Friday, May 27, 2011
Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 7 (The Prisoner, You Only Live Twice)
Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea is a recurring feature in which things that are not Doctor Who are looked at in terms of their relation to Doctor Who. Today we look at two classics of British spy fiction from 1967, the James Bond film You Only Live Twice and the ITV television series The Prisoner.
Well this is certainly a bit of an awkward pairing. I mean, never before has "Well, do both of the espionage things you need to do in one entry" seemed like quite so staggering a task. They may both feature secret agents, be British, and be from 1967, but that's about where the similarities between James Bond in You Only Live Twice and The Prisoner end.
Let's start with Bond, since that's the one that's kind of long overdue in this blog. The thing to note regarding You Only Live Twice is that it is a movie that expects nothing out of its audience. It would be easy to describe this as having a sort of cynical contempt for its audience, but it's more complex than that. It is not as though the movie thinks little of its audience and thus concludes that it can be lazy. No, the movie thinks little of its audience and then goes out of its way to please them.
There's something almost giddily entertaining about the movie's complete lack of irony. Later James Bond movies would begin to poke fun at the series' tropes, using things like Bond's refined tastes for comedic scenes. But this movie is caught in a bizarre midpoint in the franchise. It's well established enough that everybody knows that Bond likes vodka martinis (though here he seems quite pleased to get one stirred) and is a rakish womanizer. But it's not well enough established to play Bond complimenting his host on the choice of vodka or describing at some length the proper temperature for sake to be served at for laughs. Instead these scenes are presented with a sort of earnest conviction that the audience really just wants to see Sean Connery explaining the proper presentation of sake. And apparently, given how the movie did, they were right.
But perhaps the most astonishing thing about You Only Live Twice is its structure. When some of the production documents for the first Indiana Jones movie leaked onto the Internet a few years back, one of the things people excitedly pointed at was the fact that Spielberg and Lucas talked explicitly about using the structure of a serial and putting a cliffhanger in at regular intervals. This is indeed a clever trick, but for some reason people seemed to think that Lucas and Spielberg were the first people to think of it, as opposed to the first people to have their discussion about it leaked onto the Internet. Because once you're past the opening credits sequence of You Only Live Twice, with very few exceptions, the movie is structured as a serial comprised of five minute episodes.
Almost like clockwork, every five minutes, Bond is plunged into terrible danger. (And on the first five minute mark where he isn't, he's plunged into bed with an attractive Asian woman instead) The movie is basically just a string of plot exposition and motivation that links together the action sequences. A given five minute stretch of the movie will almost always consist of Bond getting out of trouble, discussing the trouble he just got out of with someone, discussing what they should do next, going to do it, and then getting threatened by something so that the next five minutes can begin with him getting out of trouble.
This is not actually a bad thing. I mean, yes, two hours of it can be a little draining, and you start to wonder about anyone who just marathons these films or sees any significant depth to them, but as attempts to cram extravagant set pieces together go, this is quite good. Yes, watching it in 2011 involves identifying whichever portion of your brain engages in any feminist or racial/cultural criticism of media and clubbing it until it falls silent forevermore, but if you judiciously apply some Tomb of the Cybermen topically before watching, you can fall into a sort of pleasant ethical numbness in which it's possible to actually enjoy yourself.
(You know, because this is a Pop Between Realities post where I feel more comfortable taking a bit of a wander, let's actually pause here and give a sort of definitive statement on ethically dubious media, whether past or present. I tend to come down pretty hard on racism and sexism in Doctor Who, including in spots where other people would defer. I've had comments defending both Kemel and Toberman recently, for instance. So I'll make a couple of quick comments. First of all, I don't think that there's really much of any "tropes of the genre" defense that justifies having a mute black strongman. Yes, mute black strongmen are tropes of a lot of genres. That's why they're offensive stereotypes. You don't get to "offensive stereotype" without going through "common element of a lot of stories" first. We'd be in far better shape, frankly, if there were more mute Jewish strongmen and more scheming and selfish black men in television. That's what racism is most of the time. It's not all white-hooded KKK members and Enoch Powell shouting about rivers of blood. It's people getting so inured to things that they stop being capable of noticing on their own that the only times they put a black man on the show are when they need a mute strongman. I don't think Davis and Pedler wrote Toberman in while cackling about how this will put black people in their place. I think they wrote him in, along with the rest of the residents of Shiftystan, without even managing to string the thought "Gee, what are we saying about foreigners here" together. Racism, like most forms of discrimination, isn't about conscious malice, but about unconscious failures to even notice that there's a problem. More often than not, discrimination is just a particular flavor of stupidity.
Second, yes, sometimes I give a pass on discrimination and sometimes I don't. Usually it comes down to whether there's something else to look at. I can deal with Kemel better than Toberman because with Kemel I can look at the other good, intelligent parts of Evil of the Daleks. Kemel is a racist note in an otherwise fantastic story. Toberman is a racist note in a lazily written, poorly plotted story. And if my tone regarding the overt sexism and orientalism of You Only Live Twice sounds like damning with faint praise, it is. When a movie is aspiring to nothing more than some action and thrills, ethical failings are a bigger problem than they are in a movie that's mostly accomplishing something subtle and interesting. I can set aside racism to look at interesting explorations of humanity much more easily than I can to look at a car chase. Or, put in the bluntest terms, racism mixed in with good bits is better than racism mixed in with mediocre or bad bits.
Which is to say that racism [or any other discriminatory ism] is not some horrific stain that ruins everything it touches forever. It's just a thing humans do that's shitty. Treating racism either as something that we should just give otherwise good things a pass on or as something that taints something beyond all redemption is a bad approach. If nothing else, I, along with every reader of this blog, at some point, has stupidly blundered into a racist or discriminatory act. And unless we die very soon, we will do so again. When we do, we should accept the criticism and work to do better in the future. But we should also take care to judge the failures of others by the same standards. Which means neither flinching from the criticism nor rejecting the laudatory parts of something because of a racist bit.)
So that was a three paragraph long parenthetical, wasn't it? Eesh. Where were we? Oh yes. So You Only Live Twice is basically an extremely well produced chain of action sequences full of crass racism and cultural imperialism. Two things about this are important for our purposes. First, for everything I've complained about in Doctor Who recently, it could be a lot worse. The show may be in a rut, but it's still miles more ambitious than just phoning in action sequences for their own sake, and it's still got a moral center. Second, and this may sound obvious, but there's a difference between the stylistic bits of the 1960s and the moral/philosophical bits. You Only Live Twice is unmistakably made in the 1960s - you can tell just by looking at it. But its debt to the 1960s is only in its sense of what's cool.
Here it might be most instructive to compare it to The Abominable Snowmen. Both stories pick east Asian settings because they're cool and trendy right now. But in You Only Live Twice, this is used as an excuse to see James Bond enjoy the luxurious decadences of Japan, in particular the women. In The Abominable Snowmen, on the other hand, the Doctor is used to give a real moral force to the viewpoints of the Asian culture in question. Or, on a very broad level, the sort of hero you have matters - there's always going to be something a little more in tune with 60s youth culture about a mischievous vagabond than there is about a government employee who's frequently referred to by his ID number.
Speaking of people who are numbers, he said, in a desperate attempt at a transition, let's talk about The Prisoner. On the surface, The Prisoner is an ITC serial, ITC being a production company that turned out legions of serials, both good and bad, over the 60s and 70s, often with an eye on the export market, in sufficient volume and formulaicness to constitute a genre unto itself. But amongst their massive output were several shows of legendary quality - including, oddly enough, The Muppet Show. One of the shows that was not quite legendary but was still quite good was called Secret Agent or Danger Man, depending on where you lived. When that series ended, its star, Patrick McGoohan, moved on to another series partially of his own devising called The Prisoner, in which a nameless secret agent (assumed by many to be his previous character) quits, is kidnapped, and is sent to a strange and mysterious island where he is referred to only as "Number Six." There they try to break him and get him to explain why he quit, and he, for seventeen episodes, refuses. The result is seventeen episodes of surreal psychedelia that are widely regarded as one of the best television series ever.
Far too much of the praise for The Prisoner is reserved for its final episode, "Fall Out." It's not that the final episode is bad by any stretch of the imagination. It's just that the final episode is, bewilderingly for anyone who's watched the thing, treated as though its focus is the scene in which Number Six pulls off the mask of Number One and discovers his own face behind the mask. While this scene does happen, it's worth considering how it actually plays out. First of all, his own face is the third face of Number One he sees - Number One is first seen wearing a black and white mask of the sort that all the people running the Village are wearing in this episode. Then, when Six pulls off that mask, he's wearing a gorilla mask. After that mask is uncovered Number One looks at Six with his own face, but the total number of seconds we see it on screen is negligible - it's barely possible to see that it's Number Six. At that point, the two fight briefly and Number One runs off.
The point, in other words, is not that Number Six was Number One all along. It's certainly not, as some people oddly insist, that the famous opening credits of The Prisoner have been giving the ending away all along. (Although read as a script the exchange "Who is Number One?" "You are Number Six" could be interpreted as providing an answer to the question - "You are (Number One), Number Six," as delivered the emphasis is unambiguously such that the line is identifying Number Six by his number, not covertly giving the game away) In fact, the point of the final episode is precisely to avoid any sort of sensible explanation of what is going on. The episode makes no sense, weaving its way through a sort of trial sequence straight out of Eastern European absurdism, plenty of psychedelia, and a basically meaningless and borderline impossible resolution. Those who view the entire final episode as a delusional dream in the style of Brazil (the closest thing to a film adaptation of The Prisoner we are ever likely to see) are on far more plausible footing than most, but the fact of the matter is, it's tough to assume anyone involved in making that episode was making it with the intention that there was some sort of clear or definite answer as to what was going on. It wasn't supposed to make sense, and if you think it did, you definitely did it wrong.
No. As good as the finale is, the show is far more interesting when it's not cranking the weirdness all the way to eleven. This is the thing anyone coming to the show for the first time will notice. Sit down with The Arrival on the basis of its reputation alone and you'll get about twenty minutes of Patrick McGoohan wandering around a holiday camp. In fact, it seems right on target for just remaking The Macra Terror. Then the booming voice organizing things orders everyone to stop. Patrick McGoohan looks intently and panickedly at a fountain, in which... a small white orb is floating?
Nothing quite prepares you for this. Even if you know that The Prisoner features a big white balloon that is the Village's security system, there is absolutely nothing that prepares you for actually seeing Rover. The camera cuts back to McGoohan doing a double take, and suddenly there it is - a giant white balloon that chases a man down, asphyxiates him, then bounds cheerily away. And all that can really be said is that there has never, before or possibly since, been anything quite like this on television. And when we finally get the bewildering spectacle of Patrick McGoohan trying to fight with Rover... look, let's just come out and say it. The Prisoner manages to make a weather balloon look scarier than Doctor Who in 1967 had ever managed by throwing money at the problem. This is the moment where The Prisoner definitively beats out The Macra Terror. The Macra Terror had to do not entirely well made giant crabs in order to evoke the same terror that The Prisoner accomplishes via the most laughably silly looking prop ever. And the Prisoner was scarier.
This is where The Prisoner is most effective - when it's closest to Secret Agent territory. The show's excursions into full-out psychedelia are lovely, but nothing compared to what was already increasingly passing for mainstream entertainment. The Beatles' TV movie for Magical Mystery Tour aired almost smack in the middle of this, and was miles further down the rabbit hole. Yellow Submarine, the same thing only done well, is only a few months out. Plenty of things had the psychedelia base covered better than The Prisoner. No, where The Prisoner was always more interesting were in moments where it looked like a fairly normal spy show and then allowed its strange psychedelic elements to encroach on business as usual.
Once this is understood, the show becomes far easier to grasp. Even its ostensibly flashy and weird episodes - things like Living in Harmony, in which the show abruptly and with no explanation reboots itself as a Western only to have The Prisoner intrude on the western about five minutes from the end. The biggest problem came when people misunderstood this structure and expected that, eventually, all the spy stuff would have a James Bondy explanation. "Fall Out," far from being the peak of the series, was just the series telling those people off.
Still, we should note, perhaps with some pride, that the idea of bizarre genre juxtapositions in a vaguely psychedelic sci-fi show has some antecedents in British television, namely Doctor Who. Yes, if we look at the dates we can get a pretty good guess that maybe Ian Stuart Black had heard a bit about this project when he wrote The Macra Terror (Interviews with McGoohan talking about having filmed most of the series exist in April of 1966, so far as I can tell), cutting off the most obvious influence. But on the other hand, does Living in Harmony, in which the awkward juxtaposition of a classic British genre (the James Bond genre that The Prisoner is still living within) and the American Western is used, not owe at least some debt to The Gunfighters, which did the exact same joke in late 1966, right around when it could have influenced The Prisoner?
Once we look at it that way, other similarities show up. The Rescue, for instance, is far closer to the plot of an episode of The Prisoner than anybody bothers to give it credit for. The absurd presentationalist techniques of The Web Planet are absolutely crucial to how The Prisoner works (build up an utterly insane world and then spend time in it without anyone acting like this is at all strange). And one can vaguely imagine that if The Celestial Toymaker had been made with its original having-a-point script that it would have been firmly in Prisoner territory. Even The Chase, in inadvertently inventing postmodernist narrative techniques through sheer incompetence, seems to be paving the way for The Prisoner to come along.
But all of this points to a somewhat disturbing possibility. All of the examples we've used of ways in which Doctor Who seems to lead towards The Prisoner, with the exception of The Macra Terror, which we are now forced to conclude was probably (brilliantly) nicked from The Prisoner, are from William Hartnell stories. The Prisoner, when it started airing, was a far more intelligent and mature successor to William Hartnell's Doctor Who than Doctor Who was, even with its enormously talented lead actor. And this is a bit of a tough thing to celebrate. On the one hand, we Doctor Who fans can, in seeing The Prisoner, know how cutting edge our show was in the years leading up to it. On the other hand, we're forced to admit here that our show has been left in the dust, and has a lot of catching up to do.
You Only Live Twice and The Prisoner are available on DVD, with UK versions available here and here. Buying from any of those links provides the site with a nice kickback that helps keep the lights on while I blog.