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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Prisoner: "Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling" / "A Change Of Mind"

Illustration for article titled The Prisoner: "Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling" / "A Change Of Mind"

"Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling"
So, this one, we should probably cut a little bit of slack. Since Patrick McGoohan was away filming Ice Station Zebra (an okay movie that benefits hugely from his presence), "Do Not Forsake Me" had to do some plot-acrobatics in order to justify the absence of its leading man. No McGoohan means a huge strike coming right out of the gate, given how central he is to the series, and how much his stolid, furious presence grounds the Village and its schemes. But that also means a chance to shake things up, to try a different direction, to be bold in an unexpected way. The odds against "Forsake" being any good were high, but it was possible it could've succeeded. I haven't seen most of the latter half of The Prisoner in years, and I barely remembered this episode at all. But that could mean it was just a lost jewel waiting to be re-discovered.

Alas, that was not to be. "Forsake" isn't a total wreck—at the very least, the story makes rough sense and we get some of the trippy sci-fi stuff the show often dabbles in. But without McGoohan, a crucial piece of the puzzle is lost, and to make things worse, the episode tries to make up for the hole at its center by giving us more backstory on number 6 than we've ever had before. Surprisingly, that's a huge mistake. Much like how the nutty but disappointingly limited mind-control plot from "The General" made the Village less exotic, introducing us to 6's personal relations means the character loses some of his symbolic power. Also, the information we get seems to come from a different series entirely; if 6 had a fiancee, surely this would've come up before? (At the very least, I can't imagine the Village not using her as some kind of leverage.)

Like "Living In Harmony," "Forsake" opens differently than the regular Prisoner model, with some British gentlemen watching a mysterious slide-show. The slides turn out to be property of number 6, taken before he went off the reservation, and there is a code in them that none of his old bosses can translate. As with "Harmony," this change in the expected is initially exciting, but while "Harmony" went on to construct an entire episode around the confusion that shift inspires, the more time passes in "Forsake," the more that slide-show seems like just another intro to just another spy series. It's relevant to the plot, to be sure (one of the slides is a photo of Professor Jacob Seltzman, the man who invented the personality transference process that, story-wise, covers for McGoohan's absence), but it apes the predictable unpredictability of a regular genre show.

In a stronger episode, I would make the case that this is intentional, that "Forsake" is purposefully referencing and undercutting the pattern of 6's previous life. But without McGoohan, the contrast isn't there. We're not seeing a familiar face doing the things that we long suspected but were never entirely convinced he did. We're seeing a stranger on a not that strange mission, with a life we have no emotional investment in. Nigel Stock, who plays 6's new body, isn't a bad actor, but he's not exactly distinctive, and considering the shoes he's filling, he needs to be. This is one of those "better in theory than in execution" premises which on paper sounds delightfully appropriate—it raises questions of identity, which have always been a big part of the show's stock in trade, and provides the audience with a glimpse of 6's mysterious past. In practice, though, it's a snoozer, without much wit or intensity to recommend it.

And, again, there's that misstep of giving 6 a history. It just doesn't seem to fit him, even if you can overlook the different actor. I wouldn't have been at all surprised to find the whole thing was another ruse to get under our hero's skin. He's not really the fiancee type, and Janet, the woman he left behind, is pleasantly bland in a way that ensures I'll have forgotten her existence in a few weeks. (Maybe that's why 6 has never mentioned her before?) This is a show that doesn't benefit from this kind of detail. 6 is more compelling if his isolationism is pure to the point of abstraction. To discover he wasn't much different than any other guy, complete with an anecdote about how he asked his near-wife's father's permission before proposing, is a distraction. (And really, can you imagine the real 6 asking anyone's permission for that sort of thing?)

We do get a few glimpses of McGoohan here, mostly in what I'm guessing to be stock footage. He also does some voice-over, and appears briefly at the end once he's been restored to himself to explain the SURPRISE! SHOCK! TWIST!. (I like how they pretend that the professor simply managing to escape off the island in a helicopter means he's free for good. Don't they have radios?) The voice-over is sardonic enough, but it mostly just reminds you how much more interesting the episode would've been with the right man at its center.

"A Change Of Mind"
One of the Village's most potent weapons is that it has an access to society that most evil organizations only dream about. Your standard bad guy groups are working to upset the dominant social paradigm and replace it with one of their own design. Here, though, the forces behind the Village have already succeeded in establishing order, at least on the limited environments we see. 6 isn't a hero trying to root out a few bad apples, he's a grumpy loner who wanders around ruining other people's day. If sanity is defined by group rule, than our 6 is mad as a hatter in more ways than one, and in the quest to bring him around to the appropriate way of thinking, it's only natural that the latest 2 (a portly, malevolent John Sharpe) uses the group as a tool to get him there.

I find the first half or so of "Mind" almost unbearably unsettling. Generally the dangers on The Prisoner are clever, but there's a playfulness to them that's lacking here. We haven't seen such a dedicated, nasty attack since "Free For All," and even that one had a kind of safety net built in—the mock election was more about showing 6 who was boss than destroying him irrevocably. Here, the committee that decides 6 is an outcast and threatens him with "social conversion" if he doesn't shape up isn't simply a puppet controlled by 2; it's also a very real, and very awful, aspect of the populace, the mob-think that leads to lynching and Beatlemania and Glenn Beck. For once, whatever darkness lies at the heart of the Village isn't entirely controlled, and there's a sense that whoever is in charge has finally reached a breaking point in terms of their patience with 6's resistance, and have decided to take the gloves off once and for all.

This is not actually true (if I'm remembering right, the gloves aren't off till "Once Upon A Time"), but I appreciate how long the ruse is maintained. The committee is effectively bullheaded, and 6's various conversations with the "converted" are bitterly funny. And the Appeals Committee (made up entirely of women, oddly enough; 2 even complains about his female subordinate later in the episode, which suggests a possible subtext that I'm just going to ignore) is the sort of strident, hateful group that makes expulsion from normal society less a punishment than a relief. The big riot that breaks out when 6 continues to resist is a sharp and potent reminder that 6 really is at the mercy of a whole lot of forces here. McGoohan is so effective at portraying a man in complete and utter control of himself that it's sometimes necessary to bring in outside elements to show how fragile his position here really is.

The second half, things become a trifle more traditional, with 6's promised lobotomy turning out to be just another trick to undermine his self-confidence. It's not a disappointing revelation by any means, and I think it makes this episode a little more direct than "Free For All"'s general insanity. The game here is to fool 6 into thinking he's had his aggressive tendencies removed with drugs and a faked surgery, and then convince him to give up his reasons for resignation under the assumption that a mind that thinks its lost its will to fight is the same thing as one that actually has. Really lobotomizing 6 would've gone against the standing order not to "damage" him too severely, but confusing him with an elaborate sting operation? That's to be expected. Around here, we call that "Friday."

In order to make the ruse as convincing as possible, the entire "surgery" is televised to the locals, and I don't think that's wholly for 6's benefit. Just because 2 and his minions can exploit the madness of crowds doesn't mean they can turn off the crazy at will. In order to smooth things over, 6's "conversion" has to be believable for everyone who'd been taught to hate his individuality, and that gives the climax of the episode a kind of inevitability. When the only way to maintain your hold on a popular is to stack lie on elaborate lie, you open yourself up to someone who is better at fibbing.

There's a vague Clockwork Orange feel to a lot of this: the need to force a rebellious (in the case of Orange, sociopathic) mind into obedience via science, the Villagers 6 sees being forced to watch some kind of conditioning video (shades of the Ludovico Treatment), and even the two thugs that try and take advantage a supposedly de-fanged 6. (It doesn't go well for them.) While Kubrick's movie didn't come out till 1971, the source novel, by Anthony Burgess, was published in 1962, and it isn't entirely implausible that it could've influenced MacGoohan and the rest on this show. But "Mind" is less about the dangers of conditioning (something which the series as a whole is so deeply and unequivocally opposed to that singling out any one episode in reference to it is little like quoting a line from Finnegan's Wake as "the obscure bit") than it is about the way a group of people can be manipulated for good and for evil. By creating and enforcing such a consistently single-willed mass of citizens, 2 made an excellent tool for attacking 6, but he also brought about his own downfall. 6 is able to turn the others with a few tricks, and because they've all bought so thoroughly into the lie 2 was selling, 2 is unable to stop them from attacking him. 6 makes a token effort at explaining how the citizens were fooled, but for my money, the real work is done when 2 is labeled "unmutual," just as 6 once was. Explanations are irrelevant to the masses. It's only individuals who care why things are the way they are.

Stray Observations:

  • The set for Janet's birthday party is the same set we saw at the party in "A., B., and C." For once, I'm not going to argue this means anything, although I wish it did.
  • Boy, 6 really doesn't much care for paperwork, does he.
  • Didn't discuss 86, 2's assistant who tries (and fails) to drug 6, only to be drugged herself and eventually hypnotized. She was pretty, and she played a good drugged woman. That's all I got.
  • Up next week, it's "Hammer Into Anvil" and "The Girl Who Was Death."