Books

'The Prisoner' Has Superbly Outlived Its Original Context

Rogue filmmaker Alex Cox ties The Prisoner's island mentality and palpable "cupcake fascism" to current political events, including Brexit, in I Am Not a Number.

I Am (Not) A Number: The Prisoner Decoded
Alex Cox

Kamera

Nov 2017 (UK) / May 2018 (US)

Other

Filmmaker Alex Cox has long been off the mainstream radar. His cult reputation secured by Repo Man (1984), Sid and Nancy (1986) and many others, he now teaches film and works with his students on offbeat DIY projects such as Bill the Galactic Hero (2014). Over the past decade or so, he has also emerged as a writer. As well as publishing an autobiography (X Films: True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker, Soft Skull, 2008), he has tackled such diverse topics as spaghetti westerns and John F. Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald. Cox's latest book is I am (Not) a Number: The Prisoner Decoded (Kamera, 2017), in which he promises to explain the various mysteries created by this most revered of cult TV shows.

While it's common to ascribe the start of "quality TV" to American programs such as Twin Peaks, arguably the UK-produced The Prisoner (1967) is where it all started. In the programme, an unnamed man (played by series creator Patrick McGoohan, who developed the idea from his previous hit show Danger Man) is kidnapped and taken to a quaint village -- part holiday camp, part prison -- on a secluded island where residents are given numbers instead of names and where attempts to leave are thwarted by Rover, a sinister beach ball-like entity. Here, he is repeatedly interrogated for information about his work and life using a barrage of unusual, often psychedelic techniques, which he continually tries to resist with the mantra "I am not a number; I am a free man."

The teenage Cox was understandably "stunned and inspired" by this heady concoction of existentialism, psychedelia, espionage, and British eccentricity when it first aired in 1967, and his enthusiasm obviously hasn't waned in the intervening decades. But Cox isn't a mere fanboy, and so he situates the show within its context: the counterculture and the cold war, suggesting that The Prisoner was the only show to point out similarities between both sides of the iron curtain.

The Prisoner is more labyrinthine than linear, and this is compounded by the fact that TV schedulers on both sides of the Atlantic have tinkered with the running order of the episodes over the years. Cox's guiding principle is to plough through the episodes in the order that they were made, not the order they were originally shown on British television. As a filmmaker with decades of experience under his belt, he's adept at interpreting bits of information gleaned from call sheets in order to justify his way of working.

The body of the book consists of 17 short chapters that each deal with a single episode. They parse the episode's production history, recount the plot and offer some interpretive comments. The conclusion takes a question and answer format in which he answers questions such as "who runs the village?" and "what is the significance of the Penny Farthing bicycle, logo of the village?"

At the start of the book, Cox boldly states "the meaning of the piece is contained within the text, and only there." With a 17-episode run that still inspires fans 51 years later, perhaps the meaning of the piece lies in how fans treat it, interpret it, and how it's repeatedly invoked in popular culture (Iron Maiden have sung about it, The Simpsons has parodied it, to name but two examples). In addition, it's debatable whether the prisoner "should" be decoded, it might be better to sit back and merely experience it. However, these are less criticisms than they are differences in outlook between writer and reviewer.

Eventually, Cox shifts gears in the book's epilogue (the strongest section) from decoding to reflecting upon social changes. The makers of The Prisoner showed up outside the Houses of Parliament with no permission to film a sequence for the show's final episode, while more recently Cox was cautioned by the police for attempting to film in the same area. Cox is understandably concerned with growing authoritarianism and surveillance culture. Consequently, the "feeling of desperate sadness" he sees in the show's final episode has only grown with time's passing.

Perhaps the text was written earlier and only published recently, or perhaps Cox has gone native after decades in the USA, but The Prisoner's island mentality and palpable "cupcake fascism" seem the perfect opportunity to invoke Brexit. This is but one further way in which the show can be endlessly interpreted and applied: it has outlived its original context.

Cox writes clearly and with passion, and with a playful, digressive side that takes in Project MKUltra, Orson Welles, and snarky quips at Theresa May's government, along with many other detours. In this respect it is a quintessentially an Alex Cox product. The book will be of interest to both die-hard fans of The Prisoner and to curious first-time viewers keen to start exploring this perennially fascinating piece of cult TV.

8
Music
Music

All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.

Music

Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.

Music

Billy Corgan Brainwashed Me: '90s Alternative Rock and the Introspective Abyss

Once in its thrall, these days I find the overriding message of '90s alt-rock especially naïve and even dangerous.

Music

Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.

Music

PopMatters Seeks Music Critics and Essayists

If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by the quality readership of PopMatters.

Music

Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.

Music

Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.

Music

JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.

Books
Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Books

Phuc Tran's Existential Trip of a Memoir, 'Sigh, Gone'

Phuc Tran's smart, tough memoir, Sigh, Gone, might launch a broken down kid to read 150 great books—for free, at the local library.

Books

Classic Shōjo Today: Moto Hagio's 'The Poe Clan'

Moto Hagio's The Poe Clan manga series a gender-fluid melodrama marked by deep psychological trauma.

Books

John Pham's ​J​&K​​ - It's a Matter of Perspective

In J&K, John Pham explores perspectives in the psychological sense. Like Picasso, he views things from more than one angle.

Film
Film

'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.

Film

The Road to Murder in Love and War: Three Films from Claude Chabrol

The character's in Claude Chabrol's The Third Lover, Line of Demarcation, and The Champagne Murders are obsessively doubled and mirrored, reflecting and refracting their hunger for sex, love, money, and power.

Film

'Memento' Is the Movie of the Attention Economy

We are afraid of time, and so like Leonard in Memento, we kill it, compulsively and indiscriminately.

Film

What Lurks Beneath: 'Jaws' and Political Leadership in the Time of COVID-19

Boris Johnson admires the Mayor in Spielberg's Jaws. Remember him? He was the guy who wouldn't close the beaches -- and sacrifice that revenue source -- during a public crisis.

Recent
Music

JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.

Music

All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.

Music

Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.

Music

Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.

Music

Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.

Film

'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.

Music

Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.

Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Music

The Killers - "Caution" (Singles Going Steady)

The Killers go for the big hooks and singable anthems on "Caution", but opinion is sharply divided about the song's merits amongst our Singles Going Steady panel.

Music

Lilly Hiatt - "Some Kind of Drug" (Singles Going Steady)

Lilly Hiatt sings about a different kind of love on "Some Kind of Drug". Hers is for a city and the impact gentrification has had its soul.

Music

There's Never Enough Time for Folk Music's James Elkington

The sometimes Wilco and Richard Thompson sideman, in-demand producer, and songwriter, James Elkington, muses on why it's taking longer than he expects to achieve more in a week than most of us get done in a lifetime.

Music

Billy Corgan Brainwashed Me: '90s Alternative Rock and the Introspective Abyss

Once in its thrall, these days I find the overriding message of '90s alt-rock especially naïve and even dangerous.

Books

Classic Shōjo Today: Moto Hagio's 'The Poe Clan'

Moto Hagio's The Poe Clan manga series a gender-fluid melodrama marked by deep psychological trauma.

Music

Salsa Band LPT Hints at the Genre's Future

LPT's debut album, Sin Parar, hits all the right notes for a contemporary salsa album.

Music

Jennah Barry Offers Up a Warm, Sublime Collection of Memorable Tunes on 'Holiday'

Canadian indie folkster Jennah Barry returns with her long-awaited sophomore album, Holiday, which takes on a looser, more relaxed approach.

Music

Fotocrime's '80s-Inspired Rock Is Often Half-Baked

Fotocrime's South of Heaven is interesting mostly in that it's one of the most mediocre rock records I've heard in a long time.

Music

Maria McKee Puts Down Her Electric Guitar and Picks up Dante on 'La Vita Nuova'

"Show Me Heaven" was another country. Maria McKee has moved to England, immersed herself in the Classics and turned away from the 21st century.

Books

Phuc Tran's Existential Trip of a Memoir, 'Sigh, Gone'

Phuc Tran's smart, tough memoir, Sigh, Gone, might launch a broken down kid to read 150 great books—for free, at the local library.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.