The Prisoner Reboots the Panopticon for 21st Century
By Scott Thill
January 13, 2009
HOLLYWOOD — The Prisoner's bold ambition and cult celebrity earned the '60s show a spot in TV history. Now the creative team rebooting the sci-fi spy classic for the 21st century is hoping to recapture both the dystopian fear and the cultural cachet of the original.
Rather than replicating the source material's essentially British mainframe, the team is going international, in cast, location and geopolitical concern. Instead of juxtaposing totalitarian surveillance society against bright color schemes, ubiquitous marching bands and enforcer balloons called Rovers, the new Prisoner miniseries is striving toward domestic normalcy in a world torn apart by terrorism, technology and the idea that being an individual just isn't what it once was cracked up to be.
"We're all total fans of the original, but we couldn't copy it," producer Trevor Hopkins told a crowd gathered Thursday at the Universal Hilton to preview the new Prisoner for the press. "We wanted to reinterpret it as a thriller. We wanted it to be as unfathomable as the original."
Though just 17 episodes of the original Prisoner aired in 1967 and '68, the show went on to become one of the most influential sci-fi series in television history, thanks to the brilliant political and pop-cultural instincts of creator and lead actor Patrick McGoohan, who died Tuesday. The series' subversive innovation has since inspired television shows (Lost, Battlestar Galactica and even The Simpsons), comics (Grant Morrison's The Invisibles) and music.
The show casts a long shadow, and Hopkins and director Nick Hurran refer to their upcoming Prisoner miniseries as "a reinterpretation" of the original. They've brought on some big names to drive the action: James Caviezel (The Passion of the Christ) plays Number Six, the unnamed agent held against his will in a resort called The Village that masquerades as a social utopia. Ian McKellen plays the Village's top administrator, Number Two.
(Wired.com talked with McKellen and Caviezel, as well as co-stars Ruth Wilson, Lennie James and Jamie Campbell Bower during Thursday's press preview. Look for those interviews in the near future.)
Cinema for Television
The updated Prisoner, due to air in November, is a joint production of Britain's ITV and America's AMC, which maintained an online diary tracking the show's production, which wrapped in December. Judging by the short clip aired Thursday in Hollywood, the miniseries will chart a new path to a similarly surreal climax.
Instead of rebooting the influential series in Portmeirion, Wales, where the initial narrative took place, Hopkins and Hurran transplanted the action to Namibia, specifically the strange colonial German village of Swakopmund. With the Atlantic Ocean on one side and inhospitable desert on the other three, the location worked perfectly to evoke The Village's dual identities. It's a nice place to visit, sure, but you'd never want to be imprisoned there.
The initial series' "theme is taken on by a man waking up somewhere he can't get out of," Hurran told the crowd. "The desert provides the prison that was Portmeirion, but the issues of family, control and freedom remain. In that way, there are parallels. Number Six has to assimilate to satisfy the powers that be."
Neither Caviezel nor McKellen deeply researched the original, thinking that a new, darker time called for a different Prisoner. Both credit Bill Gallagher's script with wielding more influence on their roles than previous actors who played the characters.
"The original went out on British TV just once. If you didn't see it when it was broadcast, you didn't see it," McKellen explained. "I caught up with it when it was in rerun, and was immediately intrigued. The original look was charming and unnerving at the time.
"But I didn't come to this with any sentiment for the original. When you have a script as literate as Gallagher's, an awful lot of your work is done for you. Once I put the clothes on and said the lines, everything seemed to fall into place. Frankly I'm more attracted to this Village."
Caviezel said he hadn't even heard of the original Prisoner before he was offered the part of Number Six, but the mention of McKellen's participation piqued his interest in the production he now praises.
"This project is cinema for television," Caviezel said. "It was like shooting a regular film with a brilliant filmmaker."
Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss?
While the new version will no doubt be calibrated for the scientific and geopolitical tangles of the 21st century, the original series served up a countercultural counterargument to the two-toned Cold-War espionage of Patrick McGoohan's previous TV program, Danger Man.
Like the show itself, The Prisoner's genesis is murky. Among the show’s fandom, there exists a theory that Number Six is simply Danger Man's globalist fixer, John Drake, a secret agent who eschewed violence and women in favor of wit and wisdom.
The notoriously reclusive McGoohan refuted the Drake-Number Six connection, but it is nearly impossible to overlook given an analysis of both series, which still resonate in our era of Total Information Awareness. Indeed, in The Prisoner, information is The Village's most prized asset.
Danger Man started out as a cloak-and-dagger franchise, with McGoohan's Drake globe-hopping and putting out political fires as an Irish-American NATO operative. The show appeared in 1960 in half-hour installments, and was a minor success in Europe.
As a spy, Drake was an anomaly: As a rule, he mostly refused weaponry and always avoided sexual promiscuity, relying instead on power plays to solve problems across the continents.
Through much of Danger Man, Drake enjoys a comfortable relationship with his superiors, who usually served as comic relief for McGoohan's quips. The show was canceled shortly after American funding failed in 1962, only to be resuscitated in 1964. But times had changed — for the worse.
The assassination of JFK, the Cuban missile crisis and the pop-culture rise of secret agents, from James Bond to The Saint's Simon Templar, revived interest in Danger Man. The show was dramatically altered and extended to a full hour. Character and plot development were hammered out more finely, and Drake, once a mildly irritated company man, became yet another pawn in an intelligence game over his head. Bosses became corrupt opponents, and Drake's insistence on democracy and fairness took a back seat to nefarious machination.
During this evolution, McGoohan became an international star and, at one time, the highest paid actor in Britain. After the show's fourth season, he quit Danger Man and moved on to The Prisoner.
The original Prisoner begins with Number Six striding into his superior's office and resigning from his post in a fit of controlled rage. Shortly after, he is extraordinarily rendered to a remote prison disguised as a holiday resort. But unlike Danger Man's black-and-white intrigue, The Prisoner reflected the social and political upheaval of the late '60s in brightly colored tableaus.
Now, instead of bristling at his superiors, Number Six was directly battling them, using his physical and mental prowess to defeat them. In the case of co-star Leo McKern, who played Number Two in the show's two-part finale, McGoohan actually gave his opponent either a heart attack or a nervous breakdown. (Reports differ, but you get the picture.)
But rebellion always comes at a price. During the acclaimed run of The Prisoner, Number Six is tortured, battered and even body-snatched: In the episode "Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling," his mind is transplanted to another man's body. Number Six repeatedly escapes The Village only to be returned to it in the end, trapped like an animal, overcome by a restless energy he cannot expend, and betrayed by nearly everyone around him.
McGoohan was even persuaded into exile in America because of The Prisoner's subversive, controversial final episode, "Fall Out." He never ventured too far out of that self-imposed seclusion, save to appear in a handful of films and TV shows.
For his part, McGoohan was, like his characters John Drake and Number Six, aghast at the creep of the surveillance state. His views on technology, weaponry and the panopticon were prophetic given current affairs. As he explained in a 1977 interview:
"We're run by the Pentagon, we're run by Madison Avenue, we're run by television, and as long as we accept those things and don't revolt we'll have to go along with the stream to the eventual avalanche.... As long as we go out and buy stuff, we're at their mercy.
"We all live in a little Village," McGoohan concluded in the same interview. "Your Village may be different from other people's Villages, but we are all prisoners."
Decades later, he has proven to have been correct not only about his time, but ours. Our 21st century panopticon stretches from reality TV all the way to the Patriot Act and Guantanamo Bay, and it will be interesting to see how the new Prisoner tackles issues like these.
This story has been updated to reflect the passing of original Prisoner actor Patrick McGoohan, who died Tuesday.