...a blog by Richard Flowers

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Day 3994: THE PRISONER 42nd 44th ANNIVERSARY: Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling


Still trying to watch an episode of "The Prisoner", this week my Daddies appear to have stuck in a disc of time-travelling rom-com "Dr Watson and the Amnesia Machine" instead by mistake.

Hang on, why's it named after the theme from "High Noon"? I thought the Western was last week!


Dr Seltzman, inventor of the mind-swap machine, has disappeared. And only the Prisoner knows where to find him.

The Village's solution? Use the machine to stick his mind in the body of one of their agents ("The Colonel", Nigel Stock) and follow him. What could possibly go wrong?

They guess – rightly as it happens – that if they give him a new face, stick him back in his old home in London, give him back his fiancée – yes, I said fiancée – that he'll go completely out of character and concentrate on finding the missing doctor to get himself swapped back. Rather than, you know, escaping, which is his usual concern.

One question: The Village can now put the mind of the person in bed A into the body of the person in bed B while putting the mind of the person in bed B into the body of the person in bed A. But they don't know how to reverse the procedure. Have they not considered swapping the beds?

The episode starts promisingly with an unexpected pre-title sequence, intriguingly suggesting more than is ultimately delivered.

As a premise, the mind-swap or body-swap is almost as obvious as the "evil doubles" episode that every genre series manages to do at one time or another, and in a way it's just the flip-side of that idea. Doctor Who sticks the Doctor's mind (or possibly his soul) in Freddie Jaeger's body as early as "The Savages", or there are as many Philip K Dick books as you care to throw sticks at.

Here it is deployed because, as almost everyone knows, McGoohan was double booked, and so spent this week filming "Ice Station Zebra" instead of "The Prisoner", so his character here is represented by a selection of Stock footage (I'm sorry, the pun is irresistible).

In a series so bound up in the question of identity this ought to have been a standout episode, indeed it's surprising they hadn't already used the idea.

Unfortunately it is done in the laziest manner possible, breaking the conventions and continuity of "The Prisoner" in so many ways as to suggest the writer was unfamiliar with the series… except that it's Vincent Tilsley who also wrote "The Chimes of Big Ben", one of the most on-the-button episodes there is. According to the imdb trivia: "he gave up writing for television, and became a psychotherapist, when his six-hour drama 'The Death of Adolph Hitler' was cut down to less than 2 hours". I guess writers in the Sixties were just like that.

what's your number, please

Well, this is awkward, because "Do Not Forsake Me" is clearly set just about a year after the Prisoner's abduction. It's a plot point that he attends his fiancée's birthday party. But in trying to convince her of his identity he describes a dress that she was to wear to the party and she replies "but that was a year ago".

For this reason, other list-makers have placed this as episode twelve, thirteen or fourteen on the "one month to an episode" principle. Although the fact that it is almost exactly one year on would surely pin it to twelve.

I assume that the reason for this "one year on" was connected to the suggestion that this was by way of a pilot for "Prisoner 2.0" where the Village now send him on missions as an agent. Quite how that's supposed to be possible what with him being totally opposed to the Village's authorities, philosophies and indeed existence utterly passes me by, but there we are.

But never mind that because as we discovered in "Many Happy Returns" he's been away for more than a year by then already.

Really, this is impossible to reconcile. "Many Happy Returns" makes no sense if he's been allowed out of the Village before. The entire psychological effect hinges on him finally being given a taste of escape and for it then to be proved an impossibility.

Equally, "Do Not Forsake Me" features long stretches with him back with his old employers, but he doesn't once try to get them to act against the Village and they don't seem that interested in knowing where he's been this last year. True, he's mainly trying to convince them he's who he says he is, but surely a trip to Portmeirion would at least support his case that there are these numerologically obsessed baddies who've been messing with him. It has to be that he's already tried that once – in "Many Happy Returns" – only to learn that his own side at least already know of and most likely are in cahoots with the Village.

Of course, the Amnesia Room could be used to cover a multitude of sins. We are shown the Amnesia Room – helpfully labelled "examination room", thank you crystal clear Blu-ray – in a very Chekov's Gun way before the mind swap, and then when he first wakes in London it's certainly open to the interpretation that he's forgotten his entire year in the Village – at least until he catches sight of his new face and has an unconvincing flashback sequence consisting of clips from "Arrival" and "Free For All". After this he seems at least semi-aware that a year has gone astray.

But wiping his memories is a drastic intervention which, along with the Village casually scooping out his marbles and plonking them in someone else's head using an unreliable experimental machine, must mean this is set later than episodes like "The Schizoid Man" or "A. B. and C." where it's important to them – and to Number 2's personal wellbeing – that his mind and memories not be damaged.

Ultimately, however, as we'll see, the continuity of this episode is shot to buggery anyway.

We place this second in the "out of Village" episodes because the Village suffers a bigger setback than in "Living in Harmony" but, like in that story, it's not really the Prisoner's doing.

From next time, we'll start to see him get pro-active.

the new number two

This week we have Clifford Evans playing an avuncular and largely forgettable Number 2. It's not his fault; in fact Number 2's role as antagonist is principally filled by John Wentworth as Sir Charles Portland, a remarkably similar avuncular piece of casting; it could have been used to cleverly suggest an equivalence but the opportunity is sadly wasted. Number 2 is mainly there to Basil Exposition "the Colonel" up to speed on how and why his body is going to be inhabited by the Prisoner for most of this story.

He's even denied the traditional "I am the new Number 2" speech as the title sequence is cut short at the point where the Prisoner reawakens in the Village, instead getting his moment in that badly edited flashback sequence, tacked on to the similar moment from "Arrival" where the Prisoner demands who are you of the first Number 2 (and the film footage very obviously doesn't match, making the insert stick out like a sore thumb).

And he pops up again at the end to be made a fool of by Dr Seltzman.

He is, I'm afraid, probably the least impressive Number 2 of the entire series, lacking even the presence of such "failed" Number 2's as Colin Gordon or David Bauer. More of a comedy stooge than a foe, his only exchange with the Prisoner is when – back in his own body – the Prisoner explains how the wool has been pulled over Number 2's eyes. At which the supposed Village mastermind just gawps stupidly. Rather than, say, calling the control room and having them bring the helicopter back.

Ultimately, he defeats himself. Only the Prisoner's generally passive role in the proceedings leaves us to rank this outside of the greater victories over the Village to come.

patrick mcgoohan only kisses mrs mcgoohan

The most shocking thing about "Do Not Forsake Me" is the romantic subplot. It's shocking because it has a romantic subplot.

McGoohan was infamously staunchly opposed to that sort of thing. His character, whether as John Drake or the Prisoner, was chivalrous but never lecherous. It's been one of the great strengths of the series because it's enabled women to be shown in a variety of roles, some strong, some weak, but never reduced to an appendage as "the hero's girl".

And suddenly, here he has a fiancée. It's utterly preposterous. Never mind that he's utterly failed to make any reference to a fiancée in any other episode – the very idea that he would be marrying the boss's daughter being utterly out of character. He's flirted with Mme Engardine, and gone head-to-head with Mary Morris; pity poor Zena Walker, playing Janet is a horrible, horrible part, but this drab little character wouldn't even arouse his pity.

And she's not helped by vanishing – Dodo-like – half-way through the narrative after one snog and delivering the next plot coupon – a receipt for a vital tray of holiday snaps.

It's unfortunate that we can't pretend that she's really the Colonel's fiancée, but she can't be. Not least because she's come to the Prisoner's house having recognised the Prisoner's car and – staring straight through Nigel Stock – asks if he is here. Her failure to intuit that the man awkwardly trying not to tell her that he is her betrothed dressed up in the wrong body somehow makes her come across as obtuse. To be fair, Stock's performance is nothing like the Prisoner and together they have less chemistry than noble gasses frozen to the surface of an inert Kuiper Belt object, but we the audience know who he's supposed to be and "television logic" says that if she's his soul mate she ought to know too.

And if nothing else why wouldn't the Village at least try pointing a gun at her head and demanding he tell them why he resigned?

follow the signs

The McGuffin of the episode, featuring in the unique pre-title sequence and setting the whole bonkers scheme going, is a roll of film, developed as slides, which Sir Charles Portland, high up in, presumably, British Intelligence (never so blatantly a contradiction in terms) and coincidentally the Prisoner's old boss, believes may contain a coded message.

Ultimately, this proves to be correct as the Prisoner uses a (simple) letter/number substitution key to select the correct four slides and some special lenses conveniently placed about his home (why didn't the Village come across those when clearing out the house for "Mrs Butterworth"?) to read the invisible message written across them.

This really isn't that secure. Sir Charles's assistants complain that with thirty slides there are too many combinations to check, but that shouldn't stop them analysing each slide under various lights and filters and discovering the "invisible" ink after which the combination should be obvious. Unless of course there are random letters on all the slides and only the right four make up a legible message. But that's not what they say. In fact, they say they don't even know if there is a message. Which just shows they're not really trying.

So what's the point of the clue in the slides?

The implication, surely, is that they are a message to the Prisoner from Dr Seltzman, to arrange a meeting. And yet, if you've gone to the trouble to encoding the location for your secret rendezvous, would you then hang around for a year – indeed, set yourself up as the local barber – if your contact failed to turn up? Or would you, rather more reasonably, assume he'd been nobbled and run for your life?

So perhaps it's that Seltzman is telling the Prisoner the location where he has gone into hiding in case… what? The Prisoner should ever find himself in need of a bodyswap? It's not really a very safe way of keeping your safe house safe, if you're going to tell people where it is. Rather more sensible would be to have a forwarding address or the spy classic "dead letter box" where contacts can leave messages without knowing where you are.

Later on, the episode seems to imply that the Prisoner helped Seltzman set himself up in this hidey-hole. Which leaves one even more puzzled over why he needs the slides. Does he not remember? Oh yes, the Village may or may not have erased some or all of his (precious) memories. So he, what, prepared the slides in the event of his getting brain wiped? In which case how does he remember how to decode them?

So on the one hand we have a romantic subplot that has no place in the Prisoner and on the other we have a spy plot so cack-handed that it hinges on the Prisoner hiding Dr Seltzman's hideaway behind a code so ingenious that neither his superiors nor the Village can crack it, but overlooking the possibility that they might just follow him there.

And yet, underneath this, crushed by the awfulness, there is a very Prisoner-esque attack on Descartes.

"I Think Therefore I Am" is a proof of your own existence. It proves it to yourself. It is possible to doubt your own existence but, crucially, you have to be thinking in order to do the doubting.

Where Descartes really struggles is to prove that anyone else exists, and eventually he has to fall back on "god isn't a bastard".

In "Do Not Forsake Me", the character played by Nigel Stock thinks he is the Prisoner. And we get to hear – thanks to McGoohan's literally telephoned-in voiceover – the inner monologue that proves that he's thinking therefore he is.

But can he prove that to anybody else?

Apparently not, because as his old boss Sir Charles says, he could be a fake who only learned what the Prisoner knows by extracting it from the real Prisoner.

In fact it's worse than that. The existence of the Seltzman machine means that he can never prove who he is. Even if he turns up in his own body, Sir Charles can say "ah ha, but you could be an enemy spy who has been body-swapped into our man's body. And if your people broke him and learned everything he knew, then you could know everything he knew."

Ultimately, this is now a world where nobody could ever prove they were who they said they were. And spying ought to break down overnight.

(Though fortunately for the Prisoner, this is also a world where your handwriting is as individual as your fingerprints and therefore a world utterly without forgery…)

Which leads us to the existential question: is Nigel Stock really playing the Prisoner? Or is he still the Colonel with a mixed up print of the Prisoner's memories and whatever else – like a fiancée – that the Village have concocted for him?

In a way, this would make the whole ghastly mess make a lot more sense.

For all Number 2's suggestion that they could use the Seltzman machine to turn returned spies into moles (as though returned spies aren't instantly pensioned off anyway, precisely because their own side can never be sure they've not been turned), a machine that extracts a person's memories would be infinitely more useful to the Village. They claim already to have an "amnesia" machine – which would mean half the old dears stuck in the Village because they "know too much" ought to be allowed out with a mild brain scrub – but how much more useful for them if they could just download all those tasty secrets first and then format the ex-agents brains like a redundant hard drive.

And how very irritating for them if Seltzman's machine doesn't work and insists on copying those annoying personality quirks like resistance and stubbornness across too.

Under those circumstances, what you get is a Colonel who thinks he's the Prisoner, while the real Prisoner remains safely locked up. Then all the funny business with the – obviously fake – fiancée and the slides is all part of the mind games to try and get him to trip some part of those copied memories into giving them what they want. He's not behaving out of character by falling for their obvious ploy because this isn't the Prisoner and we don't know what would be out of character for the Colonel. He is a Village agent.

The "twist" ending would have been the Colonel, overcome by the Prisoner's feelings, letting Setlzman get away, and finding himself in the Village alongside the Prisoner as another "Number 6". After all, he knows too much now too.

who is number one?

It would be nice to say that it's Nigel Stock, since the entire episode hangs on him, to say that he passes himself off as the Prisoner and that we don't miss McGoohan. But he doesn't and we do.

Zena Walker is given very little character to work with as Janet and does very little with it; John Wentworth as her father is really too wet to be a senior spy; and Clifford Evans' Number 2 is a cypher. And a smug prat too.

I'm tempted to give it to a very young Jimmy Bree as Villiers, just because he's actually entertaining and it's funny to see him as a security chief. (See Doctor Who's "The War Games" if you don't already know why!)

But in the end, and it is in the end, it has to be McGoohan again, who has barely more than a single line, and yet the moment he sits up to deliver it he lights up the screen and shows you just why you cannot do this series without him.

(Something ITV will take six hours to prove all over again in the 2009 remake.)

next time…

That would be telling.

Be seeing you.


1 comment:

Moor Larkin said...

The real question is why did #6 bother to find Seltzman. Why did he effectively want to go back to prison?