One week a month, Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: In honor of the return of Fox’s Wayward Pines, our favorite episodes about weird towns.
The Prisoner, “The General” (Episode six, originally aired 11/5/67)
In the annals of entire series set in oddball towns, there are few TV towns more indelibly strange—if not outright dangerous—as the one Patrick McGoohan’s Number Six finds himself trapped in throughout the seminal British series The Prisoner. It’s a pastel-colored, seemingly picture-perfect village that is, in fact, a cesspool of oppression. Its inhabitants-cum-prisoners—all former spies and operatives, as Number Six is—are kept under close surveillance, with the threat of an all-consuming giant white ball named Rover hanging in the balance for potential escapees. Worse, everyone is referred to as a number rather than a name, the better to blur the distinction between prisoners and wardens and to keep everyone in line. Rarely have neighborly good manners been so fraught with such insidious, soulless undertones.
The series hinged on Number Six’s efforts to foil the various Number Twos who were trying to psychologically break him and get him to spill all his spy secrets and to ultimately escape the Village. Within the Village’s controlling milieu, his actions had even greater thematic implications: He was one of the few who were consistently willing to risk life and limb to stand up for his rights as a freethinking individual, even as the town’s elusive overlords threatened to trample his humanity.
One of Number Six’s greatest stands comes in “The General.” His nemesis this time is a new Speed Learn technology that promises to instill within individuals a three-year university education in a mere three minutes via a green light that beams through everyone’s television set and into their brains. The program certainly works, as Number Six can attest to after he finds himself suddenly able to rattle off information about 19th-century European history he didn’t realize he knew. But it’s a rote, sterile kind of knowledge: mere facts, without the sensibility to shape them into anything genuinely meaningful. His suspicions of a nefarious mind-control plot are stoked when he discovers a tape recording of The Professor (Peter Howell)—who delivers the “lectures” that are beamed into people’s brains—decrying Speed Learn as an enslaving abomination and declaring that the titular General must be destroyed.
That, however, is nothing to compared to the revelation of who The General actually is—or rather, what it is: a giant computer into which The Professor feeds information and which supposedly can answer any question it’s asked. Of course, a computer’s mechanized consciousness can never fully match a human being’s more developed consciousness, which makes the way that Number Six defeats The General especially liberating. It all comes down to a single one-word question that Number Six has the mental toughness to ask and which this massive mainframe computer has trouble processing, to its ultimate demise: “Why?” More than just an “insoluble question,” as Number Six calls it, it’s the fundamental query that distinguishes humans from animals and machines. It’s profoundly human in its terseness. Such profundity was par for the course in The Prisoner, which, for all its dated ’60s elements, remains an ennobling and unsettling allegory of individualism versus collectivism.
Availability: The complete series is available on Blu-ray and DVD as well as on iTunes and Amazon Video.