Do you ever look at something and think, “Has no one else noticed this?” That’s exactly what I did when I sat down to watch The Prisoner in a marathon session earlier this week. Think about it. You have an isolated location honeycombed with strange bunkers where bizarre experiments are being carried out on unsuspecting subjects and no one’s quite sure who are the prisoners and who are the wardens. There’s an unconventional sentry in the form of Rover. Even those who seem to have power might be pawns in a larger, unseen game. Does this sound increasingly familiar? It probably does if you watch Lost.
These are broad points of comparison, but one could get even more specific—the raft Number Six builds in “Many Happy Returns” is reminiscent of Michael’s similar endeavor while the crew of the boat that picks up the Prisoner in “Checkmate” has much in common with the motives of the Other called Tom in “Exodus Part 2.” The Prisoner’s excursions outside the Village in “Many Happy Returns” and “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling” serve the same purpose of exposing his backstory that the character-oriented flashbacks do in a given episode of Lost. The overriding notion that the government has the right to keep a former employee with specialized knowledge under lock and key in the Village seems to be the same attitude underlying the DHARMA Initiative Island, simply substituting the corporate power of the Hanso Foundation for the British (or enemy) government behind the Village. Both shows, at their ethical roots, are about the individual enslaved at the convenience of an all-powerful organization with no recourse to appeal.
I could go on and on, detailing correlations perceived in reviewing Patrick McGoohan’s televisual masterpiece, but all these cosmetic and philosophical similarities seem to point to one key notion imbedded in the creation of both shows. In each case, the series seem to serve as a weekly Rorschach test for the audience. You come to the episode with all your personal baggage and you perceive the hour’s presentation through the lens of your own experience and opinions. Take, for example, my first experience with The Prisoner. I was around 13 years old and had been a fan of Doctor Who for at least a couple years. I had seen a mail order catalog of sf merchandise and noted The Prisoner’s proximity to Doctor Who in the British ghetto at the back of the publication. When I noted a listing for the first episode on my local PBS station, I stayed up to midnight to watch it—there weren’t many opportunities to catch obscure UK shows in those pre-DVD days. I can honestly say that I didn’t get it, but that didn’t stop me from trying to grasp what it was doing.
I watched the first 16 installments religiously and suffered something of a crisis when a power outage caused me to miss the 17th and final outing. Luckily, the advent of Suncoast Video in my local shopping mall solved the problem for the hefty fee of $29.95 (six weeks’ allowance, plus sales tax), and “Fall Out” rolled over me like an 18-wheeler with a radar dish on top. I still didn’t get it, but I was certain it must be brilliant. It did, however, give me what I needed—a nice dose of something foreign and thoughtful. A few years later, I saw the series again and my teenaged mind locked onto the notion of rebellion and the need to challenge the status quo. Of course, I wasn’t sure why I needed to rebel or how to go about it; looking back, I see shades of the finale’s Brando-esque Number 48 in my thinking. “Whadda you got?”
Later viewings found me refining my appreciation of the ambiguities proffered by The Prisoner, although my estimation of the four episodes filmed during the second production block (“Do Not Forsake Me…,” “Living in Harmony,” “The Girl Who Was Death,” and “Fall Out”) has not fared as well as my sentiments toward the whole, but that’s a talk for a different time.
I hope, in future viewings, that my feelings toward Lost will continue to evolve and change, depending on my situation in life. The series has captured the public imagination and is committed to asking more questions than it answers in true Prisoner-style. The larger cast offers a broader array of perspectives from which to perceive the action of the story and, like the surreal campus of the Village, the island is an iconic setting for the philosophical struggles at hand. For the moment, I find my allegiances rest most often with John Locke, Eko, and sometimes Sawyer. I suspect that as I grow older, I may find other characters closer to my sympathies. Regular readers of my opinions here on Cinescape know that I can’t abide Charlie or Michael and there’s probably a marvelously Freudian reason that I’ve yet to ascertain. I find Kate an enigma at best and a two-dimensional cutout at worst. Maybe I lack something in my own make-up that prevents me from relating to her.
In developing the cast, the creators of Lost have represented every man rather than The Prisoner’s Everyman—a statement on the divergence of our society or an embracing of diversity in our cultures…I’m not sure. Whatever the case, I’m held captive by both shows and escape seems unlikely.
This essay originally appeared as the 31 July 2006 installment of my TV Wasteland column at Cinescape.
©2006 by Jason Davis. All rights reserved.