The Prisoner: A. B. and C. (1967)

A. B. AND C. First UK Broadcast: October 13, 1967 [episode #3 in transmission order] | Written by Anthony Skene | Directed by Pat Jackson

SYNOPSIS

No.2 (Colin Gordon, returning from “The General“) is facing pressure to get to the bottom of the reason for No.6’s resignation. He decides to take drastic measures by proceeding with an experimental method devised by No.14 (Sheila Allen), even though it’s untested. The procedure will manipulate No.6’s dreams, allowing them to create a scenario and introduce characters from No.6’s life outside the Village. No.2 believes No.6 was prepared to sell out, and he wants to know to whom he was going to sell his secrets. There are three potential candidates, whose files are designated A. B. and C. In his manufactured dream, No.6 is at a party thrown by his friend Madame Engadine (Katherine Kath). He first meets A. (Peter Bowles), but A. gets nowhere with No.6, resorting to violence. After his first session, No.6 begins to suspect No.2’s plot, recognizing No.12 while she’s buying flowers – a woman from his dreams. He also discovers an irritated needle mark on his wrist. But the experiment proceeds; he is drugged and taken back to the laboratory to meet his next contact in his dreams, B. (Annette Carrell). She’s a spy who claims that she’ll be killed unless No.6 gives her information, but he exposes her as a fraud when she can’t answer personal facts about her life; this is because her dialogue is being fed to her by No.14. Before his last session, No.6 follows No.14 to her secret lab, finds the files marked “A. B. and C.,” as well as a syringe. He replaces the drug with water. When he’s brought back into his dreams for the final experiment, he’s now able to manipulate them himself. He meets C. – who turns out to be Engadine – and they agree to meet with a mysterious fourth stranger (“D.”) for a transaction. But No.6 casts No.2 as D., handing him travel brochures and itineraries. “I wasn’t selling out,” No.6 says. “That wasn’t the reason I resigned.” The red phone of No.1 rings, and No.2 realizes that he has failed.

No.6 meets with Madame Engadine (Katherine Kath) in his dreams.

OBSERVATIONS

This is one of the most memorable episodes of The Prisoner, appropriately mind-altering just in time for the brief heyday of psychedelia. Roughly half the episode takes place in drug-fueled dreams, and when No.6 takes control of his final session, the camera tilts and sways and things get trippy fast, culminating in an extraordinary sequence where the dream No.6, viewable on a large screen in the lab, walks into the Village, through the woods, into the hidden door and right into the lab with No.2 and No.14. Paranoid, No.2 turns to look at the real door, as though No.6 might actually be entering the room. It’s reality caving into dream logic. The monitor returns to the opening credits, a loop of No.6 resigning over and over again. This was a very meta series for its time. The screenplay is by Anthony Skene, one of the writers who seemed to “get” the show, having also contributed the standout episodes “Dance of the Dead” and “Many Happy Returns.” Admittedly, his script was originally prepared for the BBC show Counterstrike before it was reworked for The Prisoner, but it’s a perfect fit. He pulls off the trick of creating drama within a very static setting: a laboratory, with an unconscious No.6 and imaginary scenarios that the audience knows aren’t real. To have No.6 make progress in foiling the plot during his waking hours provides the necessary tension, with a climax which mimics the hypnopompic state of being almost-awake and taking agency in one’s dreams. There is also a winking reference to the mad scientist nature of the story, replete with stock footage of flashing lightning while No.6 is wheeled into the lab on a rainy night.

No.14 (Sheila Allen) and No.2 (Colin Gordon) conduct an experiment in controlling No.6’s dreams.

It’s a rare occurrence that No.1’s unseen presence hovers over a story, and here he’s represented by the oversized red phone, curved and making a thrumming kind of ring which No.2 dreads. He drinks milk to calm his nerves and possibly treat his ulcers. No.2 is convinced that No.6 resigned to sell information, which is an unobservant conclusion given how rigidly principled 6 is. Since “The General” implied that he’s been watching No.6 for quite some time, it says something about No.2 that he’s this clueless about his subject. Nonetheless, the episode concludes with some definitive information for the viewer: no, No.6 was not selling out, in case anyone actually thought that. Having failed, No.2’s fate is uncertain. Freeze-frame the Tally Ho headline that No.14 is reading in a Village café and you’ll see it says “Is No.2 Fit For Further Term?” At the start of the episode, No.2 is telling No.1 over the phone, “I know sir, yes. I know I’m not indispensable.” Given the ominous shot of No.2 staring at the ringing phone at the end, we can conclude that this No.2’s time in office is over.

The premise provides the opportunity for a larger than usual cast. As the worldly social butterfly Engadine, French actress Katherine Kath (Moulin Rouge, Gigot) shines; it is easy to believe that she would be among the Prisoner’s circle of contacts. (In fact, when I first saw this episode decades ago I was confused, thinking she was a recurring character that I had somehow missed before.) As the reticent No.14, Sheila Allen also makes a strong impression; she’s a sympathic figure that’s been roped into this scheme by a desperate No.2. Georgina Cookson, who played No.2 in “Many Happy Returns,” has a bit part as one of Engadine’s guests, a surprisingly conspicuous bit of re-casting.

SEQUENCE

I’ve already explained why this should go after “The General,” as the climax spells the end of this No.2, but it should also be pointed out that in the opening credits he says “I am No.2” instead of “the new No.2,” an edit which indicates this was intended to follow the prior Colin Gordon episode. In both of these No.6 comes out on top and demonstrates that he’s learning how to get the upper hand on his captors. This trend will guide him through the rest of the season, leading to an ultimate confrontation in “Once Upon a Time.”

No.6 learns to control his dreams, which are projected upon the wall.

THE OUTSIDE WORLD

Even if it’s just in dreams, we get another look at No.6’s life before the Village in this episode. We learn of his former associates Madame Engadine, “A,” and “B,” all of whom are involved in the espionage game. It could easily be the world of Danger Man/Secret Agent, but we see it through the kaleidoscope view of No.6’s manipulated unconscious. He even has a quasi-romantic dance with “B,” rare given McGoohan’s objections to that sort of thing.

FISTICUFFS

Surprisingly for an episode that takes place in dreams, there are two fight scenes, as No.6 gets in a scuffle with the henchmen of “A” and the agents who come after “B.”

WIN OR LOSE?

This is a win for No.6, and a definitive defeat for No.2.

QUOTES

“A”: “What are you going to do with your freedom?”
No.6: “Go fishing.”
“A”: “Perhaps you’re fishing now.”

Engadine: “It takes you a long time to sell yourself, darling.”
No.6: “It takes a lot of thought.”

No.6: “This is a dreamy! Party!

UP NEXT: Before we take on the next episode, a look at the Prisoner scripts that never made it to production.

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The Prisoner: The General (1967)

THE GENERAL First UK Broadcast: November 3, 1967 [episode #6 in transmission order] | Written by Joshua Adam (Lewis Greifer) | Directed by Peter Graham Scott

SYNOPSIS

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?”

No.6 conspires with No.12 (John Castle) to uncover the General and disseminate the truth about “Speed Learn.”

OBSERVATIONS

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 Professor (Peter Howell) unveils the General.

“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.

The Supervisor (Peter Swanwick) and No.2 (Colin Gordon).

PROPAGANDA

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.”

THE WARDERS

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.

THE VILLAGERS

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.)

THE VILLAGE

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.

METHODOLOGY

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.

No.6 infiltrates the Town Hall to sabotage the latest Speed Learn lecture.

SEQUENCE

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.

QUOTES

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.

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