THE GENERAL First UK Broadcast: November 3, 1967 [episode #6 in transmission order] | Written by Joshua Adam (Lewis Greifer) | Directed by Peter Graham Scott
No.6 sees a man known only as the Professor (Peter Howell) running along the beach pursued by a mob of Villagers, and discovers a tape recorder the man left behind with a personal message on it. The Professor is escorted back into the Village, and No.6 hides the recorder. The man is the inventor of Speed Learn, a powerful educational technique which transmits his lectures directly into one’s brain via television broadcast. He claims this technology is only possible through an unseen figure called “the General.” No.6 is astonished that after watching just one Speed Learn transmission he can recite in detail historical facts, even if they’re the exact same phrasing that everyone else recites when questioned. The new No.2 (Colin Gordon) has No.6’s residence searched for the tape recording, but he can’t find it; in fact it’s come into the possession of No.12 (John Castle), the man in charge of the Administration department who is secretly plotting against the Village. Conspiring with No.6, they agree to sabotage the next broadcast by using the Professor’s personal recording instead, a warning against the threat that Speed Learn actually represents. But just before the altered broadcast can go out, No.6 is spotted by No.2, who rounds up both him and No.12. In an office inside the Town Hall, No.2 finally reveals to them just who the mysterious “General” is: a wall-sized computer built by the Professor which can answer any question put to it. No.2 prepares to feed it a punch card to verify No.12’s disloyalty, but No.6 interrupts, claiming that he has a question which even the General can’t answer. No.2 takes the bait and allows No.6 to put his question through the computer – which subsequently explodes, killing both the Professor and No.12. A devastated No.2 asks what the question was. No.6 reveals that it was a single word: “WHY?”
This episode is very entertaining at the cost of dispensing with the usual Prisoner plotting: no attempt at escape is made, nor any attempt to break No.6. As we move into the second half of the series, you’ll see more examples of this. In “Many Happy Returns,” No.6 successfully escaped the Village only to be dragged back again. Now he’ll begin his attempts to destroy the Village from within, a tactic which “The General” represents. Many of the later episodes of The Prisoner, written by a varied group of writers, scramble to fill out ITC’s order of episodes with diverse storylines that have little to do with the premise of the show, and that’s “The General” as well. The story of a full college course that can be learned in an instant, transmitted by a supercomputer, feels very Star Trek. You can just picture Captain Kirk delivering that last line: “It’s insoluble for man or machine. W-H-Y Question Mark.” The Professor says, “Speed Learn is an abomination! It is slavery! If you wish to be free, there is only one way. Destroy the General!” So we see that Speed Learn is another form of enslavement for the Villagers, with their minds held prisoner by whatever No.2 wishes the Professor to program. The facts they have learned are shallow, lacking in context or meaning. Toward the end of the episode, No.2 hints at his true goal. If you can teach individuals history as you’ve scripted it, then you can also make history in your own image: “fake news” delivered through a 60’s punch card computer instead of social media.
“The General” also takes the time for satire, as No.6, trying to determine where the Professor is being held captive, visits the art colony led by the Professor’s wife (Betty McDowall). There are shades of “The Chimes of Big Ben” and its Art Exposition in the following exchange:
Wife: That gentleman over there, what do you think he’s doing?
No.6: Tearing up a book.
Wife: He’s creating a fresh concept. Construction arises out of the ashes of destruction. And that woman?
No.6: Standing on her head.
Wife: She’s developing new perspective.
No.6: Really? [What about] him?
Wife: He’s asleep. One learns when the only mind wants to, not at set times.
Actually, that last line has some truth to it. There have been studies showing that while sleeping we can solve problems which have troubled us during the day. And no one could argue that standing on your head doesn’t give you a fresh perspective! There’s another nod to “Chimes,” intentional or not, when No.6 runs rampant exposing the various busts the professor’s wife has sculpted. One is No.6…but another is a bust of Leo McKern’s No.2, leftover from “Chimes.” This is an eclectic episode, but most effective is the denouement in which No.6 visits the wife to report her husband’s death; the camera is at a distant remove, their dialogue unheard. It’s a moving little moment of the sort that this fast-moving series seldom indulges.
Signs are hung about the Village in the standard font advertising Speed Learn. “Our aim: one hundred percent entry, one hundred percent pass. – The General.” “Speed Learn: a three year course in three minutes. It can be done. Trust me. – The Professor.”
Colin Gordon portrays No.2 for two episodes, this being the first (although it was the second to be filmed). His is an arrogant but nervous character, fearful of reprisal from upstairs. Gordon appeared in comedies such as The Pink Panther (1963) and Casino Royale (1967) and specialized in playing stuffy bureaucrats. He died in 1972.
Unusually, No.6 finds a Village employee, No.12, who is worthy of his trust and wants to stick it to the powers-that-be as much as he does. This is one of the episodes in which the Villagers are not a mob of mindless automatons, but people who might become just that unless No.6 can save them. (The handsome John Castle has credits which include Blow-Up, The Lion in Winter, Antony and Cleopatra, and Man of La Mancha.)
Focus is once more returned to the Town Hall, and we see the strange, one-eyed, Illuminati-like pyramid behind the council. We also learn that high security access is granted to the Town Hall using a chip which is placed on a box, and a tiny plastic hand springs out to grab the chip. It’s one of the silliest Prisoner moments: actually a tie-in toy for The Addams Family (the hand is Thing’s) which this series appropriated like its many lava lamps.
No attempt to break No.6 is made in this episode. He’s off the hook for once, and only captures No.2’s attention because of the theft of the Professor’s tape recorder.
Gordon filmed his other episode as No.2, “A., B., & C.,” prior to this one, and it aired before this one as well. However, that episode’s opening credits are unique in that he calls himself just “No.2,” not “the new No.2,” which would lead one to believe that “The General” was meant to air first, introducing us to Gordon’s character. This also makes sense when taking a closer look at the plots of these episodes. Although No.2 suffers a big defeat with the destruction of the General, in “A., B., & C.” it’s do-or-die for No.2 and he’s driven to desperate means to break No.6, therefore it should be placed second. It’s true that No.2, in this episode, says that he and No.6 have known each other for a while; however I chalk this up to a large gap in time between this episode and the one prior (“Many Happy Returns,” in my order).
When trying to find the proper place for this episode in the greater series chronology, an interesting dilemma is presented. No.12 says that he’s worked in the Village for a long time, however there’s another No.12 in “The Schizoid Man,” No.6’s double. You might be inclined to believe that this episode should follow that one, then: No.12 dies at the end of “The General,” so his number is eligible for reassignment. Yet it’s not that simple. In “The Schizoid Man,” No.6, impersonating the double, says that he’ll issue his report to the General (which is evidently still in existence). He’s bluffing – he doesn’t know what the General is – and No.2 is confused by the phrasing. Of course, we now know that it wouldn’t be logical to report to the General since it’s nothing more than a supercomputer built to answer questions. So this episode should come later than “The Schizoid Man,” and it fits very well here as it refocuses the action on the Village following his prolonged absence in “Many Happy Returns.”
WIN OR LOSE?
No.6 wins, but it’s a bittersweet victory, given the fact that his co-conspirator, No.12, as well as the poor Professor both die in the process.
No.2: That mass of circuits, my dear fellow, is as revolutionary as nuclear fission. No more wastage in schools, no more tedious learning by rote. A brilliantly devised course delivered by a leading teacher, subliminally learned, checked and corrected by an infallible authority. And what have we got?
No.6: A row of cabbages.
UP NEXT: A. B. AND C.