Every generation gets the sci-fi paranoia it deserves. Or lately, it borrows the paranoia from a previous generation. ABC's V (the highest-rated new show of the fall) is a remake, or in the new parlance, "reimagining," of a camp-classic 1980s miniseries about an alien takeover, which used its lizards-in-human-clothing story as an allegory for the rise of Nazism.
Now AMC is entering the remake--sorry, reimagining--sweepstakes with The Prisoner (begins Nov. 15), a six-hour sprucing up of the 1967 classic that was the granddaddy of TV head trips like Lost. In the original series, creator Patrick McGoohan starred as an agent who resigns his post and is abducted and taken to the Village, a cheerfully totalitarian seaside town where everyone has a number. He becomes Six; the Village is overseen by the despotic Two. What the Village is and why it is were the (never completely resolved) questions of the fascinating 17-episode series.
The reimagined version replaces the nightmare state with the nightmare corporation. Michael (Jim Caviezel) is an analyst for Summakor, a company that collects surveillance data. After quitting his job, he wakes in a strange desert, lost and with scant memories of his past. Finding his way to the Village, he meets its superficially happy--but deeply anxious--citizens and Two (Ian McKellen), the drolly creepy leader, who is inordinately interested in Six's memories. Six suspects that the Village powers want to steal his mind. "We might," Two purrs. "But we will always give it back."
The new Prisoner keeps some of version 1.0's hallmarks, notably Rover, a balloon-like orb that patrols the Village and enforces discipline. But thematically, it at once changes very much and too little. For instance, in McGoohan's show--a Cold War story of totalitarianism--giving the Villagers numbers made chilling sense as a dehumanizing, de-individualizing device (and 40 years ago, played a tad more original). But for The Prisoner's new dystopia, which seeks to control minds more than imprison bodies, it doesn't quite fit. One would think the Village's happy-faced thought control would try to create the illusion of individuality--as with the mind-wiped servants in Joss Whedon's Dollhouse, who are given names and false identities. For all the reimagining, The Prisoner seems beholden to a 20th century idea of totalitarianism, à la 1984 or Brazil.
Aesthetically, the new Prisoner is a feast. The Village, manicured and painted in cartoon pastels, has a menacing gaiety. (The show was filmed on location in southern Africa, and it's shot through with gorgeous lemony light.) The miniseries shows flashes of surreal playfulness: the only foods served at any occasion in the Village, for instance, are wraps. (You just knew they were evil.) And the sound track is heavy on Brian Wilson's Smile, his opus begun around the time of the original Prisoner, which lends this version a dreamlike carnival tone.