Monday, November 16, 2009

By Hook or By Crook - The Prisoner's roots in Henrik Ibsen and the tyranny of blogging

"Where am I?"
"In the Village."
"What do you want?"
"Whose side are you on?"
"That would be telling."
"We want information... Information... Information..."
"You won't get it."
"By hook or by crook, we will."
"Who are you?"
"The new number Two."
"Who is Number One?"
"You are Number Six."
"I am not a number. I am a free man!"
(Mocking laughter)

-Weekly opening of "the Prisoner"

AMC’s six-hour miniseries remake of the Prisoner begins tonight starring Jim Caviezel (Frequency, The Count of Monte Cristo) and Ian McKellen, (Richard III, Gods and Monsters, The Scarlet Pimpernel); an ocurrence which provides me with a unique opportunity to demonstrate one of the reasons I have don’t blog as regularly as I should.

Several factors have conspired to keep me from my online duties. A great challenge is the constant juggling of television scripts in my day job. As a modern, freelance writer working mainly in animation, I’m not paying rent if I’m not writing on several shows at once. You’d be surprised how much energy and brain power it sucks out of your creative well to switch completely gears every few hours. Add to that the fact that I often work into the night when I desperately want to spend time with my new wife. The last thing I usually want to do is take more time away from her to post a blog. So that lowers the online priority for me.

And November is more or less a bust for posting because this year because, as I did last year, I am attempting to spit out a novel in celebration of National Novel Writing Month. Last year I reached the word count but never ended the story, realizing I had very specific character and theme questions to solve first. This year, I am determined to avoid that but so far other story issues are conspiring to screw me up again.

The second challenge is that I actually write three blogs (with contributions ot a fourth coming soon): Rebel Alert, Comicanuck and Stark Raving Adventure. I began to post humorous Star Wars items and comics for a fake Star Wars online newspaper I created to go along with a friend’s fan film. (The film is Death Star Repairmen and the newspaper is Empire’s paper of record, The Imperial News – “All the news that’s fit to censor”.) The blog soon became a vehicle to talk about all kinds of things from a sci-fi bent. So I branched out to better cover my interests and maintain each blog’s identity.

The math on this is pretty simple. Even if I do manage a post a week, it goes to one site or the other. My personal blog on life, Stark Raving Adventure and writing often gets the short end of the stick after a comic or sci-fi. But the biggest challenge for me is my inability to write a short blog post.

I have some success on this front with recent Rebel Alert posts but in general my posts tend to be much more thorough than most. I ‘m not big on just linking to an item posted somewhere. I want my blogs to be more than just a link fest. Other sites dedicated to that do it far better than I ever could. When I discover an intriguing story I usually want to more about what I’ve read or seen. I want to uncover the “story behind the story”. Inevitably I discover intriguing connections and fun questions that other sites haven’t. That is no knock on them. The connections I find are often quite idiosyncractic to my own experience and sense of humour. But it takes me a while for my brain to work through all this and then write a post that takes you on the same journey.

Case in point… I have been meaning to write about the Prisoner for some time but the ideas I wanted to explore are better suited for an MBA thesis than a blog. The sheer magnitude of what I wanted to write about kept me away.

Let me run you through it and watch how the simple summary I planned to give you can bloom into a full essay.

For those of you who don’t know, American born Irish actor Patrick McGoohan was up and coming actor in the late 1950’s, eventually being named Best TV actor of the year in Britain. He rose to prominence starring as secret agent John Drake in the UK’s Danger Man series (titled Secret Agent in the US) for four seasons before growing bored with the role. Setting up his own production company, McGoohan and mystery novelist and script editor George Markstein pitched The Prisoner, about an important government figure with a sensitive post who quits his job, only to wake up the next morning in the mysterious Village: a fanciful Big Brothereque resort cut off from the world where people who know too much are under psychologically and physically manipulated to break down their sense of identity.

Markstein, who devised the setting, background and wrote “Arrival”, the pilot for the series, maintains the character is John Drake and the series is a literal and allegorical sequel to Danger Man. McGoohan denied this all the way to his death, insisting the character of Number 6 was a scientist and had no relation to his previous character. Markstein is glimpsed in the opening credits as the man McGoohan hands in his resignation to.

The series ran with its bizarre concept, taking it to heights of surrealism and allegory not previously seen on television before. McGoohan served as the series star, director, producer and taking over an increasingly large portion of the scripting duties. Markstein clashed with McGoohan over the direction the series was taking and eventually left the series around episode thirteen or so. The remaining episodes became even more wild and hallucinogenic. In fact, the psychedelic finale caused such a stir in England and continues to baffle and fascinate audiences to this day.

And the legend grew.

Henrik Ibsen is tired of explaining his plays to you.

To me, the Prisoner series, and the behind the scenes circumstances of the production, is pure Ibsen. (some Peer Gynt and a whole lot of Brand and therefore, pure Kierkegaard, but I’ll get to that.) McGoohan himself once played Brand before The Prisoner started, likely to great effect with his commanding presence, precise diction and booming voice. The play follows the life of a priest dedicated to dong the right thing no matter what the consequences are. His Old Testament view of God allows no compromise but the cost to him is great. He loses his wife and ministers to a village “flock” that increasingly fail at the moral tests Brand (and life) confronts them with. Brand’s goal is to save the world and the soul’s of man but his inability to compromise and accept human weakness eventually leave him alone with his moral fortitude.

In the end, Brand suffers from the harsh judgment he subjected others to when he is stoned by his flock, banished to the glacier where he grew up and buried in an avalanche. Brand’s dying words express profound doubt. “Does not salvation consider the will of man?” It is open to interpretation whether or not Brand is abandoned by God with the play’s final words, uttered by an unseen voice, “He is the God of love.” Does that mean he left no room for love in his life or that God accepts him?

Apparently, we modern readers tend to take an unsympathetic view of Brand’s harsh moral code, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, although Rand’s philosophy eschews religion and good works and places mankind as it’s own God, with individual self-interest and achievement as the noblest of activities.

Ibsen’s Peer Gynt stars a man-child who spends his entire life avoiding accepting any kind of responsibility for his actions and yet, somehow comes through unscathed, with others bearing the damage of his choices. Finally, after a lifetime of adopting and abandoning many roles, old man Peer discovers his soul is forfeit because he has never been “himself”. Peer is defenseless, having no idea who he really is and finding no one he knows can vouch for him. He is finally granted a reprieve thanks only to the pure love of his long abandoned sweetheart, Solveig (who really needs to get more).

The key to the philosophy of Peer Gynt can be found in Act Two. While in the Mountain Hall of the Troll King, the monarch asks Peer Gynt, “What is the difference between troll and man?” When Peer Gynt is understandably at a loss for an answer one is provided by The Old Man of the Mountain, "Out there, where sky shines, humans say: To thyself be true. In here, trolls say: Be true to yourself-ish.” Peer adopts his own version of the troll motto from then on, declaring to all that he is himself, whatever that is. Peer spends the rest of his days avoiding facing himself or facing truth in general. You might say, Peer Gynt was Ibsen’s version of the Nick Hornby book, About A Boy, with Will (played by Hugh Grant in the film) as a modern Peer.

Peer Gynt and Brand are flip sides of the same question for Ibsen. Both seem to be based on Soren Kierkegaard’s book, Fear and Trembling, a lengthy consideration of the bible story of Isaac, who was asked to sacrifice of his beloved son in Genesis. Kierkegaard interprets the tale, wrestling with the nature of faith, God, morality and faith’s relationship with ethics and morality. To do this Kierkegaard introduces us to the Knight of Faith and the Knight of Infinite Resignation.

The Knight of Faith, in this case Abraham, gives up everything that is important to him in the world save his faith in of, sure that he will regain everything through divine possibility. When God asks him to sacrifice his son, Abraham does so, secure in the knowledge that somehow God will someone keep he and his son together. He exists in paradox. Likewise, Peer Gynt easily gives up on what’s important in this world, assuming he will gain it all back through divine providence or simply due to the “strength of the absurd.”

The Knight of Infinite Resignation gives up everything in the hopes of regaining it in the next life, but spends their life suffering the pain of their loss. Just as Brand is governed by his faith, he also suffers through it and is punished for it. McGoohan’s Number 6 is totally Brand. Single-minded and indomitable. Heidi MacDonald sums it quite nicely over at The Beat.

McGoohan radiated angry determination to escape, fierce intelligence, and sharp efficiency when physical action was required. He was sexy but remote - unlike some other super spies, Number Six didn't jump into bed with every hot lady he met. Number Six was not a person for whom giving in or internal struggle was natural - no wonder he broke ever Number Two who showed up. In the role, McGoohan was dead fucking cool. His acting was knife sharp. No matter what he did later, McGoohan was dead fucking cool. His acting was knife sharp. No matter what he did later - from ICE STATION ZEBRA to several turns as Det. Columbo's most cunning foe - you could never stop watching Mcgoohan, because he wasnt' just so good he was scary; he WAS scary. He was as enigmatic as he was charismatic.

Exactly! And after years of my Brand/Peer Gynt theory percolating in my head, imagine my surprise to discover that my long-held belief was delightfully accurate! In an interview at www.the-prisoner-6 , George Markstein confirms the Brand influence on the development of the Prisoner.

…my feeling is that McGoohan wasn't really very keen on doing any other series. What he really wanted to do I think was to play Brand. He'd had an enormous success some years previously on the stage with Ibsen's 'Brand' and Brand personifies everything I think McGoohan would like to be: God! He was very good as God, so he wanted to play Brand ... again. He was very keen to set up 'Brand' as a film and I think that was really what he wanted to do. What a lot of the people in the studio wanted was to keep their jobs! They hoped he'd go on doing a series and so I sat down at the typewriter one day - you know, any port in a storm - and typed a couple of pages. They were about a secret agent - and after all Drake had been a secret agent - who suddenly quits without any apparent reason, as McGoohan had quit without any apparent reason, and who is put away!

McGoohan as Brand at the Lyric Theatre,

Hammersmith in the late 1950's.

McGoohan also carried the Brand image off-screen, overdosing on multi-hyphenates as he micromanaged production of the Prisoner. At this point, Markstein hit the eject button and bailed on the show when:

“…egomania took over! You know, when McGoohan was everything! When McGoohan was writing, was conceiving, was directing ... and didn't know where he was going. My presence was superfluous - and we've seen the result after my departure… the non-conclusion. I think it was an absurd pantomime. You tell me what it means. I think it was a bit of gross self-indulgence by someone who was fed up with the whole thing and wanted to get out of it and wanted to go out in a blaze of ... something or other… I was surprised because I thought something much better would emerge. After all, when one has conceived something one wants it to die a reasonable death, not some horrific joke!

Like Brand, Markstein feels McGoohan was a Prisoner of his creation.

I think that in many ways THE PRISONER is a tragedy ... because McGoohan became a prisoner of the series and it's never nice to see that happen to a human being, the combination of ambition, frustration, wanting to be writer, director, actor - you name it. It was sad, it was very sad I think. It did something to him that wasn't very good and it was reflected in the series and that's why the series ended like that and that's why people have said "I don't understand the end". Of course they don't understand the end, because there is no end ... I don't think even McGoohan understood the end, or if he does, well, perhaps he does, but that is the biggest tragedy of THE PRISONER that Patrick McGoohan became a Prisoner himself.

Over at Glenn Kenny’s Some Came Running blog, we find a remembrance of McGoohan’s other genre contributions, most notably the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh and his intense work in David Cronenberg’s Scanners. Kenny quotes the book Cronenberg on Cronenberg, wherein the director recalls with discomfort the disorganized first shooting day and how it foreshadowed a difficult shot.

"It kept on being that difficult. Patrick McGoohan was part of the reason. He's a brilliant actor; the voice, the charisma, the presence, the face. Phenomenal. And he was aging so well; he looked so great in that beard. But he was so angry. His self-hatred came out as anger against everybody and everything. He said to me, 'If I didn't drink I'd be afraid I'd kill someone.' He looks at you that way and you just say, 'Keep drinking.' It's all self-destructive, because it's all self-hating. That's my theory. He was also terrified. The second before we went to shoot he said, 'I'm scared.' I wasn't shocked; Olivier said that he was terrified each time he had to go on stage. With Patrick, though, it was just so raw and so scary—full of anger and potent. But he was sensing the disorganization; the script wasn't there, so he was right to worry about it. He didn't know me. He didn't know whether I could bring it off or not. We parted from the film not on very good terms ultimately."

In the finale of the original series, Number 6 at last confronts Number 1, yanking off a false face to reveal his own countenance staring back at himself. Apparently McGoohan told close friends this revelation was meant to imply that Number 6, who pictured himself as the ultimate rebel, had imprisoned himself by thinking like a prisoner, thereby always limiting his options. That gives us a reasonable and very clever explanation for the answer Number 6 receives in every episode to the question, “Who is number 1?” The response is always, “You are Number 6.” But could it also he heard as, “You are, Number 6”? This fits into Markstein’s original approach to the series. Number 6’s has faith in his own self-image and ultimately, that faith is the one thing that defeats him.

So where does Peer Gynt fit into the Prisoner? Well, the other residents of the Village appear to be much like Peer; changeable as the wind and whims of the various Number 2’s and generally getting by quite well. That attitude alone makes them anathema to Number 6 and more dangerous to his mindset than any plan of Number 2’s.

But however much Number 6’s defiance and self-image make him an exemplary Brand, he is also very much Peer Gynt himself. He readily accepts and even embraces the routine of the Village and his constant struggle for identity. Intentionally or not, he seems go along with each new attempt to break his will with increasingly practised ease, always on the lookout for a chance to escape –to find something better in life. The Village has given Number 6’s life meaning his previous life lacked, as evidenced by his defiant resignation featured every week in the opening credits. Number 6 accepts that he is a Prisoner and redefines himself in those terms. Like Peer Gynt McGoohan declares himself to be a free man yet why would a free men constantly need to escape? “I am myself, whatever that is.”


You can see why it's taken some time to tackle this post. It’s a lot to consider even though I’m trying to keep things simple (More for my own poor, overloaded brain’s sake than your sprightly minds, gentle readers). I avoided the temptation to go into specific examples from the series and compare dialogue and scenes to passages from Fear and Trembling and Ibsen. But it still took ths long to reach the page.

Sigh... Weeks between posts. I try to make them worth the wait.

So what does this have to do with comics? Well, the Prisoner inspired lots of comics related homages and ideas. Jack Kirby attempted a direct adaptation of the series. Pages from his story are at Bleeding Cool and a nice summary of his attempt is at the Twomorrow's website.

Kirby's creation Darkseid's search for the anti-life equation forced the New Gods into a struggle for life and identity very similar to that of Number 6.

In the late eighties, Canadian creators Mark Askwith (Prisoners of Gravity, Space: The Imagination Station) and Dean Motter (Mr. X) put out a comic book sequel to the series entitled Shattered Visage for DC Comics. According to this interview with Motter at, McGoohan was not entirely displeased.

My favorite anecdote remains this: Patrick McGoohan was contractually obligated to approve the work via a contract with ITC. So pages were run over to his apartment near the UN building, on the East River, with each issue for signature. Never heard a word until the whole series was completed and the message came back to me that “He didn’t hate it.” Anyone knowing the curmudgeonly McGoohan (and how solicitous he was about The Prisoner) knew that was high praise indeed. Later I was shown a note from Leo McKern [an actor who had played Number Two in the series], who had likeness approval, stating that he had never been a comic book villain before and thoroughly enjoyed it—especially in that it involved no effort on his part.
This year, Shattered Visage was adapted into a radio play over at And the good folks at Comic Book Resources have recently provided a handy, if selective, Prisoner timeline of comics and stuff inspired by or homaging the show to go along with an interview with Jericho's Lennie James, who co-stars in the remake of The Prisoner as Number 147.

Want more Prisoner? AMC has the original Prisoner episodes available for free viewing at their remake's website. Something I definitely plan to take advantage of.

There is also an awesome posting of Gold Key Comics' Secret Agent #1 at

Click over to Youtube for a fascinating four-part interview with Mcgoohan several years after the Prisoner phenomenon.

Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here. And Part 4 is here.

Be seeing you.

Beavers Up!