THE UNMUTUAL PRISONER ARTICLE ARCHIVE
PETER DUNN'S A-Z OF PRISONER ALLEGORY
B: BE SEEING YOU.
This is kind of a banal question, I guess, but if you could leave one sentence
or paragraph in the head of everyone who watched The Prisoner series, the whole
series, one thing for them to carry around for a while, when it was over, what
would it be?
McGoohan: Be seeing you.
Troyer: Just that?.....enigmatic to the end.
McGoohan: Be seeing you. That means quite a lot.
Troyer: It does indeed.
McGoohan: Be seeing you. Yeah.
The above extract from McGoohan's March 1977 interview with Warner Troyer for the Ontario Educational Communications Authority clearly gives us the ideal subject to explore in chapter B of our alphabetical odyssey through the allegories of "The Prisoner" - "Be Seeing You"
Of course one has to take everything McGoohan says with a large pinch of salt. If we did not then at least one of his interviews would oblige us to look at the allegorical importance of coat hangers in "The Prisoner" in my next column! However lets us give him the benefit of the doubt on this occasion and explore the importance of a phrase which normally adorns the end of articles on "The Prisoner" but on this occasion begins one.
I know what many of you who know me well are thinking (and everything you think here is in the strictest confidence of course) - you believe I am about to use the "Be seeing you" salute as a sneaky way of discussing links between "The Prisoner" and Christianity. Well I am not going to - much rubbish has been talked about the “Be seeing you” salute as being a version of the ancient Christian "icthous" or fish sign that early persecuted Christians used to secretly identify each other and which in more modern times often appears on the rear end of cars owned by Christians. To suggest the salute is based on that symbol is clearly nonsense as the salute looks nothing like the icthous. I shall of course cover the issue of religion in a future column (those of you who know your alphabet and my relgious leanings can probably work out exactly how soon.....).
OK so the salute is not an ancient Christian symbol - what is it then? Well like much in the show it is what it says it is - a clear visual and verbal reference to visual observation. The words "Be seeing you" are accompanied by an action in which the thumb and finger encircle the eye - the organ of visual observation. Is it that simple then? Just a reference to the fact that each Villager is being watched? Does this mean that "The Prisoner" is simply "1984" packaged as a TV action adventure?
There are some clear parallels. "1984"'s Big Brother and the Village both make use of paranoia as a means of social control. Both societies use their own citizens to spy on each other. No one knows who are the warders/thought police and who are the prisoners/thought criminals. Betrayal to authority by one's friends and lovers is a theme of both shows. For instance Number Six is kept under observation by the Queen in "Checkmate" who is encouraged by the Village's mind control techniques to fall in love with Number Six and then unwittingly allows the Village to use her to keep tabs on its most difficult Prisoner. Similarly in "1984" the thought police allow and encourage Winston Smith's "sex crimes" with Julia until it reaches the point where they can reel them both in for reindoctrination.
Again in "Checkmate" Number Six finds himself betrayed by the paranoia of a friend (the Rook) in a similar way to how friends and relations betray each other in "1984". "Checkmate" and "Arrival" are perhaps the two most Orwellian episodes of "The Prisoner" with their focus on paranoia, betrayal, and high tech observation and control. However it has always amused me how the Village authorities seem to have missed a key trick explored by Orwell. In "1984" the authorities make great use of televisions with a two way visual function which let the thought police see into every home and which can never be turned off. In the Village, either because of a misreading of "1984" or budget cuts at the town hall, it is the radios - not the televisions - that refuse to be switched off! It will not surprise you to learn that aside from that somewhat facetious example I believe that The Prisoner is much more than a televisual recycling of Orwell's exploration of dictatorship.
Let us look more closely at the “Be seeing you” salute. We have already seen that it contains a double emphasis on visual observation. The eye is in every way the centre of the salute and this is not the only time that the eye and sight take on metaphysical dimensions in the show.
There are other references to the eye throughout the show ie the close up on the Professor's eye during the speed learn process in "The General", and the movement of the square and circle towards Number Six's silhouetted eye during the civil servant's interrogation in "Free for All". But out of 17 episodes there is one which stands out as the metaphysical motherlode of the series. If you want to find allegory and double meaning, go to "Fall Out". This episode positively brims with half rendered meanings, allegorical asides and attempts at explanation. It is no surprise that eye symbols and semi mystical discussions of sight and seeing abound here. Some of these could perhaps be packaged in Orwellian terms - such as Number One being rendered for the first half of the episode as a giant opening and closing eye on the rocket. But even here we begin to see that this may mean a little more than a crude reference to surveillance. Let us examine the many references to sight in Leo McKern's dialogue during his confrontation with the eye. The underlining that follows is mine not the scripts:
No2: This is the nearest I've ever been. Watch. He gets annoyed if you look at him for too long. Shall I give him a stare?
President: You transgress!
No2: I'll give him a stare. Look me in the eye. Whoever you are. Whatever you are.
President: You'll die!
No2: Let me die. I'll die with my own mind you evil smelling demon. You'll hypnotise me no longer! Look me in the eye. (..HE LEANS FORWARD AND SPITS INTO THE HEART OF THE EYE)
Obviously there is something more than mere observation and control going on here but it is unclear as to what. It also goes on a little to long simply to be an amusing reference to Leo McKern’s artificial glass left eye – and besides that has already been done once with the suggestion that his character “wink a blind surveillance eye” In "Chimes". It does begin to get a little clearer later in the episode when Number six gets his chance to wax metaphysical about the question of sight as the next section of dialogue shows (again the underlining that follows is mine not the scripts):
President: You are pure. You know the way. Show us.
President: Your revolt is good and honest. You are the only individual and we need you.
P: I see.
President: You do. You see all.
P: I'm an individual?
President: You're on your own.
P: I fail to see.
President: All about you is yours. We concede. We offer. We plead for you to lead us.
At last it becomes clear the observation and detention of the Prisoner within the Village has not been to control him, in the way suffered by the citizens of Air Strip 1 in "1984", but to test him and watch him in the hope that will get that illusive "information" they have sought since his capture.
That "information" is not a collection of facts and data but is his direction, his leadership, and his vision. They lack and covet his single-minded sense of purpose and his clear individuality. They seek answers which they hope that his vision will supply. However he sees his vision as personal to him and is loathe to share it and therefore dilute it.
The Village has thus doubly lost. It failed to disprove or undermine his individuality or his strength and vision and they fail to share in those strengths of character as he rejects them ("I fail to see"). This may help to explain the chants of the delegates as he makes his final speech. I often thought what they were chanting was "I, I, I, I,...". However the script makes clear that what in fact they are chanting is "Aye, Aye, Aye,..." Is it too much to point out the visual and audible resemblance of this word to "eye"?? Perhaps it was meant to convey all three - I, Aye, Eye.
At the very last the metaphor of sight and vision is used again when Number Six confronts Number One - is this a version of Number Six who did dilute and corrupt his vision? Does the foresight of the crashing bars in the crystal ball held by Number One give Number Six a future vision of the prison he will make for himself if he does share his individuality with the Village?
What then is McGoohan trying to say? I think he is saying “find your own vision” - and when you have found it cherish it and do not dilute it by sharing it with others. I am not very comfortable with this message. Those of you who know me well know I subscribe to a vision that cries out be shared. If you want to know more about that vision read my next column. If not I will be seeing you at column D - perhaps in more ways than we can currently imagine.....
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