Apartheid in The Prisoner: A Change of Mind
The rest of the classic TV blogosphere is beginning to reflect on how our favourite shows celebrate this festive season. In typical fashion I have merely touched on Christmas in name only with a ghost story, and am now running back to seeing possible allusions to apartheid in The Prisoner. I must apologise to my regular readers for not posting in a little while; the trouble with my 'manager' is continuing and has all been rather stressful. I have wound up being a witness in a disciplinary hearing for one of my 'colleagues'. The manager conducting the hearing looked slightly shocked when he said that I was making a very serious allegation, and I replied by putting a dossier in front of him of six years of incidents, and the dates when I informed the manager of these things, copies of emails, and so on.
This may seem divorced from the subject in hand here, but actually it isn't. The subject of this episode comes down really to humans' mutual need for society and the effect it has when that is actually completely withdrawn. The literature is lengthy on how humans influence each other to behave in particular ways, particularly in groups, and that kind of pressure is one of the strongest influences which can be used to affect someone. It is a brave person who stands out from the crowd, and naturally Number 6 is aiming to be exactly that person and see what happens. I personally feel this may be one of the episodes which better fit the theory that Number 6 is John Drake, who has resigned to see what has happened at the village he has devised for people whose knowledge can't be safely released, than the theory that the series refers to South African apartheid. I say this because the ostracisation by The Village genuinely seems to affect him, and since we all know that The Village is a complete sham that is not really something that would bother him. It would bother him, however, if his desire to investigate the village was hampered by his being declared unmutual.
There is still a parallel between the situation in The Village in this episode and South African apartheid. To belong to the community you have to behave a particular way, be a particular way, even look a particular way. This is exactly the kind of social division envisaged by apartheid, an Afrikaans word which means 'apartness', but which the propaganda machine of the time defined as meaning 'good neighbourliness'. In that system it was mandatory to be declared legally a member of a particular community and remain in it. It was painted as socially unacceptable to contravene this rigid boundary. It is interesting that the apartheid government used medical experimentation on homosexuals and others who were considered undesirable: it provides another interesting parallel with this episode of The Prisoner that male homosexuals underwent 'conversion' to being women, to the extent that when apartheid ended, some of these people were left half way through surgery, and remain there to this day.
A further parallel between apartheid's and The Village's approach to creating a beneficent society, is that they are both a complete sham. It is hardly surprising that the residents of The Village have come round to behaving in a way which props up the regime, just as white residents of South Africa behaved in ways which propped up the regime, or at least may have expressed disapproval while enjoying their privilege. Ironically this is also mirrored in my 'manager' ignoring repeated reports of a member of the team actively sabotaging the work of the team over a period of years, and informing me that 'we rub along all right most of the time'. People like a quiet life. People make the best of their situation.
Both The Village and the South African government used to their full advantage the human propensity to be averse to anything perceived as the 'other'. In the case of The Village, it is interesting how quickly the entire Village was turned against him as a social pariah. In the case of apartheid, one of the effects of keeping the races separate was to keep people in ignorance of what was actually going on. When the only time you meet a black is when he or she is working as your domestic servant, it ensures they are not going to express dissatisfaction. Apart from the actual manipulation of the press which occurred, a major propaganda achievement of the apartheid government was to ensure that the different races lived sufficiently in ignorance of each other that they would believe the distorted news.
I think on balance despite clear echoes of the techniques of apartheid in this episode, it can also perhaps more clearly be seen as a reflection of our own society, particularly the contemporary criticism of psychiatric abuses. This is much clearer in the latter part of the episode, where Number 6 apparently undergoes social conversion. In many ways this feels like the ECT scene in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest to me, in fact Number 6's role is very like that of Randle McMurphy. I mean that it feels like the psychiatric criticism of the time – that the hospitals were full of people who were there for decades for no particular reason, who were treated badly, who were experimented on and often subjected to quack treatments at the whim of the staff. There is also a very real sense in which the aim of the episode is the same as the aim of the psychiatry of the time – for agitation to be over. The patient can be calm enough to behave in a socially acceptable manner. I feel that that reading of this episode would probably trump the apartheid reading, since it keys better into the main aim of the episode.
Image credit: http://www.bonkersinstitute.org/medshow/stelazrelax.html