"I wish to appeal on grounds of unfair treatment."
"Nonsense, you are being treated like all the others."
"Yes! That is why I wish to appeal - unfair treatment!"
WHO IS THE PRISONER?
One of the first "cult" television shows, "The Prisoner" was a short-lived series that used
elements from spy shows and science fiction to explore ideas about individuality and society.
The show followed the efforts of a nameless secret agent, known only as Number Six, to escape the physical and psychological bonds of a mysterious "retirement village" for spies. When not actually trying to escape, Number Six was kept busy fighting the Village's wide range of schemes to control him. Numerous techniques were used to get inside the Prisoner's head and turn him into a productive citizen of the Village. Drugs, computers, psychoanalysis, the modern educational system, and other contemporary issues were all explored in the course of 17 episodes.
IS THE PRISONER PATRICK McGOOHAN?
The Prisoner was created and largely controlled by actor Patrick McGoohan of "Danger Man"
(or "Secret Agent", depending on which side of the pond you are on), and Number Six was
played by him. This has led many people to assume that McGoohan controlled everything about
the show. In fact, McGoohan was given an unprecedented degree of control over the show,
having invented the central concept and written treatments for seven of the show's seventeen
episodes. He actually scripted several episodes and directed two of them under pseudonyms.
However, when attempting to unravel the various mysteries surrounding the plot and the supposed hidden meanings of the show, it is important to keep in mind that no televison production is a one-man creation. McGoohan did not control every detail of the series. The series producer, script writers, directors, set designers and other members of the crew made important contributions, many of which have become major enigmas for fans of the series.
Case in point - "Rover", the bizarre giant ball that tracks down and apprehends escapees from the
Village. This creature, or device, looks like a big white weather balloon, and many casual
viewers have wondered just what the hell McGoohan had in mind when he created Rover. The
fact is that Rover was never meant to be a weather balloon. The original concept was a
high-tech sort of hovercraft thing with a police bubble on top - a prop which cost a fair amount of money and required a contortionist to drive it. This Rover sank disappointingly during filming of one of the first episodes, and an enterprising (and probably quite stoned) crew member came up with the suggestion "Well, what if we used this weather balloon thingy instead?" It was ludicrous, and on most productions it would have resulted in somebody getting sacked. Instead, it became one of the central icons of this most iconic of shows.
Strange, unexplained elements like Rover kept popping up in the show, and every episode -
including the finale - left viewers with more questions than it answered. According to
McGoohan, this was exactly what he had wanted, but every member of the original crew has
different opinions. Since McGoohan, probably the most reliable source of information on the
Prisoner, rarely grants interviews and is usually unwilling to directly answer questions about the
show, we will never know for sure.
IS THE PRISONER JOHN DRAKE?
In 1966, studio executives were all ready to send Patrick McGoohan into filming for another
season of his runaway hit "Secret Agent". Unfortunately, McGoohan had other plans. He told Lew Grade
unequivocally that there would be no more "Secret Agent". Instead, he proposed a new series -
"The Prisoner". His conditions for making the show were unheard of at the time. In brief, he
demanded and received full control over the series. The only point he conceded was the length
of the series, which was originally to have been a mere seven episodes. Grade convinced him that at least 26 episodes had to be made in order to sell the show. McGoohan reluctantly agreed, but the show was cancelled after only 16 episodes had been filmed, and the crew were given only one more episode to wrap up the story. This is how the unusual number of 17 episodes came about.
Is the Prisoner a sequel to "Secret Agent"? More like a rebuttal, actually. McGoohan's rejection
of the Secret Agent formula, not to mention the fame and wealth that role brought him, seems to
parallel Number Six's own moral crisis. Unfortunately, just as Number Six never comes out and
tells us why he quit, McGoohan has also never told us his reasons.
Patrick McGoohan has repeatedly stated on record that Number Six is NOT John Drake from the
"Secret Agent" series. On the other hand, George Markstein, who worked on the Prisoner from
the beginning as script editor, is clearly of the opinion that Number Six started out as Drake, but
was intentionally left nameless to cultivate the series' mystique. This opinion is shared by other
members of the core Prisoner crew. As we never learn the Prisoner's name, there is no clear
answer to this question.
NEVER MIND THE PRISONER, WHO IS NUMBER ONE?
That would be telling. Let’s discuss the plot, shall we?
At the very beginning of the series, we witness the irate resignation of McGoohan's character and his mysterious transportation to the Village. As soon as he wakes in the Village, he tries to phone for help, but is thwarted by an unhelpful operator who asks him for his number and refuses to connect him to London. He then attempts to hire a car to escape. Unfortunately, he soon finds there are no cars for hire and the cab service is local only. He decides to set out on
foot, first stopping to buy a map of the surroundings. Of course, the only maps available are
some rather cheesy diagrams of the Village. As his cool demeanor begins to crumble, he is
summoned to his first interrogation with Number Two, quoted above by C-Dawg.
The circular dialogue of this first 'interview' is characteristic of Number Six's interactions with
the powers that control the Village. They want information from him - specifically, the reasons
for his sudden retirement. He wants to know where he is, and which side controls the Village.
Neither party is willing to give a straight answer to anything that might be an important question.
And then the mind games begin. Every episode featured a new Number Two, with a new plan to
unlock Number Six's secrets or a new trap to foil his escape attempts. The captors were revealed
as prisoners, the prisoners became traitors, Number Six was elected to rule the Village but it
didn't change a thing, the lava lamps and the bizarre colour schemes got curiouser and curiouser
and the sheer fuckedupedness of the whole thing got to be almost too much, too strange, too
pointless, never leading us to a clear answer, never giving us what we expected. And every once
in a while, Number Six would tell us something, something that, if we were paying attention,
would get us not an inch closer to the end of the plot but a hell of a lot closer to what Patrick
McGoohan really wanted us to know, and we would realise that it was all true, that the
Government and modern society wanted us all to fall in line and give up our secrets. That we
were all supposed to look alike and act alike and listen to the same bloody radio broadcasts and
play the same games and think the same thoughts day after day after day. That we were all
trapped in Villages and prisons of our own devising, and it was totally up to us to break out of
them and do our own thing. That sometimes even rebellious individualism was pointless, and it
wasn't necessarily bad to do what other people were doing, but we should do it because we liked
it, not because some idiot with a TV station or a fancy title told us we would like it.
Is the Prisoner a spy show? No, and if you're expecting "The Saint" or "The Man from U.N.C.L.E."
you'll be frustrated up to and after the final episode. We don't even know for a fact that Number
Six was a spy - some fans have pointed out that he might be an ordinary civil servant, while
others have made the weird suggestion that he actually worked for some sort of British Yakuza.
One wonders how many hundreds of times these people watched the show before the brain
damage became irreversible, but such theories are at least in line with the show's basic message
of independent thought. Anyway, whether Six is or isn't a spy, the show is not a spy show. A
better pigeonhole for it would be science fiction.
HANG ON A MINUTE - IS THE PRISONER JOSEPH K? HE IS, RIGHT?
“The Prisoner” has often been described as ‘Kafkaesque’, and even the most casual reading of Kafka's "The Trial" reveals strong similarities between that book and "The Prisoner". Just as the Villagers refuse to call Number Six anything but Number Six, despite repeated protests that he is not a number, Kafka's hero is rarely called anything but "K". In both works, the nature of the antagonists is unclear - their power comes from no named source, and many of the characters originally thought to be captors prove to be prisoners just like the heroes. Then, too, there is the fact that both heroes have strange, unexplained power over many of their so-called captors - when "K" issues an order, everyone complies, and Number Six creates chaos in the Village merely by doing as he likes. The only thing he cannot accomplish is leaving the Village, just as the one thing "K" dares not do is refuse to cooperate in his strange trial.
In fact, McGoohan claims to have never read any of Kafka's works, but he admits an admiration
for Orson Welles's film production of "The Trial". Several Prisoner scenes seem to have been
copied from this film, such as the shots of endless, dehumanizing corridors full of filing
WHY IS EPISODE NUMBER SIX NOT ALWAYS NUMBER SIX?
The order in which the episodes of the Prisoner should be viewed is the subject of yet another
violent debate, owing to several factors. First of all, there are only seven truly "core" episodes -
the original seven episodes planned by McGoohan. The other ten episodes are more or less
filler, although calling them that may seem demeaning for such a legendary series. The original
seven are “Arrival”, “Dance of the Dead”, “Free For All”, “The Chimes of Big Ben”, “Checkmate”, “Once Upon A Time”, and “Fallout”.
Most of the confusion is due to the fact that production problems delayed the original
broadcast of several episodes. Some of these were still in production on the dates they were
supposed to air, so different episodes were substituted for them.
When CBS broadcast the Prisoner in the US, they used a different order, which was supposedly
approved by McGoohan and corrected the flaws in the first ITC sequencing. However, it's worth
noting that the CBS broadcast order was significantly different from McGoohan's original plan
for the "core seven" episodes. Most notably, it pushed the episode "Free For All" to the fifth
place, although FFA is quite obviously supposed to occur towards the very beginning of the
story. Another episode, "Living in Harmony", was not broadcast at all in the first American run, due to its 'subversive content'.
Since the original broadcasts, the show has been re-arranged by the Sci-Fi Channel for its
marathons, and by Six of One (the Prisoner Appreciation Society, one of the most active and
devoted fan clubs any TV show has spawned), which has come up with an arrangement which
seems to make the most sense based on an obscenely detailed analysis of plot and dialogue
details throughout the series. The new DVD releases have been ordered based on Six of One's
endorsement. As far as I know, McGoohan has not given any statement on this new order.
ALL RIGHT, I'LL WATCH IT IF I HAPPEN TO CATCH A RE-RUN, BUT AM I AT LEAST
GOING TO FIND OUT WHO NUMBER ONE IS?
Yes and no. Complete mystery surrounded the identity of Number One throughout the series.
The show’s small number of fans developed all sorts of theories, and on the day the finale aired they all expected an answer. It was a small-scale, Sixties version of "Who killed Laura Palmer?" or, if you prefer, "Who shot J.R.?” In any case, what the viewers saw when "Fallout" aired was clearly not what they expected. McGoohan has said that most viewers were, despite his best efforts, expecting a James Bond climax, with Number Six breaking free of the village and storming Number One's secret castle, guns blazing. What they got was... not that.
It was... not that... at all.
Viewer response was off the charts in a wide spectrum of opinions, but for the most part the
people were simply outraged. Apparently, angry fans were lined up outside of McGoohan's
residence, demanding some sort of restitution, although I'm not quite sure what they thought he
was going to do - perhaps pull the REAL ending out of his sleeve with one of those secretive
Number Six smiles? Instead, all he said was “all the answers, such as they are, are in the episode. What you see is all there is.”
Let’s be honest here. “Fallout” is not what it was supposed to be in McGoohan’s original secret scheme. The episode was written by McGoohan in a single weekend after the show got cancelled. He had 48 hours to wrap up the series. So it’s not surprising that the finale is a little rushed and completely bizarre. However, in my opinion McGoohan is telling the truth. All the answers really are there in the episode, hidden amongst the insane rush of symbolic imagery for independently thinking viewers to puzzle out and draw their own conclusions. And that, in the end, is exactly what “The Prisoner” is all about.
And now, I’m truly sorry but I simply have to say this -
"Be seeing you!”
- Another American fan site which was amazing, but the URL of which I unfortunately forgot to note - it seems to be gone now, a mere six months later. Damn this dehumanizing Computer Age!
- Interviews and ‘video guides’ included on the DVDs
- Far too many hours spent watching and debating various episodes of “The Prisoner”
NO MAN IS JUST A NUMBER.