The Prisoner: Checkmate (1967)

Country: United Kingdom
Director: Don Chaffey
Starring: Patrick McGoohan, Peter Wyngarde, Ronald Radd, Patricia Jessel, Rosalie Crutchley, Angelo Muscat
Music: Ron Grainer

The Prisoner is so much more than this overview of one episode in the series can convey. But to put it simply, The Prisoner is a psychedelic super spy series. Patrick McGoohan plays an unnamed secret agent who for no apparent reason resigns from the service. Some people have suggested that McGoohan’s character is in fact John Drake the secret agent from the Danger Man (Secret Agent in U.S.) series but his name is never mentioned. No sooner has he arrived at home, when he is knocked out with gas. He wakes up a captive in a strange village (called ‘The Village’), and labeled as Number 6. He is unsure if it is run by the enemy or his own side. Only seventeen episodes were made (and originally only sixteen were shown on television).

The reason for choosing this episode to review is simple…once again it’s our old friend Peter Wyngarde. In Checkmate, he plays Number 2, the controller of The Village – the man chosen to find out why Number 6 resigned from the service. The other thing you should know is that Number 2 is played by a different actor every week (with the exception of Leo McKern – but that’s another story).

The episode starts with ‘Rover’ on patrol. For the uninitiated, ‘Rover’ is a giant balloon that acts as a sentry at ‘The Village’. If a prisoner tries to escape, ‘Rover’ jumps on them, almost suffocating them – the rubber surface stretching across their face. It’s very difficult to describe in words – let’s just say that ‘Rover’ is not a beast that you want to tangle with; and when ‘Rover’ is in the vicinity, most of the prisoners freeze like statues until he has passed. Well that’s what happens here. All the villagers freeze, except for one (Ronald Radd) who continues walking. Number 6 watches and notices this bold fellow who refuses to conform like the other members of ‘The Village’. Number 6 thinks he may have found an ally. So, Number 6 follows the man which leads him to a giant chess board in the centre of town. All the pieces on the chess board are played by members of ‘The Village’. Number 6 takes up a position on the board as the Queen’s pawn, while the man he was following becomes a ‘Rook’. As the chess game is played out, the Rook becomes agitated, and moving out of turn he runs to the other side of the board.

‘The Village’ is under constant surveillance. Cameras and recording equipment are strategically located everywhere so the inhabitants of ‘The Village’ can be watched day and night. Number 2 witnesses the Rook’s non-conformity – refusing to play the game the correct way. He sends an ambulance to the town centre to collect the Rook to take him to hospital for an attitude re-adjustment.

The next day, Number 2 pays a visit on Number 6 and enquires how he is settling into ‘The Village’. In return Number 6 enquires about the wellbeing of the Rook. Number 2 assures him that he is being well taken care of and offers to take Number 6 to hospital to see him. Number 6 agrees. At the hospital, the Rook is locked in a room with a giant glass viewing window. When he wakes up, he is incredibly thirsty, and sees three large water dispensers in the room. He quickly rushes to the nearest one and turns the tap, only to receive an electric shock. Still thirsty and confused he does not know what to do. Finally a voice over a speaker says that he may approach the blue water dispenser and drink. Warily the Rook does. The barbaric brainwashing was taught the Rook to conform.

The brainwashing program is being initiated by the hospital administrator, simply known as 1st Psychiatrist (Patricia Jessel). The Rook isn’t her only experiment on the inhabitants of ‘The Village’. She also has a plan for the Queen (Rosalie Crutchley) from the chess game. The Queen is hypnotised, and is told that she loves Number 6, and he in turn loves her. She is told that she that she must remain as close to Number 6 as she can, and must not allow him to escape or she will lose him forever. A transmitter, disguised as a locket is hung around her neck. Whenever she is in Number 6’s vicinity her heart rate goes up, and this acts as a locator beacon.

As always, while all this is going on, Number 6 is hatching a new plan to escape, but he needs people he can trust to help him. Now that’s the hard part, because not all of the inhabitants of ‘The Village’ are prisoners. Half of them are Guardians – but who is who? He works out that if he orders the other prisoners around and they are submissive, then most likely a prisoner. But if they oppose his authority (non-existent as it is) then they are most likely Guardians. So once Number 6 has sifted the wheat from the chaff, he sets about putting his plan in motion with a little help from the not-so-adjusted Rook who used to be an electronic expert.

This episode of The Prisoner is juxtaposed against a game of chess. Chess has often been a metaphor in spy films and television shows, representing a battle of wits between two opponents. Some of the more memorable chess motifs are in the films From Russia With Love, Deadlier Than The Male, and how could I forget The Thomas Crown Affair inspired sequence in Austin Powers: the Spy Who Shagged Me (No, really – how can I forget it!) In TV shows the chess motif has been just as prevalent, noticeable in The Avengers: Lobster Quadrille and of course here in The Prisoner. I am sure you can think of others.

Peter Wyngarde is surprisingly restrained as Number 2. Number 2 is a character (or has been portrayed by various actors as a character) with a propensity to rant and rave. This is usually because they have a deadline to ‘break’ Number 6 and the clock is ticking, and Number 6 refuses to show any signs of conformity. But Wyngarde plays Number 2 as quite restrained and humane – the implied barbarity is shifted off onto the character of the 1st Psychiatrist. Wyngarde’s only moment of overt flamboyance comes when his karate practice session is interrupted with news of Number 6’s escape. Number 2 takes out his frustration on a plank of wood.

The Prisoner is a very special show, and depending on your viewpoint (the final episode gets a mixed reaction), there are no bad episodes, but if I had to rate the episode from most enjoyable to least enjoyable (I refuse to say best to worst), then Checkmate would fall in the bottom half of the list. Like I said, there are no bad episodes in The Prisoner, but this one seems like a bit of an also ran, and Peter Wyngarde is a rather ineffectual Number 2. But I am sure each viewer has their own personal favourites – mine happen to be The Schizoid Man and The Girl Who Was Death.

Be seeing you!

The screencaps used in this post have been taken from the website Hellfire Hall: A tribute to Peter Wyngarde and the Prisoner Online gallery.

1 Comment Posted in Television
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One Comment

  1. Very good! I love The Prisoner, despite only being 17 it’s my favourite TV show. I thought it was a great summary you wrote, just one complaint, albeit very small, the man he follows at the beginning doesn’t become the Rook, he is the man giving orders to the pieces. I really liked this episode and would place it in my top 5! My favourite is Hammer Into Anvil followed by Dance of the Dead but there are no episodes I don’t like. Be seein’ you! S Devine

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