happens in the final third of The Prisoner.

I've seen every other Prisoner episode a million times, but to this day I've never seen "Darling." I'll do it for the rewatch, but I would also support adding Zebra.
posted by thesmallmachine at 12:50 PM on June 12, 2014

Oh man, I loved this show when I was a kid.
posted by homunculus at 1:30 PM on June 12, 2014

Mr. Vitabellosi and I just resolved to watch this within the last week or so. We have it on DVD. I have no idea what you're talking about about the order of the episodes, but I'm so excited to see this pop-up on FanFare!
posted by vitabellosi at 3:05 PM on June 12, 2014

My favorite bit from ISZ
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 3:47 PM on June 12, 2014

For McGoohan's Prisoner, as the only proper heir on TV to Kafka's Trial, it's fitting that there should also be a dispute over its ordering. Naturally we all have our idiosyncratic ideas about this.

Now that you mention it, it would be thematically appropriate for a different person to post the thread for each episode...and each poster could decide for themselves which episode should be next. The OP for the most recent thread could be called "the new Number Two."

(I'm almost serious here, except the downside is that people who want to watch ahead in preparation for the next thread wouldn't know which episode to watch.)
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 6:35 PM on June 12, 2014 [5 favorites]

The first episode does a good job of disorientating the viewer almost as much as it does number 6.
posted by drezdn at 7:01 PM on June 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

I went back to watch "Arrival":

-There's a certain pleasure in watching The Prisoner through the lens of David Foster Wallace's "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again": the music you can't turn off, the maid you can't lock out, the sense that pleasure in this place is conflated with both torture and therapy.

-I was struck this time by the transparent lie that 6's clothes have been burnt -- as if he's the kid with scarlet fever in The Velveteen Rabbit. Something very infantalizing about that, a statement that makes no sense inflected as a truism, and 6's response is appropriately exasperated.

-You can sit in a replica of 2's chair in Portmeirion. It is, like the hospital, very infantalizing and very comfortable, and it has the curious effect of reducing one's field of view to a round screen, like an old television.

-Someone really needs to tumbl "Disgusting-looking Foods of The Prisoner." That bacon, my God.

-Prisoner Double Watch: the second Number 2, a man of 6's age and 6's flippancy who is dressed identically to him. From the beginning, the Village readjusts itself to 6. He got used a little too quickly to the first 2's bland menace.

-And I overlooked the most obvious double of all, Patrick McGoohan, who pointedly shares 6's birthdate, preoccupations, and recent departure from a job at which he had excelled, and who will have various other parallels down the line. (Among many other things, I think The Prisoner is about acting, and so of course we get the back wall of 6's place rising like a curtain.)

-I always forget how short Virginia Maskell's plot is in this story -- she only appears in the last twelve minutes, but with her jolly hat and abject misery, she sets the tone of the whole series. And though her appearance looks for all the world like the setup for an interesting recurring character, it's only a staircase to nowhere, a stone boat, a helicopter on loop. Everyone who 6 meets vanishes.
posted by thesmallmachine at 10:04 PM on June 12, 2014 [11 favorites]

MetaFilter: It's very cosmopolitan, you'll never know who you meet next!

-Someone really needs to tumbl "Disgusting-looking Foods of The Prisoner." That bacon, my God.

And a lemon slice, with a toothpick in it, in the tea.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:17 PM on June 12, 2014 [5 favorites]

thesmallmachine wrote:

(Among many other things, I think The Prisoner is about acting, and so of course we get the back wall of 6's place rising like a curtain.)

This is very interesting, please tell me more.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 5:39 PM on June 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

...with the exception that "The General" should come before "A, B + C"

I second what theartandsound says.

That seems to be pretty popular (and reasonable), not just here but on many of the suggested orders I've looked at. So let me propose that we watch in the "6 of 1" order with the exception proposed above. That would set the order as:

Arrival [1]
Free For All [4]
Dance of the Dead [8]
Checkmate [9]
The Chimes of Big Ben [2]
The General [6]
A. B. and C. [3]
The Schizoid Man [5]
Many Happy Returns [7]
It's Your Funeral [11]
A Change of Mind [12]
Hammer into Anvil [10]
Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling [13]
Living in Harmony [14]
The Girl Who Was Death [15]
Once Upon a Time [16]
Fall Out [17]

This also turns out to be exactly the order theartandsound posted. Whether he came to it by hook or by crook, I can't say.

Numbers in brackets represent the episode's place in original broadcast order; I'd recommend that episodes be labelled according to the original broadcast order, for consistency with other episode guides. That is, "Free For All" would be the next episode posted, but it would still be labelled "Season 1, Episode 4."
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:25 PM on June 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

(Among many other things, I think The Prisoner is about acting, and so of course we get the back wall of 6's place rising like a curtain.)

This is very interesting, please tell me more.


Also, re: episode order, I came that way probably that exact way. The A+E DVD set I have of the series is ordered by the 6of1 list, so that is how I came to watch my first of dozens of watches of the series. I was informed to switch the order or the Colin Gordon episodes as well by a friend. It's so ingrained in me that it feels natural. I still believe the order you prefer speaks volumes about how you see the series as a whole, so I am very interested in other readings.

Okay, I'm going to pop in "Arrival" now so I can contribute something more substantive than procedural.

Also, "It's only a staircase to nowhere, a stone boat, a helicopter on loop. Everyone who 6 meets vanishes." is goddamned poetry. Love it.
posted by theartandsound at 8:52 PM on June 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Thanks very much, theartandsound.

The acting thing -- I swear I wasn't just pontificating, but it's never been an idea that's fully coalesced in my brain. Maybe I'll figure it out more as we progress.

I guess I'll start here: McGoohan's projects had a history of equating spycraft with acting. John Drake was an infiltrator who excelled at creating characters. And the Prisoner episodes that McGoohan wrote tend to be very concerned with the reactions of crowds, with 6 being defeated not by torture but by the breathless attention of an audience. And he was always so serious about avoiding the things he found ethically uncomfortable, the guns and the love scenes.

It's dangerous to theorize about the psychology of a dead man, much less one as complex as McGoohan, but I do think he used his sections of the series partly to write about the paradoxes of acting and being a public figure: how enthusiastic applause can overwhelm your personality; how constant video surveillance and hard questioning reveals nothing important about your life; how making myths for a living is both serious business and completely silly.

Also, in-universe, acting is vitally important to living in the Village (at least in the episodes that focus in any way on individual Villagers). You have to develop a protective schtick, and in "Arrival" the curtain rises on 6's. We'll see him begin in earnest in "Free For All," as he greets the new 2 from the steps of that stage.
posted by thesmallmachine at 10:27 PM on June 13, 2014 [5 favorites]

Ian Fleming's first choice for the role of James Bond (a role famously offered to, and refused by, McGoohan).

posted by drfu at 1:11 AM on June 16, 2014 [5 favorites]

If memory serves, McGoohan passed because of ALL THE KISSING.
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 11:52 AM on June 16, 2014

By the way, does anyone know the source for McGoohan stating that only "Arrival", "Free for All", "Dance of the Dead", "'Checkmate", "'The Chimes of Big Ben", "Once Upon A Time", and "Fall Out" are required for the narrative's arc and that all the others were just to meet the series's contracted number of episodes?
posted by Doktor Zed at 8:41 AM on June 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Before I move on to Free For All, I wanted to make a couple of quick points over in this thread.

It's been a few years since my last watching, and I'm trying, as much as I can, to watch it with new eyes. And, in doing so, two minor things stood out to me that I hadn't really paid much attention to before:

First, when he delivers his resignation, I struck by the total disinterest displayed by the bureaucrat the hands it to. "Why did you resign?" is what they keep asking him, but the person to whom he hands it doesn't even bother to look at him, much less to inquire anything of him.

Second: Damn, he's wired. I mean, not wary or on guard like a professional spy. He jumps at every loud noise.

Lastly, I just want to note how very much this subverted the expectations of the time. The Cold War, and it's ideal hero, James Bond spawned a ton of TV spies. Not just Danger Man, but I Spy, and Man From UNCLE, and variations like Wild, Wild West, and I can't remember how many more. So audiences had an understanding of the tropes and how they were supposed to work:

The hero gets captured. He frees himself from his ropes or his cell. With is fists and his gun and some help from generic hot girl of the week, he either escapes, or makes his way to the villain's control room to disrupt his plan and capture him. Hell, sometimes the actual plan was get captured, so he could free himself with ease and be loose inside the enemy's lair. Well, Arrival turns it on its head. He is perfectly free to run around from the moment he wakes up. There are no guns - he can't even take one from a guard. (And, what's the obvious symbolism there?). The pretty girls are of no help at all. His fists are useless against a giant beach ball. The villains foil his escape attempt with contemptuous ease. It was a pretty shocking episode at the time because the audience thought they knew how it was going to go, and they were just so wrong.
posted by tyllwin at 9:19 PM on June 18, 2014 [6 favorites]

"We're all pawns, my dear" really sets the tone of the series, doesn't it?

I was surprised when Number 2 was replaced before the episode was over, I hadn't remembered that - what a good way to introduce the "No. 2 is expendable" idea.

It's amazing how some of the quick edits work well (I'm thinking of when Rover first appears from the fountain and expands to full size -- you don't need to see it happening, your mind fills in the blanks), and also some of the prisoner's reaction shots. The quick edits feel very active and the momentum of this episode rolls right along.

The best thing about the pilot is the atmosphere of normalcy and oppressive cheerfulness ("Beautiful day!") that butts up against No. 6's reality (being abducted and held against his will). The schism between the prisoner's perceived reality and the (apparent) perceived reality of the villagers is one of the creepiest, unnerving aspects of the show.

I don't think I've ever found a marching band as oppressive as when it appears in The Prisoner. It's a great symbol of conformity and propaganda!
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 12:42 PM on June 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

And though her appearance looks for all the world like the setup for an interesting recurring character, it's only a staircase to nowhere, a stone boat, a helicopter on loop. Everyone who 6 meets vanishes.

I've always thought this, and the use of Cobb in the same way, is the strongest tactic they used to break 6. He won't trust anyone, obviously, and they don't expect him to. They expect to isolate him beyond all measure, to break him down to just what they need.
posted by RainyJay at 4:42 PM on June 20, 2014

the use of Cobb in the same way, is the strongest tactic they used to break 6

I don't think 6 realized that Cobb was a plant, though. It's revealed to us at the end of the episode, in which Cobb takes his leave of the new Number 2.

But as far as 6 is concerned, Cobb's dead -- jumped from the hospital window. Maybe he suspects that that was a cover story for the true cause of Cobb's death, but has he yet made the leap to "I can't trust anything they tell me"?

The A&E DVD has an alternate version of Chimes of Big Ben on the same disc, and the conclusion to that episode does make it very clear to 6 that his government is in on the cover-up. I can't remember if that's the first time it's revealed to him -- he certainly doesn't seem very surprised or shocked by it -- but maybe that's a discussion best left for that episode's post.

I was surprised when Number 2 was replaced before the episode was over

Yes, the pilot very efficiently sets up all the themes that will run throughout:

* Number 2 is fungible and deeply invested in breaking 6.
* Control have the Village widely surveilled and hermetically sealed -- 6 attempts to escape "in our vehicle" and by helicopter and is trivially foiled both times.
* Rover as Control's deus-ex-machina.
* Nobody can be trusted -- Cobb's a plant and Virginia Maskell's un-named character -- I forget her number? -- is an observer working for Number 2.
* The Village as a graveyard for people who Know Too Much -- "here until you die" and the Old People's Home.
* The eerie to the point of brainwashed co-operation of the Village residents -- 2 says "STOP" and everyone freezes.

There's a lot of stuff packed into the pilot; to the point that yes, 6's attempted escape at the end does seem quite rushed.

the atmosphere of normalcy and oppressive cheerfulness

To me it's more an atmosphere of normalized surrealism. So many things about Village life are deeply weird -- the capes! the umbrellas! the dashing taxis! their inexplicable love of marching bands! -- but the residents of the Village treat it as utterly normal and routine.

I suspect too that the ever-present elevator music, the frequent announcements, and the regimented activities laid on for the residents are all references to the UK's popular holiday camps. They were on the wane at the time The Prisoner was made, and probably already sliding into the sort of faded anachronism that the Village exhibits. But they were hugely popular in the late 40s and 50s, and certainly something that McGoohan, Markstein et al would have been familiar with.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 5:10 PM on June 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

I really appreciate the context that folks are offering here. I never heard about the holiday camps (and surely those outfits are one source for Village gear, if the vague "sixties and seventies" timeline for the addition of the trim includes pre-Prisoner years).

I've heard that a major source for the Village aesthetic was a school sports uniform (specifically the Mill Hill School), but only from the incredibly non-authoritative imdb trivia section. Does anyone know how true that is?
posted by thesmallmachine at 2:14 PM on June 26, 2014

of course we get the back wall of 6's place rising like a curtain

Do we ever see that happen again? It's a striking moment in Arrival but I don't think I've seen that wall lift in the other rewatch episodes yet.

There's another curtain-raising moment: at the end of the title sequence, in which Six raises the blinds on his window and the Village is revealed. An ongoing performance that Six is now an audience to. Although it's shot as a reveal on McGoohan first: only after his reaction do we see the Village from his point of view.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 7:58 PM on July 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

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