We want information.
Six takes the role of the Queen’s pawn in a game of chess with human pieces. He is intrigued when a rogue Rook, who moves across the board without orders, is taken away for rehabilitation treatment. The Man with the Stick, controller of the chess game, furnishes Six with the means to tell the Village’s prisoners from its guardians. Six uses this method to win the support of the Rook. Together they assemble a team of fellow prisoners with the intention of mounting an escape bid. Meanwhile, the Queen has been hypnotised and believes that she is in love with Six. With the aid an electronic component taken from a monitoring device worn by the unsuspecting Queen, Six and his band send a distress signal to a nearby ship. The captured Two is held under guard while Six rows out to the vessel. However, on boarding Six is greeted by Two via a monitor screen. The ship belongs to the Village, and the Rook has released Two. Due to his demeanour, he thought Six was a guardian all along, and that this was all a test.
So how do you like it?
Checkmate includes some of The Prisoner’s most iconic imagery, thanks to the human chess game that kicks off the proceedings. Accordingly, it’s an episode that comes prominently to mind when the series is mentioned. It is only when revisited that it fails to fully connect. The central idea is a strong one (using psychology to establish who are the prisoners and who are the masters, and develop and use that information to escape) but the result is perhaps too reined in and grounded in narrative terms. The rather literal manner in which the episode plays out is in marked contrast to both the previous Dance of the Dead and surrealism of the oversized chess match that informs events.
The reason for this is quite possibly that it was only the third episode made, following Free for All (which McGoohan poured himself into) and prior to Dance of the Dead (which all turned a bit weird). It’s been suggested that this one very much represents George Markstein’s vision for the series (Robert Fairclough in The Prisoner Official Companion); spy games seen through the eyes of a chess match. Despite the heightened touches (a familiar village bounce-through from Rover, complete with immobile villagers; this was actually to enable free Rover movement, evidencing that necessity is the mother of invention) the path of the episode is very “straight” and, if the final twist is a strong one, the sight of another escape attempt by boat brings with it the feeling of fatigue. One wonders if the “freezing” of the Villagers is involuntary (they have surrendered freewill) and only those who resist the powers-that-be (Six and the Man with the Stick) retain self-control.
Hence there is ample argument for placing this one earlier in the running order. Most of the revised lists position it third or fourth (even then, Chimes of Big Ben hot on its heels gives a successive sea escape). Six’s methodology of getting to know the difference between masters and servants might merely be seen as a consequence of his meeting the Man with the Stick (George Coulouris, Arbitan the Keeper in Doctor Who’s The Keys of Marinus; needless to say, he has nothing on the end of the stick, Vic). But it’s equally valid to subscribe to the idea that he doesn’t know this terrain because he’s new round these parts.
He certainly seems unfamiliar with the gigantic chessboard that must have been around and about the place during the previous eight episodes (we see him playing normal sized chess in Arrival). When Six is told by a fellow piece that the Man’s ancestors (he is an ex-count) beheaded pieces as they were wiped off the board, he is told “Don’t worry. It’s not allowed here”. Conversely, at this point in the broadcast order, we have become used to Six discovering something new about his surroundings each week; there is a sense that in every instalment he is a prisoner “anew”.
There is much that is familiar here. Six is still doggedly trying to establish who Number One is (“It doesn’t do to ask questions”), and is upfront about his rebellion against Two “Your troubles are only just beginning”. He is accompanied for much of the proceedings by a female prisoner for whom he has little time (the White Queen, played by Rosalie Crutchley). In this case she is hypnotised, manipulated into believing she loves Six. Different to the crazy maid revealed as a guard in Free for All, but nevertheless another constant female thorn in Six’s side.
Two: In society one must learn to conform.
We also see further evidence of interrogation techniques, but on this occasion, they are inflicted on Number 58, the Rook (Ronald Radd), rather than Six. As I noted when discussing Dance of the Dead, since his Many Happy return to the Village Six has been subject to different approaches from the standard mind-altering methods. It’s debatable whether the Rook’s “rehabilitation course” is a success. The Psychiatrist (Patricia Jessel) pronounces, “From now on, he’ll be fully co-operative”. One could certainly argue that he is, but he appears to have used the logic Six has taught him to decide he is a keeper rather than following a course of total obedience without question (his final remarks suggest self-preservation rather than subservience).
She also comments “Interesting subject I should like to know his breaking point” of Six, who has been warned by Two “We have ways, if you drive us to them” which would appear to ignore the methods he has been subjected to in A. B. & C., The Schizoid Man and the unauthorised experiment at the beginning of Dance of the Dead (“I can imagine” Six replies to Two; he doesn’t need to). So there are a number of reasonable arguments for putting the episode earlier in the run, but they presume the need for a neat continuity between the successive wardens and scientists taking a crack at the unrecalcitrant prisoner.
Man with the Stick: Psychiatrists say it satisfies the desire for power. It’s the only opportunity one gets here.
Two informs Six that the Rook’s treatment, inducing an insatiable thirst that can only be quenched by obeying instructions, is based on Pavlov’s experiments. Much of the focus here is on psychology, and proven methods of exerting control (resonant of The Stanford Prison Experiment). The Man with the Stick is upfront about his reported motivation for playing the grand chess game. He advises Six “Most of us have joined the enemy against ourselves” but his approach is less demonstrative than Six’s. He keeps his mind alert “just to defy them”, but proves valuable in instructing Six on how to make an impact on his fellow prisoners (“By the moves they make”).
Six is inquisitive as to why “Everybody has a plan but they all fail”. Presumably because he wants to know how he can make good on his failures. Six has managed only four escape bids in twice the number of episodes, and one of those (Many Happy Returns) saw the gates left wide open. (The others being his helicopter departure in Arrival, his art exhibit boat in The Chimes of Big Ben, and his dash for freedom assuming his doppelganger’s identity in The Schizoid Man.
Six: Why did you run? Running is a sign of resistance.
Six: The will to escape.
Six’s modus operandi here is atypical. He mounts an escape bid with a collection of fellow prisoners. It just isn’t in his loner style (the closest he gets is an exhortation to rise up in Free for All). This aspect makes a sort of sense placed somewhere down the line in the running order; Six is willing to consider different approaches if there is the possibility that something outside his comfort zone can get results.
It’s unclear from the ending at what stage the Rook reported to Two; if he believed Six was a guardian he’d have no reason to do so until the point where they take Two prisoner at the end. It’s clear that the Rook had convinced the co-conspirators that this was all a test well before then (although where the Man with the Stick figures in this is never clear; he is clearly shown to be involved in the plan, but surely, he is too discerning to be convinced by the Rook?), but Six’s “So he released you” suggests a conversation immediately following Two’s capture. Even the situation with the Polotza fails to clarify how aware Two was of the plot (Control appeared to genuinely think that the message sent to the vessel came from a plane; it just so happens that the ship is theirs).
In theory then, Six’s plan’s only hole became evident right at the end, even if was doomed from the start by the Rook’s doubt. To establish such a weakness in the fabric of the Village so early (as the third or fourth episode) might have undermined it in the eyes of the viewer. If Two had not prevailed over the Rook, he would still have won but not because he’d predicted Six’s actions many moves ahead. Rather it would be because he had a piece in an all-important position he could move at the right moment (the checkmate).
I note Wikipedia’s plot summary suggests that Six “has been a pawn all along”, supported by the butler’s placing of the pawn (Six) back on the chessboard in the final shot (like the Rook, Six has gone rogue but has been brought to heel). In which case, the capture of control and Two is far less impressive, seen in the light of Village omniscience (one does wonder that Six would have believed it to be feasible anyway, without his actions being monitored). But this symbolic interpretation may take the chess analogy too far (if Six is a pawn, he cannot be captured in the checkmate of the title). Nevertheless, I think there’s sufficient latitude to leave the fineries of who told what when and to whom open to debate.
Two: When you took command of this venture, your air of authority convinced him you were one of us.
This reveal is a smart twist, one that is thematically coherent with the ideas presented. The prisoner/master interrogations, designed to assemble a group of willing escapees (given the obedience we see in other episodes, it’s an unlikely achievement to gather this number here), feed directly into Six’s ultimate failure; the Rook never recovers from Six taking command during their first encounter.
On the chessboard between Six and Two, the latter may make a number of sloppy early moves (the easily discovered Queen) but he rallies with a hugely decisive mate (as noted, if he had not held sway over the Rook, the Village-owned ship would done for Six). There is also, in an episode made so early, an implication in waiting that Six is at least the equal of Two, if not One himself; his air of authority is superior to all, and he even has his own number two (the Rook), for however brief a time.
Rook: Then why the inquisition?
Six: By my manner, you assumed I was a guardian. By your manner, I knew you were a prisoner.
But there’s something about Checkmate as a whole that is not quite there. Don Chaffey does a good job directing (although McGoohan handled the interiors), his second of four Prisoner spots. For an episode with this title, a move and countermove structure might be expected. Instead, the plot gives way to a less than scintillating escape plan complete with code words and searchlights. The subplot concerning the Queen is blessed with a strong performance from Crutchley but the character isn’t terribly interesting. The best moment finds her appearing in Six’s house at night. He is ready for bed in his dressing gown and cleaning his teeth. She is in his kitchen, in her dressing gown making him some cocoa. It’s a surprising moment given McGoohan’s reported unease with suggestive moments involving the opposite sex. Does the Queen expect to spend the night with Six? In her deluded state, it’s quite possible.
Six: Love? You don’t even know me. You’re crazy.
McGoohan plays Six with slightly more empathy for the Queen than he sometimes shows towards his female co-stars (“I do care”). He can see that something is up, and he is reluctant to send her off the deep end. Rather than raging as he does on other occasions, he uses the subtle approach. She asks if she can see him again and he replies, dryly, “Oh yes, I’m here all the time”. Later, on the beach, he is more his usual flippant self. She comments “If I didn’t know you better, I’d think you didn’t like me anymore” and he replies “I don’t”. Once he has removed her pendant this is the last we see of her, an unusually abrupt exit.
Two: We want you to be happy.
Peter Wyngarde’s Two is something of a missed opportunity. The actor is a winning screen presence, and the sight of him dressed in a karate outfit, chopping a plank in half is most amusing. But he’s an underwritten Two and we never encounter an effective clash of wills between him and Six.
His reign over the Village includes a few nicely placed understatements about what to do if one suffers “another attack of egotism” and there are disparaging remarks regarding the affliction of the “cult of the individual” but Wyngarde is mostly required to coast on his louche charm.
Two: I hate to disappoint you, but the Polotska’s our ship.
Six is identified as possessing “aggressive tendencies”. The word association game he submits to reveals “Some unusual associations but nothing definite so far”, but ultimately suggests, “Total disregard for personal safety and a negative reaction to pain”. He also never appears to learn from his mistakes, but on the other hand the assumption that any given bid for freedom is a trap would render him immobile. Better to have tried and failed.
Two: They’ll be back tomorrow, on the chessboard, as pawns.
The trouble with repeating such scenarios is that there are only so many ways of Two saying “Fooled you!” each week. It’s fine if there is something genuinely striking leading up to the reveal (Dance of the Dead), but upper hand tone of Two’s sign-off is so familiar it might be taken as the archetypal Prisoner ending.
Perhaps I’m being a little too critical of an episode with a fine cast and a number of strong ideas and scenes. Two’s apprehension is a surprising development (depending on how legitimate one considers it to be), as is Six leading a band of escapees, but the mechanics of the escape bid and the foiling thereof aren’t quite as special its reputation suggests. Certainly, nothing to validate Kelsey’s view of his script; “the craziest things you could think of”.