Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Village people

From Kolchak:

The forthcoming remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still promises to be a Richter-scale disaster. The new version of The Andromeda Strain, coming soon to A&E, is only slightly less offensive. And don't get me started on how Will Farrell is turning Land Of the Lost into a comedy....

Despite this tidal wave of mediocrity, though, there may be reason for optimism.

Yes, really.

ITV, the British television network, has announced that it will be producing a six-episode version of The Prisoner,, the genre-bending series from the late 1960s starring Patrick McGoohan. So far, the only name associated with the new show is the writer, Bill Gallagher. However, there is a persistent rumor that Christopher Eccleston (Doctor Who) may star.

Meanwhile, director Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins and Momento) is supposedly working on a feature-length version of The Prisoner, with a script from Janet and David Peoples ( Blade Runner and 12 Monkeys ).

I think this new burst of interest in The Prisoner carries some interesting implications with it, beyond Hollywood’s fascination with remakes. To explain this properly though is going to require some background.

In this series, McGoohan plays a British secret agent who resigns from his job without warning. or explanation. (Although it is never mentioned specifically in any episode, most fans of the show believe that McGoohan was still playing John Drake, the character he introduced in an earlier show, Secret Agent.) However, before he can leave London, this former agent is abducted and taken to the Village, a prison for individuals--seemingly from around the world, not just England--who have too much classified information in their heads to be allowed their freedom.

The Village appears to an aggressively quaint seaside community, but the Victorian architecture hides high-tech surveillance devices and brutal mind-control experiments. Attempted escapes are often dealt with the by the Rovers, huge white spheroids that look like they escaped from a really big lava lamp.

Day-to-day operations in the Village are controlled by an individual known as Number 2. Usually, there was a different performer in this role every week, but one or two were called back for an encore. The new arrival is designated Number 6, and is told that he is being held because the Powers That Be--the people Number 2 is reporting to--want to know why he resigned. Number 6's response has become the show's mantra::

" I am not going to be pushed, filed, indexed, stamped, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own."

The remainder of the series-- there was a total of 17 episodes--becomes a battle of wills as the Village tries to break Number 6, and he tries to escape.

The Prisoner starts as a peculiar twist on the spy shows popular in the 1960s but eventually turns into a surrealistic parable about identity, integrity and the possible misuses of technology. As the show evolves, McGoohan starts to write and direct segments, as well as star in them. (He is also credited as co-creator.) In order to tell his story, he borrows symbols and techniques from a wide variety of genres and styles, which both fascinated and alienated his audience Some viewers probably had both reactions at the same time.

While the original "Prisoner" isn't shown regularly on TV, it's never really gone away, either. It's usually available on home video--whatever this week's hot new format is--and it clearly influenced other creators. References to the series can be found in Babylon 5; the original run of the Fantastic Four comic book; the current version of Battlestar Galactica and The Simpsons.

That's right, The Simpsons

The Prisoner was a groundbreaking series in a lot of ways, but here are two that I don't think are mentioned as often as they should be:

  • Before Lost, before The X-Files, before Twin Peaks, McGoohan and his associates were producing stories with questions that were carried over from week to week. How these questions were finally answered produced some strong reactions--both positive and negative--but it may be one the reasons why the show is still talked about today. (More on this shortly.)

  • There's a long-standing belief that it takes decades for an idea to migrate from written science fiction to sf television and movies. That wasn't the case for The Prisoner, however. Many people consider it a part of the "New Wave" school of sf writing, which was gaining in popularity in England at the time. (Basically, New Wave writers emphasized psychology and literary technique more than their American counterparts) This link was made stronger when Thomas Disch, one of the leading New Wavers, wrote a "Prisoner" novelization. In addition, Anthony Skene, who wrote the first episode of the original show, has been collaborating with Michael Moorcock, another leader of the New Wave.

  • As for me, I was in high school when The Prisoner debuted in America. I was fairly familiar with Secret Agent , but this show caught me completely by surprise. It quickly took up permanent residence in my imagination. For a long time, I didn't see any real need for a remake, even though some of the elements of the original hadn't aged very well.

    Now, though, I'm not so sure.

    Here at the Daily Blatt, handrummer ran a photo of what can only be called a propaganda poster promoting the increased use of video surveillance in England. The poster promises that the public will be "secure beneath the watchful eyes" of the television cameras.

    When this sort of sentiment becomes a real poster in the real world, I think you can draw only one of two conclusions: either The Prisoner has been totally eclipsed by reality or it's time to do a remake Really really time. This may be one of those rare occasions where Hollywood's perpetual quest for pre-sold properties actually matches up with a contemporary issue.

    Hey, it could happen. It may already be happening, with movies like V For Vendetta or comics like Marvel's Civil War, which takes a metaphorical look at fighting terrorism and excesses of government power.

    However, if either of the "Prisoner" remakes are going to be as intense as the original, a number of difficult creative decisions are going to have to be made., over and above things like casting a new Number Six.

    For example, in the original series, McGoohan went to Portmeirion, a resort community in Wales, to shoot the exterior shots of the Village. The fanboy side of me says that it won't really be The Prisoner unless they go back to Portmeirion. On the other hand, technology has changed so much over the years, that it may no longer be necessary to give a prison a geographic location. In this world of GPS and electronic house arrest, it may be the Prisoner carries his jail cell around with him in some way.

    Finding an appropriate resolution to the story is going to be tricky too, particularly since McGoohan's own conclusion left a lot of people frustrated and annoyed.

    According to the various books about the show, McGoohan wanted to produce six, maybe eight, episodes. However, when he pitched the idea to Lew Grade, the president of ITV, Grade wanted enough for a standard syndication package (which, according to which source you use, was anything from 24 to 32 episodes.) ITV did finance the show, but there was constant tug-of-war about how many episodes there were going to be.

    "Once Upon a Time," the next-to-last episode in the original series, deals with Number Six giving Number Two (Leo McKern, one of the actors who played the role more than once), a nervous breakdown during a bizarre psychodrama called Degree Absolute. The episode ends with another member of the Village staff asking Number Six what he wants.

    The Prisoner replies he wants to see Number One, and he leaves with the staffer. This was apparently McGoohan's original idea of how the series should end.

    However, he eventually added one more episode, "Fall Out." He may have been under pressure to provide a tidy, straightforward conclusion to the show. If he was, though, he managed to withstand it. "Fall Out" is filled with surrealistic images, overlapping dialogue and strange musical combinations. Calling it psychedelic is an understatement.. McGoohan (who also wrote and directed the episode) does provide some answers, but I think it takes multiple viewings to find them.

    handrummer and I, along with several of our friends, once saw "Fall Out" dubbed into French, while attending a world science fiction convention in Toronto. It actually turned out to be a good experience. Since neither drummer nor I could speak French, we weren't even tempted to try and follow the dialogue. It allowed us concentrate on the images.

    As I've said though, the episode didn't sit well with audiences at the time, and I'm not sure how well that approach would go over with most modern audiences. On the other hand, it's going to be difficult to come up with a realistic ending that hasn't already been seen on the news. In the late 1960s, the possibility that the Good Guys were running the Village was shocking. Now, though, we've seen smaller versions of the Village in the real world: the CIA's "safe houses" for suspected terrorists. Maybe one of the remakes will be called The Prisoner: Extraordinary Rendition.

    In general, I imagine both production companies are going to be tempted to make changes just to keep the two versions distinct from each other, never mind whether it enhances the story. It's going to be a tricky balancing act, but I'm looking forward to seeing how it's all going to....um, fall out.

    For more information about the original "Prisoner," check out www.theprisoneronline.com.

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