Thursday, January 15, 2009

I am not a Number, I am a FREE MAN

I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered!

The Prisoner was a television program from the late 1960s. Originally offered up as a spy-thriller show, much like I Spy, Man from UNCLE, and Patrick MacGoohan's earlier Danger Man, the show posited a hero British secret agent who angrily resigns from his job only to be captured by some nefarious organization. The organization seems to be run by spies, collecting and interrogating other spies on both sides of the Cold War, placing them all in an idyllic seaside luxury resort known only as the Village. Everyone, prisoners and guards, go by numbers, and no one can tell really who the prisoners are and if the guards are really guards.

Our hero gets tagged as Number Six. He's in the Village for two reasons. The organization thinks even after his resignation that Number Six can become 'part of the team' and work for them. And the organization wants information from him: to know "why did you resign?" It's believed that if Number Six cracks and answers the question, the rest will willingly follow. For his part, Number Six won't talk. And like every other prisoner in the world, he's not going to cooperate... and he's looking for ways to escape.

Thing was, unlike the other spy shows, episodes were not fully resolved. In a regular spy show, the hero would get caught, confront captors, endure some punishment, but then cleverly (usually by seducing a pretty maid) makes a daring escape before the episode ends, during which a) the bad guys blow up from their own sabotaged weapons or b) the bad guys escape themselves so they can re-appear in a fun-packed fan-happy follow-up episode when the rating start to sag.

Not so with the Prisoner. Number Six was stuck: every escape attempt foiled, usually because of fiendishly twisted psychological technobabble. If the hero had any successes, it was because he foiled the attempts of his tormentors (the ever-changing Number Twos) to break him. The show's episodes had three basic story lines: a) the Prisoner tries to escape using a potential flaw in the Village's security; b) the Prisoner resists efforts to force him to reveal why he resigned; c) the Prisoner gets involved within the Village's "community" to unravel an attempt by the Village's secret leaders to collectively punish or manipulate Number Six's fellow innocents.

For complex, behind-the-scenes reasons involving the production of the series, only 17 episodes were ever made (there's evidence there was going to be 26 episodes for what was then a full season, but because of production delays, artistic differences, and the ever-escalating costs of weather balloons), essentially making the Prisoner a prolonged mini-series in which every episode was essential for figuring out what was going on. The problem came with the final episode, knowingly filmed as such, in which the actor Patrick MacGoohan finally takes control of the whole series and presents the Village as a metaphor for modern society, attempting to force rebellious members of society - such as Number Six - to conform. To even try to explain the final episode in any detail would take 40 pages and perhaps even 40 days to comprehend it all, but suffice to say the Prisoner DOES and - this is the mind-blowing part - DOESN'T escape... depending on your point of view. Yeah, trust me, it'll help to make sense of it.

The show's been a cult classic ever since. The final episode was so confounding, so unwilling to spell things out for people, that MacGoohan had to flee England entirely and basically set up shop in Los Angeles for work... which explains why he got so many juicy roles on the Colombo mystery series. But the confounding episode also drew viewers in, forcing audiences to think, to ponder, to draw their own conclusions and also figure out just what the show meant, for themselves. Few other shows lasted for so few episodes could claim such fannish devotion... save Firefly (and Police Squad!).

As viewed today, the Prisoner serves as a parable about civil liberties: the rights of the Individual (the Numbers) as balanced against the needs of the Community (the Village). At what point do the Village elders give us Numbers the liberties to go where we want, when we want, however we want? At what point do we pay a price for the services the Village provides to us (health care, security, food, a home)?

There's one other thing: the show delved, in rather campy ways (this was the 1960s, they couldn't show waterboarding in reality), into the issue of torture. We get it from the beginning episode, when Number Six's first capture by Rover takes him to the Village Hospital. Number Six bears witness to a handful of fellow prisoners undergoing psychological torments, and sees the results (one man is left incoherently singing to a water fountain, another man seemingly mindwiped).

As one watches the show, one learns that the makers were rather unanimous on the value of torture: it has none. All it did was twist people into broken and useless humans (Dance of the Dead shows one example), or drive them to suicide (Hammer Into Anvil). Torture shows only one useful benefit: it breaks people into doing whatever you want them to, makes them into the torturer's pawns (Checkmate).

Consider how those who endured the torture of the Bush/Cheney regime (screw your Orwellian attempts at calling it 'enhanced interrogation.' Torture is torture.) Consider Jose Padilla. During his imprisonment under various and shifting accusations, Padilla was tortured. There's no ifs ands or buts. Padilla was tortured. And the end result wasn't confessions to what he'd been charged with: the end result was a broken man, unable to trust anyone other than the authorities that had tortured him, unable to provide for his own legal defense, and found by experts to be mentally unfit for trial (which still happened and still sent Padilla to jail). Padilla was left convinced that his mother needed to go speak to George W. Bush himself for mercy, that if Bush was convinced Padilla was 'a good boy' he'd go free.

The arguments against torture are all valid: there is no proof that torture extracts useful information. There is no evidence that the torture conducted during the Bush years led to any significant arrests or led us any closer to ending the threat of Al Quada: show me one case where a torture interrogation led to a break against a terror plot (nearly every so-called arrest came from standard police procedures of undercover work, catching the bad guys in the act, and/or an act of stupidity on the part of the culprit(s)). I'm looking online and in databases: I can't find one.

There is evidence that torture makes people more willing to do anything the torturer wants them to do. You torture someone long enough, you torture a poor innocent person from the hills of nowhere who doesn't know anyone and you can get them to state under oath that they've seen Dick Cheney hunt pink unicorns while wearing metal spiked collars and a matching leather tutu. That is all torture is good for: breaking people.

Patrick MacGoohan passed yesterday. The legacy of his show The Prisoner is still with us. The legacy of the damage from Bush's regime of torture is also still with us, until and unless Congress and the new President listen to the growing calls of the American people to do something about it, and bring those who installed torture as our main weapon in the War on Terror to a reckoning.

Be seeing you, Number Six...

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