The Prisoner: “Arrival” and “Free for All”

Movie Information

Two episodes of The Prisoner, part of a series of Classic Cinema From Around the World, will be presented at 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 3, at Courtyard Gallery, 9 Walnut St. in downtown Asheville. Info: 273-3332.
Score:

Genre: Allegorical Science Fiction
Director: Don Chaffey, Patrick McGoohan
Starring: Patrick McGoohan, Virginia Maskell, Guy Doleman, Eric Portman, Rachel Herbert
Rated: NR

World Cinema begins its three-week retrospective of the classic 1960s British TV series The Prisoner (1967) with two episodes, “Arrival” and “Free for All.” Even if you don’t know this 17-episode TV series, you’ve almost certainly been touched by it in some way. When it first appeared, it captured the imagination of a generation—even the Beatles were influenced by it—and its influence can still be felt today. On its most basic level, the series told the story of a high-ranking government official who resigns his post (what it is we never know) and is subsequently gassed in his flat. He awakes in a copy of that flat, but in a different location altogether—a place called only “the Village” (in reality, it’s set in Portmeirion, the Italianette village built by Clough Williams-Ellis in Wales). It’s an almost surreal world where everyone has a number rather than a name. Our protagonist is Number Six (Patrick McGoohan), and his captors—headed up by a changing array of Number Twos—are determined to learn why he resigned.

That’s the essence, but in execution, it’s so much more. It is, in fact, probably the best, most intelligent and most intellectually challenging TV series ever made. The first episode, “Arrival,” sets the tone and the basic premise—and is essential in presenting an extended, more detailed opening of Number Six’s resignation. The other episode being shown, “Free for All,” is one of the series’ most complex and daring entries. Written and directed by McGoohan, it gets down to the inherent paranoia of the era in a way that indicates just how far afield from traditional narrative television the series ultimately goes. The very idea that Number Six would attempt to effect change from within by running for the office of Number Two and the outcome of that attempt is very much a part of the time in which it was made—and its relevance hasn’t dimmed very much. If you want to know more about The Prisoner, check out this Friday’s Screening Room for a more detailed examination.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

13 thoughts on “The Prisoner: “Arrival” and “Free for All”

  1. Dionysis

    The Prisoner was a unique series to be sure. I bought the entire series in a boxed set a few years ago and it is a joy to own. Hopefully your review will spark renewed interest in this masterful and innovative series.

  2. Ken Hanke

    Hopefully your review will spark renewed interest in this masterful and innovative series.

    Let’s hope it does. I think it’s remarkable how fresh and relevant so much of it still is.

  3. Ken Hanke

    The Prisoner is an awesome show. Any other TV you’re a fan of, Ken?

    In terms of series TV, there’s nothing I admire to the degree of The Prisoner, though I still like a good many of the Diana Rigg and Linda Thorson episodes of The Avengers. With it, however, I’d be lying if I didn’t recongize that nostalgia plays a large part and many of the shows date badly. The better episodes of Kolchak: The Night Stalker still hold up pretty well, and the lame ones get by on Darren McGavin’s personality.

    There are oddities, too, like the Pigeons from Hell episode of Thriller. I hold that in very high esteem, the series itself not so much.

    When I saw — the badly edited — rebroadcasts of the CBS sitcom He & She with Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss on A&E;many years after the fact, I found them to hold up pretty well. The fact that I could tell they’d been horribly cut down for extra commercials in itself said something about their original impact. Too bad they only lasted a single season, making a DVD release unlikely.

    I have fond memories of another CBS show from the same era, Good Morning, World, but I’ve never seen even a single episode since — and I suspect it’s best left to memory. That’s been my experience with most childhood favorite TV shows. Catching up with a few — I Married Joan, The Gale Storm Show — that I thought were great when I was young didn’t make me inclined to seek out others, though The Robert Cummings Show held up nicely last I saw one.

    As an adult, I’ve found TV more and more wanting, or, perhaps disposable is a better term. I suspect it has something to do with prefering feature film in general, but I admit I haven’t followed a TV series in years — about 20 — and the few efforts I’ve made have not excited me. In part, however, this may have a great deal to do with having had enough of living life based on a TV schedule when I was younger (and, no, time-shifting and Tivo don’t help so far as I’m concerned).

  4. Dionysis

    May I add two? The original Outer Limits (far better, IMO, than The Twilight Zone) and the 1980s series (only on for two seasons) called Crime Story, with Dennis Farina.

  5. Ken Hanke

    May I add two? The original Outer Limits (far better, IMO, than The Twilight Zone) and the 1980s series (only on for two seasons) called Crime Story, with Dennis Farina.

    Of course, you may add them. I agree that Outer Limits is better than The Twilight Zone (I’m always amazed that people can’t guess the twist endings before the halfway mark on those) and it had some exceptional episodes. I’ve not watched it in years and the only title I can remember responding strongly to is Demon with a Glass Hand, but there were at least five or six others. In terms of personal impact, though, it ain’t no Prisoner. I’ll have to plead ignorance on Crime Story, but I’m rarely taken with crime dramas.

  6. Dionysis

    “I’ll have to plead ignorance on Crime Story, but I’m rarely taken with crime dramas.”

    It was a very gritty (for its time) and exciting series. It was produced by Michael Mann. In fact, there were several elements from this series, including whole sections of dialogue, that he lifted from some of the episodes and used in his film HEAT with DeNiro and Pacino.

  7. Ken Hanke

    It was produced by Michael Mann.

    Mann, I have to confess, is real close to being my least favorite filmmaker of all time, so this probably ain’t for me.

  8. Musoscribe63

    The Prisoner [ my favorite TV show ever, hands down ] is also considered by some to be the first miniseries. This, owing ot the fact that it has a linear (well, kinda…) storyline that carries through the episodes.

    I understand England’s ITV (with cooperaton from A&E;) was in preproduction for an updated Prisoner series, due to air early this year, but it got shelved. Probably for the best; topping this true original would be near-impossible. McGoohan’s Number Six” is a brooding, enigmatic character; I can’t think of anyone today who could play that character.

    [BTW I seem to recall that Number Six is actually referred to in one episode as “Drake,” connecting The Prisoner to Secret Agent. So there.

    Also: Crime Story is amazing. The visuals alone (sets, costumes etc.) are worth the viewing. And the dialogue is snappy. I’m glad for Miranda (note to Sarah Palin, since she reads “everything”: Miranda was a Supreme Court decision you prbably wouldn’t like), but Crime Story’s pre-Miranda world made for good TV.

  9. Ken Hanke

    [BTW I seem to recall that Number Six is actually referred to in one episode as “Drake,” connecting The Prisoner to Secret Agent. So there.

    I would be curious to have that definitely pinpointed as I don’t recall it and have never seen it documented.

    As for the new Prisoner, it’s apparently in production with Ian McKellen as Number Two (good choice) and Jim Caviezel as Number Six. The choice of Caviezel makes it likely that Number Six will go from brooding to looking as if he is suffering from extreme dyspepsia. It will apparently air on AMC, meaning almost no one will ever see it.

  10. Musoscribe63

    Re. Drake: I’ll see if I can find the citation.

    McKellen? Brilliant casting. Caviezel…the Jesus guy? Oh dear. That *can’t* be good. Well, maybe Danny DeVito could play The Butler!

  11. Johnny

    The Drake thing is a common misconception. What Leon Kern actually says is “Meet me during the morning BREAK,” as opposed to Drake. The Prisoner Companion confirms this, as well as various internet sources.

    It boils down to, if you want him to be John Drake, then sure, there he is. If not, The Prisoner doesn’t have to be contextualized as a continuation of another series. It can just be its own, distinct work.

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