What with the Cold War threatening to turn into World War 3 more frequently than in any other decade, spy stories were all the rage in the West of the 1960s. There were the James Bond novels and films everyone remembers today, but also The Man from U.N.C.L.E., I Spy, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, “Secret Agent Man,” and of course Get Smart to take the piss out of the lot. On British television, there was the ITC Entertainment program Danger Man, in which, amidst the usual profusion of gadgets, uncertain loyalties, and convoluted plots, Patrick McGoohan saved the free world 86 times in the role of superspy John Drake between 1960 and 1966. And then, just as Danger Man was making a name for itself in North America as Secret Agent and the series was making the big switch to color, McGoohan decided he’d had enough. He pulled the plug after just two color episodes that should have marked the beginning of a whole new, more opulent era for the show, pitching to ITC head Lew Grade a new series to take its place, one to which the existing production crew could be easily transitioned. That idea became The Prisoner, a 17-episode series first broadcast on British television in 1967 and 1968.
In the first episode an apparent spy, once again played by McGoohan, abruptly decides to retire from the service, refusing to give any reason for the decision to his superiors. He is gassed after returning to his home, awakening to find himself in a place known only as The Village. On the surface it’s an idyllic place, a seaside resort of gorgeous views, clean air, and smiling fellow residents. However, said residents are not allowed to leave, and have in fact all been stripped of their identities. Each person on the island is assigned a number in lieu of her former name, and known only by that identifier; our hero, for example, shall be known henceforward only as Number 6. He soon learns that the Village is a sinister place of tricks and tortures mental and occasionally physical, where every resident lives under a paranoia born of constant electronic surveillance by the head of the place, a person known only as Number 2. (The question of who is Number 1 is one of the constant obsessions of the show, and resolved only in an oblique fashion in the final episode.) Oddly, a rotating cast of Number 2s come and go throughout the 17 episodes, mostly officious little types that illustrate the banality of evil. The goal of all of them is to break Number 6, to get him to tell them why he resigned. The bulk of the episodes concern the cavalcade of tricks they employ to try to accomplish that, always to be dashed in the end against the stalwart resistance of Number 6.
Two men are primarily responsible for the conception of The Prisoner: McGoohan himself, who in addition to starring also executive produced, wrote a number of scripts, and directed some episodes; and George Markstein, who served as script editor for most of the show’s run. Like McGoohan, Markstein was a refugee from Danger Man. The Prisoner was largely shaped by the tension between these two men’s ideas about the show. Markstein saw it as essentially a continuation of Danger Man, a confusing but ultimately grounded, understandable story. Tellingly, he tacitly assumed that Number 6, who is never given another name in the show, is in actuality John Drake of Danger Man, now embarked on another, unexpected phase of his “career.” McGoohan, however, saw the show as an allegorical tale of Everyman struggling with modern society. Tension in art is of course not always a bad thing, and in this case it gave The Prisoner space to explore McGoohan’s more heady ideas without coming completely unhinged from reality. After 13 episodes, though, the burgeoning conflict between the two men exploded, and Markstein left the production after an argument so acrimonious that the two men never spoke to one another again, and never spoke of one another in anything other than tones of contempt. (Markstein also reserved plenty of contempt for the series itself, calling the adoration it continues to receive a case of “the emperor’s new clothes” and calling its most rabid fans “pathetic.”) This rupture left McGoohan free to conclude the series with a final episode that abandons any claim to reality and is, depending on your point of view, either brilliant or a meaningless mess — or perhaps both.
When not twisting themselves into knots trying to superimpose a coherent narrative arc and proper viewing order onto the episodes of a very messy, very un-serialized series, fan debates about The Prisoner can spiral into some very heady intellectual territory. The longstanding fascination of the show derives from the questions it poses about the rights of the individual and the needs of society, questions it by design never definitively answers. “I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered. My life is my own,” Number 6 announces in the first episode. While the show seems to implicitly ask us to see Number 6 as a hero, a hardcore collectivist could take this as an ironical portrayal, seeing Number 6 as a selfish egomaniac who refuses to abide by the necessary strictures of a civil society. Fans of the philosophy of Ayn Rand, meanwhile, can see Number 6 as their model paragon of selfish individuality. And there are a million other interpretations that line up somewhere between these extremes — and who knows, maybe even outside of them.
By its very nature The Prisoner seems to encourage fans to find inspirations that are dubious at best. As an example of the latter: a number of university courses have been taught about the show over the years, in which a common claim was that The Prisoner draws heavily from Franz Kafka. Certainly the Village and the whole scenario of The Prisoner bears a strong similarity to Das Schloß (The Castle), and the absurd pantomimes of legal trials in the episodes “Dance of the Dead” and the finale seem to have Der Prozeß (The Trial) stamped all over them. In an early 1990s interview, however, McGoohan definitively put paid to these “obvious” inspirations, saying he had “never read a Kafka.” This is not to say that Kafka does not live somewhere within The Prisoner, but filtered through the later, more grounded and obviously political versions of Kafka’s absurdist dystopias found in George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, both acknowledged inspirations of McGoohan, and, just perhaps, within certain individual scripts not written by McGoohan. Even those trial scenes could be inspired by Orson Welles’s film version of The Trial rather than Kafka’s original source.
Some have gone yet further afield in seeking inspirations. There’s a great moment in one McGoohan television appearance in which an earnest young graduate student asks him if Angelo, a dwarf butler to the various Number 2s who is the only character other than Number 6 to appear in every episode, was inspired by the dwarf who accompanies Una and the Redcrosse Knight in Spenser’s The Faerie Queene; poor McGoohan, who obviously has no idea what the kid is on about, doesn’t quite know what to say in response. Even more so than with most works, The Prisoner seems a series in which people can find what they want to find — which is not necessarily a weakness. Certainly Kafka’s own works have the same qualities.
There is one immediately obvious difference between The Prisoner and the works of Kafka, Orwell, and Huxley: Number 6 is never broken. While many episodes end on an ominous note or a reversion to the status quo after a near escape, he never cracks, never breaks down and tells a Number 2 what he wants to know. Not infrequently, he turns the tables and actually wins a round, humiliating his would-be oppressor in the process. In “A, B, and C” Number 2 attempts to get to the truth by injecting Number 6 with a special drug that lets him control his dreams, only to have Number 6 replace the drug with water and lead him on an elaborate wild goose chase through Dreamland; in “Hammer into Anvil” (a genuine Goethe reference, much to the delight of grad students everywhere) Number 6 tells a particularly odious Number 2 he “will pay for this” after a woman escapes Number 2’s torture only through suicide, and makes good on the promise; in the penultimate episode Number 2 and Number 6 engage in an extended psychological battle of wills that ends with a broken Number 2 quivering on the floor rather than Number 6, and marks the apparent moment of Number 6’s final victory over the forces of the Village. The contrast to the fragile protagonists of Kafka, Orwell, or Huxley, who are all in their own ways defeated before they even begin to fight, is striking indeed.
One might argue with some justification that this change is necessitated by the very nature of The Prisoner and the economic realities that constrained it; certainly the show was challenging enough without asking the audience to embrace the nihilistic fun of watching the hero be defeated and relentlessly dehumanized week after week. Yet I sense more than that going on here. McGoohan always steadfastly refused to say “what it all meant” beyond repeating that the show was an allegory, but we might find some clues — anti-New Criticism as it might be — in his own biography and beliefs.
For the creator of a show that has come to be seen as symbolic of the trippy 1960s, McGoohan was, well, a bit of a prude really. He allegedly refused the role of James Bond because he didn’t like 007’s womanizing ways and lack of principles, and even on Danger Man he was always the show’s most stringent censor. He continued in this way on The Prisoner, where he never engaged in even a single onscreen kiss and, apart from the Western pastiche “Living in Harmony,” never even used guns. He repeatedly asserted that The Prisoner was clean, family-friendly entertainment. (That’s a claim that always struck me as really odd; there are many ways to describe The Prisoner, but “family-friendly” has never quite seemed one of them to me.) McGoohan was in fact throughout his life a devoted Catholic. Whatever you think of his beliefs, you can’t help but admire the man for hewing so steadfastly to them, even to the point of scuttling a potential career as Hollywood’s 007. McGoohan simply didn’t want to kiss anyone other than his wife, onscreen or off, and how can anyone really fault a guy for that? Certainly he stands as a nice example as a religious man who practiced rather than preached.
When we allow McGoohan’s Catholicism onto the scene, it takes us to some interesting places. Perhaps we can find in The Prisoner an argument for the ineffability for man, for the ultimate unknowability of (for lack of a better term) the soul. It thus represents a push-back against those who would define consciousness as just a collection of physical processes to be cataloged and understood — a push-back against, for instance, the ideas of B.F. Skinner, against the philosophy of radical behaviorism that I briefly introduced a couple of posts ago. In “The Schizoid Man,” Number 2 implicitly constructs an experiment to test Skinner’s assertion that identity is an entirely social construction. He introduces a perfect doppelganger of Number 6 and tells Number 6 that the doppelganger is the real version of himself, surrounding him with evidence that seems to confirm the point. He even changes Number 6’s handedness with an electronic shock treatment, leaving only the doppelganger with the correct handedness. Yet, in a victory of Nature over Nurture, Number 6 clings to his true self throughout and finally wins the day, comprehensively defeating Number 2 and his doppelganger pal. Another episode, “The General,” launches an attack on Skinner’s approach to education. The Village has instituted a program called “Speed Learn,” in which subjects like history are reduced to a collection of dates and facts inserted into the minds of the residents in “15-Second Courses” that seem to operate through a sort of hypnosis. Afterward, the villagers walk around quizzing one another robotically, with every question having a single answer, a single correct interpretation. Nuance, debate, even thought have been eviscerated. The ending of the episode, in which Number 6 destroys the computer at the root of the program in best Captain Kirk style in a whirl of fire and smoke and the mystical question “Why?”, is weak, but the message is strong.
That, anyway, is some of what The Prisoner means to me. Before I get back to computer games, however, I do want to also make a note of the show’s sometimes overlooked formal qualities. If the fight scenes and special effects are a bit cheesy and the acting sometimes dodgy, there’s still a bracing audacity to the show’s presentation that I find kind of thrilling, even — perhaps most — in the episodes that don’t contribute so much to the show’s themes. “Many Happy Returns,” for instance, features not a word of English dialog until over halfway through its running time. And “Living in Harmony” inserts Number 6 into a Western and plays it to the hilt, even replacing the normal opening credits; only in the last ten minutes are we returned to the familiar environs of the Village. I can’t help but imagine how it must have felt for a 1967 television viewer to tune in to The Prisoner only to be greeted with a Western that happens to star the fellow who used to play Number 6. And then there’s that last episode, outlined in a weekend by McGoohan and improvised from there. It’s a riot of crazy imagery, with the much-speculated-upon Number 1 revealed to be a cackling Number 6 hiding under an ape mask, with a crazed firefight to the strains of the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love,” and with much of the Village launched into space aboard a rocket while Number 6 dances to “Dry Bones” on London’s A20 motorway. The last third is again virtually dialog-free, this time because no one had had time to write any. I’m largely with those folks who say none of it makes a lick of sense, but God do I love it anyway. It just pulses with the last thing you’d expect to find in a downbeat scenario like that of The Prisoner: the improvisatory joy of making art. And when it’s all over I walk away marveling that something this outré once appeared on prime-time television.
So, that’s a little bit of the material David Mullich had to work with in making a computer-game version of The Prisoner. We’ll look at how he ran with it next time.
S. John Ross
November 9, 2011 at 5:15 am
It’s ironic. I’m a hardcore, lifelong Prisoner fan, so I caught myself skimming a little :)
November 9, 2011 at 12:10 pm
Given that the strange episode “Dance of the Dead” was one of the first five episodes to be scripted, it’s hard to see how any claims that ‘The Prisoner’ was just an extension of Danger Man can be justified. The fact that ‘Once Upon A Time’ was the sixth script produced seems to put the nail in the coffin of the notion.
McGoohan once commented that he would have been *mad* to have abandoned the audience that he had already built for himself, so he was quite careful about the order in which he had the episodes broadcast. That’s why ‘Dance of the Dead’ was placed around the halfway point and ‘Once Upon A Time’ was always to be seen as his lead-in to the finale, albeit the exact form of his finale was still some way from being decided.
November 9, 2011 at 3:32 pm
Thank you. I’ve been wondering what this show was for years, having seen part of an episode Wikipedia tells me was called “A Change of Mind” late at night on PBS as a kid in the late ’80s. I found it nearly incomprehensible at the time, but it has held an odd fascination for me ever since.
November 10, 2011 at 12:38 am
I came to the TV show *from* the Apple game (and I look forward to your writeup of it).
I am delighted to say that the very first episode I tuned in on was “Living in Harmony”, which left me exactly as lost as you imagine.
November 10, 2011 at 6:00 am
I am slightly abashed to admit that I know it only from the Iron Maiden song of the same name.
November 14, 2011 at 1:33 am
I remember the series well, because just after we were married in the early eighties, my wife and I watched a PBS rerun of The Prisoner. (No rude remarks, please.) The beginning of what you describe as the first episode – namely, the agent’s abduction – is actually done in a few economical minutes of dumb show and repeated at the start of every installment until the last pair. Those few minutes hooked me immediately and stand as well as anything for what I think makes the show so remarkable: what you refer to as its “formal qualities.”
I don’t agree that anyone who encounters The Prisoner can find whatever meaning she wants. And I know why grad students in popular culture would be looking for meaning here, since that’s why they were put on earth, but personally I’m not inclined to bother. On the surface at least, it’s another go-round at the individual vs. society; down deep, if I may be so bold, it’s another go-round at the individual vs. society. Why “explore” this “meaning: when The Prisoner itself doesn’t make the attempt? Once the odd little situation has been laid out in episode one, that’s exactly where it stays till the final crash-and-burn.
I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anything else so utterly static, and that makes it a real wonder that I enjoyed, even loved it so much. I would come to each new episode with the unspoken thought that there was really nothing more that could possibly be done with this setup, and I was virtually always wrong. You’ve fished out enough specific treatments to satisfy me that I don’t misremember, but I’d just like to point out that Buffy the Vampire Slayer received an Emmy as late as the 1990’s for the daring of its episode without dialogue. Watching The Prisoner was like reading a pile of short stories all sharing the first five pages, or contemplating the same fruit-and-flowers turned into still lifes by painters from cavemen to cubists, or, maybe, borrowing from today’s TV culture, eating a different dinner each week prepared from the same five lousy ingredients by a chef of very particular talents. Anyone can try to mount something like this, but very few can bring it off.
I don’t share your enthusiasm for the last episode, but since I’m making the claim that there was neither a beginning nor a middle to The Prisoner, why should I expect an ending? Besides, I’m not like the Lost fans who more or less enjoyed their show for seven years and then felt ripped off when it didn’t really knot up.
You know, Jimmy, The Prisoner truly is family friendly. The Addams Family.
November 14, 2011 at 10:03 pm
That’s an interesting take on The Prisoner, one I’ve never seen before. I would note that the necessity to always leave everything as they found it dogged not just Prisoner writers but those working on most television shows of this period. There’s a great section in The World of Star Trek by David Gerrold about this. No matter what happened, each episode always had to end with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy bantering on the bridge, physically and emotionally unscarred by what had happened in the previous hour. Gerrold points out how difficult this made it to tell stories that really felt like they meant something. How important could it ultimately be to Kirk that he had to cause the death of the woman he loves (in “The City on the Edge of Forever,” of course) if next week he’s forgotten all about it and is galavanting around the galaxy again macking on every alien chick that crosses his path?
August 23, 2017 at 6:46 pm
City on the Edge of Forever at least got in a good ending of NOT showing them all bantering on the bridge, and Kirk saying, “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
That, I think, really sums up well how he feels, and it is a shame that was never touched upon in another episode.
Still, props to Harlan Ellison for that downer of an ending. There is no happy ending there… Just to try and move on.
October 29, 2012 at 8:19 pm
s/Göthe/Goethe/ (“Göthe” being a hypercorrection, as someone else commented on a different post. Funny how Goethe can show up multiple times on a blog about computer games…)
October 30, 2012 at 7:52 am
Thanks for that! Perhaps it’s just an unusually pretentious blog about computer games… :)
July 24, 2016 at 8:57 am
“I can’t help but imagine how it must have felt for a 1967 television viewer to tune in to The Prisoner only to be greeted with a Western that happens to star the fellow who used to play Number 6.”
I was a teenager when I first saw it in the 60s, and as it was already known as an odd show, such weirdness was an expected part of it. Just another puzzle in a puzzling show. And I loved it to bits! Especially the village it was set in. (It was also great that it annoyed those who liked their endings tidy.)
An oddity though: When I watched the series again a few decades later, I was surprised I’d completely forgotten the floating balloon that could catch people. I had remembered computers didn’t like to be asked “why?” though. :)
July 12, 2017 at 12:04 pm
Just last month, I was fortunate enough to go to Portmeirion, Wales, where “The Prisoner” was filmed. Quite an experience as the “entire” village is still there as from the series. There is now even a Mc Goohan Pub.
July 12, 2017 at 1:43 pm
Your discussion of “The Prisoner” was exceptionally good. I enjoyed it very much. It was one of my “all-time” favorite TV programs. Very much the “Twin Peaks” of it time period.
August 7, 2017 at 1:44 pm
Hi I love The Prisoner. Most chilling moment is Leo McKern mentioning the New World Order 15:00 into Chimes of Big Ben. I am from Wales and spent one of my Anglesey holidays visiting Portmeirion with relatives, way before it was reshown in 1984.
October 20, 2017 at 1:28 am
When I Was Very Young I happened to tune in (on PBS out of NYC, Channel 13) to “Many Happy Returns’
I have no doubt I could keep a battery of psychiatrists (from the Village?) busy based on that moment alone, but in my future athletic career I always wore #6, and enjoyed playing and beating the Eduware Prisoner 2 game on my 48k Apple II+. At Princeton, which has a Green Dome, a friendly yet sinister #2, an idyllic architecturally eclectic campus that’s proved impossible to leave, and….well, never mind the rest.
Be Seeing you!
September 7, 2019 at 10:48 am
was the always the show’s most stringent censor
-> one the too many
Also, the unbroken hero as opposed to Orwell‘s, Kafka‘s and Huxley‘s heroes may just prove that the series is indebted to the genre that would be its point of origin (spy films/series).
September 7, 2019 at 10:49 am
McGoohan simply didn’t want to kiss anyone other his wife
-> other than his wife
September 9, 2019 at 8:05 am
April 20, 2020 at 2:42 pm
one to which to -> one to which
to be cataloged and understand -> to be cataloged and understood
Also, the Youtube links are dead.
April 21, 2020 at 10:00 am
Thanks! Too bad about the links…
March 9, 2021 at 12:17 pm
“in “Hammer into Anvil” (a genuine Goethe reference, much to the delight of grad students everywhere) Number 6 tells a a particularly odious Number 2 he “will pay for this”
A double “a” after “Number 6 tells…”
March 10, 2021 at 9:35 am