Sadly, AMC’s version of THE PRISONER lived down (way down) to my very low expectations. I can honestly say this was not your grandfather’s PRISONER — and that’
s not a good thing. The series was as dry as the desert that surrounded the new Village on all sides.
It’s important to start out by noting that a remake was doomed from the moment it was greenlit — there was no way to improve on the original and a straight frame-for-frame remake would be pointless, so the only place to go was down. But I did not think it would stoop this low. The 2009 version used the 1967-’68, 17-part series as a jumping-off point only. P2009 left behind almost everything that made the original such bracing television — especially the tension, and a definite sense of time and place. Both series are superficially the same: Each concerns a man who wakes up to find himself living in a mysterious Village with a strangely placid population. But the man’s name has been replaced by a number — 6 —
and he cannot leave, due to the rugged terrain and unique security system: a giant white balloon. A man known only as No. 2 appears to be in charge. So far, so good. But the bungling comes in tone and treatment.
The original was all about alienation and rebellion in the face of conformity. The Village itself represented the rigid social system of Britain, and 6’s struggle to resist mirrored the counter-culture movement of the late ’60s. This PRISONER, however, clearly has been filtered through the refracting lens of LOST, and the result is a distorted version of the modern touchstone, rather than a reflection of the social dreads of the early 21st century. The initial two hours of P2009 were obsessed with piling up “mysteries” instead of story elements, and the middle chapters served purely as bald-faced filler to mask a few sequences that would “justify”
the addle-minded finale. The elements that were retained only serve to heighten the differences. 6 still meets a taxi driver first, and then goes to a shop to buy a map, but in the modern version, the encounter with the shopkeeper is an excuse for a sight gag about the map unfolding to unwieldy size.
But it was not all bad. I thoroughly enjoyed the photography and high production values. But while everything looked fantastic, the actual storytelling was crap. Director Nick Hurran was less interested in telling a story than making sure there were lots of pretty pictures onscreen. The biggest story mistake turned out to be shifting the emphasis away from the eponymous prisoner and onto his jailer. In the original series, 2 was constantly replaced without warning, essentially making him (and sometimes her) a dehumanized, faceless bureaucrat; in 2009, McKellen played No. 2 for the entire run, and great pains were taken to put a human face on him. He was given a troubled family life, and the entire Village revolved around his clan. This inversion of the central conceit failed utterly. Ironically, that disastrous shift led to the miniseries’ greatest triumph: casting Sir Ian McKellen as the sinister No. 2. The majestic actor inhabited his white suits with predatory menace, and 2 clearly delighted in playing cat-and-mouse with 6. James Caviezel, meanwhile, apparently took playing a mystery man as license to avoid giving him a personality. 6 may have claimed he was not a number, but Caviezel avoided giving him a face. Compare 2009’s bloodless 6 with Patrick McGoohan’s snarling, caged animal version. And while Caviezel says, “I am not a number,” repeatedly, where was McGoohan’s defiant motto: “I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered!”
And then there was the ending. There was no way to top the original’s mind-bender, so apparently the-powers-that-be decided not to even try. As a result, the finale veered so wildly into nonsense that it almost seemed to have been tacked on from a different series. The gritty first hour bore no resemblance to the trippy last installment. The entire enterprise ended up feeling more like a reimagining of LOST rather than PRISONER. A reimagining made by people who don’t “get” LOST, I might add. It is possible to be mysterious like LOST and intriguing like the ’60s PRISONER without being incoherent. The first five installments were so deathly dull, confounding and alienating that it was not surprising that the denouement would be a total cop-out; I simply wasn’
t prepared for how much it would be a cop-out.
“The Village is in all of us,” mused No. 2, who went on to “explain” that the Village was some kind of experiment in mind control operated by the Summakor corporation. No. 2’s wife, Helen, was a biochemist who theorized that there are different layers to the mind and that it was possible to transport other people into that dreamscape and “fix”
their mental traumas by making them live in the Village. Against their will, no less. This wild detour into vaguely-worded mumbo-jumbo left me confused as to whether they were chalking up the Village to pseudo-science or just plain magic. No. 2 kept his wife sedated because her dreams maintained the stability of the Village — which implied the Village was in her mind. But then she was murdered by her son, 11-12, who only existed in the Village. Huh? The big reveal did not make sense, and it did not work, at all.
The motive for placing 6 in the Village turned out to be simple revenge, because, as Lucy intoned, “No one resigns from Summakor.” So, unlike the original, there was nothing special locked in 6’s mind from his days as Michael; Summakor was just a disgruntled former employer. Was this miniseries an ode to medical experiments on unwilling human subjects? My best guess is that it was a rant against evil corporations that think they know what’
s best for individuals. But who can say what it was really about, since the vague scripting was apparently intended to confuse viewers rather than entertain.
How ironic that AMC’s motto is, “Story Matters Here,” because story -–
a tale with a beginning, middle and end — did not matter to this remake of THE PRISONER.