AMC’s remake of the 1960’s TV series The Prisoner was always going to face an uphill battle with fans of the original series. The Patrick McGoohan version is one of the most beloved cult TV series of all time, right up there with Twin Peaks or Lost (the latter of which The Prisoner shares a lot of themes and imagery with). When the remake arrived on AMC last year, the reviews were largely middle-of-the-road, with ratings to match. The remake has just arrived on DVD, so is it worth your time? Find out after the jump:
Whether or not you’ll enjoy AMC’s remake of The Prisoner will depend a lot on your ability to forget what you learned from the original series. On the upside: Prisoner fans aren’t exactly as prevalent as, say, Star Wars fans, so those of you who haven’t spent any time with Patrick McGoohan and his original stretch of episodes won’t know what you’re missing. On the downside: if you’re a fan of the original series, you may find it hard to let some of the series’ original conceits go or accept the changes that have been made. Let’s look at it from both angles.
For the newcomers, Jim Caviezel plays Six, a man who wakes up on the outskirts of a desert town with no knowledge of how he got there, where “here” is, or what he should be doing. The first thing he sees is an old man being chased through the rocky hills outside of town by a group of dudes carrying guns and brandishing guard-dogs, and upon talking to the old man (who’s quite obviously meant to be the original Six that McGoohan played in TOS) he realizes that his present location is not the safest place to be. He wanders back towards the town– ominously referred to as “The Village”– and must discover who he is, why he’s there, and who’s keeping him there.
His main opponent is Two, played here by Gandalf himself, Ian McKellan. Two is the official leader of everyone living in The Village, and very quickly he makes it his mission to break Six down, find out what makes him tick, and convince him that he should just shut up already with all the escape-talk. Bringing up “escape” in every other conversation is riling up the rest of the Villagers, and Six can’t have that because…well, finding out what Six is up to, what The Village is, and why Six is there– if he is, in fact, actually there at all– is what AMC’s The Prisoner is all about.
So, broken down to its basic elements, The Prisoner is a psychological thriller about a dude with a sort-of amnesia trying to figure out how to escape the remote location he’s been dumped into while battling the constant mind-fucks that The Village’s leader is throwing at him. If that sounds like your cup of tea, then you’re in for a helluva good time.
The little trials and experiments that Two puts Six through in this new Prisoner are flat-out diabolical, going far beyond the normal “Let’s tie him to a chair and torture ‘im for information” tactics that your average villain engages in. I don’t want to spoil any of them, but each episode finds Two concocting a different plan of attack for breaking Six down, and each revolves around a different for of psychological warfare: What if we attacked his heart and emotions? What if we break him down with the loss of a loved one? What happens when Six is confronted by the spectre of death?
Two– as played by McKellan– is the standout here, bringing some serious malevolence to the role of Two over the course of the new series’ six episodes. In TOS, Two changed from episode to episode, almost always played by a different actor or actress. Keeping one actor in the role of Two for the new series allows us to understand Two better, to learn more about him, and– in this guy’s opinion– to find him more threatening. McKellan also adds some kinky subtext to the character, which was both amusing and creepy. Really, one couldn’t say enough good things about McKellan in this role.
Jim Caviezel, on the other hand, has yet to win me over as an actor. Dude just seems so stiff and bland, and the only moments where Caviezel really shines here are when he’s under extreme duress by Two. McKellan really inspires Caviezel to kick things up a notch in the acting department whenever they’re on-screen together, but whenever it’s just Caviezel and…well, anyone, he tends to be the weakest link in the scene. That said, this could just be me. If you’re a fan of Caviezel, you’ll like him in this. If, like me, you find him bland and wooden, you’ll get more of the same– though I will admit that I liked him here more than any other role I’ve seen him in.
There are about half a dozen secondary characters to help move the plot along, none of which have corollaries in TOS. There’s a friendly cab driver and his wife, a female doctor/love interest for Six (played well by Ruth Wilson), a son for Two (!!!) who broods through the entire show, Two’s wife (played almost entirely in a catatonic state– as written– by Rachael Blake), and a handful of other characters that pop up here and there. They all perform admirably, and it’s a testament to all of their abilities that they’re able to pull off such intelligent material with this kind of ease. Bravo to all involved.
The show is structured as a mini-series but plays out in stand-alone episodes, some of which could have been shuffled around, order-wise, without causing any huge narrative problems. I was expecting a six-hour film broken down into six parts, but it’s more akin to a six-episode block of a TV series. This was unexpected and, frankly, kind of a refreshing way to go about doing things. Like the differences between the two series that we’re about to discuss, it took a minute for me to get used to this format, but once I did, I was hooked.
Now, what if you were a fan of the original series? How does AMC’s The Prisoner fare then?
The series starts with a fleeting homage to ABC’s Lost, which is appropriate considering all the themes and imagery Lost has lifted from TOS over the years. From there, things get moving quickly as characters are introduced, The Village locks into focus, and the series’ mythology is laid out before us. As a die-hard fan of the original series, I initially had trouble wrapping my head around some of the decisions this new version was making: Two has a kid? There’s a steady love interest? What’s the deal with those holes? It all took about two or three episodes to settle in to, honestly.
But once I was able to separate my feelings and thoughts about the original series from what I was seeing in this new version, I had a goddamned blast watching it unfold. The script–written by Bill Gallagher and directed by Nick Hurran– is fiercely intelligent, and it maintains a lot of the surreal imagery (Rover’s here!), density, and inexplicable happenings from the original, not to mention the off-kilter tone. There is much changed between the two versions of The Prisoner, but much of it is solid enough to stand on its own.
Like I stated about forty paragraphs back, though: if you’re a fan of TOS, your enjoyment of The Prisoner is going to depend on your willingness to forget what you’ve already seen. For instance, this Prisoner offers up a far more concrete finale to Six’s storyline (one that, to be honest, I preferred to the ending of TOS). It’s the sort of ending that will very likely divide audiences, but I thought the series earned it over the course of its six hours. The finale may not be crystal-clear, and you may need to do some mental homework in order to understand some of what you’ll see, but that’s fitting with The Prisoner series, isn’t it?
If you’re the kinda person that enjoys psychological thrillers, mysteries, and the occasional mind-fuck, I cannot recommend AMC’s The Prisoner enough. I had some serious reservations about remaking my beloved series in the first place, but director Nick Hurran and his fantastic cast really won me over by the end of The Prisoner‘s six-hour run. And, should watching this new version inspire you to seek out the originals…well, then it’s even more successful than it already is, isn’t it?
Scott Wampler is a standup comic, humor writer, Prisoner geek, man of constant sorrow, and the Comedy Examiner at Examiner.com. You can read more of his ramblings at this page or see him onstage in Austin or Dallas, TX, where he uses the “F-word” too much.