[25 October 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
“I am not a number. I am a free man”
- Number Six (Patrick McGoohan)
It is the line that leads us into every episode, a reminder of the show’s most obvious and undeniable theme. Unlike other late ‘60s entertainment, lead actor (and series creator) Patrick McGoohan wanted everyone to know that his hour long spy drama was not your typical espionage experience. Like an uprooted and reconfigured 1984, or one of Anthony Burgess’s dystrophic cautionary tales, McGoohan meant to challenge the stifling status quo. Borrowing a little of America’s counterculture creativity, and marrying it to the pop art poetry of his native Britain, the performer embraced the idea of treating the audience as participants, not patsies, in his weekly game of cat and mouse. As a result, The Prisoner became the Twin Peaks of its time, the Gravity’s Rainbow of secret agent science fiction and a stunning television classic.
Perhaps second only to the original Star Trek in terms of concrete cult status and lingering fanbase frenzy, McGoohan’s gamble remains an astounding masterpiece of mangled mainstream intent. Tired of playing the standard special operative, and realizing that the entire James Bond franchise had upped the anti when it came to such storylines, McGoohan, a UK superstar, decided to completely deconstruct the rules regarding such shows. Instead, he devised a puzzle box of prospective mysteries, filtered them through an inventive framework, and then proceeded to make each episode an illustrated battle between conservative, Establishment ideologies and the personal preferences for freedom, liberty and choice. Even the title held a three-pronged connotation. It created an image that reflected the lead character, his state of mind, and the world(s) in which he lived.
Premises don’t get any more intriguing than this one. McGoohan plays a nameless British intelligence officer who quits his post and prepares to leave town. Just before he’s able to escape, he’s gassed and wakes up in a weird little seaside burg known only as The Village. There, he is referred to by a numeric tag, in this case, Number Six, and forced to report to a Big Brother-like interrogator named Number Two. A captive, and held for the information in his head (the main question being “Why did you resign?”) Number Six learns that there is no fleeing this bizarre, baffling place. Indeed, whenever he or anyone else attempts such a strategy, a large floating orb (nicknamed “The Rover”) is released from the ocean. It tracks down anyone attempting a getaway, and encases them in its opaque elastic shell. Then it’s straight into The Village’s hospital for a little ‘R’ & ‘R’: re-education and re-indoctrination.
From such a foundation, The Prisoner took a multi-level approach to its individual storylines. Ritualistically, we are introduced to a new Number Two each time (creating its own interest level of internal intrigue) and the elusive Number One is always mentioned, but never shown. In each episode, we witness another in The Village’s odd assortment of festivals (art, costume gala), events (elections, speed education broadcasts) and personnel. It’s the final facet that’s the most interesting, since it sets up the biggest dichotomy in the show. Number Six is always viewed as a fighter and a rebel, unwilling to conform to the brainwashing, psychological control and outright attempts to undermine his spirit. By comparing him to people who either love The Village, wish to join him in any plan of escape, or use friendship as a mask to proceed as an agent for the omniscient officials, The Prisoner provides many of its most memorable exchanges.
Indeed, beyond the stunning art design with a great deal of Londonderry air and Carnaby Street whimsy tossed in to increase the arcane factor, and the terrific technological twists (phones are angular and modern, rococo buildings housing elaborate science labs and room sized computers), it is the interaction between people that makes The Prisoner so special. Thanks to the wonderful writers responsible for the program’s intelligent and biting scripts, conversations crackle with meaningful political and social suggestion, while dry Brit wit bubbles beneath all the intrigues and enigmas. Initially, the first few shows stutter a bit in providing us with recognizable hooks to get a handle on. This is partly because The Prisoner was never devised with a wholly linear format to follow. It is also an obvious attempt to keep us squarely in Number Six’s shoes, allowing us to experience the adventure right along with him. Still, in an episode like “Dance of the Dead”, where a washed up body and an available radio are utilized in one of Number Six’s many escape plots, we can feel rushed toward a resolution.
By “The Chimes of Big Ben” and “A, B and C” however, we find the dynamic settling in, and except for a strange instance toward the end where Number Six magically changes human form, and acting ability (McGoohan was off filming Ice Station Zebra at the time) for the “Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling” installment, The Prisoner perfected the art of audience expectation evasion. Relishing the chance to play with both the Village and its residents, stellar episodes like “Hammer Into Anvil” (Number Six avenging the death of a young girl) and “Many Happy Returns” (Number Six thinks he’s made it back to London) also pick apart the approach to the entire premise. Instead of limiting the narrative to the fairytale like location with all its Alice in Gestapoland style, the plots placed our hero in all manner of outside situations (parties, offices, his old haunting grounds) as a means of reconfirming his personality. We are not only supposed to cheer for Number Six, but sympathize with and support his plight.
Thanks to the iconic way in which McGoohan is presented here, it’s impossible to think of anyone denying the character’s emotional and ideological pull. Shot from an angle that suggests a man used to slipping under the radar (from above and downward) and always featuring the performer in a semi-smirk, eyebrow cocked in knowing perception of the situations at hand, Number Six looks both dominant and deceived, a man caught up in a world which he didn’t create, but able to navigate its weird waters with cunning, drive and more than a little moxie. Toward the end of the run, we see our star slowly manipulating the format to force a confrontation between himself and the dreaded dictator of The Village, Number Two. “A Change of Mind” sees McGoohan’s character creating a bond with a female doctor (all the medical staff seem to be women, for some reason) with the intent of thwarting his nemesis. Similarly, “Once Upon a Time” sets up something called the ‘Degree Absolute’ which turns out to be a battle to the death between these long time antagonists.
With American Movie Classics gearing up to offer an update on the series (starring Passion of the Christ‘s James Caviezel and Ian McKellen), A&E has overseen a painstaking remaster of the original series, complete with a stunning Blu-ray release that brings everything brilliant about the show to dazzling life. The extras packed presentation, including new commentaries, making-of featurettes, character and setting documentaries, and a bevy of bonus background gives the Prisoner fan as much context as they could possibly want. With gorgeous imagery, razor-sharp sound, and a load of exciting content, the new format box set answers a lot of questions about the material…except one.
Indeed, the lingering concern that every fan has centers around the identity of Number One. The final episode, “Fall Out”, offers its own somewhat imaginative take on the answer (something about how a famous line in every introduction is read), but many The Prisoner faithful find such a solution unrewarding. The reason for this, however, is understandable. Something strange happened along the way toward a reasonable resolution to all this mysterious spy stuff. McGoohan, who only wanted a very short run to begin with, agreed to a full 13 episodes understanding that ITC executive Sir Lew Grade was only willing to contract for same. Surprisingly, Grade actually wanted two seasons, not just one. By the time the requisite number had been reached for series one, McGoohan was shocked to learn that Grade had pulled the plug. After several meetings, the men came to an agreement. Four more episodes were allowed, with the finale wrapping up the series for good.
That may explain the rushed nature of the resolution, especially when you consider that McGoohan originally wanted to make seven installments total. Besides, it’s hard to labor inside a storyline that keeps delaying revealing to the audience the story’s purpose. All the techo-babble and pseudo sci-fi speak can only get you so far. At some point, clues have to be clarified and hints explained or fans will fade out. This is why the initial Peaks comparison is so apt. David Lynch designed his ‘90 show around the solution to the question “Who killed prom queen Laura Palmer?” Once revealed, the series lost its narrative purpose. As a result, it turned into an idiosyncratic mess for eccentricities sake. With The Prisoner, the problem was more metaphysical. In the finale, during his speech to a gathering of Villagers, the President of the Assembly says the following about our hero:
“We are honored to have with us a revolutionary of a different caliber. He has revolted. Resisted. Fought. Held fast. Maintained. Destroyed resistance. Overcome coercion. The right to be a Person, Someone, or Individual. We applaud his private war and concede that despite materialistic efforts he has survived intact and secure. All that remains is recognition of a Man.”
As the main symbolic and dogmatic thesis to the show, The Prisoner faced the daunting task of making such a stance seem new, fresh and exciting each and every episode. For some, seeing McGoohan defiant and flip every scene could certainly create a stigma of staleness. Also, there are moments where The Village feels purposefully and pointlessly insane, merely making up new elements to fluster and fool Number Six. Like any series with an ambiguity at its core, The Prisoner rests and falls on its handling and revelation. It did a decent, if not quite definitive job.
If simplicity and easy answers are all you’re looking for in a one hour thriller, then perhaps you should focus your entertainment attentions elsewhere. The Prisoner is more of a sum of its parts than a cleverly considered bit of clockwork creativity. There are slow spots (“Free for All”‘s election element takes a long time getting started) and one extremely odd bit of mindmeld exploitation (“Living in Harmony”‘s take on the Western genre and its archetypes). Still, the energy the series gives off, and the experimental way in which it handled ideas both distinctive (the balloon like bounty hunter “Rover”) and deranged (“A, B and C”‘s use of dream/memory manipulation science) makes it a stand out example of an ambitious series that celebrated its epic ideals and aesthetically challenging execution of same.
And that’s what’s most riveting about this nearly 40-year-old program. The Prisoner defied the corrosion of conformity and mocked institutionalized violence and state sanctioned interference with personal freedom. It celebrated the human being and blasted any society wanting only compliance and control. There were nods to Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, the increasingly bitter political process and the “tune in, turn on, drop out” dream of the peace and love generation. For Number Six, and the actor playing him, anything remotely resembling a group or collective conscious was to be considered corrupt and anti-individual. It was as if that famous ‘60s saying – “Never trust anyone over thirty” – was reclaimed and retrofitted by the show to state, “Never trust anyone but yourself”.
In the end, it really didn’t matter who Number One was, which side of the Cold War The Village sat, why enumeration was used to identify the citizenry, or what in the world that killer beach ball really was. The Prisoner was more interested in one’s individual capacity for choice than any future shock folly. In fact, one could successfully argue that this entire experience was a test, a proving ground created to test Number Six’s loyalty and tenacity. If he really wanted to resign from a world loaded with underhanded dealings, back stabbing best friends and governments grasping to one-up each other, how far would such a man be willing to go to prove his point? Would he be willing to challenge every facet of his humanity, including his personality and his soul? Would he allow himself to be locked away, only to champion his desire to be free? The way in which the answer is discussed and discovered is one of The Prisoner‘s best features. It’s what keeps the series timeless…and very telling.