Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Prisoner

I recently saw the remake of The Prisoner. At first I thought it was going to be a show with some memorable moments, but one which was less successful overall. However, the way in which the screenwriters tied up the loose ends at the end lent some retrospective coherence to the earlier episodes.

At one level, the theme of the Prisoner is as old as the Odyssey. Given a choice, would you do anything to get back home even if your real life is less appealing than a beautiful illusion?

For example, Calypso has taken Odysseus captive. She offers him immortality with a beautiful goddess (herself) on a tropical island paradise.

On the face of it, that’s better than what is waiting for him back on Ithaca, after a twenty-year absence, with an aging, alienated wife and a grown son who never knew his father. Yet Odysseus will go to any lengths to return home.

This illustrates the dilemma of secularism. What if the only world there is is a fallen world? Which would you choose? Reality–or a beautiful illusion? Yet even the illusion is spoiled by reality. For the storybook world is only as good as the storyteller.

The Prisoner illustrates the irony of the police state. In the police state, the policemen are often the populace. They police each other.

You may have been abducted and brought to the Village against your will. For the first few weeks and months, you resist. Try to escape.

But over time you, too, are seduced by the Village. Not only is escape futile, but you have a better life in the Village. So you assimilate.

There comes a point at which the prisoners become the prison guards. They now have a personal state maintaining in the status quo. The captives may even come to love their captors. Their involuntary confinement becomes voluntary. They come to view a nonconformist as a threat. They spy on one other to ferret out the dissidents.

There might be prisoners who secretly wish to escape. There might be enough of them to stage a successful escape. But they don’t know who to trust. They don’t dare tip their hand.

Although this is fictitious, it has a real world analogue. We ourselves live in a country where a certain percentage of the populace wants to voluntarily enslave itself (and the rest of us) to a self-imposed police state, with food police and speech police. A place where you can’t plant a tree in your own front yard without permission. Adults with a yearning to return to childhood, to be told what to say and think and do.

In the earlier episodes, the Village seems to be a kind of benign dictatorship. Benign as long as you follow the rules. Of course, underlying the benign façade is a ruthless enforcement-mechanism.

At this point in the story, Two seems to be a typecast dictator. Charming and avuncular, but ironfisted.

At first he seems to have a cruel streak. He enjoys playing mind-games with the captives. But appearances are deceiving.

At the outset it’s unclear whether the prisoners don’t remember their former life, or whether they are afraid to say. Perhaps psychotropic drugs have suppressed the memory of their former life. Or perhaps they remember, but are afraid to say, because they don’t know who they can trust. Or perhaps they remember, but have become assimilated to the Village. Or perhaps this really is the only life they’ve ever known. Initially it’s hard for an outsider to figure out.

Two makes preposterous statements about how “there is nothing to escape from” since “there is only the Village.”

Of course, that’s what you’d expect him to say. That’s part of the game. The charade. Psychological warfare. Two has to play his role. Everyone is play-acting. Pretending that this is real, while reality is unreal.

But, as it turns out, what he says is true at a certain level. Within the world of the Village, there is nothing outside the village. It’s a world apart. A self-contained existence.

As it turns out, the Village is a collective dream or delusion. The lucid dream of the Village Dreamer.

And this, in turn, raises the question of whether the inhabitants are real people who exist outside the dream, or merely dream characters. Or perhaps a combination. Were they brought here or “born” here? Did they have a life before the Village?

11-12 like some of the other inhabitants, suffers from amnesia. He doesn’t remember his childhood. M2 tells 11-12 that those who were born in the Village can never leave.

There are countersuggestive dynamics which can piece the illusion. This is represented by sinkholes–where the illusion begins to break down. Lacunae in the stage set.

One countersuggestive force is the presence of other lucid dreamers. Their memories of the real world interfere with the dream world. Superimpose a different narrative.

This seems to be the telepathic effect of psychotropic drugs, which trigger a collective consciousness or collective memory while also suppressing the awareness or recollection of the real world. I say “seems” to be because we only see the psychotropic drugs in the dream world of the Village, and not the real world of Summakor.

Then there’s Six. He’s a nonconformist. His intrusive presence causes 11-12 to harbor doubts about his own existence. Causes 11-12 to become a self-conscious dream character. But therein lies a dilemma. If an imaginary character becomes self-aware, then can he still subsist? Or does that break the spell? For a dream character, self-consciousness is suicidal.

A lucid dream lies on the borderlands between sleep and wakefulness. It only takes a slight disruption for the dreamscape to vanish.

The Village exists in a timewarp–like something out of the Cuban embargo. TV sets with rabbit ears. Old-fashioned cars.

The Village has a few Christian touches. It has a church. It also conducts funerals where an old spiritual is repeatedly sung: “Take Your Burden To The Lord And Leave It There.” Indeed, that song is something of a leitmotiv which punctuates the storyline.

As it turns out, the Village is a utopian world where broken men and women can finally escape their broken lives. An experiment to create a better world. A world within a world. A fresh start.

In that respect, Two is not the villain he appeared to be at first sight. Rather, he’s a therapist. The Village is a form of psychiatric treatment–and social engineering.

And yet, like every other secular utopia, the experiment is bound to fail, for the patients who are brought here bring their brokenness along with them. They contaminate paradise. Their idyllic surroundings can’t cure them, for the sickness lies within them. In the very mind of the dreamer. They infect whatever they touch.

I doubt The Prisoner is meant to be a Christian story. But intentionally or not, it becomes a Christian allegory. There is no healing in this world. Only sedation. That’s the best the world can offer. We escape into drink and drugs and recreation, but we can never escape ourselves.


  1. Thank you, Steve. I did not know there was a remake. When does it air? What channel?


  3. Good analysis. But I guarantee you that's not what Ian McKellen thought. To him, the Village is a capitalist nightmare.