Wednesday, 1 January 2014

The Prisoner: Checkmate

Probably the most iconic scene in an episode of The Prisoner in this one, the scene of the chess game with Villagers acting as the pieces. This iconic scene dominates the episode, which is a pity because you'd have to be hiding behind the sofa with a bag over you head not to notice the chess game/Village metaphor, but some of the other, more subtle things can be missed here.
Ironically - I wouldn't like to speculate that this was done deliberately - this relates perfectly to what Drake learns in his investigation in this episode. The beguiling imagery & the languid foppishness of Peter Wynegarde playing Number 2 distract from the bleak key message here: *nothing* is what it seems. Things are always more complicated than they seem. The immediate message from Drake's point of view would have to be that the tentacles of The Village authority spread far & wide & you cannot really tell who is who. One of the key things he has set out to find out in his investigation of The Village is which side it is on, & this episode reiterates the globalism fear of a previous episode: it is impossible to tell which side anyone is on, because the sides are not so clearly delineated, & anyway people cannot be relied to stay on the side they are on in the way Drake does.
In this The Village once again tries to probe a possible weakness in Drake: here the subject is the classical one of romantic love, more nearly focussed on than the relationships in a more general sense used in Dance of the Dead. In reality what is probed is a much more real weakness in Drake: his great integrity, since people with the singleness of purpose he has can tend not to realise that other people lack his dedication. The message of no clearly delineated sides, via the weakness of Drake's relatively short-sighted single-mindedness, leads to the point of The Village, which is exactly how Drake originally conceived it. This is that the people in it are themselves the 'point': just as obviously the reason Drake resigned is himself, & what is being protected, hidden, or controlled in The Village is the resignees' precious knowledge held inside them. He shows that he is there to investigate The Village rather than as a detainee in his determination not to give anything away, when the doctor in the hospital says, 'I should like to know his breaking point,' & Drake replies, 'You could make that your life's ambition.'
The attempted means of control are rather obvious, of course, & in fact rather pointless since the emphasis is to destroy the cult of the individual, when actually the individuals in The Village are the reason for its existence, & if they were destroyed its whole reason would stop. The means of control are modelled on the fashionable behavioural psychology of the 1960s & reference such famous psychological experiments as the Millgram experiment & the Stanford Prison experiment. The portrayal of medical psychiatry reflects the 1960s 'anti-psychiatry' criticism of psychiatry as a means of society's control. Of course total control is unashamedly The Village's intention in harnessing psychiatric treatments, such as leucotomy. The effect on the thoughtful viewer can only be the same as the outcome for Drake in this episode: to ensure we are no longer sure who we can trust. Can we really believe that such people as doctors do not have a hidden agenda? The engineered romantic attachment extends this lack of trust to other of society's institutions, for example even as far as the institution of marriage.
I love this episode, I love that the rook just 'loses it' in the middle of the chess game, a portrayal of the sort of tension you would actually be under in The Village. It is interesting that the rook is always referred to as the rook, rather than by number: he has had a role assigned to him in The Village & now can never be seen as anything else.
Strengths of this episode for me are that the chess game metaphor isn't overdone, & the varied scenes of the rest of the episode. Wyngarde makes a surprisingly good Number 2, a tribute to his real acting skill. He had a reputation as a ladies' man in the 1970s, based on the Jason King character he played, & was often mobbed by female fans. Acting colleagues called him 'Petunia Winegum', though. Here his distinctive voice & manner make a surprisingly deep & contemplative Number 2. He makes abundantly clear the cruel methods he has at his disposal, concealed under his urbane exterior, another symbol of unclear motives & behaviour. For me the biggest weakness of this episode is the engineered love interest, that is if it is taken at face value as an attempt to get Drake to cough up the information. It is less of a weakness if it is understood in the context of the various methods of making the viewer doubt the trustworthiness of the people & institutions that surround us. It therefore is so obviously a plant that it can only be intended to increase paranoia.
The end scene of the butler placing the queen's porn back on the chess board cleverly returns to the chess motif. It doesn't necessarily suggest the butler as the boss or some magical control by the chessboard! It does however suggest what this episode is about, that people are different, like chess pieces, but unlike chess pieces you don't know how they will behave. I wonder whether Drake is yet regretting his resignation? - Since it turns out that The Village he conceived is fulfilling his worst fears.
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