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The Prisoner

Reviewed by David Longhorn

"I am not a number, I am a free man!"

The 1960s saw many classic series produced by British commercial TV. One of the most successful was Danger Man, starring Patrick McGoohan as John Drake, a secret agent with a conscience. [NOTE: this show aired in the U.S. with the title "Secret Agent."]

While filming the fourth series of Danger Man McGoohan decided he was fed up with its conventional action-thriller format. He had a new concept he wanted to try. McGoohan was one of the biggest UK stars of the day, so the network gave him his chance. The result was a cult series that still fascinates fans around the world.

In essentials, The Prisoner is simple. A secret agent (we are never told he’s John Drake, but there are similarities) resigns from his London-based outfit. Before he can leave the country he is gassed, kidnapped, and transported to the mysterious Village. The authorities that control this prison colony insist that Number 6 must tell them why he resigned. It’s accepted that Number 6 quit because he became appalled by the amoral nature of his work. The ‘information’ repeatedly demanded from him is needed for double-checking. Is he really a man of conscience? An honest man? A good man? Such questions make Number 6 a kind of Everyman of the Sixties counterculture.

The Village is controlled by Number 2, who is answerable to Number 1, who remains unseen but makes his/her presence felt. Villagers have numbers, not names (though this rule is broken more than once), and are always under observation. But this is no Orwellian nightmare. The Village is quite a pleasant place. For a modern viewer it resembles a gated community, a resemblance increased by the presence of an old folks’ home and the absence of children. The symbol of the Village is not a futuristic logo but a penny-farthing bicycle, the inhabitants dress in Edwardian seaside costume, and the overall mood recalls a holiday camp. Number 2 carries a colourful umbrella and can be relied upon to offer visitors a full English breakfast. The apparatus of control is largely concealed and the guards mingle with the prisoners. There is even a sort of democracy (in the episode ‘Free for All’) and some artistic freedom (in ‘The Chimes of Big Ben’).

Yet the Village remains one of the most sinister communities ever created for television, because its sunlit mask conceals a ruthless system of control, surveillance, conditioning and torture. It is also a proving ground for newer, nastier methods of state control of the individual. Number 6, the most difficult prisoner, shows his mettle and manages to outthink his captors at times. But even when he escapes to England the unnamed organisation that runs the Village easily gets him back.

McGoohan’s intensity makes him seem at times less rational than his captors, especially when he delivers his lines in a barking-mad fashion, yet it’s clear that his obsession with escape is crucial. If he yields at all, he’s finished. Compromise with the system is impossible, except as a ruse. The nature of the Village makes it impossible for him to form permanent alliances, let alone friendships or romantic relationships. He is on his own, with no one he can trust. One can see this as traditional spy-stuff (‘Trust no one, my friend’), or as a Kafkaesque comment on anomie in modern society. The series can sustain a range of interpretations.

Number 2 is also central to the series’ cult status. The role was taken by so many British actors of the time. Of these the best was the late Leo McKern, who was used three times. Other notable co-stars were Peter Wyngarde, Mary Morris and Patrick Cargill. This use of different actors in the same role allows the dominant figure in the Village to be by turns brutal, charming or even protective towards Number 6. It is an ingenious touch, perhaps inspired by the BBC’s decision to replace William Hartnell with Patrick Troughton in the role of Doctor Who a year earlier.

It seems McGoohan wanted to make a short series, but compromised with the network, which wanted 21 episodes. 17 was certainly too many, and the show lapses into self-parody or farce, notably in a very dodgy Western episode. The penultimate episode, ‘Once Upon a Time’, is excellent. But the finale, which sees McGoohan return to London along with McKern, is best seen as an overlong gag.

With all its failings The Prisoner remains entertaining. Visually stylish, well-acted and with some intriguing takes on paranoia, it played with concepts that would become staples of science fiction. Number 6 is exposed to what would become known as virtual reality, has his mind swapped with that of another agent, and is even confronted by an evil ‘double’, just like James T. Kirk. While not quite sf, The Prisoner navigates the margins of the genre. Like many ‘60s series, it is chock-full of weird machines that do terrible things to people’s brains. It also has, in the ‘character’ of Rover, one of the least absurd special effects monsters of the day. Amazing what you can do with a weather balloon and a piece of wire.

One problem with viewing the series today is that, if you buy the DVD boxed set, you get the episodes in the order they were aired. This is simply the order in which they were completed, and it’s clear that some episodes should have been screened earlier. The fan club, Six Of One, offers good advice. What is certain is that The Prisoner will be enjoyed and debated when more ‘serious’ TV dramas are long forgotten.

 

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Creator
Patrick McGoohan

Producers
Patrick McGoohan
David Tomblin

UK Premiere Date
September 5, 1967

Final Broadcast
February 4, 1968

First US Broadcast
June 1, 1968

Cast
Patrick McGoohan
Leo McKern
Angelo Muscat
Peter Swanwick
Kenneth Griffith
Colin Gordon

Full Credits at IMDb

Available on DVD and Blu-Ray as well as streaming at AMC.com