Prisoners of Our Own Design

Number Six promised so much: why did he fail to deliver?

Having just watched every episode of The Prisoner for the first time since 1968, I can’t escape asking an obvious question; and it’s not, “Who is Number One?” but, “Why do so many great TV series fall at the final hurdle?”

Patrick McGoohan’s iconic Cold War thriller is the ultimate example of building an audience’s expectations to fever pitch, only to dash them at the end like a missed penalty in a cup final; but it is far from being alone. Westworld is a recent case in point, missing the ball entirely in season three.

To be fair, The Prisoner was a very ambitious project. The premise was brilliant (a secret village dedicated to imprisoning and breaking those from both sides who know too much). It posed intriguing riddles over 17 episodes, drawing us in with the promise of answers. Mixing in the latest developments in surveillance and brain washing was clever but less challenging than simultaneously posing fundamental questions about individualism versus conformity. Making it also work as a surrealist plunge into our deepest psyche was a real stretch; and bringing it all together at the end, in a way that answered the riddles it had posed, was evidently too tall an order even for a near-genius like McGoohan.

Sadly, he over-steered on the surrealism so hard that he missed the goal, notoriously failing to deliver an ending that was satisfying not just in the surrealist realm but also in the real world. We have a word for that: it’s called a copout. Back in 1968, the public were enraged because he broke the implicit contract he had with them, to deliver an ending that justified the emotional and intellectual capital they had invested in trying to solve the riddle.

This doesn’t mean that you have to explain everything. Sometimes it’s better to leave the mystery unsolved. Think of Picnic at Hanging Rock. Generations of fans have gone nuts trying to work out what happened, which is a perfect result for the author. But you see, she did actually know the answer. She had not only a surrealist solution that (in my opinion) is a load of bollocks, but also a complete, real-world solution (you can Google them both). As with any good Whodunnit, the solution existed and informed the whole story, with the clues left there for the reader to find, if they looked hard enough.

McGoohan didn’t do this. He admitted as much to Lew Grade, the then head of the production company, which is one of the reasons they cut the series short.

In the case of Westworld, the issue is more basic: the writers lost sight of what the series was about. They wandered off into a confused futuristic action movie that was all image and no substance. They should have focused on the key issues that Michael Crichton raised in the original book. What makes us human? How is a human different from an AI? How would natural and artificial humans relate if they were equal? And if AI advances beyond us, what would that relationship become? I so hope that Series 4 gets back on track.

Back in The Village, I feel the need to answer the questions that were left unsatisfied back in ’68. I’m doing this just for me, so if you like it that’s great and if you don’t, I don’t really care; but by all means let me know.

Question 1: where is The Village? It’s not in the UK but in either southern Portugal, the coast of Andalusia, or Morocco. This is made clear when The Prisoner flies over it in the episode “Many Happy Returns”; and by the route they take back to London after they escape. They drop off “The Youth” on the A20 in Kent, which is the main route to London from the Channel Ports, which they must have come through after driving back across Spain and France.

Question 2: Who is Number One? I don’t mean in the surrealist realm, where it’s The Prisoner himself, but in the real world. In my version, it’s literally a number: a telephone number. Or more precisely, the operator of a bank of telephones, who passes on directives from the agencies that control the village.

Question 3: Who runs The Village? To understand this, we have to go back to its origins, which are hinted at by the writers’ inspirations. In particular, a luxury estate in Scotland where senior Nazi officers were held during WW2. It was riddled with listening devices, so that key information could be extracted from their unguarded conversations.

The POW camp that became The Village was located in one of three places that were geopolitically ideal for the purpose. At this time both Portugal and Spain were neutral countries, whose fascist regimes were tolerated by the Allies, whilst Morocco was semi-independent but under their arms-length control.

As WW2 ended and the Cold War began, the facility is retained to hold and debrief people from all backgrounds who have important information and are considered a security risk. Only a handful of people in British Intelligence know about it, plus a few in the host country. It is supported by a black budget, disguised as a convalescence facility for those with psychological disorders.

Information gleaned from the residents is found to be valuable not only to British Intelligence but also to both their allies and foes. Horse trading of information and even agents starts to take place. The Village becomes a useful place to send, debrief and assess agents who have been exchanged.

At some point around 1950, the Head of the British intelligence services dies suddenly, without having briefed a successor. The senior surviving officer who knows about The Village realises that only a handful of others share the secret, most of them his subordinates. He passes it off to the new chief as a low-level facility and begins to secure off-the-books expansion of its budget.

With its management unfettered, The Village starts to trade far more widely in information; and to offer “retirement” and interrogation services to foreign agencies. As revenues increase, so do the number of players participating. Many from behind the Iron Curtain are suborned by corruption and they conceal what is really going on from their superiors, just as the British have done. It is a European affair: no hint of American participation ever surfaces in the series.

When any lawful intelligence operative becomes suspicious, they are kidnapped and incarcerated in The Village. By the 1960s (the era of Philby, Burgess and Maclean), nearly half of the senior British intelligence staff are involved; yet they have to be careful within HQ in London because the man at the top and several of their senior colleagues are not party to the game.

At this point, The Prisoner is brought to The Village and interrogated by a succession of managers known as Number Two, drawn from the various national agencies that, knowingly or not, have agents who participate in funding, supplying and running the operation.

Question 4: What happens after The Prisoner escapes? Well, that’s where the mystery continues, into a new series that I do hope will be made, some day.

What of my original question: why do so many great TV series disappoint at the end? Sometimes the producers are simply in too much of a rush, which is mostly down to finance. Sometimes it’s a loss of nerve, like the footballer who misses the last penalty in the cup final. Occasionally, as with Game of Thrones, it’s because new writers lack the talent of the originator. But most often, as with The Prisoner, it’s the result of promising a solution to an intriguing riddle, without actually having one. For those of us who plunge into writing stories without having worked out the ending, that should provide a salutary lesson.

Upgrade Yourself

Davros, inventor of the Daleks. Not all upgrades are a good idea.

If you could upgrade your brain, what would you change?

In my forthcoming novel, an alien virus infects humanity, with an effect rather like uploading a new software version to our brains. Memory and personality are retained – we are still ourselves – but some of our capabilities are upgraded. The virus is benign: but what should it improve, to optimise us?

I would not rush for higher IQ, which is a two-edged sword. Even when not socially dysfunctional, people with MENSA level IQs walk a tightrope between being thought arrogant and wearily helping others catch up. Besides, there was a good reason for humans to evolve with varied attributes. Any upgrade must preserve variety, or lose a key advantage of the human tribe.

There are of course many types (and definitions) of intelligence. Which would you boost in yourself? Empathy and social intelligence? Sporting intelligence and the rewards it brings? Artistic intelligence and the resulting creativity?

Or would it be intelligence at all? Perhaps you’d prefer to improve some other aspect of your mental capability, like memory (but would you actually want total recall?) Would you do a Solomon and choose wisdom? Even my clever aliens would find it tough to deliver that. How about greater sensory perception? In his book Life 3.0, Max Tegmark suggests that AI-enhanced brains could vastly broaden our experiences by processing data from sensors covering e.g. more of the electro-magnetic spectrum.

In fact the electronic upgrading of our brains has already begun. Elon Musk has made characteristically bold pronouncements, on using electronic implants not only to help repair brain damage but also for communicating wirelessly without speech. This raises the prospect of human interactions becoming universal, with inbuilt language translation programs.

Any development of telepathy raises profound questions about how far we want to go. I am too individualistic to willingly merge into a hive mind. But a cloud mind, perhaps… provided we can choose what to upload. My best thoughts I want to share with the world; my worst I want to delete unseen.

Yet my alien upgrades target something different. By enhancing our ability for objective self-criticism, they improve our competence and give us a higher level of self-awareness. We need this to combat the Dunning-Kruger effect, whereby people with low ability in a task think they’re doing great.

In contrast, competent people are stern critics of their own work. That’s such a key quality for a writer that I’m probably programmed to pick it out. Even more than criticism from others, it enables writers to improve: and it underpins good and bad performance in everything from driving a car to being president.

So my choice for an upgrade is self-awareness. It’s an ability that cuts across all others, preserving the variety of the human tribe in all other respects and boosting performance in most of them.

That an alien virus might do this for us is wishful thinking: but AI may get there before we do. The ultimate choice we face may be about upgrading ourselves into a hybrid form, before autonomous AI outstrips us.

If we go hybrid, how do we avoid a split between those who want to upgrade and those who don’t? In my novel, that leads to civil war. Obviously it’s analogous to what is happening right now, in the growing war between those who revel in their ignorance and those who recognise their faults and wish to improve. In the book, The New Enlightenment wins. In reality, it hangs in the balance.

Humanity, Version 2

Marc Quinn’s sculpture, “Planet”, in Singapore

Watching the reruns of Westworld has confirmed my opinion that it’s the most intelligent television series ever made. The questions it poses, about the nature of sentient life and the point at which machine and human intelligence become indistinguishable, have been considered many times before. The best examples are probably Blade Runner and Alex Garland’s equally brilliant Ex Machina. Both morally and practically, those questions are complex and fascinating (rather like Westworld): but what lights my fire is not so much how we might one day treat androids, as the implications for our own evolution.

My limited understanding of the evolution of species leads me to believe that it mostly happens in relatively sudden bursts, with slower and more incremental changes in between. Those bursts probably have external causes (e.g. changes in the environment) rather than just the random mutations that drive a lot of the lesser advances.

In Westworld, the minds of the artificial humans start to develop independently of any human intervention. The original cause is a mix of meddling by their creators and some unforeseen malfunctions but their progress becomes self-driven. I’m not sure that this possibility has ever before been presented as such a dynamic evolutionary process. These are not really androids but a hybrid species whose minds, entirely human in origin, evolve quickly through the interplay between their own logic and some natural processes that are beyond their or anyone else’s control.

Bearing in mind that these Westworld “hosts” are reflections of us, this raises some really interesting questions about how our own human intelligence will evolve as a result of interacting with and attempting to manage artificial intelligences that are rapidly becoming greater than our own.

If ever there was a likely external cause for mankind’s next evolutionary leap, surely this is it. Will we merge with AI to create true hybrids (something that is already starting to happen)? Will we compete with AI, stimulating our own mental abilities in an effort to keep pace with the genie that we have let out of the bottle? Above all, will we come to understand the parts of our thinking that are free will, versus those that are pre-programmed, bio-chemical processes? This is the essence of the struggle that the Westworld characters go through and it lies at the core of our own existential questioning.

I can’t wait to see what the inspired script writers Nolan and Joy make of these issues in Season 3. They wound up the last season by having some key Westworld characters escape into the outside world, so they’re pretty much bound to address them. Meanwhile I’m working on related issues in my new novel, After the Event, where an alien intelligence is infecting humanity rather like a virus, upgrading us despite our best efforts to stay dumb and primitive. It’s spooky but convenient that COVID-19 is happening at the same time, providing a real-world model of how humanity tries frantically to contain the uncontrollable.

In giving birth to AI, we have done more than to create the next great leap forward in science and technology. We have produced a baby Titan that may well evolve into the next version of humanity. I can’t help thinking that it will have to be a big improvement on Homo Sapiens v1.0, if we are to survive.