"I AM NOT
RANKED 16th: Exchanges places after many years with "A. B. und C." because of its more frequent ironic touches. It's a rather blatant concept of progress criticism. Ideas victory over plot: despite all the Orwell references this episode appears to have been quickly stitched together. Even by Sixties standards the futuristic design of "artificial intelligence" is hopelessly ridiculous. The General's defeat is bargain-basement style.
Don't read any further unless you know THE PRSIONER already and you want to delve more indepth into theoretical discussions and facts around the history of the production. - Be seeing you!
Artificial intelligence - the word wasn't out yet in the early and mid 60s of the 20th century. Personal computers still had to be invented and not the faintest idea of a smartphone. The predominant image of the computer, as it displays in films and TV series, with its wall-sized switch cabinets, huge spinning reels of magnet tapes, punchcards, flashing lights and hectically deflecting meter needles or oscilloscope curves appears to have been lifted from a physics lab of any technical school. Computer mouses would perhaps be considered a threat to the cables and wires. Rarely and rather occasionally genuine modern visual display devices, monitors, are seen. And if so, readout messages are often being dubbed
with creaking "computer voices" or accompanied by keyboard stroke sounds. All these, like the "General" of the series, a super computer that in the end goes up in smoke because of an unanswerable question, are analogue assertions and verifications, indications of the existence of a digital turnover, yet beyond comprehension. Until in 1968 Stanley Kubrick's "HAL9000" was to change the understanding of what "AI" really means.
Although THE PRISONER is one of the more expensive TV productions the displayed technology is limited, financially and factually not well funded. However, the series being labeled a "utopian" or a "science-fiction" series in the contemporary press, never surrenders to technicism, on the contrary. THE PRISONER's dispositive is analogue. Its futurism, if any there is, is founded in the production design or, to put it this way: in the contrasting interaction of the architectural features and diverse styles of the Portmeirion location and those studio sets created especially for the series which one may call either "neo-classical" or "modern". But what's that - progress?
"The trouble with science is that it can be perverted." Words from the episode "The Schizoid Man" by one of the characters played by McGoohan who has been doubled - cloned - using "scientific" means. Precious words, more than ever.
In the Village somebody known as "the Professor" has established the Speedlearn technique, a method of transferring data and knowledge directly into the mind of the populace by making use of the television broadcasting signal. The advertising slogan goes, "A three year course in three minutes." Thus, classroom members are seen trying to outdo each other by quoting all kinds of historical dates and facts, whether useful or not.
Arguably, Number Six digs the message and, of course, he is very suspicious of all this. Because, after all, apart from learning facts quicker than ever a wide range of manipulations of the human mind could become possible. So, he secretly enters the broadcasting centre, thus interfering the next transmission. He also finds "the Professor" who would appear to be hardly more than a Village puppet but who at the same time seems to be working on destroying the "General" which is the name of a vast computer. During the final confrontation Number Six asks the ultimate question. And he's quite successful as the computer literally goes nuts, overloads and goes up in smoke. Oh yes, the question he asks is "Why?"
The PRISONER episode "The General", similar to the iconic "Checkmate" and "Free For All", is one likely to be used if it's about bringing THE PRISONER closer to an unknowing audience. This may happen via a still picture (see above) from a scene with Number Six, donning sunglasses and headphones, in front of something looking like a space satellite. The look is very futuristic.
The main issues that we should be concerned about are well addressed. Such as: education, school, the transfer of knowledge and indoctrination and so is the science-fiction computer technology seen from the 1960s POV. Looking from the year 2018 we may add here: as the bogey. "Why?" - a question, out of context, is an unsolvable one either for man or computer. Instead, it's a case of solid ignorance on the side of McGoohan thus making him a luddite.
Now, please don't wrinkle your noses! Just consider: Nobody in 1966 would have dreamed of time travelers, people from 50 years in the future, would be looking back at series THE PRISONER, examining it, scrutinising it for narrative plausibility or its scientific accurateness.
As a matter of fact, one has to say that "The General" has aged more than any other of the PRISONER episodes. Certainly, the episode suffers from being completely studio-based. The only exterior shots there are is a little stock footage, unused scenes left over from other episodes. However, the reason for ageing is different.
It is, rather, the mundane plot worth of a 1930s or 40s FLASH GORDON serial and the cliche-ridden climax with the computer's crashing surrender and going up in smoke. Besides, the question asked by Number Six – "Why?" - does anything but relate to the plot. It is Patrick McGoohan's auctorial presence here pointing out towards us with his moralising finger. There may be people going in accordance with him, though. Factually speaking, he's right by no means, his warning of too much machinery and too much blind faith in technology, the overload that we are facing of ever more complex social and/or psychological, political and perhaps also theological problems.
However, doing so may well be to the disadvantage of McGoohan's work of art if one considers the absence of the otherwise ever-present allegorical and symbolic means. Also, there's an essential truth, isn't it, amongst all of you without being scientists at all. All of you now leaning over your smartphones, that and to which degree time has gone by this truly naive, cheap and - worse even - ideologically biased computer technology conception. Any of our current gadgets is a hundred times more powerful than this specimen of a ballroom-sized computer from the series. Most likely, the last laugh will be on you and about your silly gadget, 50 years from now, when "embedded computers" implanted in one's brain will be a natural thing to have.
At the beginning "the Professor" is chased across the beach by the Village mob. Why so remains unclear. But some Portmeirion footage from a different episode is used here. In a subplot the social value of art is dealt with because "Madam Professor" is an art teacher. Sculpting is one of the lessons, busts are made, among them one of Number Six. As a real surprise, Number Six at one point suddenly picks up a stick and thrashes it onto the sleeping "Professor"'s head which then falls into pieces: it was a wax model only. But who created it, "Madam Professor"? Why would she be shocked? Wasn't she able to tell real from artificial? Number Six, however, was. No matter which way, surely surreal and the only scene full of vigour.
Script author Lewis Greifer came about the episode idea when his two sons were complaining about their mind-numbing school lessons. It is actor Colin Gordon's second time in the Number Two role but not as servile as in "A. B. and C." The character is not necessarily supposed to be the same. As far as is known, there was a problem with casting actors. Casting director Rose Tobias Shaw confirmed this in an interview with Steven Ricks.
Director Peter Graham Scott very respectfully speaks of McGoohan's "forceful conviction" in conveying his vision with this episode - while he himself hardly knew what he was doing. He was brought in by Patrick McGoohan on short notice and finished the episode within ten days. Scott: "The one [episode] I directed was tosh."* "Living In Harmony" script author Ian L. Rakoff was less merciful and spoke of his work as assistant editor "on possibly two of the poorest bloody episodes - "The General" and "It's Your Funeral" - and "that was not an inspiration." Simple as it can be. The piecemeal approach of this episode, one gets a sense of it here.
Now, the redeeming value of this episode is the contemporary shifting in bias. But one has to change the level of observation in order to get the whole picture. The allegorical message, if there is one, is the warning of seemingly hard facts, universal knowlege, impeccable authorities, spellbinding devices etc. The danger of acquiring them without asking, without thinking about the consequences. That's something Number Six does. Number Six cares. Number Six opposes. He resists the trend. In the episode "Once Upon A Time" Number Two would thus ask him: "Why do you care?" Reply Number Six: "You'll never know."
It has become a household thing for us to either rely or depend on supercomputers doing calculations or providing information such as street maps, database applications or "Wikipedia" articles. This, in turn, changes the way that we look at knowledge and the transfer of knowledge as well. It becomes an everyday event. The supercomputer isn't the demon threatening us today, it's the data generated every single moment and them being used and processed by companies for purposes mostly unknown. Data both useful and meaningless supplied by us on a voluntary basis. Hence, it is only a small step from Speedlearn to Apple's "Siri", Microsoft's "Cortana" or Amazon's "Alexa", a gradual step, not a principle one.
In this respect, after the "Why" question, the resulting destruction of the established all-knowing, all encompassing computer-authority that reaches out into the very remotest details of our lives is indeed an allegorical solution of the PRISONER kind.
Vice versa and contrary to all those super computers, wireless telephones and techniques of surveillance which tend to quickly become obsolete that weather balloon - known as Rover - remains a stark and timeless non-technical symbol. One that keeps lasting for the whole series and beyond, perhaps simply because its amorphous shape and white membranous surface which like a film screen is ready to stimulate imagination.
As a subversive twist, television itself which would enable people to watch the series becomes the source of mental obfuscation. Then we have the dignified members of the Speedlearn board donning their black attire with top-hats and sun glasses, "Men in Black" avant la lettre. They resemble the undertaker from the title sequence - but here caricatures with their inappropriate code of dressing for what they are doing.
Also, one objet trouvé is here: the access control device to the broadcasting room, a children's toy known as the "coffin bank"**. A good deal of irony eventually, a specific tongue-in-cheek approach that makes this episode watchable. Something which, for that matter, is absent in the "A. B. and C" episode.
One line in the memorable introduction of Edward D. Woods' 1959 chef d'oeuvre PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE was: "There comes a time in each man's life when he can't even believe his own eyes!" Hopefully the Village was keeping data backups in case "the General" failed.
TEXT: Arno Baumgärtel, thanks to Jana Müller and Michael Brüne
* In Roger Langley's McGoohan biography "Danger Man Or Prisoner"
** It is a savings box disguised as a coffin where a coin, put into the slot, is quickly grabbed by a small hand reaching out from a flap.