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Another Look at The Prisoner

from MD, November 1988 

The Prisoner

'"What do you want?"

"Information. "

"You won't get it."

"By hook or by crook, we will."

"Who are you?"

"The new Number Two."

"Who is Number One?"

"You are Number Six."

"I am not a number! I am a free man!"

(Sinister laughter)

This is not a scene from Kafka or Orwell, but from commercial television. It's the introductory sequence to what could be the most controversial- and popular-TV program of the last two decades. Dubbed "The Prisoner," this 17part British fantasy series has not only inspired 3,000 people in 38 countries to join Six of One: "The Prisoner" Appreciation Society, it has also created a cottage industry as prolific as the show is (occasionally) profound. Warner Books has just released The Official Prisoner Companion, close on the heels of The Making of the Prisoner, The Prisoner Files, The Prisoner of Portmeirion, a Prisoner comic book, and a record album. In 1984 MPI Home Video broke sales records when it released all 17 episodes on tape, as well as an 18th "lost" show-approximately 3,000 copies of each episode were sold within only three months. And a 1987 poll of science fiction writers, critics, and fans voted "The Prisoner" one of the 10 best science fiction TV series ever (joined by "Star Trek," "Twilight Zone," and "Outer Limits"). Not surprising, then, that last year CBS-TV would commission a pilot script for a new version (since abandoned), or that University of Toronto professor Stewart Niemeier once taught a popular course on the meaning of the show. "It is," he said, "television's first genuine work of art."

Art or hokum, "The Prisoner" is 20 this year. It premiered in June, 1968, on CBS and has never. since left the airwaves: first on network, then local and public TV stations, and now on cable. "It won't lay down and die," George Markstein, script editor for the series, observed in 1978. "I switch on the television and there's the damned 'Prisoner'." Other shows have developed cult followings - "Star Trek," "The Honeymooners," "I Love Lucy," to name a few-but none has done it with so few episodes and such a murky message. "'The Prisoner'," wrote John Corry in The New York Times in 1986, "is just possibly the most provocative action-adventure series ever filmed, a bleak vision of technology and totalitarianism joined."

Why is it so popular? What does it all mean? Certainly the first episode seems straightforward enough, at least in the beginning. In it, a secret agent (Patrick McGoohan) quits his job and is promptly imprisoned in a carnival-like seaside town known only as The Village. "A lot of people are curious about what lies behind your resignation," observes the Village leader, Number Two. "You had a brilliant career, your record is impeccable. They want to know why you suddenly left." A simple John Ie Carre premise soon becomes a pastiche of Kafka by way of John Stuart Mill. Prisoner Number Six (no names,please, only numbers) finds escape impossible: He is stopped by surveillance devices and a bizarre living weather balloon known as Rover. What's more, his very identity is challenged. For in The Village, the happy faces and carnival atmosphere mask the dark truth that everyone is a prisoner, kept there because they know too much or won't reveal enough. Lies, torture, and treachery are a way of life. "Nothing can be taken for granted in The Village," noted critic and novelist Hank Stine in 1970. "Nothing can be trusted but the self, and paranoia is a stable adjustment." The series soon develops into an epic statement of individuality, of one man against a destructive, prying system. 


The Prisoner (Patrick McGoohan) runs for election in The Village.The Prisoner (Patrick McGoohan) runs for election in The Village.

Unusual? Yes, but then so is McGoohan, the star, executive producer, and guiding force behind the series. Tired of formula, he revolutionized the TV spy genre in his first series, "Danger Man" (U.S. title: "Secret Agent"). The producers wanted a James Bond clone, but Me Goo han produced what he dubs a "moral hero," a man who thinks his way out of scrapes. And, in a time of Bondian bed hopping, McGoohan's character, John Drake, was firmly celibate. "I said to the producers, 'If I start going with a different girl in each episode, what are those kids , going to think out there?'" he recalls. "You can have a hero with principle who is more of a man than a hero without principle." That, in McGoohan's mind, was the driving idea behind his sequel to "Secret Agent." Tired of the action-adventure format and the most popular and highest paid TV actor in Britain in 1966, McGoohan convinced the head of ITC television to let him turn the genre on its head with "The Prisoner," action-adventure, but in the Sartre mold.

It all grew out of McGoohan's ideas and those of his colleague, George Markstein, a script editor on "Secret Agent" and a former spy himself. 'Tve always been interested in the fact that all people are prisoners," Markstein said in 1978. "Some prisons are prettier than others: A movie star is the prisoner of his face, for example. I also wondered what happens to a secret agent who is in possession of sensitive knowledge and wants to retire. Everyone thinks there's an ulterior motive, that you're writing a hot memoir or selling out to the other side. If you want to quit, certain things may happen." McGoohan had a location in mind that would add greatly to the series' surreal image: the Welsh resort town Portmeirion, a hodgepodge of architectural styles. "It was," Markstein once noted, "ideal for a disorientation operation like The Village. The architecture is completely crazy."

Every year hundreds of fans take over Portmeirion for a "Prisoner" weekend. They are nothing if not obsessive, analyzing the meanings of the 17 episodes in seminars, newsletters, and even a slick quarterly magazine. All of this led columnist Marvin Kitman to observe in New York Newsday: "I admire 'Prisoner' fans, a very high-level group. They are the Mensa of TV viewers .... Half of the 250,000 day visitors a year, it is estimated, have come ... to Portmeirion ... because of 'The Prisoner'." The series itself was tightly controlled by McGoohan, who wrote and directed many episodes, supervised the editing and casting, and even reorchestrated the music. Almost every episode deals with a favorite McGoohan theme, from identity ("The Schizoid Man") and trust ("Checkmate") to elections ("Free for All") and education ("The General").

PRISONERNo. 6 returns home.

But the series' popularity stems from its approach as well as its messages. Standard action-adventure sequences, witty dialogue, and wonderful performances are mixed in with cryptic meanings. In fact, some shows are as straightforward as anything you'd see on "Starsky and Hutch""It's Your Funeral" finds Number Six trying to stop an assassination attempt-while others are as murky as Camus ("Dance of the Dead") or as off-the-wall as Pirandello ("The Girl Who Was Death"). Many were controversial: "Living in Harmony" preached pacifism at the height of the Vietnam War, while "The General" argued against formal education as uncreative.

Such ideas made "The Prisoner" unique, and many claim the series' fame rests on this inspiring pessimism: Society is bad and will get you, but you can still fight back. "'The Prisoner'," observed TV critic Manuel Escott, "poses important questions about the nature of freedom and the need to cling to one's individuality under powerful pressures to conform. 'I will not be stamped, debriefed, filed, indexed, or numbered!' Number Six shouts defiantly at his tormentors-a cry that finds a sympathetic echo in the ears of everyone who has hassled with a computer foul-up." Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov felt the show's popularity had another explanation. In a 1968 essay he cited Number Six's many failed escape attempts and concluded: "What is so noble about success? How many people can be successful? We can't all succeed, but we can all fail; and in this common, universal failure, we can find the brother hood of man we all seek, the true equality at last."

Yet McGoohan feels the answer is not that cut and dried: "With 'The Prisoner,' each person would look at it and, I hope, have a different interpretation of what it's supposed to be about," he says. "That's the intention-to be left hanging somewhat. As long as they looked at it, and thought about it, and argued about it-well, that was the whole concept."


A LOOK BACK By TOM SOTERTS 2009 This is the last of several pieces I wrote on The Prisoner and Patrick McGoohan between 1977 and 1988 (I would subsequently review the show, as well, and write about it in my second book). I had first watched the series in 1970 and became obsessed with it as a teenager, an obsession which led to my meeting and interviewing star/creator Patrick McGoohan in 1984 and visiting Portmeirion – The Village - and other series locations (such as the underground car park that McGoohan drives into during the opening credits sequence) in 1990. Naturally, as most writers do, I recycled ideas and clever phrases from one article to the next. (See also,,,,,,