Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Last Orders Please...

Here's something about me: I like putting things in order. (By which, I don't mean I'm some sort of vigilante, nor do I correct historical events like Sam Beckett out of Quantum Leap.) If you've followed any of my online activities, you'll see that I devote an awful lot of time to devising sequences for things. Doctor Who – The Complete Adventures is obviously the most extreme example of this, and you may also have seen my suggested re-sequencing of the episodes of Space: 1999. This is a borderline autistic tendency of mine, and it can be seen in the way I place any two related items together – as the book and DVD shelves in my home would bear witness. Everything is carefully arranged in a very precise order, which may not be the more obvious alphabetical or publication orders, but instead reflect my personally preferred reading or viewing orders. The shelves are also divided and sub-divided into numerous sections, grouped variously by medium, genre, director, studio, nationality – all dependent upon a complex formula I keep in my head. It bewilders many, but it makes perfect sense to me, and I know instantly where anything might be.

Well, that's an insight into my peculiar mind. But I want to return to the subject of tv shows and their running orders – and reflect on just how I first got started with that. I personally think that any tv show without a continuing storyline is fair game for a re-sequencing. Mainly this applies to the sort of genre shows that used to populate American television: cop shows, spy shows, sci-fi shows and so on. Now, in most cases, you get a new story every week, the status quo is restored by the end of the episode, there's no continuity to speak of and no consequences. And for most people, myself included, watching such shows in any broadcast order is just fine – Kojak or The Incredible Hulk or The Man from U.N.C.L.E. or The Six Million Dollar Man work in just about any order – although it's probably best to watch the episodes in each season as separate blocks, as cast and format changes usually occur at the season breaks, and occasionally you get sequels to popular episodes from previous seasons. (In the case of one of my favourite shows, Mission: Impossible, I might even argue that you could watch the episodes from any season interchangeably – other than the first, which had a different lead actor – since the very premise of the show is that Jim Phelps goes through his dossier of agents and selects those who are right for the particular mission at hand. Having Leonard Nimoy and Lesley Warren one week, then Martin Landau and Barbara Bain the next, reinforces that concept – as long as you can overlook the clothes and longer hairstyles on display in the late sixties/early seventies episodes!)

But there are occasions when being a fan of a show leads one to have a more direct engagement with it, and indeed a more interactive relationship. A desire to recontextualize the show is very much part of that – that can include writing fan fiction, doing video re-edits, or re-ordering the episodes to something more satisfying. In a lot of cases, it may just mean going back to the production order rather than the network broadcast order. This works for the original Star Trek for instance. Sometimes though, a series requires a much more radical approach. Where a show has little to no continuity between the episodes, re-ordering them becomes a creative act in itself – you are devising a new ongoing narrative, using the discrete episodes as building blocks, positioning them in such a way as to strengthen the storyline you're trying to tell. (For instance: asking yourself whether a character makes a certain choice in episode X because of his experience in episode Y?) It's this sort of engagement that takes the fan above and beyond being a mere passive viewer, and it's to be celebrated.

As an aside here, I should point out that this generally applies more to American series than British ones. British broadcasters have traditionally not been as afraid of ongoing plotlines, continuity and character development as the American networks seem to have been, and generally speaking the series reset has not been a thing in this country. Whilst each episode is clearly its own story, it contributes to an ever-ongoing storyline for the characters. (Obviously, I'm not thinking about serials and literary adaptations here, and soap operas have always done this.) But it's just a given that British tv proceeds in order – you can look back at pretty much any long-running show from the sixties onwards and see this. The Power Game, The Brothers, A Family at War, The Onedin Line, Hadleigh, Warship, Callan, The Main Chance, Colditz, Man at the Top, When the Boat Comes In, Upstairs Downstairs, Sam, The Duchess of Duke Street, The Sandbaggers, Secret Army, All Creatures Great and Small, Enemy at the Door, By the Sword Divided, Nanny, Tenko, The House of Eliot, Survivors, Wish Me Luck, and Blakes 7 are just some examples that I can see on my DVD shelves right at this moment. What I'm trying to say is, it's just normal for Britain.

And yes, Doctor Who is just such a show – to the extent that I would never question the broadcast order of the episodes. (Arguments have been made for re-ordering seasons 25 and 26, which had their sequences changed from the original intended order quite late in the day. I might almost concede the former, since the alteration was forced by an unexpected scheduling change, and does lead to a minor visual continuity error. The change to season 26 was an artistic decision made by the producer, so I think should be respected. It doesn't mess up continuity, though it may change the emphasis on certain lines of dialogue. Ultimately though, the notion that broadcast order is the right order for a BBC drama of this type is so ingrained in the consciousness, that I find I cannot disagree with it.) The point of The Complete Adventures is not to re-arrange the tv show itself, but to go beyond into all the panoply of spin-off media. The creative act here is to create the narrative for the Doctor's entire life (as far as we know it) using the various disparate stories to construct that – it's the same principle as an episode re-ordering, but on an infinitely larger scale.

In contrast, the American networks seemed to prefer the “new story every week” format for most of their drama shows, and this held true up until the 1990s, when story arcs became a thing. The legal drama Murder One is usually held up as the first show to really push the envelope with a season-long arc, although this probably just demonstrates how sci-fi was a neglected poor cousin in those days, since Babylon 5 was already half-through a five year arc when Murder One came along and excited the critics with its “innovation”. (And hell, I could point out that the original Battlestar Galactica in 1978 had a very definite arc plot running right through it.) Since then, the age of the box set and binge-watching has come upon us, and continuing plotlines are very much the norm in America now. So they finally caught up with us!

And that, in a roundabout way, brings me back to my subject. I've stated that ongoing plotlines are very much a British thing, but there are exceptions – for example, some cop and detective shows, where each episode is a new case (but even those often have underlying character arcs running through them) – and most obviously, filmed adventure series such as The Avengers, the Gerry Anderson shows and various ITC action thrillers. These were designed to be sold to America, and so aped the “new story every week” formula. In the majority of cases, as with the US shows, any order works just fine. But there's one ITC series where the running order has long been a subject of intense debate and the cause of much anxiety. That show is The Prisoner, and that's really where this story starts.

Like many people of my generation, I first discovered The Prisoner through the Channel 4 repeats in the early 1980s – before that, it was something you'd heard of (it was occasionally mentioned in the pages of Starburst and Doctor Who Monthly) but had no real idea what it was. I was 14, which was probably the right age to discover The Prisoner. To a teenage boy, it seemed like the best thing ever, in a way it probably wouldn't to a man in his forties. And indeed, I can't put my hand on my heart 35 years later and say it's the best tv show I've ever seen, because it patently isn't – not when you've read proper books and seen things like Edge of Darkness or Secret Army or I Claudius. Indeed, it's a show that demonstrates most of the tropes of the ITC action shows – although it's trying to do something more intellectually worthwhile with them. I still applaud it, and gain a great deal of satisfaction when I watch it again.

But one thing that surrounded the show right from the outset was the question of the running order. I remember back in 1983, a man called Roger Goodman (one of the original founders of the Six of One appreciation society) appeared on Did You See? to review the repeats, and made much of the fact that Channel 4 were showing the series in the wrong order. He seemed certain that if the show had been broadcast in the right order, it would all make a lot more sense. And some of things he pointed out made sense. But let's face it, The Prisoner was shown in the “right” order back in the sixties, and it didn't make a lot of sense to the viewers back then either.

Anyway, as a insanely keen teenager, I sent off my money and joined Six of One, and that's where I discovered the controversy around the running order. What I particularly loved about it was that a healthy debate was encouraged, and there was no official fan club position. It was an eye-opener to this teenage mind, who'd joined the club expecting to be given some answers. And yet, it really does befit The Prisoner that there are no easy answers – and that the rights of the individual to place their own interpretation on the series is encouraged and celebrated. (This seems to have changed in later years, and Six of One eventually endorsed a particular running order for the series – this was used for an American DVD release, which also described it as the “fan preferred” order. It didn't say which fan preferred it though! Six of One seems to be a shadow of its former self, with a dwindling membership, so I'm not sure how representative of fan opinion they can be these days. Even Roger Goodman has denounced them.)

There's a Wikipedia page listing Prisoner episodes, and various attempts at ordering them, which contains the statement that “everyone agrees on the first and the last three episodes of the 17 produced shows”. I'm not sure that's true – in the old days of intense debate, I knew several people who shifted The Girl Who Was Death out of the fifteenth slot for various reasons. In fact, I might go so far as to suggest that even the opening and closing episodes don't have to be set in stone. It's a fact that the final sequence of the last episode is the same as the opening sequence of the first, suggesting that the whole series goes round in a loop, and you can leap in anywhere. It's like the televisual equivalent of Finnegans Wake or Dhalgren. So perhaps the episodes can be viewed in any order – perhaps a non-linear narrative is the whole point. You could even open the series with Fall Out if you wanted, and treat the rest of the episodes as flashbacks.

My own preferred order – though it's changed and developed over the years – is a bit more conventional than that, and attempts to construct a more or less linear narrative. I did this by looking at the production order, the original UK and US broadcast orders, and assimilating the good and bad points of each. And then applying those to the story I wanted to tell. I set out certain narrative strands that I wanted to follow through the series, and arranged the episodes to reflect those. There are clearly some episodes where the Prisoner is fairly new, and the Village authorities are treading carefully with him so as not to risk damaging him – so there are simple psychological tricks, deceptions and manipulations employed. Also, of course, it's in these earlier episodes that he makes all his attempts to escape. Later on, we see an escalation of the threat, with mind control, brainwashing and dangerous drugs being used. At the same time, the Prisoner seems to give up the idea of escape and concentrates on trying to fight the Village from within. This in turn leads to a change in the power dynamic between the Prisoner and his adversaries, and he eventually brings about the downfall of several of the Number 2 characters in the process. Synthesizing the narrative progression from all that leads me to this order:

Free For All
Dance of the Dead
The Chimes of Big Ben
The Schizoid Man
It's Your Funeral
Many Happy Returns
Living in Harmony
The General
A. B. and C.
Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling
A Change of Mind
Hammer into Anvil
The Girl Who Was Death
Once upon a Time
Fall Out

That's a fan preferred order, and I'm the fan who prefers it! Seriously, it's the order I tend to stick to whenever I rewatch the show. It enhances my enjoyment of the show, and that makes it worthwhile intellectual exercise in its own right. Make of it what you will. (I's aware I haven't gone into a detailed justification for my reasoning here as it's outside the scope of this article – that's something to follow up another time.)

As I said earlier, The Prisoner is something of a special case, and the majority of the ITC thriller shows are watchable in almost any order – I say “almost” because many of the shows have an opening episode that sets up the format and backstory, and in most cases should be watched first. But sometimes even that is mutable. The Champions for example shot additional footage to wrap around its first episode, turning it into a flashback where the heroes look back to how it all began – which meant the episode could now be dropped anywhere into a repeat run, and indeed that the series could go round on a loop forever. Conversely, although Man in a Suitcase has a first episode (Man from the Dead) it was actually shown sixth on the initial transmission – because it isn't the beginning of McGill's story, which starts in media res – rather it's where he finds out why he's in the situation he is. Placing it sixth does cause a few continuity problems, such as where dialogue in other episodes refers back to a situation we can only understand if we've seen Man from the Dead. In that case, I'd recommend sticking with the production order, which is how the show is sequenced on the DVDs.

A few years after The Prisoner, another show got me vexed over its running order. The much-missed TVS started to repeat UFO as part of its Late Night Late slot. (Strange to think now that 24 hour broadcasting was once a new and exciting thing.) I didn't catch all the episodes initially, but those I did see had a few weird juxtapositions that leapt out at me. The disconnect between the end of Exposed, where Foster has just been recruited into SHADO, and the start of Survival, where he's already been made Commander of Moonbase didn't sit well. And some episodes that seemed to me to belong early in the series were screened quite late in the run. Obviously, I wasn't the only person who noticed this: the host of Late Night Late, David Vickery, mentioned that they'd received a few comments that they were playing the episodes in the wrong order. (An in-vision continuity announcer – you don't see many of them any more!) He then explained that when TVS had announced they would be screening UFO, the station had received a letter from a fan who'd listed the order they ought to run the episodes. Since I'd already identified a few anomalies, I wondered quite what rationale this fan had employed to devise his sequence. I'd caught up with more of the episodes by then, and I began to piece my own order together. (Something else |I'll come back to in more detail at a later date.)

Funnily enough, around that time I caught with an old school-friend, Alec Baker, whom I hadn't seen for a while. He shared my interest in The Prisoner and UFO, and I remarked to him grumpily about the fan's letter to TVS, and how it had got the running order completely wrong. You can imagine how embarrassed I was when Alec revealed to me that he was the one who'd written in! He was gracious enough to concede that he probably hadn't gone into the series in quite as much forensic detail as me, and had gleaned his order mainly from things he'd read in the Fanderson magazines. Well, there's a lesson there probably. Looking back with three decades' hindsight, I realize what an insufferable prig I could be at times, especially when I'd decided I was an expert on a particular topic. These days, I hope I'm more relaxed about it all. I try never to lambaste another person's pet theories, instead I just suggest a possible alternative, lay out my own arguments for consideration – there's nothing wrong with a bit of healthy debate, and frankly we should do all we can to oppose the development of an ossified fan consensus. I do try and take care not to present myself as some definitive authority just because I've got a website – and I'm frequently at pains to point out that The Complete Adventures is just my own take on the Doctor Who timeline, and encourage others to develop their own ideas.

I don't always get the same courtesy in return, but I guess that's the internet for you. I was once accused in a Google group of trying to “rape” Space: 1999 (yes really!) for suggesting a different running order. My critic, who also said he wanted to throw up after reading my site, went on to state that the production order was the only correct order – not that he offered any sort of argument to support his position. (I'd already explained why I found the production order unsatisfactory.) As I've said, I'm all for discussion and debate, and an amicable difference of opinion. But is there any need for such inflammatory language, especially over something as trivial as a tv show? I don't know, some people... On the other hand, there's a Space: 1999 themed wiki that's adopted my running order as its standard – without any prompting from me, I might add. (And with proper acknowledgement too.) So what started as an intellectual parlour game, a creative exercise for my own amusement, ends up being something of benefit to others – and that makes it all seem worthwhile.

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