Farewell Patrick McGoohan
When TV Party came to press last month, it sadly came on the heels of news about the passing of Patrick McGoohan , a man...who nearly came close to falling off the pop culture radar.
When it comes to genre television, McGoohan has a very long shadow - he was originally asked (and declined) to play James Bond in Doctor No. His resume includes a diverse range of roles in both movies and television, including Scanners, Dr. Syn Alias the Scarecrow, Silver Streak, The Phantom, two turns in the Columbo television movie series (one which earned him an Emmy as a government operative, the other as an undertaker). But it was his work in both Secret Agent (a more realistic take on the then-prevalent Cold War spy drama) and especially The Prisoner that earned him the most attention as a prescient genius.
Now, I won't focus on the content of The Prisoner - lord knows, I have written plenty of blog posts about the show, especially in light of McGoohan's passing. But what rarely gets discussed is how groundbreaking and influential the show truly has been in modern times....as well as some of its impact on popular culture - most notably, comics. Although there have been some abortive attempts to revive the show in light of the upcoming AMC revival, only two - one a sequel, the other merely influenced - really connote the power of the show.
It's hard to see how special The Prisoner was in our current, media-saturated culture - we have multiple options for viewing television shows, including bitTorrent and sites like Hulu . We are used to cable stations replaying shows repeatedly, as well as being able to rent or buy them on DVD. Web sites, podcasts, social media sites like Facebook and Twitter allow for fans to share information about series, so that even when a series gets cut down "in its prime", it often gets a lot of word-of-mouth advocacy. In addition, we have multiple cable channels - channels which can "micro-cast" to specific audiences. We have a strong diversity of resources, or entertainment options, and we can access popular culture through a variety of media. In addition, most of the current viewing audience is familiar with science fiction-type elements, and is used to the idea of dramatic arcs in a television series. Thanks to Buffy, Babylon 5, and other recent television fare, having season-long arcs is not only familiar, but we cannot imagine a television landscape without them.
In 1967 (when The Prisoner was originally filmed), there were only the three major networks, public television, and assorted UHF stations. Most of the options at the time were less-than-pleasing: usually either single-hour dramas or half-hour comedies, most of which had their plotlines end per episode. Viewers came back at the start of each episode, not knowing what was happening in the interim. In addition, one of the old rules was that a show needed to have 100 episodes completed before it could be shown via syndication. In short, the idea behind most television shows was that you saw it once - twice, if you happened to catch the summer rerun - and then it was gone. Home video was not even in its infancy back then, and most television lived behind a veneer of fantasy - names (as one then popular show would declare) and situations were changed to protect the innocent....including the viewer.
What McGoohan did with The Prisoner worked on multiple levels - he introduced the idea of an overarching plot, or what we would call a "dramatic arc." Number 6's goal was to escape the Village where he was kept....and although the stuck-on-the-island theme might have been overworked after awhile (much like those who take a three hour tour), it gave the show an eventual end. In addition, its willingness to embrace science as a storytelling idea - along with a slightly more intellectual edge - made it surpass most then-popular television shows. (And even those shows struggled to maintain even halfway decent ratings). In short, it was a show that a person needed to watch attentively - and more than once - to catch the nuances that happened within each episode....and there were only 17 episodes. Those 17 were embraced by a loyal fan base...and popularity only continued to grow as the show received increasing attention.
Ironically, there were two attempts to adapt The Prisoner to comics - the first was a 17 page Jack Kirby proposal; the other was by writer Steve Englehart. The then-unique nature of The Prisoner makes it seemingly an obvious choice to adapt into comic form; however, neither one of these proposals took off. Rumor has it (and I say "rumor" because I can't cite a specific place where I came across this information) that both attempted to turn the overt ideological battle of the series into a more conventional good guy vs. bad guy scenario...however, two graphic novels in the past two decades have really met - and succeeded - in pushing the ideas of this classic show. In fact, they serve as consistent reminders that The Prisoner, forty years after its initial viewing, retains a very long shadow on popular culture.
The first, ironically, is a "continuation" of the show, DC's graphic novel The Prisoner- Shattered Visage. Written by Dean Motter of Mister X fame, the story does more than simply retell the plot - it actually serves as a formal coda for the series. Granted, the art is a little lackluster - and the overt "cameos" by other fictional secret agents can be distracting - but it really serves to raise the stakes of the previous story, to help explain some of the inconsistencies of Fall Out - but for Prisoner fans, much of the fun is in explaining those inconsistencies. (Or put it simply, my original blog-based comments still stand). However, Shattered Visage does provide a good coda - nice, potent reminder of why McGoohan's creation matters in every time.....
...but no other work revives the debates, the stimulation, the all-out intellectual spirit of The Prisoner as much as Alan Moore and David Lloyd's V for Vendetta. Even down to the very premise - an abstractly-named individual fights a controlling regime, with its ever-present themes of escape and freedom - Vendetta really encapsulates the slightly intellectual edge of The Prisoner. The graphic novel is a rich read in its own right, and not for nothing do I find it stimulating, calling it "the graphic novel equivalent of The Prisoner". (Moore, in the afterward of the trade paperback version, even claimed McGoohan's work as an influence). It's easy to see how McGoohan's work continually nfluences not just contemporary television, but also graphic novels, and a host of other media. Although the movie did slightly veer from the idea with its ending (no spoilers, but it focused more on a collective, we-are-all-together perspective than I think McGoohan would have liked), the graphic novel stands as a treatise on personal and intellectual freedom - on the fact that no matter what social and interpersonal forces act upon us, that we have that little bit, that inch, that reason-why-we-resigned that we will never relinquish. And McGoohan's The Prisoner stands as the greatest, most popular expression - both simultaneously timely and timeless.
But don't just take my word for it - for a limited time, AMC is livestreaming episodes of the classic series . When you have some time, sit down and watch. But don't think of it is a piece of classic 1960s television...think of it as a modern show done 40 years too early. Then, tell me that it hasn't had an impact.
Honestly - please head to the TV Party section of the Comic Related forum and talk about it. Trust me, this is one show you'll be glad I recommended.
Be seeing you.
Read More! For more of Gordon's writings, insights, and
general information, please visit his blog at blogthispal.blogspot.com.
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