Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Prisoner Episode Order

One of the great debates among aficionados of the supremely wonderful television series The Prisoner concerns the ordering of the programmes. The original UK broadcast sequencing differs from the US sequence and both these are different again from that used in production. So what is the correct order? Two years ago I wrote about the show in an article that promised I would soon address this issue. Thanks to a big poke in the arm from my friend Ed I am finally getting around to it.

I will begin by stating that there can be no definitive answer. If you are new to The Prisoner buy one of the boxed sets and watch in my recommended order so you can tell me how wrong I am! Still, let me give it a shot.

"Arrival" is certainly the first episode, after which I place the "Dance of the Dead", since it makes the most sense as a way of being introduced to some of the settings (e.g. City Hall) and political structures. There is very little of a concrete nature that happens in this episode and it has no real closure. Placing it later in the viewing sequence is rather less satisfying. Furthermore, it contains an explicit reference to No. 6 being new to the Village.

At the other end of the series "Once Upon a Time" and "Fall Out" are undeniably the final two episodes. This leaves 13 episodes to slot somewhere in between, using internal references and character development as the two main methods. In early episodes No. 6 appears new to the Village and does not understand its workings. His foes are careful not to hurt him and believe that time is on their side. In later episodes they use ever-more dangerous methods to attempt to coerce him. At the same time he becomes able on occasion to gain the upper hand.

There are various references to No. 6 needing to get involved with Village life in "The Chimes of Big Ben", "Free for All" and "Checkmate". Obviously then, these should be an early batch of episodes. I would place them in the order just indicated, since this puts a space between the two episodes that mock democracy ("Dance of the Dead" and "Free for All"). If one prefers thematic continuity one might want these back-to-back but I like spacing out the different themes so they continuously reinforce one another.

Similarly, I prefer if the episodes in which No. 6 gets outside the Village be used as breaks in the visual patterning of the episodes. I think it is also important to indicate early on in the series that it is likely his own side that has imprisoned No. 6. So "The Chimes of Big Ben" comes first. (Even though having an "escape" episode so early is rather unconvincing from a dramatic point of view.)

I should note that in "Free for All" No. 6 talks of determining who are the prisoners and who the warders; in "Checkmate" he puts this plan into action. This indicates a temporal relationship.

Moving on to a further set of episodes, I think it apparent that "The General" and "A. B. & C." are consecutive since they share a No. 2 and show his progressive downfall. It is obvious that "A. B. & C." should come second, since that person is completely discredited at the end and could not possibly return to The Village. Further, in the credit sequence to this episode he says "I am number 2" instead of the usual "the new number 2". Since this is one of the few sequences I can be definitive about, it amazes me that not only were these episodes broadcast in the opposite order, but the fan club also gets this terribly wrong!

In "The Schizoid Man" there is a reference to The General and at this time No. 6 does not know who this is. So this episode must be put before the previous two.

By this point many of the themes of the show have been developed and several attempts to crack No. 6 have failed. This leaves seven episodes that are much more difficult to order. Others have attempted complex schemes by trying to match up dates remarked upon internally. All of these fall short in some manner, since there is simply not that degree of continuity in the programmes. Neither should there be, since the developed theme is that No. 6 is and was always a prisoner. In some ways the happenings are timeless.

Nonetheless, let me attempt an aesthetic ordering with some appeal to internal chronology.

"Many Happy Returns" is one of two intermediary episodes in which No. 6 actually returns to London; it is contradicted factually by "Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling", a rather disappointing episode altogether. For this reason, I prefer these shows to be separated as widely as possible in the viewing sequence, and also for there to be some space between these apparent "escapes" and the ultimate one, lest the routine of almost escaping becomes tired.

"Many Happy Returns" and "The Schizoid Man" have explicit date references that place them in the same part of the year, even though events in each take long enough that this cannot be so. (The former ends on March 19; the latter begins on February 10). It follows that these occur a year apart. Additionally, after "Many Happy Returns" it is unreasonable that No. 6 would try escape attempts, as they have been shown to be futile. It is apparent, then, that this story must be placed late in the episodes.

"Hammer into Anvil" shows No. 6 working with the internal structure of The Village and triumphing over No. 2. This too must be a late episode since in other stories he has a much more difficult time of it. By this story he is becoming the master of No. 2.

Some of the ideas No. 6 employs there could have come from his study of the jammers and their plots, as explicated in "It's Your Funeral". This episode also sets up the game of Koshu, and so should come before "Hammer into Anvil".

The No. 2 of "Hammer into Anvil" was also seen in "Many Happy Returns", which must come first since he has not yet been broken, or even enlisted as No. 2. (The alternate explanation, that the same actor is playing two different parts, is less satisfactory.)

"Living in Harmony" is a restatement of the basic themes of the programme in a different setting. It is still thought that No. 6 can be broken mentally, though No. 2 knows enough to be completely skeptical. This appears to be an intermediary episode.

On the face of it "The Girl Who Was Death" could come anywhere. But the fact that No.6 is trying to subtly undermine the community over the long term (through children) and through figurative rather than literal escape, marks it as a late episode. However, the similarity of the lighthouse lair to some of the sets in "Fall Out" requires me to separate the episodes by as many as possible. Also, as a more ludicrous plot it fares better if book-ended with more serious narratives.

"A Change of Mind" concerns No. 6 and his relationship to the community. On the surface of it, it looks as though his enemies are willing to take more drastic steps against him, but in fact this is a subterfuge. It could hence come quite early, as a foreshadowing of more serious later attempts.

Aesthetically I would not like to place two episodes that take place visually outside the Village back-to-back. This cannot quite be done, but at least if "The Girl Who Was Death" and "Many Happy Returns" occur back-to-back they illustrate the great diversity of the series. With that final proviso, and some arbitrary decision-making, I arrive (so to speak) at the following:

"Dance of the Dead"
"The Chimes of Big Ben"
"Free for All"
"The Schizoid Man"
"The General"
"A. B. & C."
"A Change of Mind"
"Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling"
"It's Your Funeral"
"The Girl Who Was Death"
"Many Happy Returns"
"Living in Harmony"
"Hammer into Anvil"
"Once Upon a Time"
"Fall Out"

The next time I watch the series I'll do so in this order, just to see if it makes sense.

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WillTrame said...

I found the article regarding the exact order of "Prisoner" episodes to be intriguing. I own the A&E collection which sequenced the stories based on their logic, as it was identical to said sequence when the program was aired on A&E during the autumn of 1991. I prefer the network's airing to the ones listed in the article, even though the reasoning was indeed very thought-provoking. I will always welcome such critique as "The Prisoner" was meant to be open to various interpretations. I do agree on one point: "The General" should have been aired before "A B & C". And, I agree that the program was wonderfully brilliant and is my all-time favorite. And, as they say...Be seeing you....

robin said...

The great thing is that new people are discovering The Prisoner all the time. Oh to be unaware of this show and stumble across such brilliance!

Unpopular Publications said...

It's been awhile since I've watched this. I have the DVD Megaset, but just ordered the Bluray. I'm going to watch this in your preferred order. Your reasoning is sound and addresses those issues I remember bugging me. (Like the order of Schizoid Man, The General and A,B & C) Thanks.

Jeffrey L. Shipley

robin said...

Let me know how it works out!

P.S. Love that shot of the girl with her pet reptile.

Anonymous said...

Looked over your list with interest as I just got the blu-ray set.

I agree about The General et. al. and the one No. 2 who was in 2 eps, BUT something else I noticed - the black cat. It's only in 2 eps I think and in the original order Dance Of The Dead and Many Happy Returns are next to each other which makes sense BUT your list puts them way apart.


drc :)

robin said...

I am not sure the cat appearances need to be together. :-)

Anonymous said...

Don't know if anyone will see this but what the heck. You make a lot of well thought out, convincing points but how do you reconcile this statement

"I think it is also important to indicate early on in the series that it is likely his own side that has imprisoned No. 6. So "The Chimes of Big Ben" comes first. "

when at the end of "Arrival" Cobb (referred to by #6 as "a friend" and "a good man") says "Mustn't keep my new masters waiting, Auf Wiedersehen"? Auf Wiedersehen is German literally meaning "until we see again" (or be seeing you?) IMHO the true loyalties of the Colonel and Fotheringay are not at all clear, they could be double agents themselves! Or perhaps Cobb is not such a good man as 6 thinks....

robin said...

It's true... the loyalties are never spelled out. We are kept guessing. Even the sides are not explicitly spelled out. It seems likely Cobb has defected from the UK to "the other side" by which we can assume Russia. But several episodes do imply rather strongly that the village is controlled by the UK. "The Chimes of Big Ben" is one of these. It is fantastic to think that a foreign power could have so much control over so many people No. 6 knows and worked with. A far simpler explanation is that his own side had control of him as an employee and still does now that he is a prisoner. But the main evidence is in the title sequence. Who knew that No. 6 resigned, and could put in motion the sequence of events leading to his abduction? Especially in so short a time span? (A trip across central London to his flat.) Only his own organisation.

On the other hand, we can keep adding up all the double agents until everybody is, in fact, a double of themselves. The series also works with this idea, explicitly in "The Schizoid Man". No possibilities should be off the table!

Thanks for your comment. I am sure people are still reading this post, even though I long ago stopped tracking the stats.

Unknown said...

A very well-explained article, and rightly shows the idea that episodes contain deliberately-contrived evidence of the order. I myself subscribe to the theory that each episode represents approximately one month in the Prisoner's captivity, and I accept producer-writer-director David Tomblin's assertion that the first five episodes are ordered as filmed. My order is thus:

'Arrival' (Midsummer, probably July)
'Free For All' (August)
'Checkmate' (September)
'Dance Of The Dead' (October; Hallowe'en)
'The Chimes Of Big Ben' (November)
'The General' (December; end of school term)
'A.B. and C.' (January; worst weather in Village)
'The Schizoid Man' (February; calendar indicated)
'Many Happy Returns' (March; 6's birthday month)
'It's Your Funeral' (April; early spring depicted)
'Living In Harmony' (May; flowers blooming)
'A Change Of Mind' (June; many flowers)
'Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling' (July, 1 year)
'The Girl Who Was Death' (August; festival season)
'Hammer Into Anvil' (September; fall depicted)
'Once Upon A Time' (October; late fall)
'Fall Out' (October; late fall)

I normally watch the series using this order, and have found no overt difficulties or contradictions. However, I am disturbed that 6 fails to recognize 'Many Happy Returns'' 'Mrs. Butterworth' as the 'Blond Lady' in 'A. B. and C.'. Was he too heavily drugged? Also, if we accept that all guest characters appearing multiple times in the series are single characters, then I have yet to hear a good explanation for Alexis Kanner's '8/48', or the issue that an irrevocably insane man might be dropped off on the M1 in the final episode... shame, since I have always felt Kanner's performances to be standouts of the series. With Thorpe being the No.2 of 'Hammer Into Anvil' I have no problem, since it's well-established that neither this 2 nor 6 likes the other very much, and 6 is portrayed as particularly hostile to turncoats and defectors. I place 'The Girl Who Was Death' late in the run as it depicts 6 comfortable and confident in the Village, cheekily lampooning the current administration in a child's bedtime story. Its lighthearted approach makes this episode a good companion to "Hammer Into Anvil', where a moody, angry, and vengeful 6 systematically destroys the arrogant, sadistic, and paranoid No.2/Thorpe. The implication that 6 is now happy to destroy the Village from within, without attempting escape is, to me, sufficient to warrant the risky 'Degree Absolute' of 'Once Upon A Time'. On the other hand, the truly great thing of this series is... you can make up any explanation you like, and it tends to work. Cheers!

robin said...

Wow, a blast from the past... eight years to be exact. Thanks for the reasoned response and yes... the joy of the series is in part how it denies completion, consistency, or even the usual forms of rebellion against these. Be seeing you!

Hockey mom said...

I am just rewatching this show after a few year hiatus, and although I have very few opinions on the order, I think that the Chimes of Big Ben needs to be put at least a few episodes later. Why? Well at the end, when he realizes that he is NOT in London, he calmly walks out the door, knowing full well he is back in the village. That measure of calm would not be were he new, but only after repeatedly failing and getting so close would he act as such upon such a discovery. Either way, thanks for the discussion.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone have any thoughts about placing "Schizoid Man" somewhat later in the cycle due to the obviously friendly connection between #6 and the mind-reading villager that begins that episode? When and how did that arise?

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