Posted by: Nick Walters | December 6, 2009

The Prisoner

I am a huge fan of the original Prisoner, and when I first heard of this re-make my immediate reaction was “Oh God, NO!”  Then I merely shrugged and put it down to the current trend of re-making things that should never, ever be re-made (e.g. The Wicker Man, Edge of Darkness).

But this 2009 version of The Prisoner isn’t really a re-make at all. It’s not even a “re-imagining”, whatever that means.  It’s not a sequel, a continuation or a re-boot. It’s a completely separate, discrete entity which just happens to be called The Prisoner – and that’s its major problem. It’s good enough to stand on its own, but as it’s called The Prisoner it will forever be compared with the original and found wanting. Had they called it something else and removed all back-references to the original it would be greatly improved but then, paradoxically, wouldn’t succeeded as it really isn’t that original in itself, with obvious ancestors in the Matrix and Dark City.

So it’s a strange beast, and it only really works if you can forget the original. It comprises 6 45 minute episodes as opposed to the original’s run of 17; and, most importantly, everything’s answered. We find out about Number 1 (in the third episode!), we find out what the Village is for, why Number 6 (or simply 6 in this version) resigned, and what 2’s plan is. Everything’s explained – and it works. Leaving everything hanging again would have been a massive cheat, and they do seem to have found a valid reason for the Village – or rather this Village – to exist, so credit is due.

(The only thing that isn’t explained is Rover, which pops up now and then looking exactly as it did in the original; no-one ever comments on it, and it’s a bit silly – and a reference to the originals series they should probably have left out.)

This Prisoner is a tense, dark (in some places VERY dark, and shocking), multi-layered, psychological thriller that perhaps lacks in action and is a bit too talky. It looks rather dour and cheap compared to the 60s version and is notably lacking in humour; there are no jokes. At all. The Namibian location is remarkable, and used very well – you can really believe that the Village is isolated from the entire world, and that escape is impossible. It’s a sinister place, on the surface all 50s Americana, but with abductions, terrorism and constant surveillance, an obvious metaphor for the post-9/11 world, but don’t fret it’s not as overdone as it is in Battlestar Galactica.

It benefits from a small cast which is refreshing in these days of multi-character dramas like Lost and Heroes. Jim Cavaziel does a fair job as Six but is too wooden in places, and when he emotes he comes across as a bit silly. A more empathic actor, less of a hunk, would have worked better. Eccleston would have been perfect for this and to think of him acting against McKellen makes one’s head spin. Talking of whom, McKellen is perfect as 2, he’s remarkably like the old Number 2’s from the original but this version is fleshed out a lot more. He has a wife and a son, 11-12.  The idea of 2 having a family does sound cheesy and totally at odds with the original, but it works in this version, and his family are crucial to the plot. There’s a huge twist about 11-12 in Episode 3 which goes places where the original never dared to tread.

Ruth Wilson (Jane Eyre) is particularly good as 313, 6’s “love interest” (good to see three English actors in prominent roles), whilst Hayley Attwell is merely OK as the mysterious Lucy who 6 meets in the outside world. Oh yes, we get to see a lot of 6 in New York before his Arrival; the plotline is very clever with two storylines progressing together: 6 in the Village, and 6 before the Village meeting the mysterious Lucy who wants to know why he resigned from the surveillance company SUMMAKOR… it is the way these two storylines twist and separate and merge which is the cleverest and best thing about this version. Sometimes confusing, always challenging, you have to watch very carefully indeed. This isn’t a show for those with short attention spans.

The explanation of what the Village is JUST ABOUT works, though I’ll need to watch it all again with that knowledge to see if there are holes. The ending is bleak and downbeat – which is both fitting and welcome.

Overall, I would probably say that this version of The Prisoner is a success, at least for me. However it is far too slow and lacking in action to gain mass appeal – most would probably find it boring. Hardcore Prisoner fans may loathe it, and a sense they are right, this isn’t as innovative or groundbreaking as the original, but how could it be? McGoohan’s Prisoner is perhaps THE most original, unique TV programme ever made, and nothing made today could ever have the same impact, what with 40 years of TV history under the belt.

The Prisoner 2009 may not be great TV but if you go into it with an open mind there’s lots to enjoy.

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