Produced by Everyman Films for ITV Productions Filmed in the UK in 1966, 1967
Executive Producer: Patrick McGoohan
Directors: Patrick McGoohan, Don Chaffey, Pat Jackson, Robert Asher, Peter Graham Scott, David Tomblin
Screenwriters: Patrick McGoohan, George Markstein, David Tomblin, Gerald Kelsey, Anthony Skene, Vincent Tilsley, Terence Feely, Michael Cramoy, Roger Parker, Roger Woddis
Starring: Patrick McGoohan as Number 6
Only Recurring Character: Angelo Muscat as The Butler
Lead Guest Players (Male): George Baker, Guy Doleman, Paul Eddington, Peter Swanwick, Eric Portman, Peter Wyngarde, Ronald Radd, George Coulouris, Basil Dignam, Alan White, Richard Wattis, Leo McKern, Finlay Currie, Anton Rodgers, Derren Nesbitt, Martin Miller, Andre Van Gyseghem, Mark Eden, John Sharp, George Pravda, Colin Gordon, Peter Bowles, Peter Howell, Conrad Phillips, John Castle, Basil Hoskins, Victor Maddern, Norman Scace, Donald Sinden, Patrick Cargill, Brian Worth, Clifford Evens, Nigel Stock, John Wentworth, Alexis Kanner, David Bauer, Gordon Tanner, Renneth Griffith
Lead Guest Players (Female): Rachel Herbert, Stephanie Randall, Patricia Jessel, Rosalie Crutchley, Shivaun O'Casey, Mary Morris, Norms West, Camilla Hasse, Denise Buckley, Nadia Gray, Jane Merrow, Annette Andre, Angela Browne, Katherine Kath, Annette Carell, Betty McDowall, Hilary Dwyer, Georgina Cookson, Zena Walker, Valerie French, Justine Lord, Virginia Maskell (the late)
Studios: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, Elstree.
Locations: The grounds of Hotel Portmeirion, Penryhndeudraeth, North Wales.
Click to hear The Prisoner theme music
I gotta tell ya, it was with substantial glee and dreaded anticipation that I plunked down my $250 (in Canadian pesos) to buy my very own copy of A&E's handsomely-packed dvd box set of all 17 episodes of that more-than-enigmatic 1960's Britspy classic, The Prisoner.
Substantial glee because I remember watching The Prisoner when it was first shown on CBS in 1968, and it vastly amused my weekly gathering of university buds as we drank beer, smoked bad Mexican weed, and argued over the "meaning" of each episode. I also say with dreaded anticipation because time is a forgetful mistress, and those nostalgic memories from my carefree past might have coloured my impressions of just how great this series actually was or wasn't. And, although it has probably been rebroadcast sporadically over the intervening years (I haven't seen it for decades), The Prisoner hasn't proved to be a series which has attained any kind of popularity until very recently, which is no doubt the reason behind A&Es somewhat daring decision to release the set.
For that, we can do doubt thank the obsessive nitpicking of cult Prisoner aficionados, who have kept the flame burning around Patrick McGoohan's eccentric vision, lighting the way for more recent generations to enjoy the socio-philosophical machinations of Number 6 and his relentlessly imaginative captors.
One thing time has taught me, however, is that to fully understand The Prisoner, one has to go even further back than the series itself. All the way back to 1965, and the classic Britspy series, Danger Man. Patrick McGoohan was "Danger Man", and even though he was reputed to be the highest-paid TV actor in the UK, he was also bored, bored, bored with playing the clever and dangerous John Drake, an international spy who possessed all the qualities of his cinematic rival, James Bond, except for Jimmy's tireless seduction of gorgeous women.
Danger Man/Secret Agent was a stupendous hit in the early-to-mid-60s, making a fortune for Sir Lew Grade of ITC, elevating McGoohan to superstar status, and even making dough for singer Johnny Rivers, who cashed in on the craze with the hit song, "Secret Agent Man" in 1965. If this already seems a tad over the top, remember this was the mid-60s, and the symbol du jour in those days was the ever-resourceful spy, saving the West from a plethora of bad guys, from serious to zany. Like the western before it, spy shows were everywhere, from James Bond and the James Coburn Flint movies on the big screen, to TV series like The Avengers, I Spy, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Get Smart, and on and on.
And then the unthinkable happens. McGoohan, at the peak of his powers, decides he's had enough of playing John Drake, and simply resigns from the show. He has an idea for something new, something he calls "The Prisoner", about a spy trapped in a prison for spies. McGoohan draws together the creative nucleus of the show, starting with producer/director David Tomblin, with whom he has already created Everyman Films, as well as story editor George Markstein and art director Jack Shampan. These people were available because they all worked on the Danger Man series, and were out of jobs, thanks to McGoohan's decision to retire. They get together, rough up the concept, and McGoohan takes the idea to Lew Grade. Lew buys into the idea based on a concept outline, and gives McGoohan a princely budget of £75,000 an episode (making The Prisoner the most expensive show of its era). McGoohan's original plans call for seven one-hour episodes, but Sir Lew needs more to sell the show internationally. He wants 26 shows; McGoohan agrees. It's now 1966, and Sir Lew wants the show on air in a year, so there's very little time to bring all together, resulting in a production crunch which will have ramifications later on in the series.
Here's how McGoohan himself describes this episode to writer/TV host Warner Troyer in March 1977. This famous interview was done on behalf of the Ontario Educational Communications Authority, and was broadcast on TVOntario, a Canadian public television network which had shown The Prisoner series along with commentaries from Troyer between October 1976 and February 1977.
According to McGoohan, "I'd made 54 of those (Danger Man/Secret Agent) and I thought that was an adequate amount. So I went to the gentleman, Lew Grade, who was the financier, and said that I'd like to cease making Secret Agent and do something else. So he didn't like that idea. He'd prefer that I'd gone on forever doing it. But anyway, I said I was going to quit. So he said, 'What's the idea?' This is on the telephone initially, so I met him on a Saturday morning at 7 o'clock. That was always the time we had our discussions, and he said 'Alright, what's the idea?' and I had a whole format prepared of this Prisoner thing which initially came to me on one of the locations on Secret Agent when we went to this place called Portmeirion, where a great deal of it was shot, and I thought it was an extraordinary place, architecturally and atmospherewise, and should be used for something and that was two years before the concept came to me. So I prepared it and went in to see Lew Grade. I had photographs of the Village or whatever and a format and he said, 'I don't want to read the format,' because he says he doesn't read formats, he says he can't read apart from accounts, and he sort of said, 'Well, what's it about? Tell me.' So I talked for ten minutes and he stopped me and said, 'I don't understand one word you're talking about, but how much is it going to be?' So I had a budget with me, oddly enough, and I told him how much and he says, 'When can you start?' I said Monday, on scripts. And he says, 'The money will be in your company's account on Monday morning.' Which it was, and that's how we started. Behind it, of course, was a certain impatience with the numerology of society and the way we're being made into ciphers, so there was something else behind it."
Warning: this is McGoohan's version of what transpired. Like everything else about this show, even its genesis is controversial. According to Story Editor George Markstein, who left the show after the first year (ostensibly after a falling-out with McGoohan over the size of their egos) the whole concept of The Prisoner was his. In a rare interview before his death in the early 90s, Markstein says:
"They hoped he'd (McGoohan) go on doing a series and so I sat down at the typewriter one day - you know, any port in a storm - and typed a couple of pages. They were about a secret agent - and after all Drake had been a secret agent - who suddenly quits without any apparent reason, as McGoohan had quit without any apparent reason, and who is put away! I had been doing some research into the Special Operations Executive and I had come across a curious establishment that existed in Scotland during the War into which they put recalcitrant agents - and who was more recalcitrant than McGoohan! - I thought it was an excellent idea to play around with. One of the things I didn't know was what to call it, so I ended up calling it The Prisoner. Simple! The man was a prisoner -- call it, The Prisoner. And McGoohan went for it. He was very curious about the historical or shall we say the factual side of it. For instance, could a secret agent disappear ... you know, how could someone disappear in our society and be put away somewhere? And so I waffled on about "D" notices, how the authorities can ask the news media not to reveal something, as indeed happens in our time. He was very interested, he'd never heard of "D" notices in his life and that convinced him that this fantasy horror story had - as it does in fact have - a certain foundation in fact."
Pretty cool stuff. But now it's time to get reacquainted with Number 6 and the rest of the imaginary numbers that populate The Prisoner. Now, decades after the show was first aired, I can mull its mysteries anew. Mysteries? Perhaps. Or simply an intellectual bauble, brightly reflecting ideologies without a true thematic construct? Thirty-three years later, it was time to find out.
No Man Is Just A Number
The entire concept for the show is explained in the mini-play that begins each episode. Dark clouds fill the sky. Lightning flashes. Thunder rumbles. There's the sound of a jet. A long shot of a runway. Then, as the harpsichord-based theme music pulses, a Lotus Seven (KAR 120C) flashes towards us down a freeway, revealing a grim-faced man. Cut to London streets. Cut to an underground parking lot. The man strides darkly down a corridor, dramatically throws open double doors, pounds on a balding bureaucrat's desk (played by none other than the series story editor, George Markstein), then throws down a letter of resignation and stomps out. A machine puts Xs all over his photograph, and another machine drops his ID card into a filing cabinet marked "Resigned". The man returns home, unaware of a following car. He grabs his passport, starts packing some bags, and is then overcome by some kind of gas pumped through his mail slot. When he awakes, he staggers uncertainly to the window and opens the blinds. He looks below to the central square of "The Village", a fantastic collection of eccentric buildings, alleyways and parks on a verdant hillside beside a sandy, crescent bay. His name, never actually spoken during the series, is now "Number 6", and the unknown captors, led by Number 2, demand to know why he's resigned. He vows never to tell, and the sequence ends with him running wildly on a moonlit beach. He thrusts his fist in the air and gives the now-famous battle cry: "I am not a number, I am a free man!"
What follows are mini plot summaries of all 17 episodes. If you haven't yet seen the series, and are planning to, and don't want anything given away, please skip down to "Six Of One".
The opening episode is magnificent. Simply called Arrival, it establishes the premise and sets the stylistic tone for the series. More expository than action-packed, as befits its role as chapter one, Arrival still manages to convey a sinister mood as our hero progressively susses out his predicament, attempts a few tentative escapes, learns he can trust no one, and meets not one but two Number 2s. And right off the bat we experience one of The Prisoner's recurring hallmarks: an obsessive attention to detail.
In Free For All Number 6, in order to meet the mysterious Number 1, runs for election as the new Number 2. Written and directed by McGoohan, this episode features a scathing attack on the democratic election process, as well as the warning to Number 6 that his captors can break him in many ways, and will use both mental and physical torture to achieve their ends.
Dance of the Dead combines brainwashing and the legal system, in which a predominantly female cast (including a cat!) try to break Number 6 against the incongruous background of a carnival. After breaking the rules by taking a transistor radio from a body that washed up on the shore, Number 6 is subjected to a kangaroo trial and he discovers just how easily crowds can be swayed. He eludes the angry crowd of villagers and ends up in a room containing a teletype machine which, incongruously, seems to be the low-tech communication link between the Village and Number 1. This episode appears to be heavily influenced by Orson Welles, with the chase under the Town Hall lifted almost exactly from Welles's film of Kafka's "The Trial".
Checkmate features a human chessboard, with Number 6 as Queen's pawn. A rook runs amok and is taken away for aversion therapy for being an "individual", but Number 6 thinks he might still be a willing co-escapee. Number 6 is also intrigued by Number 14, who believes he can tell between prisoners and warders by their attitude of either subservience or arrogance. Betting that inmates would do as they were told, and warders would not, Number 6 assembles a gang and plots an escape by sea. When he boards the rescue boat, Number 6 receives a unexpected surprise -- a television monitor shows the face of Number 2, and Number 6 has been caught in his own trap. His own arrogance has convinced his co-conspirators that he was a warder attempting to trick them.
The Chimes of Big Ben reveals why Number 6 can be called an escape artist. His ingenious woodcarving, appropriately called "Escape", allows him and a new prisoner, the beautiful Number 8, to sail away from The Village. After months of travel he reaches what appears to be the London office of the organization he quit. Just before he starts to answer their questions, Big Ben chimes, and Number 6 realizes all is not as it seems.
In A, B, and C Number 2 invades Number 6's dreams in an attempt to discover why he resigned. Each letter refers to a potion which triggers a dream featuring one of the three people Number 6 might confide in about his retirement. Great premise. Great ending.
The General is a warning about educational methods. A form of subliminal speed learning deposits information into the mind, but what is the value of facts without understanding? Number 6 foils the "General" -- a room-sized computer -- in a manner reminiscent of Capt. Kirk and Star Trek.
In The Schizoid Man McGoohan plays two roles - as Number 6 and also as his double, Number 12. Number 6 undergoes extensive brainwashing and is told he is Number 12. His assignment is to pose as Number 6's double to make himself believe he Number 12; in turn, his double claims that he is the real Number 6. Which is which? Turns out you have to be a mind reader to tell....
Many Happy Returns is another escape plot. Number 6 awakens to a deserted Village, builds a raft, and finally makes it back to his home and car in London. He convinces his former employers of the fact of The Village, and searches for it by jet. When they find it, the pilot says the usual Village good-bye: "Be seeing you", to the shocked Number 6, who is ejected from the airplane and parachutes back into the Village.
In It's Your Funeral Number 6 finds himself involved in thwarting an assassination plot against a retiring Number 2 by the replacement Number 2. We meet the "Jammers", people who continually pass on false and alarmist warnings to deliberately confuse the authorities, and we are introduced to "Kosho", a trampoline-based game invented by McGoohan which involves a lot of jumping around while trying to push your opponent into a tank of water. Overall, a confusing, unsatisfying episode.
In A Change of Mind Number 6 still refuses to join the village community and finds himself accused by a citizen committee of being a "rebel", "reactionary" and "disharmonious". Number 6 is declared "unmutual" and is subjected to "instant social conversion" - a pre-frontal lobotomy performed by Number 48, a woman doctor, and the operation is shown on the Village's closed circuit television. Afterwards, he appears to be a changed man, tranquil and non-aggressive, which the Villagers applaud as his "social conversion". Number 6 later tricks Number 48 into admitting his operation was faked and that the illusion was maintained by the use of drugs. Number 6, now completely in control of himself, gives her a post-hypnotic order which turns the tables on Number 2.
In Hammer Into Anvil Number 2 tortures Number 73 until she leaps from a window to her death. Number 6 vows revenge and cleverly leads Number 2 into a state of paranoia so devastating he reports himself to Number 1.
Mind switching is the basis of Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling. Number 6 wakes in his London flat to discover his mind in another man's body. A missing scientist is found, there's a lot more mind switching, and a neat twist at the end. The plot meant McGoohan didn't have to be on the set, and this break in the action allowed him to fly to the USA, where he filmed his role in the movie, Ice Station Zebra.
Living in Harmony, the first Western ever to be filmed for television in the UK, starts with a Western parody of the usual episdode-starting resignation. A man, dressed in Western gear, rides into town and turns in his Sheriff's badge. When he walks away he's attacked by a gang of cowboys and is dragged to a town called "Harmony". After western adventures and a vicious gunfight in which he takes a bullet in the head, Number 6 awakens to find himself back in the Village, surrounded by cardboard cutouts of Western trapping. Clearly he's been drugged and made to act out the whole thing. This episode was not shown in the US as it was considered inappropriate to show a non-combatant/peacenick during the Vietnam War.
The Girl Who Was Death follows, a spy spoof featuring Justine Lord as a girl who believes she and Number 6 were made for each other: he is a born survivor and she is a born killer. Her methods are hilarious, and range from an explosive-filled cricket ball to poisoned drinks in a bar. It gets even better -- her father thinks he's Napoleon and they live in a lighthouse that's actually a rocket aimed at London. Number 6 cleverly foils their plans. "And that is how I saved London from the mad scientist", says Number 6. He's been reading the story to two Village children while Number 2 and his cronies listen in. A nod to the antics of The Avengers.
By contrast, the penultimate episode, Once Upon A Time, is a brutal psychological battle to the death between Number 6 and Number 2 (brilliantly played by Leo McKern). At night, Number 6 is brainwashed by Number 2. He sings him nursery rhymes and when Number 6 awakes, his mind has regressed back to childhood. Number 6 fights back, however, and as Number 2 weakens he becomes more desperate, and finally dies. Number 6 has won his freedom, and the chance to meet the mysterious Number 1.
This is the order in which A&E presents The Prisoner, and there is still much controversy over the exact order in which the series should be watched, as McGoohan et al were required to hastily develop more plots to meet Lew Grade's requirement for 26 shows. Thirteen were made for the first year (McGoohan says four plots were developed "over a weekend"), and when the premise began wearing thin, and viewership dropped, it was decided to end the series.
The Final Episode, Fall Out
Once Upon A Time segues neatly into the final, controversial episode, Fall Out. In many ways this episode is a story unto itself, and deserves its own analysis. Either brilliant or inane, McGoohan was given very few days to wrap up the series, and wrote this episode in complete secrecy. When it was shown, to a record audience, it made headline news because of the controversy it created. The negative reaction was so intense that people apparently besieged McGoohan's house and he had to leave London for a few weeks.
It is a wacky story.
Continuing on from Once Upon A Time, Number 6 is taken by the Supervisor and the ubiquitous mini-Butler to "meet Number 1". He enters a large chamber. One wall is covered with technical equipment, another contains a semi-circular seating area filled with 20 hooded and robed figures, each representing a Village association or interest group. They wear hideous masks, painted half-black, half-white. In the centre of the room sits a presiding Judge (Kenneth Griffith). Military police are all round the chamber and a teeter-totter holding men with machine guns revolves beside vapour-filled holes in the floor. We also see a cylindrical metal wall with a mechanical glass eye (shades of HAL). The Judge gives a long, rambling speech, and a young man (Alexis Kenner), Number 48, is brought up from a pit and lectured. Number 48 replies using an odd mixture of hip slang and breaks into song - an old negro spiritual called "Dem Bones". The dead Number 2 is then resurrected, (revealing a continuity problem, as McKern is revived with shorter hair, trimmed beard, and less weight!
Fall Out was shot months after Once Upon A Time). Number 6 is given his name back -- "sir" -- a million dollars in travelers' cheques, his passport and keys to his London home and car, and is then invited to address the masked audience. His speech is inexplicably drowned out by the masked crowd's chanting. The Judge now gives him the opportunity to meet Number 1, and they descend into the basement, past the imprisoned Numbers 2 and 48, and up a circular metal staircase. Number 6 finds himself in a room full of equipment and simple globes of the earth -- and a masked, hooded figure who hands him a crystal ball. Number 6 takes it, notices the figure is wearing the Number 1 badge, and drops the ball. He pulls off Number 1's mask to reveal the face of an ape. Shades of Charles Darwin? The ape face, too, is a mask, and pulling it off, Number 6 reveals his own face! Number 1 is Number 6? But this face is of an id-like Number 6, who hoots and cackles and dances around like a demented child before fleeing the room. Really, one must think, is this heavy-handed or what?
Number 6 returns to the control room and starts flipping switches. We now discover the whole complex is the interior of a rocket, and Number 6 has triggered the launch sequence. The upper chamber panics and a mass evacuation of the entire Village begins.
Going back down the spiral staircase, Number 6 knocks out the guards and releases Numbers 2 and 48 and, with the help of the Butler, returns to the central chamber where a gun battle breaks out. After killing the guards, they escape in the detachable cage - seen in Once Upon A Time and actually the back of a truck - and crash out through an underground tunnel. Our last shot of the Village shows the rocket blasting slowly skyward.
Magically, the escapees find themselves on the A20 heading for London. After throwing the contents of the cage onto the road, Number 48 gets off the truck, preferring to take his chances alone, and hitchhikes. Number 2 gets off beside the Houses of Parliament, and Number 6 returns to his home with the Butler. The Butler walks to the door, which opens by itself. A telling action, as all the doors in the Village also opened by themselves. Number 6 gets into his car and drives away. After a clap of thunder, he is seen driving on a runway exactly as he was in the opening title sequence.
Brilliant Or Inane?
Regardless of its artistic merit, one has to admit Fall Out is one very unique hour of television. I'm not sure if any other show had self-consciously "ended" itself prior to this series, but even if they had gone out with a special series-wrapping ending, I'm sure the point would have been to answer all the show's questions, not muddy the waters even further. The genius of McGoohan notwithstanding, in the final analysis, this last episode is a confused and confusing cloudbank of ethereal ideas and what appears to be sleep-deprived imagery. The images in Fall Out simply pile higher and higher upon each other until the whole thing morphs into incomprehensibility. Throughout the entire series no one, audience or participant, knew the identity of Number 1. I'm not saying McGoohan should have pandered to his audience and presented them with an evil, James Bond-type enemy that would have been contrary to the show's basic premise. It seems more like an opportunity missed, because McGoohan had a very good idea in showing Number 1 to be Number 6, thereby completing the irony of all of us being prisoners of ourselves, as we are all trapped in a dualism of good and evil. This Mobius strip of philosophy, able to mysteriously combine two surfaces into one, is a brilliant idea, and one which deserves a far better treatment than what we're offered.
So, what is it that makes The Prisoner a cult classic after all these years? I can think of six reasons:
The Creative Team. There was a lot of magic in the original crew of McGoohan, producer David Tomblin, story editor George Markstein and art director Jack Shampan. All had worked together on Danger Man, so they knew each other well, and each in turn had a willing group of equally talented people at their call. Given that magic combination of little time and lots of money, they successfully synthesized a concept which turned out to be far greater than the sum of the parts.
The Basic Premise. Start with a great concept: someone resigns as a spy, is captured and incarcerated in a remote area, and clever attempts are made to make the spy confess and blend in with the prison population. Spiff it up with The Village, the endless parade of new Number 2s, the science fiction elements, the enigma of Number 1, and the apparent eventual triumph of the individual, and you have a great platform upon which compelling stories can be told. Beneath all that glitter, though, lies the real gold: the very basic premise is that we're all prisoners, you and I, and that we carry the seeds of our own destruction within us.
The Acting Talent. Aside from McGoohan, who delivers in virtually every episode, the series tapped a wide range of the best journeymen actors in the UK at the time. Leo McKern is exceptionally good, as is Alexis Kanner, who appeared three times in the 17 episodes. McGoohan is brilliant at the McGoohan "look", that peer-slightly-up-to-the-camera stare, flashing eyes beaming out at you under those deep eyebrows, the confident challenge with an ironic smirk that suitably unnerves all within its glare. The slightly singsong voice, dulcet tones, and flashes of violent activity make him the embodiment of Number 6, just as James Bond will always be Sean Connery
Style And Substance. Not only were the stories unique, but the way in which The Prisoner was shot was also groundbreaking. The clipped speeches work perfectly with the series' trademark fast zooms, upfront sound effects, compelling music, bright lighting, long shots and ubiquitous quick cuts, used most effectively in the verbally violent interrogation scenes. Then there's the dichotomy of the Victorian pennyfarthing bicycle and eccentric Village architecture, set against the high-tech underworld of Number 2 and the deadly Rover.
The Art Direction. Jack Shampan should have won awards for his role in the design of The Prisoner. Although the resort at Hotel Portmeirion had already been scouted by McGoohan years earlier when he was shooting Danger Man, the careful attention to detail, the costumes, the cage-like look of the control centre, the underground sets, all contributed to the overall believability of the outrageous plots. Of course, it helped that he had such a generous budget to work with.
The Endless Enigmas. Truly, no series before or after has ever asked and left unanswered so many questions: Who is Number 6? Why did Number 6 resign? Where is The Village? Who controls The Village? And, most importantly, Who is Number 1? The lack of obvious answers? it's strange that the Number 6 is Number 1 shocker of Fall Out is resisted or ignored by most commentators -- has left this series open-ended, and unresolved means many, many people have undertaken the equally-enigmatic task of trying to make sense of the whole zany exercise.
Half Dozen Of The Other?
Of course, what made this series great also holds its seeds of destruction. Talk about watch and irony. There is much about The Prisoner that is clumsy and irritating.
The McGoohan Factor. No matter what the creative roles of the senior team, The Prisoner is, essentially, McGoohan's baby. Although The Prisoner is culturally linked to the liberal, permissive 60s, McGoohan's sympathies were not with revolting, anti-war leftist students and advocates of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. "He was very puritanical," according to co-star Alexis Kanner. "In Living In Harmony we had to put a shadow over some dead girl's tits. Patrick had come down and everybody knew he'd disapprove. I mean, he turned down James Bond. They offered him $10 million, and I happen to know this is true, just to come and talk to them about playing Bond." This puritanical aspect is revealed in many ways: the series is full of gorgeous (for the times) babes, but Number 6 is loath to even touch a woman, much less romance her. Markstein accuses McGoohan of a proclivity to playing roles in which he plays god, and certainly Number 6 assumes a godlike role, chastely plotting the defeat of all satantic Number 2s (the last one even dies), and then freeing himself in the final episode to the tune of that gospel classic, "Dem Bones". It is generally conceded that McGoohan's attempt to go from actor to producer/writer/director/editor, "God" is fraught with many missteps.
The Basic Premise. As McGoohan discovers, it's easy to generate seven shows based on the series' original premise, but it's not so easy to string it out for 17 episodes. The 10 fillers tend to veer away from the mind vs mind of the spy vs spy premise, and they venture into social commentary, with such inferior forms as satires (education, politics), spoofs (other spy shows), and allegory (a western). Trouble is, the Basic Concept of The Prisoner is simply the battle we fight within ourselves between good and evil, represented by the so-called Free Man and Repressive Society. One can almost hear Freud nattering away in Civilisation and its Discontents. Can an institution break an individual to the point he betrays himself? Well, if the series is to continue on next week, of course it can't. So McGoohan, et al, are reduced to dreaming up all the various ways Number 6 might be threatened, but never defeated. Suspense is impossible, so the recourse is cleverness. Ah, and what a difficult path that is to maintain.
The Rover Syndrome. The death-dealing beach ball takes on deus ex machina roles far too often, and seems to exist mainly to keep the Villagers from simply wandering away into the surrounding countryside. The fact it can kill makes it as menacing as the roar which announces its arrival. In the original plan, Rover was to be a crumpet-shaped vehicle that could climb walls, float and dive in the sea. It showed up for the first day of shooting, was driven into the ocean, and promptly sank. Legend has it that while McGoohan was standing on the beach, pondering his next move, production manager Bernie Williams looked in the sky and saw a weather balloon. He pointed it out to McGoohan, who told him to get one so they could look at it. They apparently went thru about 6,000 of them during the entire series "They easily broke", explains Williams, but they still figured out all the ways to make it move with seeming intelligence. One could make the argument that it, too, represents the "old-fashioned" in the same sinister way as the ever-present bicycle, but it is one of many science fiction oddities that far outpace in technical skills the rest of the Village's laughably antiquated computer systems. Bottom line, much of the science fiction in The Prisoner would still be a marvel today, and is much too magical for the most of The Prisoner's technological paraphernalia.
The Idiot "Enigmas". Even a cursory sweep of the web reveals an amazing number of major Prisoner sites, and all, it seems, are fixated on propounding theories about the "true "meaning" of the series. One could probably argue that the concept of never tying up any loose ends may constitute the basis of an elliptical style, but The Prisoner often seems willing to take advantage of the human desire to create order out of chaos, and is only too willing to supply the chaos from which the theories spring. McGoohan is quoted as saying he wanted the series to generate discussion and he certainly achieved that goal. But one wonders where the line is crossed between good story telling, and simple audience manipulation.
The question of whether or not Number 6 is John Drake from Danger Man is moot and immaterial; the point is that Number 6 symbolizes an almost Wilsonian "outsider", a Randian superman of higher consciousness and inflexible will with wit and a strong jawline to match. Number 6 is the audience, after all, fulfilling the time-honoured role of hero, offering us the omnipotent point-of-view. McGoohan himself has numerous times that John Drake is not Number 6, but there are practical economic reasons for this, because if Number 6 was referred to as John Drake, royalties would have to be paid out to Ralph Smart, the creator and producer of Danger Man.
Why did Number 6 resign? Numbers 2 come and go with alarming regularity, vainly trying to find that answer, but ultimately, why do they care so much? Throughout the series, Number 6 offers a number of vague or unenthusiastic answers, and why? What's the big deal about telling Number 2 you quit because you just didn't want to be a secret agent any more? One is tempted to think up much more interesting questions for an agent of Number 6's stature, but this whole question of "resignation" takes one back to Markstein, who wrote the original series premise and the first episode, and has gone on record as being very pissed that McGoohan resigned as Danger Man, throwing most of his colleagues out of work. Arrival states that Number 2's superiors see Number 6's knowledge as a very valuable commodity, and one ultimately suspects they're just as likely to kill Number 6 as having him confess for, even if he does confess, he is still doomed to live out the rest of his days in the Village.
Where is The Village? Again, who really cares? True, Number 6 threatens to escape, return and blow the joint up, and ultimately does destroy it in Fall Out. Is the Village anything more that what it symbolizes -- the "outward and visible sign" of the inner evils of a repressive society? In the dualism of the series, the Village happily adds an old-fashioned, visually exciting backdrop to the exterior shots, thereby neatly offsetting the interior shots the futuristic cages of technology which surround Number 2 and his/her cronies. McGoohan further muddies the waters in a clumsy way: the location of The Village is part of the plot in three episodes of The Prisoner. In each episode, the location shifts wildly. Bad story editing, or deliberate attempt to confuse?
Who controls the Village? Number 6 continually asks this question, is never overtly answered, and much discussion has ensued: capitalists or commies? Watching the series today, it seems obvious the Village is culturally a British invention, and Number 6's tormentors are his ex-employers.
What's With The Episode Order? This is just plain silly. Nobody knows the exact order in which the 17 episodes should be viewed. Episodes one, 16 and 17 are obviously correct in the sequence, but after that it becomes vague. Free For All and Dance Of The Dead feature speeches which date them as early episodes, and after that it's a guessing game. Why? Because production was very late on a tight schedule, and episodes were broadcast in the order they were completed, not the order in which they were written. This A&E boxed set actually has a little paragraph under each episode description, entitled "Episode Order Debate", which attempts to justify why this particular episode is given its particular slot. The seven core episodes which McGoohan says "really count" are (in his order): Arrival, Free For All, Dance of the Dead, Checkmate, The Chimes of Big Ben, Once Upon a Time and Fall Out.
The Orson Welles Does Kafka Connection. One doesn't have to be a scholar of 20th century literature to think of connections between The Prisoner and Franz Kafka. After all, any story which deals with alienation and the incomprehensibilities of the bureaucratic state must ultimately pay homage to the Great unMaster himself. In this case, however, the homage is slightly less direct: there are numerous visual parallels between The Prisoner and the Orson Welles' cinematic version of The Trial, starring Anthony Perkins. McGoohan reportedly has high respect for Welles, but any question of direct inspiration for The Prisoner falls directly into the camp of endless speculation, which continues to surround The Prisoner like a fog of intellect. Or Kafkian action.
The Usual Array Of DVD Goodies
The A&E 10 Disc Set contains a few goodies, but could have included much more. With the 17 episodes are:
All well and good, but what one would have liked is a commentary voice-over by McGoohan of the last episode, Fall Out, in which he might have offered some insights and explanations into the vaguely surreal aspects of this very untidy series wrap-up. But perhaps a definitive "explanation" of the whole thing might ultimately ruin the fun of trying to figure this out for yourself. Or, just maybe, there is no "explanation" at all!
It Means What It Is
What makes The Prisoner so special? Ironically, it's probably its complexity and confusion -- the same things that make it incomprehensible, and therefore unpopular, with its original and subsequent audiences. No doubt the chaos of production, the unquestioned subjectivity of McGoohan's artistic vision, the unstructured way in which it embraces different concepts from all sorts of philosophic directions, and the way it avoids easy classification all this gives The Prisoner its enduring intellectual charm. One suspects that if everything had been professionally planned and executed, and that if George Markstein had been able to keep the series on the "strict reality" path which was originally intended, then The Prisoner might have turned out to be just another TV series -- well made, quite interesting, but safe and ordinary -- just like Danger Man.
Ultimately, questions about what The Prisoner is about isn't what The Prisoner is about. It doesn't have to make specific sense; it doesn't have to mean anything. As we learn at the art exhibition in Chimes of Big Ben:
An Art Judge: "We're not quite sure what it means."
Number 6: "It means what it is."
Precisely. In the biggest picture of all, probably only two points need to be made: the prisoner is a prisoner of his own making, and the prisoner will remain a prisoner, for all of us contain good and evil, prisoner and jailor. Remind you of the ego, superego and id?
Confusing or nay, The Prisoner at its best offers some superb storylines, well-written, well-shot, well-directed, well-edited, and yes, well-acted. Like 1984, it fairly bristles with repressive communal ideas: "Questions are a burden to others; answers a prison for oneself" and "A still tongue makes a happy life" are but two obvious examples.
Episodes which stand out as high-water marks include Chimes of Big Ben, with its brilliant plot; The Schizoid Man, again, very original; Many Happy Returns, with its silent beginning; A, B, and C, which has probably the best ending of all 17 episodes, and Arrival, which eerily sets the stage and introduces our characters.
"I suppose that The Prisoner is the sort of thing where a thousand people might have a different interpretation of it, which I think is very gratifying. I am glad that's the way it was because that was the intention." -- Patrick McGoohan.
Congrats, Patrick. Your intention worked. No doubt better than you ever imagined. I can hardly wait to see your series parodied on The Simpsons.
© Rick McGrath 11/01
Culture Court | the Ojo Files | e-mail Ojo | Features
Media Court copyright 2001 Lawrence Russell