Saturday, December 12, 2009

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"

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