The Prisoner: The General (1967)

Country: United Kingdom
Director: Peter Graham Scott
Starring: Patrick McGoohan, Colin Gordon, John Castle, Peter Howell, Betty McDowall, Al Mancini, Angelo Muscat
Music: Ron Grainer, Robert Farnon, Wilfred Josephs, Albert Elms

One of the re-occurring motifs of each episode of The Prisoner television series are the continual attempts to break No. 6 (Patrick McGoohan) and find out why he resigned from the secret service. What the guardians of the Village want is for No. 6 to conform and behave like the other citizens in the Village. The want to strip him of his individualism. Outside the Village, in society, is there any other institution that programs people for life in polite society like a school. At school you are told how and when to do set tasks. These skills that you learn are designed to set you up as a useful member of society. But if you don’t conform, you are branded a trouble maker or a problem-child. Any display of walking to the beat of your own drum is discouraged.

The General is an episode that features a gimmick called ‘Speed Learn’. Presented by a man calling himself The Professor, Speed Learn is a revolutionary educational technique that has the citizens of the Village learning a three year university course in three minutes. The problem is though, that each of the Villagers have learnt the same information parrot fashion, and they regurgitate it back to each other word for word. They all know the same thing and they say the same thing. Each Villager is being sculpted into a clone of each other with no independent thought.

This episode begins with the Villagers all rushing back to their lodgings to tune in, on their television sets to The Professor’s latest ‘Speed Learn’ history course. No. 6, however, is not so keen to participate, so he goes for a stroll on the beach. While there he witnesses The Professor trying to escape from the Village. As he runs, he loses a tape recorder on the beach. No. 6 finds the recorder and before he can be seen be the ever vigilant ‘eyes’ that are watching the Village, he buries it under some sand. Meanwhile The Professor is captured by The Village’s guardians and escorted back so he can give his lecture. No. 6 too, returns to his home and tunes into the broadcast. On the television screen is an image of The Professor, but underneath, subliminally, a history lesson is being pumped out to the masses.

Later No. 2 (Colin Gordon) pays a call on No.6 and queries him about The Professor’s missing recorder. No. 6 claims no knowledge. No. 2 then follows up with a query about Speed Learn, to which No.6 replies that he didn’t participate – but hen realises that he has an encyclopedic recall of Napoleonic era history.

That evening, No. 6 sneaks out of his home and makes him way to the beach and to where he hid the recorder. He listens to the tape and hears the voice of The Professor. He hears the message that The Professor really wanted to broadcast that day. Not a lesson about history, but a warning. A warning that Speed Learn is an abomination and must be destroyed. Speed Learn is controlled by a master computer called The General. The Professor insists that The General must be destroyed.

Speed Learn is nothing more than an elaborate brainwashing project controlled by a computer. The Professor is just the public face. He is required simply because his face is kindly and inspires trust, rather than any academic or intellectual qualities he may have. Teaming up with No. 12, who may (or may not) be working with No. 2, No. 6 devises a plan to break into the computer area and broadcast The Professor’s original transmission. Unfortunately, before No. 6 can transmit the truth, he is captured and brought before No. 2 for questioning. No.2 wants to find out how he got into the control centre. Of course, No. 6 is a man who is not easy to break. But no matter, No. 2 has at his side The General – a master computer that can provide the solution to any problem. or can it?

The General is a fantastic episode of The Prisoner and like so many sixties shows – such as The Alphaville, Billion Dollar Brain, and 2001: A Space Odyssey it questions our faith, trust and optimism of a computer controlled future. You know I love the internet as much as the next guy, but sometimes when my screen is clogged up with an unending series of pop-ups, or when my email inbox is bursting with emails suggesting that I can ‘still be a tiger in the bedroom’ if I buy viagra from them, I wonder if No. 6 was right. Did we really did learn anything from these fantastic and still relevant shows. Should The General be destroyed?

The screencaps used in this post have been taken from the Prisoner Online gallery.

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