Patrick McGoohan’s maddening sci-fi series The Prisoner only lasted 17 episodes before disappearing suddenly in 1969.
However, its revolutionary mix of geopolitics, fantasy, and psychedelia has influenced not just television, but music, comics, video games, film, and more. For this addition of GEEK Classics, we’ll be showcasing a brief overview of the series The Prisoner, as well as it’s cultural influences in pop-culture and some nifty highlights from the show itself. There’s no better place to start than this quote spoken by Number Six himself:
“I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered. My life is my own.”
Here was a series which, for many, remains as controversial and relevant as it was when it first aired back in 1967. What was it about, you may ask. Well, here’s a quick synopsis for the show: Patrick McGoohan plays a former secret agent who is held prisoner in a mysterious sea-side village resort where his captors (the various actors playing the role of Number 2) try to find out why he abruptly resigned from his job. The inhabitants of this “Village” are all prisoners designated a number as their only form of identity.
Star Patrick McGoohan led the show’s creative team during a one season run in 1967, directing several of the episodes himself as well as writing under aliases. This was a rare example of star and project being one-in-the-same. Though some revelations came out as to how many other individuals were responsible for the series besides McGoohan, it is he who remains the masthead for the series; so much so, it’s hard to differentiate character from actor. The tone and attitude of the show was consistently oft kilter, maddeningly cryptic, quintessentially “British” and oddly humorous.
In every episode, Number Six resists attempts to pry information out of him, but his own efforts to escape are also thwarted – often by a menacing balloon called “Rover.” You know the one: the giant white balloon that ensnares its captives into its gelatinous, rubber body. The Village itself is filled with people who “know too much” and live a comfortable existence so long as they conform. Various episodes explored profound issues of privacy, individualism and mind control. The whole series as a whole was a unique exploration of George Orwell’s 1984, but with a sense of humor and a dash of color. Not knee-slappin’ funny mind you, but a stiff upper-lip humor so irreverently perfected by the British.
Examining the series as a whole or scene by scene won’t give you all the answers. Can there really be all the answers to any show like this? It’ll either be the worst show you’ll ever see or one of the most brilliantly odd. Either way, it draws a reaction out of you. At times it’s not easy to watch. Take a look at the opening of the show. No opening has ever tapped into the zeitgeist of the sixties in all its psychedelia, political paranoia and cultural ennui the way these opening moments introduced every episodes (aside from the finale).
During it’s initial run in ’67, the show saw wide-spread acclaim from younger viewers both in the UK and abroad. It’s influence even went as far as the most influential band of all time, The Beatles. The fab four were such fans of McGoohan’s show that they did something that they never did again. What came of it was the episode “Fall Out” featuring “All You Need Is Love” and It was the only time a Beatles song was licensed to a TV show. Similarly, in the six-episode Prisoner miniseries, which aired on AMC, they sampled The Beach Boys’ song “I Know There’s an Answer” for its series finale. The use of both songs with their cryptic lyrics paralleled the shows’ delirium of paranoia.
The series as a whole is filled with standard sixties action set-pieces, meaning that they throw a few punches here and there and allow for stunt-doubles to step in for wide-shots. Also, everyone judo-chops and throws one another over their shoulder for some reason. While some episodes might be standard fare as anything you might see on an old episode of Magnum P.I. or the BBC Avengers series, others are filled with a labyrinth or questions and odd symbolism. Editing often becomes disjointed. Many have theorized that time-travel even has a place in The Village. It’s no surprise that the creators of Lost have cited The Prisoner as a primary influence.
For some, the show’s themes of isolation and surveillance equates for the show’s long-standing success. Its affinity for pessimism is undeniable. What’s happened in the nearly fifty years The Prisoner has been around is that pessimism has not diminished. Nay, in our digital age the notion that society is “bad and will get you” is as prevalent as ever. McGoohan’s show would have benefited from the digital age. There are many online communities dedicated to rebellion, anarchy, and resistance – non-conformists of The Village would be proud. Just take a look at Number Six’s speech in the final episode of the series. McGoohan is even denied the most basic freedom of speech and, us as the viewer, were denied a satisfying conclusion via expository dialog. Today, we face the privatization of the internet, the restriction of a new-found freedom of speech. We’re on the verge of experiencing exactly what Number Six did.
The reach and influence of The Prisoner doesn’t stop at TV remakes and music, but also comic books and so much more. In Shattered Visage, a four-issue comic book mini-series based on The Prisoner published by DC Comics, we follow former secret agent Alice Drake as she is shipwrecked on the shores of The Village and encounters an aged, psychologically scarred Number Six. Marvel also took on a Prisoner-esque tribute when Jack Kirby created a four-issue homage in 1969 with Fantastic Four #84-87, in which the superhero team finds itself in Doctor Doom’s Latveria, a city like The Village in many respects.
Additionally, there’s been video games, novels, role-playing games, a film that’s been in development hell for years, and a slew of homages and satires such as The Simpsons‘ humorous positioning of The Village as a prison for Internet abusers. The Prisoner is an endless well of invention ripe for countless imitations.
The finale is particularly interesting as we finally meet Number One, the individual Number Six had been searching for over the course of 17 episodes. Inadvertently (or advertently) causing Number Two to suffer an emotional and physical breakdown, Six is brought below The Village to face tribunal, a Kangaroo court in progress complete with bailiffs, masked juries, a hippie running amok causing some “Anarchy In The UK”, and Number Six as stoic and resilient as ever.
After finally confronting Number One who is wearing a false face, Number Six demands he sees The Village for what it is. He yanks off the false face revealing a monkey mask. And when that is also pulled off, the face of Number Six himself is seen.
What exactly does this madness mean? There are many possible meanings, some say that its man’s worst enemy; the struggle against himself – that man (as in humanity) as an individual is the only one standing in the way of his own escape, of his own freedom. Others see it as an allegory for one man’s struggle to ‘discover himself’. We can go about our daily lives, searching for some meaning from your backyard to the tops of the Himalayas, but if we’re not looking inward, we may lose ourselves – forever lost.
We may begin to feel as helpless as on a deserted island inhabited by monkeys. Other say it means nothing, it’s hokum; silly, campy kitsch, and a product of the drug-fueled sixties. Any number of the above theories and points of view can’t be disproved. What you bring to the show is what you’ll ultimately choose to take away. As Number Six always wanted for society, you have a choice.
In the game BioShock, this theme of enslavement and loss of humanity was never better depicted than in that game’s final moments. The theme of self-determination and the question of destiny in the game is embodied by Andrew Ryan (Ayn Rand?). Choice is the common philosophy of Ryan’s philosophy and utters the line “A Man Chooses, A Slave Obeys”. These themes and slanted satire are common in McGoohan’s The Prisoner. The theme of ‘choice’ is at the heart of the series, one so successful that once seen, it’s hard to not think about, even when playing a video game made nearly forty years later.
The Guardian once wrote that:
“Without The Prisoner, we’d never have had cryptic, mindbending TV series like Twin Peaks or Lost. It’s the Citizen Kane of British TV – a programme that changed the landscape.”
An entire piece could be dedicated to a single episode of The Prisoner, but we’ve done our best to streamline its influence; showcase an idea of the overall tone, themes, and look of the series in the hopes to share something that has endured for fans of all things geek. The Prisoner is, was, and will be, a show unlike any other.
Remember – No Man Is Just A Number. “Be Seeing You”
Images: etsy.com, Everyman Films, AMC, 20th Century Fox, Irrational Games