...a blog by Richard Flowers

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Day 3201 (again): THE PRISONER 42nd ANNIVERSARY: Dance of the Dead


The 6th October is the anniversary of the Prisoner episode "The Chimes of Big Ben" so obviously my Daddies are watching… "Dance of the Dead".

Is it me or does this TV series MESS with your fluffy HEAD?!


The Village holds a Carnival and Ball, in fancy dress with dancing and a macabre cabaret. After a prologue sequence where the doctor uses crude brainwashing to try and get the Prisoner to talk, the story falls into two distinct parts: the day before the Carnival, a slightly more complex spy/escape drama, and Carnival night where things get really surreal.

The Prisoner: "I thought there was to be a cabaret."

Number Two: "There is. You are it."

The Prisoner, dressed in his own suit, is put on trial by the Village. His crime: breaking the rules. His judges: Nero, Napoleon and Queen Bess. Number Two, dressed as Peter Pan, is his defender while his current watcher, a conflicted young woman designated 240 but dressed as Little Bo Peep, guardian of the Village's lost sheep we presume, is to prosecute. His only character witness, Roland Walter Dutton, a man who – like Cobb in "Arrival" – the Prisoner knew in his former life, has been lobotomised by the Village and dressed as a fool.

The verdict is, of course, guilty, and the sentence is death, with the Carnival-clad Villagers pursuing the Prisoner through the Town Hall in terrifying screaming hunt, only to apparently lose all interest once Number Two declares that the Prisoner is now "dead".

what's your number, please

As I said last week, The Prisoner defies conventional filing. Even the box sets have the running order different to the original broadcast dates and McGoohan himself only thought of seven of the episodes as "canonical" (this is one of them). So, picking your own running order is one of the games that the Prisoner plays with you. As with UNIT dating, there isn't a definitive "right answer" (answers are a prison for yourself), as different people will find different clues more or less important, but I'm happy to try and explain our preferred version as I go along.

What you can say is that episodes of the Prisoner fall into, roughly, three distinct "flavours": the Prisoner tries to escape but the Village beats him; the Village tries some wacky scheme to break the Prisoner, but he survives; the Prisoner takes on the Village from within and beats the system. What you can also see is that these "flavours" form an obvious hierarchy, and therefore running order of escape, survival, victory.

The most obvious "escape" stories, apart from "Arrival" itself, are "The Chimes of Big Ben" (usually shown second) and "Checkmate". "Dance of the Dead" fits this category too, however, because it has a more subtle escape attempt – or rather an attempt to summon rescue: the Prisoner, finding a dead man on the beach, seeks to make use of the man's body to float a message out to sea. We also include "Free for All" in this batch, even though it also includes "wacky brain altering techniques" and an attempt to "beat the system", because above all it is very obviously a victory for the Village. As a key turning point though, we leave "Free for All" until the end of this bunch, as you will see.

So we are happy to start from the idea that "Dance of the Dead" is one of three episodes that could be second, third or fourth in order. Choosing between these is down to a decision about the complexity of the Prisoner's escape plans and here, although subtle, his plan is relatively straightforward and requires little by way of planning. In return, apart from the doctor's peremptory, plainly unauthorised and frankly very crude brain-washing technique (at least compared to some of the more bogglingly outré things the Village will try later), the Village makes no overt or aggressive attempts to break the Prisoner. Indeed, Number Two seems most keen this week to get him to accept life in the Village, a mental softening up, in which she succeeds admirably, leaving him totally at a loss.

More mundanely, the Prisoner himself asserts baldly "I'm new here" on one occasion (though he will say this again in "Checkmate"); he claims he's never seen a night in the Village, so taken at his word this is his first nocturnal peregrination; and later says he arrived "quite recently" when asked by Dutton. Dutton himself says he has been in the Village a few months; there is a convention that each episode of "The Prisoner" represents a month of time that he spends in the Village, so this alone would suggest that "Dance of the Dead" has to be episode two or at latest three.

But beyond that, "Dance of the Dead" is best placed second because it is one of the key episodes in setting out McGoohan's manifesto for "what it's all about": "Arrival" may set up the Prisoner's situation, but "Dance of the Dead" is the case for the prosecution.

Number 240 spells it out quite early on: societies have to have rules, even if the rules are arbitrary or even unknown, and what we call "wickedness" involves a transgression of those rules.

The judges at the Prisoner's trial are, almost obviously, monarchs, dictators, monomaniacs even; they are the ultimate symbols of a legal system, a system of society, and at the same time the ultimate symbols of just how arbitrary that system can be.

It's not that the Prisoner doesn't have rules. As discussed last time, McGoohan's own strong views on sex and killing heavily influence his character. It's just that he insists on the right to apply only his own rules, not those that are agreed by "society", whether they are imposed by democratic or autocratic means.

Remember, anarchy doesn't mean without rules it means without rulers.

the new number two

Another way to regard the episodes is to compare the relative powers of the Prisoner, which rises over the series, with that of Number Two, which declines.

Here, Number Two is absolutely at her most powerful, totally in control, with a chatty, playful relationship with "Number One", or whoever it is on the other end of that telephone, exchanging pleasantries like they are not just old friends, but equals. Godlike, she observes the Prisoner on her big screens even at his most mundane moments, like his personal guardian angel. Or watchdog.

That she is, of course, a woman in this episode goes almost entirely without saying – certainly the Prisoner doesn't remark on it (no crass "a woman…?" Moonraker-era Bondisms here, thank goodness, though he is provoked to snipe "never trust a woman" when even the cat betrays him).

In fact it's an episode for strong female characters: as well as Number Two, there's Good Queen Bess and the Prisoner's watcher (and the Town Crier – later Nero – played by Aubrey Woods is the evilest Queen you ever did see), along with another Village supervisor who later turns up at the trial as Queen Cleopatra.

In fact there's a remarkably bitchy exchange between the Number 240 and Cleopatra, ostensibly both guards, when the Prisoner temporarily eludes the former's surveillance. "Shall I watch number 34 instead?" "No. He's dead."

It's a hint that, even this early on, the Village is not exclusively interested in playing with the Prisoner's marbles, but that anyone and everyone could be subject to suspicion, surveillance and scrutiny. It's not impossible that the entire affair this week is actually targeted at Number 240, to test her breaking points, not his, and finding her wanting. At the trial, she does break and the conclusion sees Number Two pass judgement on her, telling the Prisoner that she is no longer his watcher: observers of human nature cannot allow themselves to care.

There is one other "woman" here: that treacherous black cat. The Prisoner discovers her, apparently stray in the Village, and takes to stroking and later feeding her.

"I see you've found a friend," Number Two remarks.

In Kipling, the Cat Walks by him- (or her-) self and so should be a natural symbol for the Prisoner. That this cat turns out to be Number Two's pet is powerful symbolic subversion, as well as a cautionary lesson to the Prisoner. (Not one he learns immediately, either.)

follow the signs

Sometimes, of course, the signs are easy ones: the Carnival costumes are, transparently, reflections of the wearer's inner character: the arrogant doctor with the Napoleon complex becomes Napoleon; the flirty maid becomes the Virgin Queen, while Number Two, Peter Pan, is clearly Principal Boy. The Prisoner assumes, probably wrongly, that he is given his own clothes because he is still himself; but remember that Number Two's purpose is to realise the "death" of that "self", and he could as easily be dressing for his own funeral. Seen on the beach at the start of Carnival night, the Prisoner becomes "Mr Tuxedo", a figure in black, visually and metaphorically shadow to Number Two's Peter Pan.

That scene, that confrontation between Number Two and the Prisoner, is a favourite moment for Alex: Number Two, dressed in green, is like the Green Witch in the Narnia story "The Silver Chair", dismissing the Prisoner's "World" as "just a dream", explaining away each thing he calls to mind from his World as something lesser from her Village, saying he must be mad to believe a dream.

Once inside the Town Hall, of course, the Prisoner does – as Number Two remarks – pick himself a "costume" the {heavy sarcasm}totally convincing{/heavy sarcasm} disguise of a white coat and glasses.

The doctor's coat comes with a Number attached, 116 – that's two "1"s and a "6" which given the way these things work certainly looks like it should be significant.

Of course, you can drive yourself nuts reading the numerology into the Numbers. The flirty maid is Number 54, which is 5 and 4 or 9; and 9 is 6 turned upside down, and she does turn the Prisoner upside down when she becomes Good Queen Bess and has judgement over him. Number 240 is the Prisoner's watcher, but 2 and 4 and zero are 6 again. And the Village doctor is Number 40, so Number 240 is 2 and 40, as well.

Meanwhile, Dutton is 42, which is also 2 and 40 and again 4 and 2 is 6. But 42 or 042 is 240 backwards, suggesting he is her "opposite", not just that he's the one being watched, but that he is old, cynical, weary, even on the Prisoner's side where she is young, naïve, full of life and all its worries and an agent of Number Two. Victim and Villain? But see how they swap places by the end. Or it could all be a massive coincidence.

Dutton's "death warrant", incidentally, which the Prisoner gets hold of (again seemingly by lucky chance) is written out as his name, and not his number. A clue, if ever there was one, that this is staged for the Prisoner's benefit.

Dutton, although referred to on several occasions, appears in person three times in the episode: at the beginning as a zombie under the doctor's mind control and at the end reduced to an imbecile and dressed as Number Two's "fool". Between times, though, he is granted a brief "reprieve" in order to confront the Prisoner. Just at the moment where the Prisoner has set his dead messenger adrift, Dutton appears suddenly, out of nowhere, in the mouth of the cave on the beach (itself suggestive that there is a "back way" into the Prisoner's hide-away, and that his secret is not so secret after all). He stands, gaunt and accusatory, and says: "I wouldn't have expected it of you".

Now, interestingly, Alex thought "I wouldn't have expected it of you" meant "I wouldn't have expected you to be one of the warders" (because he sees the Prisoner cold-heartedly using somebody, literally some body); I on the other hand thought it meant "I wouldn't have expected you to kill someone" (because John Drake – and we might get into the whole "is the Prisoner "Dangerman's" John Drake?" question later in the series – John Drake never would).

This blurring of multiple layers of meaning is what makes the "Dance of the Dead" so good: it is a dance of meanings too.

The episode seems to take some pleasure in ascribing "life" or life-like qualities to machines while the Villagers remain "mechanical" throughout, even when we hear sounds of jubilation – say at the announcement of Carnival – the faces we see remain stony and blank.

It's as if the machinery of the Village is alive, just as (or perhaps as a pointer to the fact that) the living form part of the machinery of the Village.

Rover, for example, though it's impossible really to tell if Rover as realised on the screen is supposed to be a living thing or a robot creature as envisaged at the script stages. Here Rover seems at times to be almost toying with the Prisoner, cat and mouse on the beach at night, leading him on to where he wakes next morning to find that so so useful body, playfully delaying though not preventing him as he tried to pursue Number 240.

This pursuit leads Number Six to the Town Hall, and on trying to enter he is painfully repelled. Is there some kind of invisible force field across the entrance? Is he magically – or mystically – repelled by the idol inside? Or does it perhaps hit him with a mechanical boxing glove on an arm? A helpful passer-by describes the building as "fussy about who it lets in", as though the Town Hall can actually decide for itself, rather than it being some kind of programmed response, or keyed to those identity Numbers that everyone (the Prisoner excepted) wears.

Similarly, the Prisoner's television set hisses static at him like an angry cat when he tries to cover it with a cushion, a response that seems to give him extraordinary satisfaction.

Then there's the radio that he discovers among the possessions of the dead man. That he "discovers" or "is allowed to discover": we really can't allow for the possibility of coincidence under this Number Two. Given how… constructed the entire charade is for the Prisoner's benefit we may as well assume that the body and radio are left there for him to find. The radio itself produces a perplexing mix of channels, nothing to get a fix from, and then suddenly seems to be addressing the Prisoner directly:

"If our torment is to end, if liberty is to be restored, we must grasp the nettle even though it makes our hands bleed."

Is that a message directly for him? If so, what the hell does it mean? It certainly seems to prefigure the ending where the Prisoner realises that escape from this place is going to be a lot harder than he has so far imagined.

The final machine is the telegraph machine which he discovers hidden away in a secret room inside the Town Hall. His assumption is that this is how Number One conveys his orders to Number Two and the rest of his lackeys, and immediately rips out the machine's guts to stop it working, thinking he is scoring a victory. But then Number Two appears, along with Bo Peep, and tells him that the game is up, explaining a little of what she has done to him. And for no reason, the telex just starts working again, even though its innards are all over the floor, as if to underline that it's the process of the Village and there's just no stopping it.

By the end of the story, then, the Village have tied up any loose ends from the Prisoner's kidnapping in "Arrival" by allowing "his" dead body to be found. Implicitly, and referenced by the episode title, all of the Villagers have likewise become "dead" in the outside world, making the Village a private little Purgatory for all of them.

The Prisoner is damned and he's damned well going to stay.

If "Arrival" is a perfect piece of pop art symbolism all on its own, then "Dance of the Dead" is the episode that really opens up the series. When "Arrival" ends with Cobb remarking about his "new masters" you think that you may be getting a handle on how this story is going to work, uncovering the "secret architects" of the Village and foiling their evil plan (probably with exploding secret base™… hold that thought!). What "Dance of the Dead" does is shatter that illusion and, with its surrealism and open-ended mysteries, redraw the series on a much wider canvass.

"Dance of the Dead" is a difficult and complicated episode; at first (even second, third, fourth…) viewing it doesn't easily make sense. But tantalisingly it does offer answers, and because of that it rewards viewing again and again, growing with each new perspective as – fractal-like – you find more and more within. This was the episode we chose to watch in commemoration when we heard of McGoohan's death earlier this year, and it keeps drawing us back.

who is number one?

Without a doubt it is Mary Morris as Number Two, totally commanding and utterly in control. She so has all the answers, from the very titles when the Prisoner demands "Who is Number One?" and she laughs so knowingly, to the end where she bluntly tells him "how very uncomfortable for you!". She's less an antagonist, more a force of nature: you can see her has the goddess of this society, its rules and mores made incarnate. Or you can see her as the ultimate dispassionate observer, the one real outsider with perspective on the Prisoner's little world. Powerful enough to dominate even McGoohan she – quite literally – has the last laugh.

next time…

That would be telling.

Be seeing you.


1 comment:

Moor Larkin said...

In the original ordering this episode follows on from Many Happy Returns. This makes sense of the line "I'm new here". I don't think it's placement was accidental in that way, because that's a line that wouldn't have fitted so well anywhere else amongst the later episodes.

I must point out though, that in a 1991 interview, McGoohan point-blank refuted that he had ever named any seven he favoured. He was being asked about the Companion Video from 1990, that he apparently disliked. That named the seven and he remarked, "They picked their seven, but they're not my seven".