11.12.09

The Prisoner's Dilemmas

The new miniseries The Prisoner scuttles the original’s Cold War politics for post-9/11 paranoia. Sir Ian McKellen, Jim Caviezel, and screenwriter Bill Gallagher discuss the remake.

While the British television show The Prisoner ran only for 17 episodes, more than 40 years ago, its effects have been far-reaching. The spy series’ iconic imagery, surreal plot, and heightened sense of fear and paranoia has influenced such shows as Lost and Battlestar Galactica, and was parodied on The Simpsons. Now AMC has remade The Prisoner for a contemporary audience that might not be familiar with the groundbreaking series.

The original Prisoner—which aired in the U.K. in the 1967-68 season, and in the United States on CBS in 1968—revolved around a spy (played by co-creator Patrick McGoohan) who resigns from the intelligence services and finds himself the titular prisoner in The Village, an impenetrable locale from which he would repeatedly attempt to escape and whose inhabitants are given numbers instead of names. While on its surface an action-thriller, The Prisoner, with its dreamlike narrative, was a deeply existential metaphor for the suspicion and fear of Cold War politics in the 1960s. Some of its best-known lines—“Be seeing you,” “I am not a number, I am a free man!,” —quickly became household phrases, even as the ominous and foreboding show moved into increasingly complex territory. It ended abruptly on an extremely ambiguous note.

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AMC, which has built its reputation by airing thought-provoking dramas like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, will launch a six-hour miniseries version of The Prisoner, beginning Sunday evening and continuing through Tuesday. Written by Bill Gallagher (BBC’s Conviction) and directed by Nick Hurran (BBC’s Bonekickers), the remake follows a similar setup as the original. The Passion of the Christ’s Jim Caviezel plays Number Six, a man who finds himself—after resigning from his job at a shadowy and secretive corporation—locking swords and wits with Lord of the Rings star Sir Ian McKellen’s despotic Number Two in a place known only as… The Village.

The similarities between AMC’s Prisoner and the original end there, and Gallagher was keen to make sure this Prisoner ended with a resolution that was lacking from the original, even as he paid homage to his miniseries’ inspiration. “My approach to it is not to repeat what The Prisoner has done but to respond to it,” said Gallagher. “I wanted to reflect on our times and the past 30 years and how we could approach that through the prism of this mad thing called The Prisoner.”

“Here we are 40 years on and we are living in a land where people accept without question being fingerprinted, having their eyes registered at airports, taking off their clothes at the airport, opening up their luggage, not being allowed to do this, not being allowed to do that, photographed in the streets by cameras that are put up by you’re never quite sure who,” said Sir Ian McKellen, who plays the despotic Number Two.

While this Prisoner stands on its own, Gallagher didn’t want to pretend that the first one didn’t exist. “What I wanted to do was… just drop in playful, sometimes meaningful references to the original,” said Gallagher.

Those references include visual callbacks to some of the most iconic images from the original series, including the penny-farthing bicycle and the rigid uniforms of the original series. And, yes, the menacing floating orb that terrorizes and sometimes suffocates the imprisoned villagers, Rover, makes several appearances as well.

As far as its political metaphors go, the new Prisoner layers in themes for a post-9/11 society that’s constructed around fear and paranoia and as well as a lemming-like mentality.

“It’s a discussion of the relationship of the individual to society,” McKellen said. “The original Prisoner was very much dealing with the life of the individual as he might get caught up in Soviet Russia… Well, here we are 40 years on and we are living in a land where people accept without question being fingerprinted, having their eyes registered at airports, taking off their clothes at the airport, opening up their luggage, not being allowed to do this, not being allowed to do that, photographed in the streets by cameras that are put up by you’re never quite sure who. All this adds up to a society that perhaps isn’t quite as democratic and careful about the freedom of the individual as we would like.”

Caviezel echoes this point. “It’s a cautionary tale,” he said. “[Life] is becoming so impersonal. When you see people on the phone at dinnertime, they aren’t interacting with people anymore. They are interacting with their cellphones; there’s no looking, no conversation... Everyone’s kind of a number already.”

But the push and pull of those issues placed a huge weight on the shoulders of Caviezel, who had to keep track of his character’s central motivations all while negotiating a constantly shifting psychological landscape. “I think it’s really the second hardest thing I’ve ever done, and the hardest thing psychologically that I’ve done,” said Caviezel, who starred as Jesus Christ in Mel Gibson’s controversial opus Passion of the Christ back in 2004.

In the original version of The Prisoner, the role of the tyrannical Number Two was played by several actors (most notably Leo McKern), offering up a further Kafkaesque sensation to the battle between Six and Two. Here, McKellen plays Two, Six’s iron-fisted adversary, across all six hours as the miniseries explores his character in a way unseen in the original.

“I think our Number Two has a more central part to play in this story,” said McKellen. “You see him on duty and off duty and you see his backstage story. He’s very much his own person, I think, but he shares the same wry sense of humor of the original [series] and he has a manner that is meant to put other people at their ease. Whether it does or it doesn’t is another matter.”

Like Number Two, The Village itself is dizzily disorienting. Whereas the first Prisoner set its Village in a sort of Mediterranean beach town (filmed in Portmeirion, North Wales), this new version was shot over 18 weeks in the middle of the desert in Namibia, which itself boasts a strange mix of architectural styles.

“I think the locations chosen for the Village were very apt because this is a quirky place, an odd place,” said McKellen. “The architecture in Swakopmund where we filmed in Namibia is highly individualistic and yet you sort of feel like you’ve been there before, which isn’t a bad feeling to have when you are viewing The Prisoner… The oddness of it was very appropriate.”

Despite its fantastic nature, Gallagher wanted to be sure that this Prisoner ended without the muddle of the original, which has alternately perplexed, delighted, and frustrated viewers for the last 40 years: McGoohan’s Six discovered that Number One appeared to be himself, and he launched a rocket from beneath The Village, leading to its evacuation, before heading into London. (Or did he?)

Unlike that utterly quizzical ending, the remake resolves itself in a much more definitive way, answering questions about just what and where The Village is. Whether audiences will find Gallagher’s explanation satisfying is another mystery.

“I did want a sense of resolution and a sense of climax,” Gallagher said. “What gives me great satisfaction in drama is the sense of arrival, of deliverance, of completion. And that sense of completion needn’t be simple, with a ribbon tied around it.

“And I did want it to be difficult,” he continued. “I wanted to get somewhere where we didn’t necessarily want to be.”

Jace Lacob is the writer/editor of Televisionary, a website devoted to television news, criticism, and interviews. Jace resides in Los Angeles. He is a contributor to several entertainment Web sites and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.