The Prisoner, an existential British spy/science fiction series, was first aired in England in 1967. Actor Patrick McGoohan conceived the idea for the series, wrote some of the scripts, and starred in the central role.
McGoohan had become bored with his previous series, Danger Man (known as Secret Agent in the USA) and wanted something very different. The Prisoner was certainly that.
The series has attained cult status because it is so complex, so filled with symbolism, with dialogue and action working at several levels of meaning, that the entire story remains open to multiple interpretations.
The Prisoner was shot in the Welsh village of Portmeirion, whose remarkable architecture contributes to the rich, mysterious atmosphere of the series.
In many ways an allegory, the adventures within The Prisoner can be read as commentaries on contemporary British social and political institutions.
The hero of the series is an unnamed spy (pictured) first shown resigning his position with the British secret service.
He leaves the bureaucratic office building housing his agency, goes to his apartment, starts packing and is gassed – presumably by those for whom he used to work. He wakes up in “The Village,” a resort-like community on what seems to be a remote island.
The Village, however, is actually a high-tech prison, and the spy is a prisoner, along with other men and women who were also spies. All have been sent to The Village to be removed from circulation so their secret knowledge won’t be discovered.
Every member of The Village is known only by a number. McGoohan’s character becomes Number Six, and finds himself engaged in constant intellectual, emotional, and sometimes physical struggles with Number Two.
But each episode presents a different Number Two.
With a few exceptions, each episode begins with a repetition of some of the opening sequence from the first episode; McGoohan resigns; his file is dropped by a mechanical device into a filing cabinet labelled “Resigned”; he is gassed; he wakes in The Village and confronts (the new) Number Two. A set piece of dialogue follows:
Prisoner: Where am I?
Number Two: In The Village.
Prisoner: What do you want?
Number Two: Information.
Prisoner: Which side are you on?
Number Two: That would be telling. We want information, information, information…
Prisoner: You won’t get it.
Number Two: By hook or by crook we will.
Prisoner: Who are you?
Number Two: The new Number Two.
Prisoner: Who is Number One?
Number Two: You are Number Six.
Prisoner: I am not a number. I am a free man.
Number Two: Ha, ha, ha, ha!
Some argue that there is a slight gap between the words “are” and the “Number Six” in this exchange (“You are, Number Six.”), which would mean that Number Six is also Number One, a character who remains unseen until the final episode.
Number Two pushes the inquiry. He wants to know why Six resigned.
Six says he will not tell him, then vows to escape from The Village and destroy it.
Each episode in the series consists of an attempt by a new Number Two and his or her associates to find out why Six resigned and of measures taken by Six to counter these attempts.
Every possible method, from drugs to sex, from the invasion of his dreams to the use of supercomputers, is used to get Number Six to reveal why he resigned.
In some episodes, Six shifts his focus from escape attempts to schemes for bringing down the administration of The Village, though it is always understood that escape is his ultimate goal.
The concluding episode, written by McGoohan, was extremely chaotic, confusing, and very controversial. Number Six has defeated and killed Number Two in the previous episode and when Number six finally gets to see Number One, he turns out to be a grinning ape.
But when Number Six strips off the ape mask, we see what appears to be a crazed version of Number Six, suggesting that Number One was, somehow, a perverted element of Number Six’s personality.
Six, aided by several characters also deemed “revolutionaries” by the administration (including the Number Two of the previous episode, somehow brought back to life), does destroy The Village. He escapes with his associates in a truck driven by a midget.
They blast through a tunnel just before The Village is destroyed and find themselves, surprisingly, on a highway near London.
When the last episode originally aired, viewers were more confused than ever and phoned ATV to register their fury at the inconclusive finale. McGoohan was besieged in his Mill Hill home and physically attacked in the streets.
He claimed: “I wanted to have a controversy, arguments, fights, discussions, people in anger waving fists in my face”. Nevertheless, he was soon to depart British shores for the USA.
The Prisoner is considered by some critics to be television’s first masterpiece, the most brilliant television series ever produced. Each programme and every aspect of the series has been subjected to scrutiny by its fans.
Dealing with topics ranging from the nature of individual identity to the power of individuals to confront totalitarian institutions, The Prisoner remains one of the most enigmatic and fascinating series ever produced for television.
Be seeing you . . .
Andre Van Gysegham
The Kid/Number 48
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