Thursday, January 03, 2008

Resequencing THE PRISONER

Patrick McGoohan runs for office in "Free For All," the second PRISONER episode shot and the fourth to be shown.

I'm presently going through another viewing of the classic ITC series THE PRISONER, courtesy of Network Video's fulsome 40th ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL EDITION box set, by my count the third time I've gone through the entire series since its original broadcast. One thing that this new set brings to light, to me anyway, is that some of the episodes' rough edges are due to peculiarities stemming from their order of broadcast. There is a wonderfully thorough paperback book included with the box set, THE PRISONER - A COMPLETE PRODUCTION GUIDE by Andrew Pixley (poor fella didn't get his name on the spine of his own book), which chronicles the series in their original production order, different to their broadcast order, which in turn differed between the UK and the US.

I was surprised last night, while revisiting "Dance of the Dead" (Episode 8 in both countries), to notice several references in the dialogue to the Prisoner's "recent" arrival in The Village and various other signs in the program that "P" (as he was designated in the original scripts) was still just beginning to settle in. In this episode, for example, Number 2 informs him that The Village is a democracy in some respects, which is something he has already learned in "Free For All," the second episode to be shot and the fourth to be shown here and abroad -- a bewildering anachronism. It also introduces a black cat, initially a friend to "P" that is later identified as the property of Number 2; this same black cat figures prominently in the episode "Many Happy Returns," which happened to be broadcast immediately prior to "Dance of the Dead," thus depriving it of its character as a referent to Number 2. I felt sure that "Dance" had to be one of the earlier episodes shot, and indeed Mr. Pixley's book shows it to have been shot fourth. It feels decidedly misplaced in the show's chronology.

Speaking of "Many Happy Returns" (one of my favorite episodes, perhaps because it feels most closely allied to the way things were sometimes done on DANGER MAN), I was intrigued to discover that it was the 13th episode to be filmed, prior to the series' only break in production (as star Patrick McGoohan was off filming ICE STATION ZEBRA) -- in effect, the show's only season finale. It makes much greater sense, narratively and dramatically, if positioned this way. Indeed, I've yet to revisit the final episode "Fall Out", but I find myself wondering if "Many Happy Returns" might not be even more sequentially valid as the final episode, or as a postscript to the series as a whole.

THE PRISONER was conceived as a limited run series (only seven episodes were originally planned) but, as demand for additional episodes increased, it appears to have been reinvented on the fly, changed from a prototypical miniseries with more-or-less continuous narrative to a kind of anthology show about a rebellious protagonist who resigns from espionage, is abducted by mysterious forces (friend or foe?), and awakens into a different trap or test of character each week. In one notorious episode, "Living in Harmony", the show told its story in metaphoric Western drag, the main titles replaced with a scene of McGoohan flinging his marshall's badge on someone's desk. "P" doesn't know which end is up, week after week, and the chaotic ordering of events leaves the viewer about as disorientated. I personally feel this works against the show's overall success. Without narrative order, "P"'s imprisonment in The Village loses its sense of time and duration; there is no wearing-down of our hero. Unintentionally, the random manner in which his dilemma is ordered refreshes him.

In an opening statement in his book, Andrew Pixley cautions his readers that, while his book chronicles the episodes in the order they were made, "this is not a logical viewing order for the series." He offers no explanation why. My questions, then, are:

Has anyone ever come up with a more definitive viewing order for THE PRISONER? One that makes greater sequential sense in terms of what the dialogue reveals, one that strengthens the drama inherent in the episodes? Is this celebration of individuality ultimately best taken not as a collective series but as a series of individual episodes? Or is it really six of one, half a dozen of the other?

I realize that PRISONER fandom is hardly new, and it's possible that I'm not the first spectator to ask these questions. If not, perhaps someone out there has done all the footwork to formulate a more satisfying sequencing for THE PRISONER's 17 episodes; if so, I'd love to know about it. God help us, I suppose there may even be different theories out there about how to resequence the show to maximum effect, which would make this classic program not only a puzzlement but a veritable Rubik's cube.

Update: Friendly correspondent Nate Yapp has written to inform me that A&E's box sets of THE PRISONER are presented in what is known as "the fan order," which proceeds thusly:

Arrival / Free for All / Dance of the Dead / Checkmate / The Chimes of Big Ben / A, B, and C / The General / The Schizoid Man / Many Happy Returns / It's Your Funeral / A Change of Mind / Hammer into Anvil / Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling / Living in Harmony / The Girl Who Was Death / Once Upon a Time / Fall Out

This reordering does suggest an improvement, except for one or two troublesome details -- most notably Colin Gordon's casting as Number 2 in two consecutively placed episodes, "A, B, and C" and "The General." In "A, B, and C" (originally Episode 3), Gordon is introduced as a rattled, ulcerous Number 2 whose job (and nervous system) are under threat by the offscreen Number 1, whose warnings of dire consequences should he fail to break Number 6 once again have him twitching and sipping milk through the entire episode. In "The General" (originally Episode 6), Gordon's Number 2 is mysteriously back -- despite his previous failure -- and comports himself altogether more confidently. The inconsistency between these two episodes is distractingly bizarre. According to Andrew Pixley's book, the episodes were indeed shot in this order, but the role of Number 2 in "The General" was not intended to be played by a returning actor. Mr. Pixley reveals that the actor originally cast as Number 2 didn't work out and the dependable Gordon was asked to step in as a quick replacement, without any thought given to the performance he had previously given or its context. Therefore, though not intended to be shown other than in the order they are seen on the A&E and Network discs, the fact of Gordon's recasting nevertheless requires "The General" to precede "A, B, and C." This rearrangement not only clears up the confusion of Gordon's recasting but provides us with the backstory for his Number 2 character that is only vaguely implied at the beginning of "A, B, and C."

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