THE UNMUTUAL PRISONER ARTICLE ARCHIVE
PETER DUNN'S A-Z OF PRISONER ALLEGORY
A: ALLEGORY, ACTION, AND ADVENTURE.
Many Prisoner fans hold the view that one of the things that makes "The Prisoner" stand out as a television series is its allegorical content. However, it often appears that no two individual fans appear to agree on what that allegorical content is or what philosophy (if any) it underpins. That being the case I should have little difficulty finding material for 26 columns exploring an A to Z of the various allegorical "explanations" of "The Prisoner" that have been thrown up over the last 26 years.
Where better then to start than with "A". A after all stands for Allegory - but also for Action and Adventure - and one cannot hope describe "The Prisoner" without recourse to all three of these words.
The world has seen many allegories from the parables of Jesus to the political satire of "Animal Farm". Mankind has also devised many tales of action and adventure from the tales of the Labours of Hercules to the small screen adventures of "Danger Man". However there are few works of fiction that have tried to combine allegory with action adventure and fewer still that have tried to do so in the format of a television series.
go any further let us pause to consider what exactly we mean when we talk about
allegory. An allegory is a narrative or visual description of one subject under
the guise of another. People sometimes misunderstand the meaning of the word
allegory thinking to mean a "hidden message" when in fact it is simply
a "hidden description". An allegory hides a depiction of a particular
state of affairs under the cover of the description of something completely
different. The writer uses this device either because direct depiction of the
allegorical subject could bring him or her persecution or to draw attention
to a subject that the author considers important that might not of itself be
of sufficient interest to draw peoples' attention.
In case of "The Prisoner", the popular medium of the action adventure is used to draw attention to the show's allegorical content to an audience which would not normally be attracted to considering such matters. It is quite literally a show designed to make one think.
allegories will also contain a message or an answer to the questions and issues
they raise - the best example of this being the parables of Jesus - but they
need not do so. In fact it is more often the case that allegories do not deliver
a handy answer to the problem situations they depict. The writer simply puts
alludes to the topic because he or she believes it is important that people
think about that issue and possibly even debate it with others.
This in part explains why some allegories such as "1984", "Animal Farm" and "The Prisoner" are so bleak - they point out not just an issue but a major problem for society without suggesting any form of solution.
This understanding of what an allegory is may help us to understand why "The Prisoner" often seems to explore a number of issues at a hidden level but yet, like Number 6, seems so loathe to provide us with any answers to the questions we may have about those issues. The reason for this is now quite clear. "The Prisoner" is an allegory of one or more things that its writers considered important at that time and which still may be just as important today. It offers no answers just the opportunity for us the viewers to perceive the problems and perhaps find our own solutions.
This allegorical content is what sets "The Prisoner" apart from other TV shows. Of course I leave aside the TV dramatisations of the allegorical works of literature by authors such as George Orwell and CS Lewis ("1984", "Animal Farm", "The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe" etc) but I hope that you would agree that it is "The Prisoner"'s originality as being written for TV in the first place that sets it apart from these adaptations of great works of literary fiction.
Many modern TV shows have been cited as parallels to "The Prisoner" but despite having strong elements of surrealism few, if any, really achieve its blend of allegory and adventure. That does not mean that these shows are in some way lesser than "The Prisoner" it merely means that they are different.
Take for instance "Twin Peaks" which has often been cited as "The Prisoner" of the 1990s. Sadly such comparisons are made simply because of "Twin Peak"’s surreal nature. Yes both shows were surreal and this element helped make them great viewing but "Twin Peaks" lacked any allegorical meaning, either hidden or otherwise. In fact the Director went out of his way to confuse, and infuriate any viewer attempting to extract any message or allegory from the show - and anyone who thought they were just being presented with a straight murder mystery was in for even rougher ride.....
"Twin Peaks" works neither as an adventure story or as an allegory - nor was it intended to. Indeed the series is probably the most deserving recipient of the over used tongue in cheek acolade "a triumph of style over content". In fact much the same could be said about a number of other programmes including "Artemis 81" though the latter could be perhaps better described as a failure of both style and content.
There have been a number of other message laden action adventure programmes at least one of which, "Edge of Darkness", I have heard compared with "The Prisoner". All of these shows or episodes can be demonstrated to be bearers of unmistakable, unhidden messages rather than allegory.
In some the messages are often so thinly veiled or so bluntly delivered that they actually hinder the plot and action rather than hide in it - for instance the "Star Trek" original series episode "Let This Be Your Last Battlefield" (the message being how destructive racial hate can be) and the running cold war theme in the "Trek" episodes "Omega Glory", "A Taste of Armageddon" and "Errand of Mercy".
Others however have more delicately delivered messages but they are always clear messages on a single issue with a clear answer. For "Edge of Darkness" and "Doomwatch" the issue is the misuse or abuse of science. In "Alien Nation" the poor treatment of the Newcomer aliens is a commentary on the racism and "alienation" felt by today's human minorities.
"The Prisoner" does not offer such clear advice but it does explore some options as solutions to the problems it presents. Typically these solutions; religion, politics, education etc are presented as being full of as many difficulties as the original problem.
What is "The Prisoner"'s central problem or allegorical theme? Does it have just one central theme? I mentioned earlier the great deal of disagreement between fans as to which allegorical avenues the series explores. One thing everyone can agree on is that the show examines the growing restrictions that society places on individual freedom. What people disagree on is which particular restrictions the show depicts and how those restrictions relate to our lives today (and has that changed if at all from the shows first airing several decades ago). Of course there may be somebody out there who disagrees with me on even that supposedly fundamental assertion - but if that's so you are just going to have to wait till reach "F" in this A to Z.
Click here for the next instalment of the A-Z of Prisoner allegory.
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