Sunday, April 12, 1998

The Prisoner's Dilemma

I originally posted this in the alt.prisoner newsgroup. These are my thoughts on the meaning of The Prisoner, the enigmatic British TV show from the late 1960s. I say there's a very good reason the meaning of the show is ambiguous. I advance the theory that The Prisoner has two authors and they don't agree on what the show means.

The Prisoner left three questions hanging. Who is Number One? Who's running the Village? Why did you resign?

The Prisoner never really answered those questions. The reason -- there was more than one show. There was Patrick McGoohan's Prisoner. He didn't care about the answers. There was George Markstein's Prisoner. He cared--but he never got to give the answers in his head.

Patrick McGoohan (PMG) wanted to create an allegory. But he’s not the one who thought of the concept in the first place -- executive story consultant George Markstein was, based on his experiences in realworld espionage (including intelligence that something very much like the Village existed).

Markstein didn't want an allegory. He wanted to tell a realistic tale. To Markstein, it was all very real, and the questions the show asked were important. To Markstein, the Village was a physical place obeying all Aristotelian unities. This matters... Because, to me, he’s as much the “auteur” of “the Prisoner” as PMG.

Which leaves us in a situation of two very brainy, very creative dudes with very different ideas about what The Prisoner was. As I said, it's as if there were two shows: Markstein’s version, a coldwar drama about a real person in a real place; McGoohan’s version, an existential allegory wrapped in a pitch shrouded in pop existentialism.

So, if The Prisoner was really two shows, if you’re looking for answers to its questions, you really should be looking for two sets of answers. It all boils down to what each of the two brains behind it had in mind. Intention is everything...

(And to hell with the “intentional fallacy” and the rest of that postmodern crap.)

The problem I have now is I have to start with one or another. If I start with McGoohan's version, Markstein’s realworld conception will seem pedestrian and simpleminded. If I start with Markstein, PMG’s allegory will seem like a bag of symbolic wind...

Markstein’s realistic concept tends to get drowned out -- so let’s start there.

What follows is an educated guess -- as the show never got a chance to deal with its original, realistic, implications. Here’s my hunch of what Markstein had in mind...

I think it’s fairly obvious if you think about it.

The Village is an experiment in mind control and a society based on mind control -- a turnkey Utopia built from the ground up. Supposedly it’s a prison for those who “know too much or too little,” but that doesn’t make much sense if you think about it. The place is too expensive, too difficult to maintain if that’s all it is. Why go to so much trouble? Hell, you don’t see the Chinese party bosses slapping up a model community for the student demonstrators out on the Mongolian border somewhere. Truncheon, jackboot and “the room” are as effective as they ever were...

It makes sense that the stated reason for the Village is a pretext, that what it’s really for is what everybody’s working so hard to make it: a model society, like the “Noble Experiment” that Oglethorpe attempted to create in colony of Georgia.

Which leads to what the concept of a model society is -- namely a pretty damn peaceful place where everybody’s material needs are satisfied and there’s lots of community spirit and togetherness.

“Can’t we all just get along?”

Sure, Rodney. Come to the Village.

This togetherness is maintained by beyond state-of-the-art technology, particularly, but not limited to, mind control technology.

Rover seems to be a form of artificial intelligence; "Speedlearn" is surely lightyears ahead of Hooked on Phonics; the General had Bill Gates beat in 1967.

These folks are good. Beyond good.

Which leads to the question of who They are...

It’s obviously an elite group within the intelligence community and, as this is the Cold War era, that means either the Russians, the West (i.e.: the Americans) or a combination of both.

It has to be both.

If only one side possessed this mind control technology and also ran the Village -- that technology is so advanced they could easily destroy (or utterly control) the other side. If both sides possessed this technology, the Village would have been penetrated. There’s an alliance...

Since this alliance hasn’t consolidated world control yet, it’s more likely a conspiracy from below and not a cabal from above. This isn’t the putative leaders of East and West, but a shadow conspiracy working under their noses. Who are They?

The most likely hypothesis (if you forget the allegory and simply consider the world being shown to you) is that it’s a consortium of spies, research psychologists and scientists from both sides of the Iron Curtain who decided to form common cause -- and create a model for a utopian society to test and refine -- before that model could be applied to the whole world. Before the world blows itself up...

They’re trying to engineer Utopia. They’re trying to get everybody to get along. The spy prison scenario is a pretext...

Though if you can turn spies into totally mutual Villagers you can do it to anybody.

And spies are, of coure, the ideal change agents to send back into their respective governments.

Which means that the character of the Prisoner is either:

*The ultimate make-or-break test subject. He’s either what he seems to be -- a refusnik British spy with a bad conscience -- or quite possibly one of the original conspirators -- identity erased and reconstructed as in “Total Recall.”

*Someone sent in from outside the conspiracy in order to crack the conspiracy. (He resigned in order to get captured -- which is what They suspect.)

*One of the original conspirators -- the person who thought it up, as a matter of fact -- who finally decided to opt out. (Which is why they keep asking “Why did you resign?” Which is why it’s so important...) And why he has to destroy the Village -- namely because he realizes that the cure (of a mind controlled society) is worse than the disease (human violence and self-destructiveness).

I think the latter is more dramatically interesting. I think that what Markstein had in mind for the last two episodes was to reveal all this -- and have the Prisoner character destroy the experiment he had once created -- the model Village where mind-control technology allows humanity to live in peace. The utopian folly which, even in its prototype form, was already starting to turn ugly...

Obviously I’m no damn mind reader -- but considering the premises of the show (if seen realistically) -- I think this is where Markstein was taking these premises. (Story has logic which is something you know if you’ve ever sat next to someone playing “Guess the Movie.” screaming Ooooh! Ooooh! I know! Verbal is Kaiser Soze!) Markstein was setting up a mousetrap (detective story-style) and
the cues to the trap he planned to spring were there, starting with the first episode. When the questions were asked: Why did you resign? Who is Number #1 ...? Which side are you on? -- it’s safe to say Markstein had answers in mind, whether McGoohan did or not.

In Markstein’s mind, the story was flowing to a realistic end in synch with its realistic beginning.

Watch “Arrival.” Watch it as if you’re watching it for the first time. Then play “Guess the Movie.” Ask yourself where this story is going. What it’s hinting. Then watch “Fall Out.”

Different tone, mood...different everything.

My ending fits his hints. Right or wrong, we’ll never know...

Since, as most of you probably know, sometime before “the Girl Who Was Death,” McGoohan and Markstein had a falling out over the ending of the show. Markstein left (or was fired). McGoohan got to do it his way -- totally.

Chances are there was a loud, shouting story conference. Markstein was pushing the idea that the Prisoner should be #1 -- saying this is what he’d intended all the time. McGoohan, who’s gone a few nights without sleep and is totally wired on speed, keeps saying it’s a stupid idea and cutting him off. Markstein persists. It gets ugly...

McGOOHAN: You’re always saying that and I’m always saying I don’t want that. Don’t
you listen? It’s an allegory. I see it as an allegory.

MARKSTEIN: It’s also a story.

McGOOHAN: Right. You mean a spy story. (contemptuously) We’ll have Harry Lime in the doorway and tell them the Butler did it.

MARKSTEIN: Let me just tell you what I...

McGOOHAN: (shouting) I don’t want to hear it, George. (louder) IT’S A BLOODY STUPID
IDEA AND I DON’T WANT TO HEAR IT. I’m sorry if that offends you but you have no idea what I’m trying to do here, how hard I’m working, all the -- everyone’s fighting me, everyone’s against me, everyone’s trying to bring me down and I’m holding it together -- IT’S ON MY BACK, NOT YOURS -- why do you think I’m doing this, hmmm? Number One is you, Number One is me, he, she, it, everyman, all and nothing at all -- I don’t want to give them your stupid little answers and spell it out for them -- no one understands what I’m trying to do, I thought you’d understand but... (losing steam) I’m sorry I screamed at you like that but you understand the strain I’m under...

MARKSTEIN: I understand the strain you’re under. You always say that, you know.

McGOOHAN: Excuse me?

MARKSTEIN: I try to talk about the story and where it’s going. You scream at me. Then you apologize and then you tell me you’re under a strain and the subject is changed and we never talk about the ending. Over and over again we have the same dialog, the same conversation. Line for line, word for word.

McGOOHAN: That’s very amusing, George. Now if...

MARKSTEIN: We don’t talk about the story -- we talk about not talking about it. Once again you spend 15 minutes talking about talking all to prevent me from saying something that would take about 5 minutes. We do all this talking about not talking.

McGOOHAN: Which is another way of saying you’ve wasted a great deal of my time. And I don’t have time for this.

MARKSTEIN: Of course you don’t. And, of course, once again we don’t talk about the ending.

McGOOHAN: I don’t want to talk about the ending.

MARKSTEIN: And I’ve been trying for nearly a year.

McGOOHAN: (shouting again) And I’ve been telling you I DON’T WANT TO LISTEN for nearly a year.

MARKSTEIN: Tell me your idea?

McGOOHAN:  I don’t have any.


McGOOHAN: The ending will happen.

MARKSTEIN: That’s what I’m afraid of.

McGOOHAN: What are you afraid of?

MARKSTEIN: The ending that happens when the ending happens -- your ending. It’s a cheat.

McGOOHAN: (amused) doesn’t exist yet...I don’t even know what I’m doing yet...and you know it’s a cheat?



MARKSTEIN: I know you. You want to play Felini. Big scenes and jump cuts and screaming and symbolism and nothing makes sense. So it’s all just a big dream and nothing makes sense and everybody walks away with questions and, congratulations, there is now more avant garde crap in the world.

McGOOHAN: (amused but angry) And that’s what I’m going to do? You know this?

MARKSTEIN: I know you.

McGOOHAN: Who am I, George?

MARKSTEIN: You’re Mister Avant Garde filmmaker and you think stories are for stupid people. You won’t tell them why he resigned, what it was for, who runs it, anything -- but you’ll make a big noise. That’s you, that’s what you want...

McGOOHAN: Is that it?

MARKSTEIN doesn’t say anything.

McGOOHAN: I mean...don’t stop now. Perhaps you’ve left something out? Tell me what
you think. Tell me everything. I yelled at you -- now you can yell at me. I’m
not going to fire you.

MARKSTEIN still keeps his mouth shut.

McGOOHAN: You seem to have such a clear idea of what I’m going to write for the ending -- perhaps you could write that down and save us all a great deal of time.

MARKSTEIN: You can’t cheat the audience.

McGOOHAN: Or pander to them.

MARKSTEIN: Stop talking like your bloody character!

(McGOOHAN starts laughing)

MARKSTEIN: It’s not funny -- you think it’s funny? You think I’m funny? It’s a joke to you?
(McGOOHAN still laughing)

MARKSTEIN: It’s not a joke to me, Pat. I believe in this place -- I believe in the Prisoner -- I believe in the story. The people who watch believe in the story. I just want to tell the story.

McGOOHAN: Of course you do. (long silence) But it’s my story.

MARKSTEIN: No it isn’t.

McGOOHAN: It’s my money.

At which point, Markstein walks out. He resigns.

Ironically, he never explains his reasons in public. The world never knows why he resigned.