Cult Classic 'The Prisoner' Returns To TV

(American Movie Classics)
The 1960’s cult TV series “The Prisoner” has been remade and premieres this month on AMC. Jim Caviezel stars as No. 6. (American Movie Classics)

American Movie Classics, home of “Mad Men,” begins showing the remake of the famous 1960s television show “The Prisoner” beginning Nov. 15. If that makes you feel like going back to the original, it’s airing Friday nights on the Independent Film Channel and has been re-released on DVD.

The late Patrick McGoohan not only starred in the original, he wrote, directed and produced many of the more important episodes. He had just starred in the very successful English spy series “Secret Agent” and when the British producer Lew Grade asked him if he had anything else he’d like to do, “The Prisoner” was his quite amazing follow-up.

McGoohan’s character – is he still John Drake, from “Secret Agent”? — resigns from what we think is some espionage agency and is taken to the Village, a Stepford-like suburban town where all one’s material needs are met, where everyone has a similar bungalow, and where a succession of leaders, each known as No. 2, try to break him, to tell why he resigned.

There’s a little bit of Kafka, Orwell and Robin Hood in the mix. We’re in the middle of the ‘60s, so No. 6 becomes one of those iconic figures fighting the establishment, railing against conformity and engaging in all kinds of subversive activities and civil disobedience.

But he’s also something of a conservative John Wayne hero, a rugged individualist going it alone, disdainful of any kind of groupthink.

British actor Patrick McGoohan, left, star of the British television series "The Prisoner" is seen with actor Angelo Muscat during a preview of the first episode at M.G.M. Studios, Boreham Wood, England, Sept. 20, 1967. (AP)
British actor Patrick McGoohan, left, star of the British TV series "The Prisoner" is seen with actor Angelo Muscat during a preview of the first episode at M.G.M. Studios, Boreham Wood, England, Sept. 20, 1967. (AP)

The remake, which begins Nov. 15, six hours over three nights on AMC, stars Jim Caviezel, the title character in Mel Gibson’s infamous “Passion of the Christ” and the great English actor Ian McKellen, who plays Two — and gets top billing.

But it’s hardly a remake, though it follows a similar outline. It’s written by Bill Gallagher and what he’s done is reinterpret the series with a more contemporary, pessimistic sensibility — this one is as influenced by “Lost” as it is by “The Prisoner.” There’s an emphasis on back story and depressive characters and camerawork.

The new Village has less of that Stepford aura to it: hot young things go dancing and the villagers seem less drugged and more unhappy. In some scenes there are twin towers in the distance reminiscent of the World Trade Center.

But let’s go back to the original. TV had never seen anything like it before — it might have been the first commercial miniseries, really. And not only did it reflect some of the surrealistic tone of the times — remember that big white ball that keeps people in line? — but the last two episodes were diabolically, and delightfully, abstract.

When McGoohan leads a revolt and rips the mask off One, he has a face just like McGoohan’s. He breaks out and returns home only to have the door clang in back of him as if he’s still a prisoner. Did he escape or not?

Gallagher presents his interpretation of some of the questions the original asked, but the series leaves much to be desired. Let’s give him credit. It’s a smart, thoughtful series on its own terms that wonders about the reach of big business and what you can do to assert yourself against oppression.

Caviezel, though, doesn’t have the charisma to step into McGoohan’s shoes. He’s mumbly and inarticulate, reminiscent of Keanu Reeves’s Neo in the “Matrix” movies.

And acting was only part of it for McGoohan. This was his “Citizen Kane" — it was about not making compromises, but doing something bold, artistically adventurous and making a political point. The new one seems like just your average sci-fi exercise, and one that feels compelled to fill in all the blanks.

And it doesn’t have the exhilaration of the original — that one made you believe you could fight the power, whether it’s oppressive government policies or corporate malfeasance. That’s why the original was iconic and the remake something of only passing interest.

This program aired on November 6, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

Ed Siegel Critic-At-Large
Ed Siegel is critic-at-large for WBUR.



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