Arrival - 15th November - AMC - 8.00pm
Harmony - 15th November - AMC - 9.00pm
I've always believed in giving television producers the benefit of the doubt when they giddily announce such and such cult series or so and so fantasy favourite is to get the 21st Century reboot-revisioning / sequel-prequel make-over. The day the return of Doctor Who was announced I was both excited and fearful. And look how that turned out. I laughed into my sleeve when Ron Moore decided to bring Battlestar Galactica back. Again, it turned out well.
The return of The Prisoner has been kicked about by both Sky and ITV for some time. I was simply fearful, this time, for McGoohan's precious baby. And now it's finally here. The new series runs for three nights, airing two episodes per night during this week in November on AMC. It's due on ITV in the New Year.
For me one of the biggest problems here is that, although it's visually impressive and actually rather stylishly directed, this new version simply isn't distinctive enough. It won't have the same impact that the original series continues to have through its unique countercultural vision. The setting of Portmeirion, an Italianate folly on the North Wales coast, was an essential visual element in a series that was endlessly playful and witty. Striking as Swakopmund in Namibia might be, it really doesn't offer us that alarmingly surreal clash between the ornate rococo and bright pastels and the vivid paranoia of penny farthings, lava lamps and Ken Adam style observation rooms. In Arrival the new Village looks like the leftover sets of The Truman Show and Pleasantville. In essence, we've seen it all before and they've simply failed to match that distinctive character of Sir William Clough-Ellis' meditation on the Mediterranean.
To try and get the die-hard Prisoner fans on side, Arrival opens with Jim Caviezel regaining consciousness in the middle of the desert and finding an old man, 93, dressed in McGoohan's piped jacket and fawn slacks, struggling to escape a hunting party. Suggestive of the original inmate, it's one of many very slight visual nods to the original (an apartment for 93 looking similar to the interior design of Number Six's original, two shots of Caviezel - one of him walking down a corridor and another that recreates the punching the sky moment from the original title sequence) but don't expect to see anything remotely akin to its barmy mix of spy-vibe and science fiction trappings. Not even a Mini-Moke, a stripey brolly or a burst of Radetski's March. Instead, director Nick Hurran, much to his credit it has to be said, makes a huge effort to capitalise on the desert locations and uses the Dutch influenced architecture of Swakopmund very effectively to distinguish the new Village. But like much of this revisioning it rather lacks charm.
The other thing that endears the original to its admirers is the title sequence and the music. Again, Grainer's theme and the whole of the opening credits are so clearly characteristic of the 1967 series. Their breathlessly baroque style are a perfectly good example of how important titles and themes are to establishing the identity of a television programme. The opening titles for 2009 are alas very low key and fairly lifeless. They tell you little about what you will be watching so for those unaware of The Prisoner's legacy it's certainly not a show you can easily get a handle on and it doesn't go out of its way to draw you in. Spinning bits of penny farthing and a bit of mad jazz from Grainer was, and is, utterly hypnotic.
Granted, the whole ITC packaging that encapsulated each series the company ever produced in the 1960s was all part of the in-house branding of their product but by golly they knew how to reel you in with great music and vivid titles. Watch the original series, or Randall And Hopkirk, The Champions and The Saint and you'll see that the ITC calling card has much to do with how viewers remember those shows. Sadly, very few television series understand this in the 21st Century. The best I've seen recently are probably the titles to Fringe or True Blood. The incidental music here is also rather dull droning stuff save for some perky oom-pah sections used when the citizens of the Village go about their business.
Going back to Arrival then there are few surprises in its attempts to be televisual. It's slickly made, uses many of the visual tricks of current television shows in the way the camera moves, scenes are edited, including flash backs, and the layering of sound. It therefore stylistically emulates many of the current fantasy and action shows and yet is portentously slow. Pacing is ridiculously sluggish to the point where pretty much any energy or soul that Arrival commences to generate quickly evaporates. The story unwinds very labouriously but more or less follows the narrative of the original opener. Caviezel plays Michael, who after finding himself in the desert, arrives in the Village and immediately comes into conflict with Two, played by Ian McKellen.
Michael has recurring flashbacks to his resignation from his job in New York and flirting with a mysterious woman in a bar. It's not entirely clear what exactly Two's agenda is here - does he want Michael, now renamed Six, simply to conform and become a citizen of the Village or does he want whatever information is inside Six's head. The original certainly was an allegory for the Cold War and brilliantly foreshadowed the survelliance society we're all part of today. The new series is more ambiguous - the themes about individuality, freedom, psychological warfare and the power of the state are all there - but, inevitably, we also get a terrorist attack in full view of a mirage of the Twin Towers that's just too heavy handed a symbol and feels almost a bit of a cliche in 2009.
By the time Six has understood the circumstances of 93's escape into the desert and the fact that no one can even remember key figures from history or the fact the rest of the world still exists, he's realised that it's time to make an escape attempt. Caviezel is perfectly good in tackling the physicality that the role demands which is one of the qualities any actor would need to bring to the role of Six. He does however lack a certain charisma, the very thing that McGoohan had bags of, and in many of the ponderous sections of the drama he's terribly charmless. And there's not much wit or sophistication about this version of Six and I think audiences will struggle to empathise with him. One of his best scenes in Arrival is with Ruth Wilson where through subtle mind games he tries to determine if she's trying to trap him.
His sparring partners, McKellen and Ruth Wilson as Two and the Village doctor 313 respectively, try their best to cope with the material. McKellen fares well and offers a steely charm and dry wit in the role and manages to evoke a certain mystery about Two's relationship to his son (yes, Number Two has an estranged son which makes it sound more like Home And Away than a remake of a British television classic) and the wife (ditto the wife too) he keeps drugged in the bedroom. Wilson just has very little to go on but she does start to develop some chemistry with Caviezel in Arrival and it will be interesting to see how 313 develops. I feel very sorry for Jamie Campbell Bower as 11-12, Two's son, because he more or less stands and pouts through the first episode and we're simply not given anything to help us understand why he's become estranged.
The conspiracy theory about 93 drives the rest of the episode and it suggests there is a small group resisting the effect of the Village and acquiring a growing awareness of the outside world. But the there's a 'terrorist attack', the taxi driver and his wife might be snitches and McKellen tucks into a big cream cake as the most exciting bit by far is the end of Arrival. This is when Six runs to the top of a sand dune during his escape attempt and is menaced by everyone's favourite suffocating white balloon, Rover. It's even got the same roar.
Harmony continues directly from this cliffhanger and 313 picks Six up and returns him to the Village. It is a better episode because it moves the story on beyond a set up so thin in Arrival that it was like trying to hold onto grains of sand. Here, Two basically manipulates Six's memories of a lost brother by introducing to him to a family he's never met, including a man actually claiming to be his brother. The family and his brother almost seduce Six into believing he belongs in the Village but as he succumbs the brother confesses that he's part of Two's plan. They both make another escape attempt and the brother drowns at sea after being spectacularly mauled to death by Rover.
At the heart of this episode is a complex psychological profiling ('give the talking cure a try') that Two enforces onto Six in an attempt to break him. In this way, Harmony resembles the original's themes and there is a mind-scrambling game between Two, Six and the Village's resident psychotherapists, 70, which will leave most viewers quite confused about what is real and what isn't. However, that's deliberate as Two sets up Six with a family he has no history with and it all goes wrong as 16, the man claiming to be Six's brother, breaks down and reveals it's a set up. This after most of the episode sees Six sucked into his way of life as a bus driver looping endlessly round the Village on 'tours'.
The 'talking cure' also gives us a chance to get inside Two and we get to know that he's responsible for his wife's condition and his son's strangely silent response to him. Or do we? He seems to lower his defences to 70 and then suddenly snaps out of the conversation with some rather amusing lines, "You don't think I believe in all this therapy babble, do you? My mother sat me on the potty sideways when I was a toddler so now I want to sleep with her. Oh, grow up!" Is this all a bluff to ensure that his twin therapists are doing their jobs properly? In the end, it's just necessary for Six to believe in the therapy. Unfortunately, the development between Two and his son is still problematic. Jamie Campbell Bower gets very few lines to enable him to properly build 11-12's questioning of what's real in the world of the Village.
As all this unfolds in the Village, we also get much more of Michael's backstory in New York in flashback and his meeting with Lucy, the woman who has clearly engineered her encounter with him. It's revealed that Michael has resigned from a mysterious agency that seems to operate as as social trend forecaster. He's not a spy in the traditional sense but he's more of a Big Brother type who can interpret the complex interweave of social and political trends. This also seems to fit in with the 9/11 conspiracy vibe surrounded White House counterterrorism Tsar Richard Clarke who repeatedly warmed of an impending attack based on his intelligence gathering. Is Michael therefore in a position to gather intelligence and forecast disastrous events? And Lucy seems to work for the same company and warns him that 'they' will get him despite his resignation.
Taking the idea of who is the watcher and who is the watched, there is also a bizarre soap called Wonkers that all the Villagers appear to be in thrall to. It's very reminiscent of the hyper-realist soap that's featured in The Truman Show and is obviously meant to be a thinly veiled critique of the less demanding fare on our TVs that operates as a covert form of social control. Also, there is a subtle technique used in certain sections of the episode where some scenes between Six and 16 have the sound mixed so that you are aware their conversations are being monitored. And then there's the weird reveal after Six denies they are his family as the kids turn around from their televisions set all wearing pig masks. The episode clearly offers an idea of family as an utterly stultifying construction and as a reason for Six to prefer escape.
It's an elliptical narrative, often puzzling and disturbing and summed up in the notion of an ocean that snaps in and out of existence and of anchors from missing boats protruding from sand dunes. And then there's Brian Wilson on the soundtrack! A huge improvement on the mood piece of Arrival with a much better performance from Caviezel and McKellen on particularly good form. Again, there are visual touches that raise a smile of recognition, the return of Rover and his roar, the Clinic interior borrowing from Jack Shampan's designs for the original show, the visual motif of the closing prison bars across Caviezel's face. Visually it's all very slickly made and looks very striking but despite improvements in narrative again the pace is sluggish and ponderous.