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Speed Learn is an abomination. It is slavery.

The Prisoner
6. The General

We want information.

Number Six learns of a new teaching process taking the Village by storm; Speed Learn. An individual called the Professor, representing the unseen General’s department, is the face of the method. Comprehensive study courses are relayed to viewers via three-minute television broadcasts. At the end of which, an entire university history degree has been consumed. On viewing the programme, Six discovers that he too is able to reel off facts concerning European history since Napoleon.

However, it appears that all is not well with the Professor. A disillusioned Number 12 ensures that a tape recorded by the Professor, denouncing both Speed Learn and the General, comes into Six’s possession. 12 aids Six in accessing the Village broadcasting centre in order to transmit the message. Six is captured before he is able to complete this plan. He is brought before the General, who is revealed to be a huge computer. Six claims that he knows a question the omniscient machine cannot answer. When he submits the query to the General it self-destructs, killing the Professor and 12 at the same time. The question is revealed as “Why?”

So how do you like it?

The General is the first (broadcast) episode in which Six neither attempts to escape nor is subject to a plot to extract the reason(s) for his resignation. The danger with episodes that follow the standard template (either, or, or both) is that, unless the central premise or scheme is distinctive, there is a danger of predictability. To some extent, this was true of The Schizoid Man; the doppleganger motif is attention grabbing, but the actual trajectory of the storyline was a little to familiar, even only five episodes down the line. In contrast, The General is consistently intriguing, because both we, the viewers, and Six have a mystery to unravel. It might be argued that some of the devices employed date the episode, in particular the familiar ‘60s super computer plot, and that Six’s trump card is on the facile side of philosophical debate. But in underpinning of the nature of Six, the man apart who refuses to parrot off verbatim the edicts of society, it remains particularly iconic.

Two: That mass of circuits, my dear fellow, is as revolutionary as nuclear fission. No more wastage in schools, no more tedious learning by rote: a brilliantly devised course, delivered by a leading teacher, subliminally learned, checked and corrected by an infallible authority... and what have we got?
Six: A row of cabbages.
Two: Indeed. Knowledgeable cabbages.

The origins of The General are rather less expansive. Indeed, at first glance they might appear to come down to a relatively simple "old (middle-aged) man in a grump over declining standards". Lewis Griefer’s children were studying for their ‘A’ Levels and expressed their dissatisfaction at the rote learning required of them. There was no place for “any imagination or innovative thinking in what they were doing”. But Griefer wasn’t putting out a clarion call to the halcyon days of his upbringing, when kids were taught properly. If he had been, it’s unlikely his script would have progressed. One thing The Prisonercouldn’t be labelled as is reactionary; McGoohan’s thesis is less that society has descended into an abject state than a grasping at the opportunity to address its “eternal” status quo. And Griefer’s recollection of his own history lessons, force fed facts by repetition, was that it put him off the subject for 20 years, so underlining this notion. The “knowledgeable cabbages” that Six identifies (and which inform the name of this blog) are an existing aspect of society’s infrastructure. We are invited to consume “facts” without inquiry or reflection (except in the most superficial manner); the science fiction trappings of The General merely serve to present this idea in an extreme form.

Six: What sort of knowledge?
Two: For the time being, past history will have to do, but shortly we shall be making our own.

The episode doesn’t dwell on the implications of the Speed Learn technique but Two’s mention of “making our own” knowledge suggests the possibilities of mass indoctrination and brainwashing. One might see this as a reflection on current paradigms, with the sheep, or cabbages, following whatever views are supported by mainstream media and/or the government party line.

Twelve: Oh, er, what was the Treaty of Adrianople?
Six: September 1829.
Twelve: Wrong. I said "what", not "when". You need some special coaching.

The information provided is the brain equivalent of junk food; superficially processed but devoid of nourishment. There is no sustenance beneath the facts. The realisation above, as with the “Why?” of the conclusion, is sketched out on in very straightforward terms, and some may find this kind of unsubtle shifting of gears off-putting. I’d argue that it works within the playful design of The General. This is an especially witty, literate episode and it seems appropriate that the twists in a plot about a lack of understanding should rest on straightforward principles concerning perception and its lack. 

Twelve: You should enrol, Number Six. You'll find the Professor most interesting.
Six: Really?
Twelve: With an extraordinary range of knowledge.
Six: The only subject that I'm interested in is, um, getting away from this place.
Twelve: Exactly.
Six: Who are you?
Twelve: A cog... in the machine.

This is the second 12 in a row to appear in the show. In The Schizoid Man, 12 represent Six’s double, and numerically he is identified as his literal double (6+6) as well as his half (1+2). There doesn’t seem to be any underlying reasoning behind 12 being 12 here, although one might suggest that, if 12 in The Schizoid Man represents a negative reflection of Six, 12 here mirrors his positive aspects. John Castle is very good as 12, suggesting just the kind of necessary inscrutability in the first instance that keeps Six’s guard up. 

There is no reason to trust 12; almost everyone Six has encountered in the Village so far has betrayed him, either through outright intent or reluctant coercion. So it takes time to conclude that his intentions are honourable. Indeed, it isn’t until we see him in private discussion with Two, where he maintains his cover, that his it’s clear his motivations are genuine (and even then, it would not be inconceivable that Two was his objective, something we see in later episodes). 12’s concern for the greater good is ultimately the death of him, as he expires attempting to save the Professor.

This lack of clarity of motive that works in the episode’s favour; we have been forearmed to be suspicious, and whether Six is interacting with 12 or the Professor’s wife, his caution seems wholly appropriate (“I don't trust Number Two, I don't trust you, and I don't trust your tame Professor”). 12 himself remains sketchy; we learn that he has been with the Village “Quite a long time” but gain little additional insight. Is he merely passionately opposed to Speed Learn itself, or does he hold broader ideals? On that level, he might feasibly have continued as an inside man had Six successfully broadcast the Professor’s tape. The lack of backstory serves the plot as it invites distrust.

Castle perhaps never achieved the recognition he deserved. A constant fixture of supporting roles in television, his highest profile film role was probably Geoffrey in The Lion in Winter. He appeared in Blow-up the year before The Prisoner, and in I, Claudius and The New Avengers during the following decade. Other roles followed during the ‘80s and beyond, including The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Reilly: Ace of Spies and the dubious honour of an appearance in Robocop 3.

Two: I believe you took a stroll on the beach.
Six: What beach?

Number Two is that rare returnee (the only other is Leo McKern), having appeared previously in A. B. & C. The General was recorded after that episode; they were 10th and 11th respectively in shooting order. As mentioned when I discussed that story, there is an (reasonable) argument for reversing the viewing order of the stories. Here, Two is relaxed and confident; in A. B. & C. he is sweaty and put-upon. In both episodes he drinks milk, suggesting this is the same person. Against such a re-ordering is that Gordon was not the original choice for Two in this story; his performance in A. B. & C. persuaded the inspired the producers to bring him back. His character doesn’t die at the end, as per the script; another factor pointed at by proponents of viewing them in non-broadcast sequence. As I’ve said before, I don’t think continuity is nearly important enough that reshuffling the episodes is required. No, I can’t readily explain why Two has “regained” his confidence here; he is quite dismissive of his superiors, but feels the pressure to get results in A. B. & C.  Against this is Two’s comment “I have an obsession about him” (as if this is not the first time he has encountered Six). There is also his curious comment “What some of us want ultimately; to escape”; does he include himself among such minds?

Two: Tell me, are you still as keen as ever to leave us.
Six: Any more questions?

Six is enjoyably impertinent throughout, displaying a well-rehearsed approach of professing ignorance or answering questions with questions. The General gives McGoohan a series of classic moments. His precise, staccato delivery is well served in a script that at several points sees Six interrogating Villagers (who respond with verbatim regurgitations of the Napoleonic facts).

This is also an episode where, albeit guided substantially by 12, Six finds himself in a (relatively) winning position. Obviously, he remains a captive come the closing prison bars but, as with A. B. & C. (and the later Hammer Into Anvil), we experience not only the pleasure of our protagonist being the smartest man in the village but also seeing him prove it. This manifests both with his ultimate insoluble question and during earlier encounters with the Professor’s wife.

Six: You should take greater care of him ma’am. I’m afraid he’s gone to pieces.

The lack of clarity of motive in respect of 12 is also found with the wife (Bette McDowall). During his first encounter with her Six takes relish in dissecting any pronouncements she makes regarding the efficacy of art therapy (another example of Six taking to task female characters with borderline brutality) and her pseudo-intellectual readings of artistic expression. Six is on the offensive towards his perceived gaolers, and he does so with precise relish. His (rather good) drawing of the Professor’s wife in a general’s uniform elicits a contemptuous response when she tears it in half, but even then Six gets the last laugh (“Oh, creation out of destruction?”); he knows just how to push her buttons.

Professor’s Wife: Well, what exactly are you looking for?
Six: What are we all looking for?

Given her first appearance, on a TV screen filling in for the AWOL Professor, his wife’s behavious is ambiguous. She may just be the necessary peacemaker. It is only towards the end that Two spells it out, when he says “She’d talk him into anything to keep him alive”. Before this Six confronts her at home, culminating in his smashing in the face of the fake professor lying in bed. At this point, her role of “sleeping with the enemy” appears to be confirmed. The busts she has made include Two and a rather fearsome Six, and it’s this model work that puts him on to the fake Professor (“I’m afraid he’s made a bit of a mess of your masterpiece” says Two). It’s not entirely clear why a bed-bound shell of the Professor was necessary, except as an impressive set piece for Six (a distraction in case of any who would attempt to assassinate him?)

Two: People love him, they’ll take anything from him. It’s the image, you see, that’s important. The kindly image.

We barely see the Professor (Peter Howell), other than as a figurehead, or legging it down the beach; he is very much the public face of mind control, not dissimilarly to the Controller in Doctor Who’s The Macra Terror(broadcast the same year) We hear his tape recorded opinions, that “Speed Learn is an abomination. It is slavery”. Later, Twelve mentions that the Professor favours  “the freedom to learn” and “the liberty to make mistakes”, but when we finally encounter him at the climax he barely utters two words. The focus is on the General, and the revelation that he is an artificial construct. In fairness, there probably isn’t a great deal we could learn about the Professor; his is the classic Frankenstein role, creating a monster that gets out of control. However, if there’s a warning about unchecked technological advances in the mix, it is strictly secondary. The same is true of the militaristic overtones (history lessons are always about conflict, and the General himself is just a simple shorthand of authoritarian rank albeit inviting comparison with Napoleon and unthinking obedience to the dictator).

Announcer: And so, ladies and gentlemen, we come to the end of another successful edition of Speed Learn. Our thanks to the Professor, and our congratulations to the General. Goodnight to you all. Sweet dreams.

Director Peter Graham Scott devised the now much-ridiculed The Onedin Line (which managed to run for nearly a decade). His most celebrated work is probably on Children of the Stones, a highly imaginative mid-70s children’s’ series set around Avebury (he followed it with another well-regarded kids’ show, Into the Labyrinth). Prior to The Prisoner, he directed a several Danger Man episodes with McGoohan, and a handful for The Avengers too. His work here is as stylish as one would expect of the series. 

Particularly arresting are the contributions to Village fashion, the top hat and sunglasses ensemble of the Speed Learn committee. It’s this stylistic clash between the modern and the traditional that continues to make the series so distinctive. The Professor’s broadcast is also notable; we see the Professor’s face and the camera zooms into his left eye, accompanied by suitably offbeat sound effects. The second time we see this, we are also privy to the Sublimator flashing and whirring (the device for transmitting the lecture).

Two: What was the question?
Six: It's insoluble, for man or machine.
Two: What was it?
Two: W. H. Y. Question mark.
Six: Why?
Six: Why?
Two: ... Why?

The climax to The General does have a whiff of that Star Trek device, where the alien/machine is outwitted as a result of its lack of human emotions/foibles, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. We’ve seen it used less effectively since (Azal failing to comprehend the power of love in Doctor Who’s The Daemons) and riffed on for absurd ends (Deep Thought in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). It works in context here because it is thematically neat.

The General takes the expansive and inquiring mind as a prerequisite to learning. Six’s mistake of confusing what and when early in the episode now finds focus in the overriding why, a question organised society shows little interest in entertaining. Although this is an “external” episode, one not predicated on attempts to fracture or corrupt Six’s mind, it more than exemplifies why Six, the unmutual, is such a vital character.


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