Thursday, 19 March 2015

The Prisoner - The General

So far I have not discussed what episode order The Prisoner should be viewed in. The most important thing to say about this is that it seems no one can agree on it. It should not be viewed in production order and it should not be viewed in broadcast order, apart from the first episode and the last two. I have had a few people tell me I am watching in the wrong order. To be clear, I am following the order of my Network DVDs, which I believe is the original order broadcast in the UK. It is not the wrong order because there is no right order. When I have re-watched all the episodes I will try to put together my own opinion of an ideal episode order for all 17 episodes. But that is all it can ever be; an opinion.

  'The General' got me thinking about the episode order because there are some things that have not made sense. Colin Gordon returns as Number Two for this episode but whilst he looked on the edge of a nervous breakdown in 'A. B. and C.', under pressure to get information out of Number Six, he seems quite at ease here. Also, whilst 'The General' has the usual opening titles, in which Number Six asks "Who are you?" and the answer is "The new Number Two", the opening for 'A. B. and C.' has Number Two answering "I am Number Two". These episodes would seem to fit better coming one after the other, with 'The General' coming first. Another point is that Number 12 was Number Six's double in 'The Schizoid Man' and was killed. In 'The General' we have a different Number 12. Number Two asks "How long have you been with us, Number 12?" "Me, sir? Quite a long time, sir" is the reply. There are several possibilities here: 'The General' takes place a long time after 'The Schizoid Man'; 'The General' should come before 'The Schizoid Man'; or Number 12 has been with the organisation who runs the Village for a long time but has not actually been in the Village for very long, only being given the Number 12 badge quite recently. The General is mentioned by Number Two in 'The Schizoid Man' (near the end, on the way to the helicopter) and as the General is destroyed at the end of episode 6, 'The Schizoid Man' must come before 'The General'. For me, a better episode order for these three episodes would be 'The Schizoid Man', 'The General', 'A. B. and C.', with perhaps several other episodes placed in between 'The Schizoid Man' and 'The General' to make sense of Number 12 having been in the Village for a long time.

Episode 6: The General

First ITV broadcast: Friday 3rd November 1967, 7.30pm (ATV Midlands/Grampain)
Estimated first run ratings: 9.8 million
First CBS broadcast: Saturday 13th July 1968, 7.30pm

The episode starts with the view of a helicopter moving over the Village. It can see everything. We cut to the helicopter and then to Number Six sat outside a café, looking up at the helicopter. This gave a reminder of the all-seeing ability of those in charge of the Village, as well as perhaps their god-like power over the inhabitants. The villagers look tiny from the helicopter and every aspect of their lives is controlled by those above them.

There is an announcement. All students taking the History course with the Professor should return home. They are promised "a university degree in three minutes". Number Six is skeptical and whilst looking at a poster ("one hundred per cent entry/ one hundred per cent pass") he talks with Number 12 (John Castle), who urges him to enroll. "The only subject I'm interested in is, um, getting away from this place." "Exactly" comes the reply. Number 12 seems to want to help but we have been here before and it has always ended badly.

On the beach Number Six finds what looks like a small radio playing. It is the Professor speaking to his students. Number Six turns it off and re-buries it. Two men pull over in a car and approach him. They ask him why he isn't taking part in the course. "Are you prefects?" Number Six asks and when they ask what he's doing, he replies "Playing truant". I always like Number Six's quips and there are several in this episode. It is a pleasant reminder that the Village is not getting to him in the way many of the Number Twos would like. He retains his personality and as we know so little about Number Six, this is a nice thing have. One of the men, Number 256, repeats the poster's phrase "100% entry, 100% pass" and urges "Come on. You don't want to start the term with a black mark."

Number Six goes home, gets himself a drink and sits down to watch the Professor's broadcast. The Professor is late. The presenter (Al Mancini) is American and his manner reminds me of Professor Joe Butcher, the TV evangelist in the James Bond movie, Licence to Kill. It's his enthusiasm and approach to the whole thing. During this episode he really tries to sell the 'speed learn' idea and goes on about how wonderful it is. It must also be pointed out that his accent makes him stand out from everyone else in the Village too. So far, I believe I am correct in stating that we have only heard European accents in the Village. The presenter explains "The subject of tonight's lecture is 'Europe Since Napoleon'. A hard, complicated six month's study. Ladies and gentlemen: sit back, relax, watch the screen. We're going to cover it in fifteen seconds flat." The Professor (Peter Howell) appears for a bit and talks about speed learning. Next, a black and white image of a man appears. The camera zooms in on his eyes (very Big Brother/Orwellian), then one eye and then a green light. Number Six stares at the screen. He drops his glass. Then comes out of it and glances round. Number Two (Colin Gordon) and Number 12 arrives. Whilst Number 12 scans the place with some machine, Number Two says that the Professor has lost his recorder. Does Number Six know anything? Of course not... Number Two mentions the lecture and Number Six replies "History's not my subject." Number Two throws some History questions at Number Six and he knows all the answers. Number Two joins in with Number Six's final answer and they both follow each other word for word. When Number Two and Number 12 leave, Number Six picks up the phone and asks the operator the same questions. The operator answers them, exactly the same, word for word like Number Six did.

Those eyes. Big Brother is watching you.
Number Six goes back to get the recorder. It's gone but he hears a branch snap and finds Number 12 behind a bush, who says "You want to get out of this place, don't you?" and offers him the recorder, "Here's your passport." Understandably, Number Six is skeptical. As an audience we are aware that everyone who has ever offered to help him in the past has turned out to be on Number Two's side. "I don't trust Number Two. I don't trust you. And I don't trust your tape, Professor." After Number 12 has gone, Number Six plays the tape. It is the Professor's notes for speaking to his students. He says "Speed learn is an abomination", he calls it "slavery" and they must "destroy the General" in order to be free. Will they be though? Can anyone really be free whilst they remain in the Village?

Later Number Six is in a garden. The Professor's wife (Betty McDowall) was on television before and is around in the garden. Number Six has drawn her in a military uniform, a general's uniform? "So art's your subject too?" she asks. "No. Military history. Generals and that sort of thing..." He shows her the drawing and she tears it up.

Number Six sneaks inside a building nearby. A room is filled with plinths, covered in white sheets. The Professor's wife appears and says "This is a private room." Number Six begins to remove the sheets, revealing busts underneath. One of them is of a Number Two, previously seen at the arts and crafts fair in 'The Chimes of Big Ben', another is of the current Number Two and of Number Six. Suddenly Number Two appears, as does a doctor (Conrad Phillips), who earlier we saw leading the Professor away from his typewriter in an office-type room. The doctor says the Professor is not be disturbed and we see him lying in a bed in the next room. Number Six has picked up a club and bashes the Professor's face in, which is fine, because it isn't really the Professor. It's just a hollow sculpture. I feel like I am missing something as the reason for this is never explained, nor for any of the other sculptures.

Number Six is chuffed with is likeness
Number 12 stages a power-cut so he can come and talk to Number Six without being overheard. He gives him a pen and a couple of chips with the Village's penny farthing design on, asking Number Six to come see him the next day.

There a lot of men in black suits, top hats and black shades. If it wasn't for the shades they would look like undertakers and if it wasn't for the top hats they could be Men in Black. They are all asking to enter a Lecture Approval Session and putting one of the chips into a machine. Think 'Thing' from the Addam's Family because this is what it was inspired by. A little hand reaches out and takes the chips, allowing them through. Number Six is also dressed up, wearing the Number 56 badge, and hangs around before doing the same with one of his own chips. He heads to the projection room, taking out a couple of guards on the way, who are dressed up like US military policy. Whilst taking out the projectionist (Peter Bourne) Number Six gets a cut to his hand. There's a machine with thin tubes and Number Six removes a metal rod from the pen Number 12 gave him, then inserts it into one of the tubes.

We are the Men in Black!
Number Two and the other men in black have had a chat and decided to broadcast the lecture. Images of the different broadcast rooms appear as they check that everyone is ready. Number Two is drawn to the cut on his hand, recognising Number Six sat in the projection room and it's no wonder. He's removed his suit and put on the projectionist's white t-shirt. If he had at least kept his shades on he might have got away with it. Some guards sneak up and knock Number Six out.

Number Six has his arm in a sling and is being interrogated by Number Two and Number 12 ("Who's the head man?" "Santa Claus.") but Two knows it's useless. They take him off to meet the General. They enter the office where the Professor is typing away. Number Two explains "The general can answer anything, given the basic facts." The Professor has just finished typing a piece of paper and puts it into a machine. Out of another section a metal strip with holes in comes out. Number Two says "Allow me to introduce the General." The Professor pulls back a curtain to reveal a huge machine, a great big computer. If you have never seen a 1960s' computer before, imagine the biggest computer you can think of and then make it ten times bigger.

Number Two thinks it is brilliant. They can subliminally deliver huge amounts of knowledge and "no more tedious learning by rote." For now only history, but soon they plan to move onto other things. Number Six is not impressed, commenting that they will get "A row of cabbages", to which Number Two replies "Knowledgeable cabbages."

Number Two wants to demonstrate it's brilliance to Number Six and asks the Professor to note down some information. "Point one: a traitor in the Village. Point two: security pass discs were issued to Number Six. Point three: access to these is through [he looks at Number 12] where? Through where?" "Administration, sir." "Exactly. Put that down. Also that Number 12 is an official in administration. Now ask the General-" Number Six interrupts. "A question that can't be answered." It is clear that Number Two has worked out that Number 12 has been helping Number Six. More on that later...

Number Six says "There is a question that the General cannot answer." "Impossible." Number Two replies. "Allow me to ask it." "No." "You afraid?" "...Go ahead." So Number Six types out the question and puts the paper in the machine. The metal strip comes out and the Professor takes it over to the General. A dial swings to 'DANGER', smoke starts appearing and then there are explosions. Number 12 goes over to help the Professor but they both end up dead on the floor. "What was the question?" Number Two demands. "It's insoluble of man or machine." Number Six answers. "What was it?" "W. H. Y. Question mark." "Why?" "Why."

I can't help but wonder why Number Six did not choose to ask the machine who Number One is. Or where the Village is. Perhaps he thought the machine would not know. Perhaps he knew that the answers didn't matter. They would certainly have been no help to him, only resulting in him knowing a bit more about where he was stuck.

Number Two was about to ask the machine a question that would have exposed Number 12, who was certainly looking very nervous. As in 'A. B. and C.' this episode ends with Number Six getting one over Number Two and the Village. There is no evidence that Number 12 was luring Number Six into a trap and Number Two's suspicion of him appeared genuine. This episode then, is the only time so far that someone else in the Village has genuinely tried to help Number Six, without having an ulterior motive. It wasn't another prisoner either - it was one of the warders. During this episode Number 12 is depicted as Number Two's right-hand man. It confirms that there are people who do want to help Number Six but nonetheless, it still really is impossible to tell who.

Be seeing you.


  1. Good review.

    This one is an unusual episode, even among unusual episodes. First, as you pointed out, it has a character who appears to be one of the faction which runs The Village yet seemingly tries to help Number 6. If true, it is an important episode which helps convince Number 6 to keep resisting. And yet I wonder if it was true, given what happened to Number 12 at the end. (Still, it's always fun to see John Castle, especially just a year or so before he filmed "The Lion in Winter" with its brilliant cast.)

    Aside from the machinations of the faction which runs The Village, the episode itself touches upon a few common trends of the era, including subliminal learning and intelligent computers. The subliminal learning was far more "sci fi" than other examples of the era. I know several places in the United States which would love that technology so their students could pass the standardized tests which were created to "ensure" the students were "learning." As Number 12 pointed out to Number 6, knowing some simple facts is not the same as understanding reasons, or even knowing ALL the facts. This is especially interesting since Number 6 wants to know ALL the facts about The Village while The Village wants to know Number 6's reasons for resigning. This latter point makes Number 6's question to The General even more pointed, because it is what The Village keeps asking HIM. And depending on how you interpret the series finale, it might have the same final result.

    As for the intelligent computer brought low by unanswerable questions, well, we've seen that a LOT in science fiction. One of the very first lessons I learned about programming computers (back in 1983 when I was learning BASIC), was to never set an operation going without a timer or loop counter to break an infinite pattern, just in case. One of the very first things I learned about electrical systems was the use of a cicruit breaker to prevent explosions. It's funny when I see genius computer builders and programmers on TV forget those simple rules ... kinda like watching the Three Stooges or the Marx Brothers trap themselves.

    One more note about The General's usefulness. Number 2 proved the uselessness of The General himself when he was giving it the facts to have The General "solve" the problem of who was helping Number 6. He gave it only the facts which would convict Number 12. The phrase "garbage in, garbage out" rings a bell. It is this expectation of a certain answer and therefore providing only certain bits of data which revealed the true weakness of the machine to Number 6. I think that's also why Number 6 didn't ask who Number 1 is. Unless, for some reason, they gave that piece of highly classified information to The General, there is no way it could know the answer.

    If you are interested in seeing the great-great-grandchild of The General, the TV show "Person of Interest" has not one but two machine intelligences which have been trained to gather LOTS of data and sift it to solve certain problems. Watching the two of them plan and counterplan shows what a properly executed computer intelligence can do, and neither of them would be stopped by something as simple as "Why?"


  2. PART TWO OF TWO (comments are apparently limited to 4096 characters and I hadn;t realized I had written so much):

    A final note on the title. Obviously, the title is the name of the computer. But by naming the computer The General (instead of The Teacher or The Thinker or The Professor) and trying to perfect it so it could teach "intelligent cabbages," it gives a glimpse into the purpose of those who run The Village. What they want to produce is a generation of good little soldiers who do what they are ordered to do. I think they had thought Number 6 was a good little soldier, and then he resigned. Something went "wrong" in his training, something that left him his rebellious streak (playing truant). They need to know WHY he resigned so they can figure out how to stop anyone else from walking away from their control.

    For all its loose, rough and ready handling of the tropes of subliminal learning and computer intelligences, I guess this episode does contain a lot of depth which still applies even today.

    Thank you again for doing these reviews.

    Be seeing you.