...a blog by Richard Flowers

Friday, October 23, 2009

Day 3215 (again): THE PRISONER 42nd ANNIVERSARY: Checkmate


My Daddies have been watching telly again. This week, Mr McGoohan spends all his time OBSESSING about who is BLACK and who is WHITE. And do you know what? By the end of the show he is mistaken for one of the FASCISTS!

Funny the things they allow on television, isn't it?


If you think of the Prisoner, you think of playing chess with living pieces, and that means that you're thinking of this one.

Has the Prisoner found an ally? Is it the Count or the Queen or the Rook? And is there any way of telling?

The show opens with Rover. It bounces down the road, round corners and under arches, as though they decided that if the robot wasn't going to work they'd just defy the laws of physics in order to make that weather balloon seem alive.

All the Villagers freeze when they hear Rover approach, all except one, who we later are told used to be a Count. The Prisoner follows him, and discovers the chess game where he is persuaded to play as Pawn to the Queen. Suddenly, the game is disrupted when one of the Rooks decides to make up his own moves.

With the game over, the Prisoner talks with the Count who suggests that one can tell guard from prisoner by their manner. Thinking that this might just work, the Prisoner set out to take charge of a band of escapees…

there's been a slight misunderstanding

I've come to the conclusion that this should have been the third episode, not the fourth, and we should have watched it before "The Chimes of Big Ben".

Alex disagrees. He felt that, having a more complex plot, this episode feels like it has gone deeper into the Village and deeper into the Prisoner, and for that reason thought it was right to be placed fourth.

The thing that started me thinking this way is the Prisoner's brainwashed, puppy-dog love interest – at least she's interested in him. She is Number Eight, but in "The Chimes of Big Ben", the woman who says her name is Nadia is introduced to us as the new Number Eight.

On its own, that's hardly conclusive; each week there are new people with numbers we're seen before. This week Number 42 is a male gardener, for example. But the very fact that the newness is emphasised in this case could be seen as significant.

So I reassessed our reasons for putting "Checkmate" fourth.

Previously, our assumption was that the Prisoner was morenaïve in "Chimes of Big Ben" and that the betrayal at the end of that episode sets him looking for how to spot who is on which side.

That isn't really what happens, though. The idea to start trying to spot warders is actually put into his head by the chess-playing Count.

So what if it's the other way around: the Prisoner demonstrates a sharp distrust, indeed thinly-veiled contempt, to everyone in "Chimes" and in particular his paranoia about trusting the "new" Number Eight is much, much higher that it is of the Number Eight in this episode. It takes nearly killing her twice to even garner a wary trust from him. And of course they are pushing at his resistance to female company, trying to break into his gallantry response which feels more like a development on the "thrusting a woman upon him" ploy tried here in "Checkmate", a ploy which seems like a crude, backwards step, in comparison.

Other evidence: in "Checkmate" he recruits several allies; in "The Chimes of Big Ben" he tries to keep knowledge of his latest plan to the barest minimum and his escape attempt gets much further, or at least appears to get much further, even if it's finally revealed the furthest he got was the next cove.

And in "Checkmate" the Village is foolproof, they beat him by the very nature of their set up, they don't need to even try; contrast that with "The Chimes of Big Ben" where, although they nearly succeed, it's also the first time that the Village really overplay their hand, by strongly hinting – through the presence of the Prisoner's boss – that they are "our side's" Village.

You might feel that the escape plot here is more cunning than the build a boat-disguised-as-a-piece-of-art plot in "The Chimes of Big Ben" because of the clever "identify the guards from the guarded" element, and there's merit in that. But I'd say that the actual escape plan – "build a radio, contact the outside world and get rescued" – is an only-slightly-more-complicated reprise of the "get a message out; get rescued" ploy of "Dance of the Dead".

In fact, I realise now that there's also a nice bridging element to the "build a radio, get rescued by a ship" plan that connects the "find a radio" part of "Dance of the Dead" to the "build a boat" part of "Chimes": it's as though the "your world is a dream" conversation with Mary Morris's Number Two in "Dance" convinces him that the sea is the Village's weak point and he obsesses about what might be "out there": hope. That may, in fact, be a clever ploy by Number Two: surely Rover is better equipped to patrol the sea than the mountains, and the open ocean is surely more exposed to surveillance and radar than the mountains where there are places to hide (though of course there are also places to hide cameras too).

Equally, the Rook is almost "offered up" to the Prisoner as just the person he needs, the one with the technical skill required to make a radio. Coming after "The Chimes of Big Ben", where he's offered just the person he needs, the one who knows the location of the Village, you would have thought he would be much more suspicious of that. With "Checkmate" coming first, he might believe that useful people can be found, he just needs to treat them in the right way.

The Rook's claim to have been in the Village for "months" maybe longer doesn't really help us, but the Count remarks that the Prisoner must be new here, if he's not worked out that some of the guards pretend to be prisoners.

Finally, there's the "power scale": as time goes by, the Prisoner grows in strength and Number Two steadily weakens. By that measure, "Checkmate" has to be the earlier episode.

The Prisoner here thinks he's in charge, doing well, outwitting the guardians, so at the end he almost blows a fuse when he's beaten, showing temper and pointlessly smashing the television through which Number Two is taunting him before resorting to roughhousing with the Village crew.

In "The Chimes of Big Ben", he's almost worse when he nearly comes to cracking at the thought that maybe, just maybe, it's his own side that's done this to him. But he doesn't crack, and he comes through it stronger, and is able to walk away from Number Two and Number Eight with a phlegmatic shrug.

In contrast, Leo McKern's Number Two is, as I've remarked, teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown, whereas no such weakness afflicts this week's master of ceremonies…

the new number two

Peter Wynguard, normally known as the High Lord of Louche, here turns in a tightly restrained performance, powerful, unemotional and totally evil.

His delivery of the opening lines in the title sequence is Olympian, not quite so knowing as Mary Morris, but detached and cold.

He is an aesthete: immaculately manicured and impeccably polite, but he doesn't even push his own control desk's buttons with his fingers, preferring to use his brolly. And likewise he prefers to push the Prisoner's buttons indirectly, showing him a little thing here a little thing there.

There's a very Eastern, Zen attitude to him: he doesn't so much try to break the Prisoner as allow the Prisoner to "come onto the punch", to break himself. Perhaps this is what is being flagged up by the unexpected moment of him sat, apparently meditative, then suddenly exploding into a karate chop.

He makes no effort to resist when "captured" by the Prisoner and his band of would-be escapees, if anything he's disappointed at the lack of originality, meekly surrendering to being tied up, probably because he already knows it's all a sham. His explanation to the Prisoner that "I hate to disappoint you, but the Polotska's our ship" is patronising and paternal; his expression becoming a slight moue of nausea on seeing the Prisoner's fisticuffs. And then evil glee on unleashing Rover.

As the master chess-player from behind the scenes, one is left to wonder whether the presence of the butler at the chess match isn't a clue that although the moves are dictated by Number 100, the real opponent isn't a remote Number Two.

follow the signs

The one thing this isn't is a crude "life is a game of chess" metaphor. Chess is a game of pieces that move in predictable and controlled ways; "Checkmate" is patently rejecting that model: we are not pieces that you can push around; the Village's brainwashing and aversion therapy don't actually work – the "love" they create is hollow and ultimately hurtful; their deprogramming of individuality even less successful.

It's clear that the Village's masters, typical of Sixties authority figures, buy into all sorts of control crap, whether it's the behavioural determinism of B. F. Skinner seen here or the RAND Corporation's Game Theory efforts which "proved" that America had "won" the Vietnam War by the end of the Nineteen-Sixties.

Skinner took the work of Pavlov (who in fairness only experimented on animals) and applied it to people. He didn't actually advocate torturing them to make them behave better: his ideas of positive and negative reinforcement were about encouraging "right" behaviour be either giving a reward (positive) or taking away a discomfort (negative). But his work does tend to lead directly to "A Clockwork Orange" (and, obviously, what is seen here in the Rook's "hospital treatment").

Wikipedia quote him as saying:

"When Milton's Satan falls from heaven, he ends in hell. And what does he say to reassure himself? 'Here, at least, we shall be free.' And that, I think, is the fate of the old-fashioned liberal. He's going to be free, but he's going to find himself in hell."

To which the old-fashioned Liberal in me tends to reply: "well at least it won't be you making life hell for me, you demented control freak!"

Of course, the real aversion therapy is to make the Rook distrust all authority figures, and in particular the Prisoner.

The reveal of the Rook is done almost like the twist in a Whodunit except without setting up that something had been "dun". The structure of the piece ought to lend itself to a few moments of questioning: could it have been the Count? Could it have been the Queen? Could it have been Penry, the Mild-Mannered Janitor? But there's literally no time between the Prisoner realising that he's been betrayed and the "outing" of the betrayer.

It's also an interesting moment of commentary on the unreality of television. The Prisoner's response to Number Two's big reveal, as I've already said, is to snatch up an ashtray and smash in the television set – as though he's under the impression, often fostered by television, it must be said, that Number Two is looking out at him from the same set, as though it's an Orwellian televiewer. But of course it's not, and we see, from Number Two's perspective, that he can still watch what is going on.

What is almost as interesting is the way that the Queen, Number Eight, just drops straight out of the plot. Initially she's ambiguous – and almost funny with the exchange: "I've often helped other people's plans." "Then why are you still here?" "Well, none of them succeeded!" – and there's a vaguely interesting idea about monitoring her emotional state as a new way of keeping tabs on the Prisoner. Alex, however, is most disparaging about the way that cod Sixties behaviour modification psychobabble suddenly works perfectly when it needs to create the lurve. Given that the whole thrust of the series is about individualism – not to mention "brain-zapping BAD!" – and that this show in particular seems to be debunking classical (Pavlovian) conditioning, it's just a bit of a switch.

So we get a slightly disjointed "thrilling" chase with the Mini Mokes, disjointed because it's not sure whether it's interested in her pursuit or what the Prisoner is really up to and tries to do both at once. Then there's a toe-curlingly cringe-worthy sequence where she makes him cocoa and he tries to be nice about it. And then he's mean to her on the beach, finally snapping and shouting at her. But once he's taken away the magic emotion-chip pendant, she's just gone. Did they have some spare plot left over from an unmade episode that they wanted to use up?

It is, surely, a small gag though that the Prisoner adopts the role of Queen's Pawn (also the working title of the episode), as it's a sign that he is, or was, Oh Her Majesty's (Secret?) Service. Mind you, the title, "Checkmate", is a bit of a rough pun, too, as the Prisoner must literally "check" who his "mates" are.

Which brings me back to the episode's theme… Some of the Villagers wear white Number badges; some of them wear black ones. The suggestion, possibly facile, is that the producers originally thought that the inmates could wear the white and the guardians the black, until they realised that made it all too obvious when someone was a double-agent. So they muddled them up.

In essence, though, this story is supposed to be about un-muddling the badges, telling who is black and who is white. In that sense it is about real life, it's about the value judgements we make, often instinctively, about the people we know, how we pick those who are going to be friends and those who are not. It is well known that humans prejudge each other very quickly based on body language, and that is what is going on here: the Prisoner is reading people's body language… and prejudging them. Which, obviously, is why he messes up.

who is number one?

This week I want to promote a minor piece: Ronald Radd as the Rook, even though he's only another pawn in the end.

With huge, almost elemental forces of McGoohan and Wynguard moving around him, he remains the essentially human element at the heart of this story: he's the one who sweats; he's the one who does the actual work of making the radio; and he's the one who shamefacedly appears next to Number Two having sold out for all the wrong reasons.

While the Prisoner is chatting merrily with the Queen, it's the Rook who demonstrates true individuality by breaking rank and rules to stride across the board, putting himself in charge. He's punished for that, tortured for that. Which is a quintessentially human outcome.

next time…

That would be telling.

Be seeing you.


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