Friday, February 12, 2010

It's your funeral

Watched the first two episodes of the new, US-version of the Prisoner yesterday, and was sadly disappointed. I loved the original (well, until it all comes apart at the end) and knew it would not be the same. I'd even been thrilled by the extended trailer, which made it look like a fresh, engaging take on the old idea, with a more legible plot and structure and none of that coming apart...

But sadly, it's also dull. The old show sets up its premise very quickly: the unnamed hero has resigned from some important job and isn't saying why. He's kidnapped and shipped out to a strange Village, which all seems quite fun on the surface. But they insist he's now called “6”, and each week try some new scheme to break him. 6 insists that he's not a number but a free man, but each week he remains stuck behind those bars.

This new version seems to be on the same lines, though after two episodes it still hasn't said so explicitly. Instead, 6 meanders about while the Village tries to convince him that there's no other world beyond the desert. Memories of New York, a shimmering ghost of the Twin Towers, even men with dogs pursuing him are all made up in his brain.

Plenty of other villagers will quietly agree that something isn't right or that, yes, the infrequent explosions at the diner are a bit unsettling. But we, the audience, already know that there's a world outside the Village; we recognise the pictures of the Statue of Liberty and the Palace of Westminster's clock tower. There's no tension to be gained from a character insisting that there's only the Village: we know that they're wrong.

Rather than, as in the old show, the Village being a sort of retirement home for agents who've sold out, this Village is full of deluded people. They seem to have had their memories changed or affected, so they're passive captives rather than participants in the regime. That again undercuts the threat.

It's also overly busy with bits of plot. There's the taxi driver, played by Lennie James, who is called for an audience with 2. There's 2's son and what he suspects 2 is doing to Mummy. There's the flashbacks in which 6 chats up Hayley Attwell and there seem to be clues on the radio. It all crowds what should be a deliciously simple idea: this guy won't sell out to the Man.

The aged 93 that 6 meets early on seems is a nod to the old show and is even wearing original 6's clothes. I assume the role was meant for Patrick McGoohan, who inconveniently died (or, if you prefer, escaped). Apart from the nod to the old show, it's an odd cameo: we don't yet know what 93 is trying to escape from, or that our hero will want to escape as well. A bit like starting the Doctor Who TV Movie with Sylvester McCoy, the nod to the past derails the story, making it overly complicated for a new audience.

The flashy, swoopy direction is entirely wrong for the Village – which is meant to be eerily serene. As with Quantum of Solace, the fast-cutting stuff suggests lack of faith in the material and means there are odd jumps in the narrative. Traditional camera set ups and a slower pace would contrast nicely with the fast-cutting frenzy of New York. But also, they would make the Village more comforting. The pervasive and persuasive serenity of the Village is what makes it such a threat. It should be all-too-easy for 6 to settle there.

A good analogy might be Stepford, which at first seems a perfect community. The same growing disquiet would work perfectly in the Prisoner, and Stepford is also laden with clues about what's going on that all come together in the revelation at the end. It might be a sci-fi idea, but Stepford feels like it's got a real-world solution and also something to say about our times. This new Prisoner seems like it's going to all be a dream or time travel or an after life or coma – and if it's not real it doesn't matter. The shimmering ghost of the Twin Towers and an ocean that hides are all “magic”. The more plausible, real and “grounded” the Village, the more effective it is.

The tone is also not quite right. I loved 2 insisting on being brought cherry cake, and hooray for keeping Rover. But Rover, and the scene where Hayley Atwell reveals she's chatted up 6 on purpose, all come far too late. And both times Rover appears there's no consequence: he's just a blobby re-set button to nix that episode's attempted escape. All-smiling, participant Villagers would make the Village more unsettling. A lighter touch would make it more sinister.

As it is, the new version lacks the wit and style of the original, and fails to grab the audience by the balls. Jim Caviezel's 6 seems little different from the gruff, stubbly heroes of Lost or the US Life on Mars – in fact, it all felt too much a riff on familiar territory than a new series in its own right. The good – and English – actors all do their best, and there's clearly been effort and money spent on the retro 50s aesthetic. But it's not as fun or exciting as the original. The 9/11 stuff is crass and dated rather than iconic.

So what would I do differently? I think start with something more exciting. We don't see Flashback 6 chatting up some girl. Instead, he's involved in a Secret Mission, dealing with some Bad Stuff. Perhaps he's in Iraq of Afghanistan, perhaps he's exposing government secrets at home. But he's in charge, in control, a Proper Hero. Until he walks in on -

Sudden cut to 6 waking up in the Village, everyone Very Concerned. He's suffering from post-traumatic stress and can't remember what he's seen or even his own name. The only cure is to put back the pieces and confront what he saw. 6 knows its top secret, and he doesn't know where he is. The more the Village – and his old comrades – insist they're on his side, the more he resists treatment. They can't even tell him where the Village is. They don't stop him trying to explore, but they do worry he's getting over-exciting. These aren't cowed people scared to ask awkward questions: they really love being in the Village and just think 6 should chill out.

Except for 2, who is – and in this version – the one thing everyone is scared of. But we need to see more of a genuine threat from 2. So, instead of finding 93 outside the village, perhaps 93 has never managed to escape (which, if he is McGoohan, would also dismiss Fall Out as just a dream or the old 6 giving in). New 6 asking questions inspires 93 to make one last attempt. They escape together, but 93 is too slow and gets caught. 6 watches as 2 tortures the old man – and 2 is all smiles and kindness as he cuts him up. “This is the only escape, dear boy”, he explains.

6 runs off, but is caught by Rover and brought back to the Village in time for 93's funeral – 2 insists that the old man died quietly in his sleep. 6 now knows the Village is out to get him. But he still can't remember what it was he saw before being brought here. He's trying to piece together the memories for himself, and the village is drawing him out. The more they try to get into his head, the more it comes together – the more of the flashback we see. He tries to resist the Village, but their efforts are also working...

I am curious enough to press on with New Prisoner – and will report back. It could just be a lot more effective.

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