‘The Prisoner’: Episode 1 review

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Wisely, there’s not a great deal of an attempt to replicate the acid trip loopiness of the original series, although we spot one stumbling fugitive in the classic black jacket with white piping outfit, who mutters the classic programme’s memorable farewell before promptly dropping dead.

Fan Boy appetite sated, it’s time to dress a new balance, and meet a whole new cast of Village people. The challenge with this remake (and indeed, it has to be said, the original) is that it cannot show its hand (or indeed, its plot) at pretty much any point whatsoever. This means that while the main character (Jim Caviezel) may spend a good deal of his time running back and forth, the plot itself has to – must do – keep running on the spot, not really going anywhere, as the character attempts to find out the where, the what, the who, and most crucially, the why. This is less a drama, more a writing exercise. But that, of course, is the gleeful fun of The Prisoner. While Portmerion is merely a memory, this village has a unique style all its own – Amsterdam meets Red Rock West.

It makes sense that a drama that makes as little sense as The Prisoner should debut now: audiences fed on Lost are used to this level of smoke and mirrors, and are willing to put up with a certain amount of misleads and subterfuge. There’s even a suggestion, this early on, that the writers do actually have the final reveal already stored away for whenever this all gets tied up. And presumably it doesn’t involve 6 being a monkey.

Ian McKellen is here to give us gravitas, and to look a little too much like the Man From Del Monte (except, he doesn’t like to say ‘yes’, more to tell us that ‘There is only The Village’). Caviezel is great in the title role, wisely playing it humourless and upset. While everyone else acts like they’re in a Somerset Maughn sundrenched memoir, Caviezel quite rightly treats the whole thing a little too seriously. With anything else, this would could be a bad decision, but here, it successfully serves to make 6 look truly out of place.

There’s not a great deal of action here (the central conceit of someone trying to work out exactly what’s going on is enough to be getting on with), but lots of little clues (check out how Number 2 has the digit 7 represented on his clock). The character of 2, always played by different actors in the original series as they seemingly got bumped off by the terrifying 1, here seems certain to be always played by Ian McKellen. He’s also given an intriguing back story, and, seemingly, a family.

There’s a lovely sequence when two characters, looking at the stars above, have the age old conversation about life out there, but in this example, they simply mean life outside the village (‘there might be… in another village’). This Village is an entirely Orwellian place, some parts 1984, some parts Animal Farm (‘I am not one of them, you can trust me’, 6 says to someone who clearly he shouldn’t trust), and there seems to be a bizarre bit of the Forbidden Zone from Planet Of The Apes, complete with an almost Oz-like effigy of what looks like the Twin Towers.

There are occasional brushes with the classic series – 6 glaring at camera as he stomps up a corridor, screaming that most iconic of catchphrases: ‘I am not a number, I am a free man!’. We know the score then, as well as the number: there are questions, there are hints, flashbacks, and possibilities – why did 6 resign from his post? What was his post? In 1960s Britain, there was a post-war governmental spy theme to the entire affair. Nowadays, however, it’s not so clear. You want information? You won’t get it. Well, not in this opening episode, in any case. Annoyingly, we don’t even get that fantastic theme music.

Overall, this is smart, grown up, and littered with deliciously incoherent plot points. Sadly, it might be a little too smart for its own good, and therefore a second run. Catch it while you can.

Airs at 9.30pm on Saturday 17th April 2010 on ITV1.