Tomorrow night, the two hour Lost finale will air on ABC and bring to a close the fourth season of the hit show. Yesterday, the CHUD blogs saw their first post by Mr. David Mullich, the creator of the legendary adventure game The Prisoner, which was inspired by (though not a licensed product of) one of the greatest series ever to air on television. The combination of these two events drove me to make today’s post on the comparisons between Patrick McGoohan’s classic show and J.J Abram’s current sensation.
Indeed, the comparisons were one of the main reasons I started watching Lost in the first place. Beyond the budget for the pilot episode, there weren’t that many details I’d heard to get excited about. The few episodes I had caught of Alias were among the most ridiculous hours of TV I have ever watched, and not in a good way. Yet I couldn’t help but catch snippets of conversation about the show on the British news, and they kept dropping that name. The Prisoner.
So I started watching. At first, like almost everybody else, I was impressed. It was quite big and bold and expensive. But eventually, the show dragged itself into such a lull I couldn’t stand to watch anymore. The final nail in the coffin was some silly episode in which we spent time watching Sawyer try to find a tree frog that was keeping him up. Where is The Prisoner in this? Of course, there are some superficial similarities, or rather inspirations, of people trapped in mysterious and slightly eerie surroundings. Of inhuman mobile security systems and elements of science fiction. But in almost every meaningful way, the two shows seemed entirely different.
In Lost, especially in the earlier seasons, the trap is the wilderness they’ve landed on. The island is a mystery and also a problem. First it’s the lack of shelter, then the deadly wildlife, and finally the original inhabitants who block the progress of the survivors. In The Prisoner, the main character Number 6 is not trapped in a wilderness of any kind. The Village is a block to him because of its civilisation. It’s bureaucracy that’s out to thwart him. For example, in an early episode of Lost, a survivor sets out to scout the island, with the idea of charting a map. On the other hand, maps are freely on sale in The Prisoner, but only show the boundaries of the Village. When Number 6 asks for a bigger map so that he might get his bearings, the shopkeeper hands him a much larger version of the first, showing the exact same information on a bigger scale. Undone by pedantry!
This ties into some of the themes of both the shows. Lost follows a cast of characters who all have some troubled history and personality foibles, and on the island they start to deal with their emotional baggage and find themselves. It’s all very New Age. In The Prisoner, Number 6’s mission is not to learn something from his time in The Village, but to stay true to himself as he was before he arrived. To keep being stubborn and an individual, when it would be so much easier for him to give in and get along. He has a history, perhaps troubled, but in the Village this is all he has to himself so he does not reveal it, though they coax him to every episode.
Perhaps it’s a tradition of entertainment and society in the two different countries. The characters in Lost bicker with each other, some are deliberately prickly and they all cause friction out of misunderstandings like scenes from an American soap opera. Everything must be had out, eventually. Number 6 however, is generally polite to the other inhabitants of the Village, occasionally sarcastic with them, but on the whole is not very interested in them nor is the audience. They usually don’t (with a few exceptions) serve Number 6’s purpose of escape, so he only interacts enough not to be rude. Ironically he stays fairly polite with them of his own volition, while they are forced to be so through the brainwashing effect of the Village.
At its deepest core, the fundamentals of the two shows are entirely reversed. Lost is a show in which the survivors of the flight, and the audience themselves, are desperate for information. How did they get here? Why is this happening? Where did this come from? This hunt for information brings people back week after week to watch the new episodes. It sends thousands pouring over every video still, every podcast, looking for that tiny sliver of something previously undisclosed, that elusive thread that is the reward for the eagle eyed. A thread that, when pulled, will unravel the mess of misinformation and reveal the whole thing, plainly and neatly to be understood.
It’s funny then that this is exactly what the adversaries are looking for in The Prisoner. The tiny sliver of information is the reason why Number 6 resigned his job. If they can just get him to explain himself on this point, they are sure they can break him and understand everything he is and everything he knows. But he won’t tell them. He knows this single small piece (which is everything) but he won’t share, and this is how he stays in control.
Just like the addictive appeal of Lost is getting each new morsel of information, part of the strength of The Prisoner to me is how Number 6 manages to retain his information, and outsmart the attempts to get it from him, something excellently represented in David Mullich’s video game adaptation from 1980. This is the meat of the show, a battle of wits between Number 6 and Number 2, the Village lieutenant charged with cracking this hard case. Number 6 seems to just scrape a draw in these battles, usually he’s closer to the losing side and very rarely, he wins, such as in one of my favourite episodes Hammer Into Anvil. Having a character (or series of characters) like Number 2 gives Number 6 someone to play off and against, and such a foil was sorely missing from Lost.
I say ‘was’. As you might have been able to tell from my looking forward to the new season finale in the first paragraph, the tree frog did not keep me away from Lost forever. Before the start of the fourth season, I went back to see what I had missed. It turned out Lost had introduced a similar character. Not a Number 2 as such, but someone to mess with the survivors intellectually. Someone who could match Jack and Locke, and yet still be on the side of something separate. This character was Ben Linus, and in a strange twist, he was actually first introduced in One of Them, the tree frog episode that had made me stop watching in the first place!
Catching up and then watching Season 4, I started to enjoy the show again. The speed of information seemed to pick up. Previously dull episodes in which the writers seemed to fill dead time on the island with the most inane storylines gave way to more plots about characters being manipulated and played against each other. Introducing a kind of Number 2 for the Island has allowed the show to go to more interesting places dramatically, and also explore the mythology of the show without having to come up with some contrivance as to how the survivors might be introduced to it.
Lost is still not The Prisoner, but it is its own beast that has now justified its existence and is trying to make good on its premature praise. Early seasons were a little crass, slow and ponderous. If you are going to be so ponderous, you ought to have something interesting to say. The mystery was all ahead of them in those days, but they were in no hurry to get there. Later seasons have picked up the tempo and remembered to include some drama in their drama show and, in doing so, have made Lost much better for it.
And how is The Prisoner doing these days? Well it should shock nobody to know that a revamped version has been stewing in some evil pot somewhere for quite a while. It bubbled to the top again as recently as last month, when ITV confirmed they are continuing development on a new Prisoner project after the previous deal between AMC and Sky One did not work out. I can only guess that the stimulus behind the project at this stage is the continued huge success of Lost, but I find it hard to imagine the concept of The Prisoner working again without someone of the calibre of Patrick McGoohan behind it, for whom the original was a personal passion. One thing I do know, if Number 6 spends an episode of the revamped show looking for a tree frog or playing mini-golf, I’m going to smother myself with a balloon.