Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Whole Damn Thing--THE PRISONER, Episode 10

Oh yes. This one.

Episode 10--"Hammer Into Anvil"


Paranoid people are sure of one thing--everything, from the time their toothpaste falls off the toothbrush in the morning, to the guy who cuts them off on the way to work, to the co-workers who are surely waiting for a chance to stab him in the back is all part of one large meta-conspiracy directed at them. Of course, that's rarely the case, but good luck convincing them of that. It's at once a defence mechanism (after all, a conspiracy at least implies that someone's in control of things and it's not all a random collision of circumstance) and an expression of ultimate narcissism (of course everything is directed against you, right? /sarcasm) All too often, these people are undone more by what they imagine works against them by what is actually happening to them.

All the above armchair psychoanalysis is my way of prefacing my discussion of this episode, which, were I to boil it down to two sentences would be "No. 6 drives No. 2 barking mad. Also: Kosho."

The episode's title comes from a quote by Goethe: "You must be anvil or hammer." No. 2 expands on this by declaring that he's going to "Hammer" No. 6, which probably sounded far more intimidating in the days before slashfic came along to add another and much less threatening layer of meaning to that particular phrase. It is required of me that, like every other person who's watched this series and has an English degree that I mention that Orwell wrote that "the anvil always breaks the hammer," which I'm certain we're supposed to know on some level because that's exactly what happens here. There's quite a lot of layered foreshadowing in this episode--it's one of the reasons I like it so much.

No. 2, played this time with scenery-chewing godlike assholishness (seriously--this guy does a slide into insanity like the Gotterdamerung is going on in his head) drives one an unfortunate Villager to suicide, and No. 6 decides to seek revenge.

His vengeance takes the form of performing random and completely pointless acts--buying a cuckoo clock and leaving it in front of No. 2's house, playing the same record and timing it (L'Arlésienne--a story of a man being driven mad, which informs on the plot of this episode in a number of ways, if you're familiar with the story), leaving odd messages in the Village paper and generally behaving, to anyone who's not No. 2, like a nutter.

But No. 2, conditioned to the way the Village operates, sees conspiracy. In much the same way as No. 2s turn the weaknesses of the prisoners into the weapon that breaks them, No. 6 breaks No. 2, and it's that turning of the tables that makes the episode so satisfying. We've seen No. 6 get thwarted, betrayed, and outmaneuvered so many times in the episodes up to now and it would be easy to throw one's hands up and say "man, this is just depressing. We know he's not gonna get out until the final episode, so why bother watching the series until we get there?"

So we, as viewers, need a "win" like we get in this episode, so we keep our emotional stake in what happens to No. 6. No, No. 6 doesn't escape, but he does make good on his vow from "Chimes of Big Ben" that he plans to destroy The Village, and if he has to do it bit by bit from within, well, so be it.

That's the good bit of this episode. Now, let's talk Kosho.

A word about fictitious sports in SF, if I may: They're usually silly. Such an effort is made to make the rules recognizable as a sporting event yet sufficiently alien and "futuristic" that everyone ends up looking ridiculous and doing ridiculous things for a goal we're never entirely certain of.

Kosho is no different--it is goofy, hilarious, and insane. I'm not even going to bother trying to describe it, I'm just going to post this Youtube clip. Enjoy.

There are times when The Prisoner just comes out with stuff like this and doesn't bother to prepare one for it, just tosses it right at you and says "Here--you make sense of it." One of the things that often saves a very dodgy Prisoner episode is very often a Kosho scene, because even in the most wretched episodes to come there are no blues that two people fake fighting on trampolines in front of a wading pool can't cure.

Anyways--you now have two reasons why "Hammer Into Anvil" is totally awesome--one of which I have demonstrated to you empirically. This episode isn't one you could intro the series to someone with--it's best saved for a few episodes in, when the prospective Prisoner neophyte can savor the fact that in this episode, at least, he gets to stick it to Village for once.

Unfortunately, this means I have to talk about the next episode now, which is pretty much takes how I feel about this episode and utterly inverts it. Oh, I hate it so much. No. 6 gets embroiled in a plot so damn complicated and highly dull that I reserve the right to embed that Kosho clip again if I get sick and tired of trying to explain it. And I will.

Next time--"It's Your Funeral."

The Whole Damn Thing--THE PRISONER, Episode 9

Hm . . .seems my order of episodes got a bit jumbled in the last block. But seeing as how a favoured hobby of Prisoner fans is arguing just which episode order is the "right" one . . .hell, what's one more mystery?

Episode 9--"Checkmate"

"No escape plan can succeed without knowing who you can trust."

Fun fact--"Checkmate" was the first Prisoner episode I saw--picking it up in a "previously viewed" video bin began my early 90's binge for collecting Prisoner episodes VHS (yes of course I'm old, dammit) It's not my favourite episode of the run, but it's a sound enough episode and besides, you never forget your first, do you?

We begin with one of the more enduring Prisoner symbols--the giant chessboard with Villagers standing in for the pieces, directed by others. It's rather barefaced symbolism and the obviousness of it may make one roll their eyes (yes, part of "Checkmate" concerns the pressure to conform, we got it thanks) but it exists more to set No. 6's interactions with two specific Villagers and we don't linger on it too long.

The two villagers are the Queen, who seems a bit on the daffy side, even before the Village hypnotises her into being madly in love with/stalking No. 6 (Naturally, the honey trap doesn't work on No. 6, and he basically responds by being a real asshole to her, but that's No. 6 for you) this plot doesn't really go anywhere and just kind of exists because they needed to draw out the "A" plot in anticipation of the big twist at the end, which in a rare demonstration of restraint, I will not spoil, but a careful reading of the text should reveal anyways.

The other villager is the Rook, who exploits an opportunity on the chessboard to put the opposing king in check, and for his individual initiative gets carted off the Village Loony Bin for a little Village Mad Science/Pavlovian torture. Rook is a likable enough schlub who just happened to have too much of a conscience out in the real world and was taken to the Village.

No. 6 zeroes in on him with a novel plan for an escape attempt: He's finally figured out how to separate the actual prisoners from the ringers--the ringers (or "guardians") will react without fear when confronted, the prisoners flinch at his crabby intensity. Armed with this knowledge No. 6's plan is, with the help of the Rook, to gather enough prisoners to mount a successful escape attempt.

It goes about as well as you'd expect, but it's something No. 6 does that ends up undoing him, which is a novel twist by now on the Prisoner's stock "egress interruptus," which we need after yet another escape attempt that isn't.

Special note here--No. 2 is Peter Wyngarde, before Jason King and Flash Gordon being rather coolly evil and irritatingly smug--the man can sneer and speak dialogue the way Billy Idol could sneer and sing at the same time. By underplaying things slightly, the full effect of No. 6 ultimately undoing himself really comes to the fore. He's a pretty good No. 2 and it's a shame he didn't recur.

In all "Checkmate" works as an effective Prisoner episode--it hums along at a crackerjack pace, it's surreal without being too obscure about it, and it's a strong enough episode to introduce someone to The Prisoner, I'd say.

But next time, we hit my second favourite Prisoner episode of all time, very closely tied to "Schizoid Man" A new No. 2 hits town, and No. 6 makes it his mission in life to utterly break him. If there is a more audience pleasing episode for people who've been watching The Prisoner for awhile and want to see the good guys win, well this is your episode. Oh yes, and it's the debut of the deliriously wonderful/insane sport of Kosho.

Next time--"Hammer Into Anvil"

Friday, December 4, 2009

"Yes, But How Do You Feel About Power Girl's Tits?"

Right, well, just as we were all grumbling about having to carry our asses back to work after the Thanksgiving holidays (in America, anyways--to my international readers, we ate a lot and had a few days off from work) it seems that once again, Power Girl's boobies have set the comics intelligentsia aflame with anger, defensiveness, and exactly the kind of awful displays of sexism that have made superhero comics fandom the mortifying writhing mass it often is.

It behooves me then, as I attempt to struggle for validity (or even the smallest bit of attention) that I get a marshmallow toasted on this bonfire before it's all burnt out. I will attempt (and likely fail) to avoid being put to the sword by one side or the other by dodging the whole sexism thing as much as possible and addressing another trend that comes from this whole thing that I actually find encouraging.

But before that, I'm going to ramble at length. Let's have a look (not that way) at Power Girl. Lost in all the debate over boobie windows or convoluted origins, it should be mentioned that Power Girl is a product of the zeitgeist of her age, specifically the feminist movement of the 70's.

Whenever superhero comics try to capture the spirit of the age, the results are more often as not cringe worthy stuff (how many black superheroes exploded onto the scene in the 70's? How many of them had nothing more to distinguish them except having "Black" before their name--just in case our attention wasn't drawn to that fact already) done with the best intentions and quite often from a position of white middle-class liberal guilt.

The results, looking back on things with the benefit of hindsight are often hilarious or time to facepalm--black superheroes seem to be constantly furious at Uncle Charlie, and every "feminist" or "liberated woman" (or Lady Liberator) is a serious ball-buster. Part of that could be down to the generally exaggerated nature of superhero comics (like pro wrestling, the phrase "theatre of the absurd" springs to mind--superhero comics deal in hightened, almost operatic, reality) but also the simple fact that it's very hard to get a sense of a social movement while it's happening around you--it's slightly too big to be easily perceived.

It was with equally well-meaning intentions that women characters began to hit the scene in the 70's and in deference to lessons learned (or not) a hell of a lot of them seemed to have "she-" in front of their names or "-woman" or "-girl" after them. Again--just in case we forgot.

Nevertheless, even with all the best intentions in the world, an outsider trying to write for a different gender, sexual orientation, or race will face a certain disconnect. I am not saying that straight writers can't write gay characters or white writers can't write black characters, I'm simply saying there may be subtleties that you can't get to owing to the fact that one is on the outside looking in. It can be mitigated, it can be compensated for, but it's not easily hurdled, and I struggle with it in my writing, too.

Also, a creator's experience and predilections also inform any creation, blatantly or subtly. For instance, a group of mostly old-line creators, raised in times where the gender roles and expectations were quite different are bound to have a certain subtext in their perceptions of women's liberation than someone who was born and raised in the midst of it, and he would have a different opinion than, say, Dave Sim. But who doesn't?

This idea of experience informing intent will become important . . .right now.

Wally Wood designed Power Girl's look. In addition to designing Daredevil's red suit and committing suicide, Wally Wood had quite a line in drawing women who were, if we're honest, built like brick shithouses. Some artists have pretty blatant obsessions, and whether they like it or not, they bleed onto their pages.

So, Power Girl, poster child for "feminism" in superhero comics (not easily defined then, possibly less so now) created with what were surely good intentions, ended up on the page as a bit of a ballbuster who was built like a brick shithouse.

Here's another example--nearly around the same time, Marvel created Ms. Marvel, who is very much Power Girl's opposite number--she's a distaff version of a male hero, she's a feminist who demonstrates it by being a ballbuster, origin and current status has been hopelessly muddled, and her costume's probably more famous than the character. I think they even fought in JLA/Avengers, just in case we missed the connection.

I once read an anecdote Dave Cockrum told about re-resdesigning Ms. Marvel's look. Her first outfit was lacking something and so he designed the second--and ultimately more enduring--costume and presented it to Marvel's head honcho (at least in the public eye) Stan Lee, who was elated and declared that this was what he'd been looking for--"Black leather and tits and ass."

He would know, I'd imagine--this is the Stan Lee who gave us Stripperella, for God's sake.

I present these things not to make any great point (except "this was nascent feminism in superhero comics 30+ years ago.") apart from how good intentions can often go awry in ways we may not be fully cognizant of. Mind you, there was still plenty of times to right the ship between then and now, but . . .well, as anyone who knows anything about comics will tell you, all too often things swing back to a permanent status quo. Part of that is the nature of the beast--to keep the soap opera running things can never fully resolve, after all.

Another part of it is that some ideas that should long ago have been tossed in the bin stick around, molder, and get a bit stinky.

However, that there's this much of a debate, and about Power Girl, to boot, gives me hope for one thing. For all the sturm und drang people throw about (me included) about how the comic market is shrinking and catering to the 30+ year old male geek is resulting in a slow countdown to extinction, that women would get this passionate about a character shows that there are characters that female readers would embrace and would take an interest in, if perhaps something could be done about the barnacles of intentional and unintentional sexism that have accrued on them over the years.

I very much hope those that have been most vocal will bring some of that to bear, perhaps, on creations that redress the problems with these character that prevent that vital connection from being made. Failing that, I hope they get their shot someday to do something with them on their own--I'm a big beleiver that at some point a new generation has to being its ideas to bear on these hoary old icons so it will speak to younger generations and there will be later generations of comics readers.

It's the only thing that's ever seemed to work.