Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Be Seeing You, With Reservations

Comic-Con San Diego happened a few days ago. It's an event I have heard so much about that it has filled my envy-tanks with enough spleen-fuel to send me to Neptune, especially as it featured what was sure to be the final Lost panel (I doubt they would do another next year just to wrap things up, though I can dream). Among all of the hype for high-profile projects like Iron Man 2: The Ironing, and James Cameron's epoch-shattering masterpiece Avatar (Steven Soderbergh wouldn't lie to us, would he?), was the The Most Anticipated Television Event Of 2009. No, not Community, starring Joel McHale. I am of course talking about the latest show from the mind of the man who brought us the bone-searing thrill-machine known to millions of fans as Lark Rise To Candleford. Yes, the world has gone crazy over The New Adventures of The Prisoner!

As a British sci-fi fan of a certain age, I adore the original Prisoner, and have been nervously watching the development of various remakes and adaptations in much the same way that a houseowner keeps checking the size of the crack in the kitchen wall for signs of imminent subsidence. Kevin Costner was going to be in a film version, back when people liked him, and Mel Gibson was going to be producing a version. Maybe even starring in it. That would be right up his alley, seeing as how he is obsessed with being seen as a tortured martyr (the man's psychology is so open to display you don't need to be Freud to see what's going on in his head). Neither happened, but it's funny that Jim Caviezel is in this remake. While Keanu has captured the market for confident post-Resurrection Messiah, Caviezel seems to be slowly accruing some credits as the pre-death tortured Christ-figure. Mel would approve, I'm sure. He might even get down from his cross long enough to mention this at some point.

As a nerd, I am gripped by the usual nerdly personality disorders: obsession with - and attachment to - trivia, condescending behaviour towards non-nerds, preciousness over the treatment of nerd properties¹. This is a terrible and debilitating disorder to suffer from, and I do try to get over it. As this is merely a short trailer for the mini-series (six episodes), and a lot of information is being held back, it could be a great show, but two things strike me immediately, and it's two things that I knew would happen but dreaded nonetheless.

1) The new Number Six is not defiant enough. Patrick McGoohan personified rebellion, playing a man with the ability to withstand coercion to an extent no human being ever could. As The Prisoner was about resisting the command of (directly) the bureaucrats of the Village and (metaphorically) society itself, he was inspirational. Yes, he was practically a metaphor for a mental state instead of a fully-rounded character, but it was beautiful to see someone triumph over and over again, even though, technically, he spent the entire series failing. Maybe that was the key to his appeal: transforming failure into a kind of victory, because all he needed to win was keep rebelling, even if he never left the Village. It was the kind of story that made you feel better about life, all while making you feel worse about the state of the world. Every episode was a rollercoaster of emotion.

Through it all, McGoohan's Six was cocky, obnoxious, tempestuous, hardcore, and utterly defiant. In short, one of the great characters in modern fiction. From what we can see in this short video, Caviezel's Six spends most of it looking shit-scared. This is not appealing. You can see him becoming more defiant as the trailer progresses, but the plot seems to show an arc for his Six. The original didn't have a namby-pamby arc. He just punched people, had tantrums, and smirked when he won a small victory. You just can't top that kind of swagger.

2) The new Number Six seems to want to help his fellow Villagers. Yes, McGoohan's Six sometimes felt the urge to help others, but of course they are working for Number Two, and betray him. Always. Who knows, maybe this will be the case in the remake, and I keep my fingers crossed that this is the case². A traditional hero will help others, but that implies he is in a position to seek help from them as well. If the story you are telling is one that hints that society is an enemy that wants to strip you of the ability to be whoever you want to be, or do whatever you want to do, and that every person in that society will consider you their enemy, then your character has to be alone. With other people around to save or be saved, it becomes a more formulaic tale of man vs. institution. The reason the original Prisoner still chimes with audiences is that McGoohan's Six is one man against everything, against even the concept of society. Turning it into "Everyman rebels against baddies" removes that metaphorical richness. If this is the way it turns out, it becomes an adaptation of just a précis of the original show.

Of course, this is a first impression, filled with entitlement and whininess. The show could be terrific, and I'll definitely be watching it with as open a mind as possible. My love for Sir Ian McKellan is so total that I will enjoy his presence enough to mitigate a lot of flaws. It's also fun seeing Brit actresses Hayley Atwell and Ruth Wilson appearing in something so expensive and American³ instead of the usual costume-drama nonsense, not to mention the presence of the excellent Lennie James. The Rovers look suitably dramatic while being the same as the originals, though the big bouncy balls of old were effective because of other elements, such as the eerie sound effects and peculiar behaviour of the Villagers whenever the Rovers appeared. Whatever. It's a terrific visual, and it's nice that they kept it.

If I knew nothing about the original series, I'd probably love the trailer. However, I know too much, and even though I'll give the new series a fair shake, I can't imagine that the story they tell using this framework will be anywhere near as interesting as the original. I'll respect the showrunners' choices, but already I can see they're promoting the show as something - a traditional Man Against His Superiors fable - that the original transcended. I enjoy those stories well enough, and they have their own metaphorical power, but let's hope they have found a way to make this more daring, otherwise it will have a tough time replacing the memory of the original, a show that genuinely made you think about the world you are living in, without giving easy answers.

One more thing. They got the "Be Seeing You" thing wrong.

That's more like it.

¹ Oh how I whined when Peter David made She-Hulk boring after Dan Slott had done such good work with the character. I deleted the post about that, you'll be glad to know.

² I'm quite happy to see a Christ figure in this tale: less so a Moses metaphor.

³ That said, apparently it is actually produced by Granada and ITV, and only distributed by AMC, hence the predominantly British cast.