EVENT | TV Times – The Prisoner: Checkmate

Photo: Number 6 (Patrick McGoohan) and Number 2 (Peter Wyngarde) in Checkmate

To count down to our special screening of Fall Out, the final episode of ace television show The Prisoner, PHIL KIRBY introduces a new episode every day in the order outlined by director Alex Cox in his book I Am (Not) A Number…

Tonight’s episode is Checkmate …

Number 6 participates in a game of chess using villagers instead of chess pieces. New to the Village, he continues to attempt to fathom which of the villagers are warders and which are inmates like himself. Enlisting the help of another prisoner (Number 58), Number 6 hatches an elaborate, surefire plan of escape involving purloined electrical parts and a boat. What could possibly go wrong?

Checkmate is a favourite with a lot of Prisoner fans. The giant board with selected Villagers becoming chess pieces makes one of the most visually interesting episodes, and the script is sharper than Peter Wyngarde’s sideburns. But for me the story line isn’t half as interesting as what’s gone before.

The previous Number Two’s have all been keen to win Number Six over, get him to willingly give them information, or at least admit defeat. The Number Two in Free For All, in conversation with Number One on the telephone (at least we assume it’s Number One he’s talking to) divulges that Number Six is vital to their “important project.” The Number Two in Arrival even extends the possibility that Number Six could rise to a “position of authority” in the village. But the Number Two of Checkmate just wants him to settle down, be happy, and stop causing bother.

This Number Two never asks the reason for that all-important resignation. And this Number Two doesn’t take advice or admonishment from Number One. This is the only episode I think where Number One plays no role at all. Which creates a very different dynamic.

In fact the only time Number One is mentioned is right at the beginning, in the chess scene, directly after this conversation.

No.8: His ancestors are supposed to have played chess with their retainers. They say they were beheaded as they were wiped off the board.
No.6: Charming.
No.8: Oh, don’t worry. That’s not allowed here.

In their first meeting Number Two asks, “Enjoy your chess yesterday?”
No.6: Don’t tell me you care.
No.2: Well, of course. We want you to be happy.
No.6: Fine. Just, erm, give me a one way ticket home.
No.2: Won’t you ever give up!
No.6: What do you think?
No.2: You know you are wrong. We have ways. If you drive us to them.
No.6. I can imagine.
No.2: It’s all done under the strictest medical supervision.

Later, exactly what “the strictest medical supervision” means becomes clear.

1st Psychiatrist: Ah, as I thought.
No.2: What?
1st Psychiatrist: Aggressive tendencies. My advice would be a leucotomy to knock out these centres in the brain.

Number Two’s reaction isn’t entirely convincing: “I’m sure we can help him adjust without such drastic treatment.”

According to a Dr Peter Wingate in the 1976 edition of The Penguin Medical Encyclopedia, summarising the state of medical science at around the time The Prisoner was filmed, a lobotomy/leucotomy is

A surgical operation devised in 1935 by Egas Moniz (1874-1955), a Portugese neurosurgeon, for the relief of certain severe and progressive mental disturbances. The nerve cells of the prefrontal lobes at the very front of the brain are disconnected from the rest of the brain by cutting the underlying fibres… Since brain tissue cannot heal, the operation is irrevocable. People who have had it have altered personalities…

A leucotomy is basically what became of beheading after centuries of progress, progress, progress.

Lobotomy was perfected in America by Dr Walter Freeman who called it, “surgically induced childhood” and in an unpublished memoir described how the “personality of the patient was changed in some way in the hope of rendering him more amenable to the social pressures under which he is supposed to exist.”

The original idea for the lobotomy came from research into primates who displayed “frustrational behaviour” when deprived of bananas if they didn’t get a test result right. The researchers found that cutting a chimps cortex changed its personality to such an extent that the researchers joked they were accused of setting up “a happiness cult.”

Whoever was doing the research for The Prisoner had done their homework.

Psychiatrist 1 proved she would have no moral qualms finding Number Six’s “breaking point” after psychologically torturing Number 58 early in the episode, then using an experimental tracking device on Number 8, which she says was developed from research into “transmitters wired into dolphin brains.”

There was an actual experiment fitting this description done in the early ‘60s by a guy called John C. Lilly, an icon of the counter-culture. He fitted some transmitters into dolphin brains, lobotomised the occasional dolphin, gave the lucky dolphins LSD… and then some really weird shit went on.

But in terms of standard ‘60s psychosurgery, the poor monkeys had it even worse than the dolphins.

Amusingly the guy who carried out this experiment wrote a book published in 1969 called Physical Control of the Mind: Toward a Psychocivilized Society.

He would have approved of The Village, and exemplary psychocivilised society.

Number Two throughout this episode expresses his moral outrage at the human cost of such “medical supervision”.

Don’t tell me,” he sneers at Number Two as they observe the poor Rook undergoing non-consenting operant conditioning, “this hurts you more than it hurts him.”

There are plenty of lighter moments and some good jokes in this episode. Any time Peter Wyngarde appears and says “hello” a thousand fallen angels are released from hell.

And the scene where Number Eight sneaks into Number Six’s kitchen while he’s brushing his teeth to make him a cup of hot chocolate – humming Pop Goes The Weasel – is a great set piece. Just watch McGoohan go from incomprehension to annoyance to outrage to concern to charm in the space of fifty seconds… and end it with a gag.

No.8: May I see you again?
No.6: Oh yes, I’m… here all the time.

Checkmate ends a little predictably – we all guessed The Polotska was one of theirs, Number Two was always in control, and that Six’s fellow conspirators would let him down.

You only have yourself to blame.

My choice of bonkers moment in Checkmate, bearing no relation to anything at all is … This Number 2 has leisure time, and we are shown what he does with it…

Read about previous episode Free For All here.

theCV presents The Prisoner Fall Out plus a Q and A with Six of One’s Ant Brierly and Roy Stambrow moderated by Phil and Neil (God help us!) at The Courtroom, Leeds Town Hall at 19.00 on Friday 25th May 2018. Tickets are £5 (plus booking fee) and are available here.