The British series “The Prisoner” (1967-1968), starring and co-created by, is the model for cult television. It is an indirect sequel to a previous series, “Secret Agent” (AKA “Danger Man,” 1960-1962), which also starred McGoohan. By general consensus, “The Prisoner” ranks as one of the best, if not the best, example of science fiction as a television genre. The consensus, for once, is probably accurate, because “The Prisoner” is far more than science fiction, dispensing with genre expectations. We could also describe it as being psychological, surreal, allegorical, existential, countercultural, satirical, Kafkaesque, psychedelic, nightmarish, absurdist, comic bookish, supernatural, born from the spy genre (in a far more interesting breed than 007), and enigmatic. It’s still enigmatic today, with enthusiasts and critics compelled to attempt to express its mystification in the absence of creator McGoohan, who steadfastly refused to ever explain it. Even its reputation is aptly enigmatic; it’s heard about more than actually seen. “The Prisoner” often causes polemical arguments among many who have seen it and debate the chronological order of its seventeen episodes. It was created smartly and contrary to our priorities and agendas regarding television. To many of us, the series should be ongoing. In its blueprint stage, the goal of “The Prisoner” was always to end, and yet in its (for us) brief run, McGoohan crafts a saga that feels narratively and aesthetically accomplished. Comparatively, many series, after being cancelled prematurely, will feel unfinished, cheating its dangling audience. At the other end of the spectrum, many ongoing series have trekked on well past the point of what should have been a well-developed beginning, middle, and satisfying climax. “The Prisoner” was originally intended to be even briefer, but was extended in order to ensure an American market. In hindsight, “The Prisoner” might even be seen as an advance metaphorical commentary on that puerile abomination known as reality television: elastically taunting and playing with our concepts of reality, daily humdrum, juxtapositional narrative, and cryptic completion.
What we do know is the idea for “The Prisoner” sprang from McGoohan’s exhaustive workload on “Secret Agent.” In “The Arrival” (directed by Don Chaffey), its unnamed protagonist (McGoohan) quits the British Secret Service with no reason cited; but as we know, departing an intelligence position is hardly a done deal. Drugged and abducted by arcane forces, he awakens …
Where Am I?
In the Village.
What Do You Want?
Whose Side Are You On?
That Would Be Telling. We Want Information.
You Won’t Get It.
By Hook, or By Crook, We Will.
Who Are You?
The New No. 2.
Who Is No. 1?
You Are No. 6.
I Am Not a Number, I Am a Free Man.
As the Prisoner soon learns, the Village is a facade, seemingly populated by affable occupants, located on a remote island. And, as our protagonist will further discover, resistance is futile. Or so the Fascist state will try to convince him.
From this first episode, The Prisoner established its aggressive editing. A series of village inquiries take the Prisoner nowhere. From the Green Dome, No.2 (Guy Doleman) invites the Prisoner to breakfast, which becomes an interrogation: “Why did you resign, No. 6?” The Prisoner is warned that he only has a short amount of time to cooperate before the information is extracted.
After taking in the village, the Prisoner witnesses the fate of a fellow nonconformist who, upon trying to escape, is engulfed in an organic, white mass called the Rover. What is it? It is never explained, but its function is to capture and return potential escapees.
Undeterred, the Prisoner refuses to be identified by his number or fill out a questionnaire. He throws out the maid, and, in rage, destroys a radio, which continues playing music.
After an encounter with the Rover, the Prisoner wakes up in the village hospital and is reunited with a former colleague named Cobb (Paul Eddington) who also talks of escape. However, that plan is put to an end with Cobb’s suicide by jumping out the window. At Cobb’s funeral, the Prisoner meets No.9, Cobb’s girlfriend (Virginia Maskell, who actually committed suicide shortly after filming on the series ended).
Together, the Prisoner and No. 9 plot an escape via a helicopter, but with a new, more hostile No. 2 (George Baker) things are not as they seem: “Trust no one.” Even maps lie and villagers can take on multifarious incarnations. The end result is a hopelessly circular one.
“The Arrival” stands as a well written, acted, directed and edited pilot, one of the most memorable in television. Yet, apart from the pilot, each episode can be a standalone (which renders arguments about its chronology as pointlessly silly).
In “The Chimes Of Big Ben” (again directed by Chaffey), a new No. 2 (Leo McKern) emphatically states that he does not want No. 6 broken into fragments. The Prisoner, on his end, awakens to the sound of an announcement for the Village Arts and Crafts Exhibition, which he responds to by placing the loudspeaker in the refrigerator.
A new Number 8 (Nadia Gray) has arrived in the Village and is placed next door to No. 6. No. 2 is delighted to see that she and the Prisoner are hitting it off. The outcomes seems to be a softening of the Prisoner’s resolve. However, a sequence of events, some of which utilizes the Crafts exhibition, lead to a daring escape attempt by both the Prisoner and No. 8. Fragments are indeed heartbreaking.
Both McKern and Gray are superb guest stars in this psychologically complex and entertaining episode. McKern is so good, he will be one of only two actors to reprise the ever-changing role of No. 2.
In “A. B. and C.“ (directed by Pat Jackson, who also worked on “Secret Agent”) the new No. 2 (Colin Gordon) believes that the Prisoner’s defection was part of a plan to betray the agency. His belief is so steadfast that he subjects the Prisoner to a drug interrogation, performed by No. 14 (Sheila Allen, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire). Thus, the episode take us securely into the dream realm. The end result is surrealism-lover’s paradise, which does not mean (as is often the case with surrealism) emotional bankruptcy. At the heart of it is McGoohan, guiding us through a topsy turvy state where choices are never simple. This is a standout episode, which is saying a lot.
In “Free For All,” McGoohan steps in as both writer and director in this political manifesto in which the Prisoner chooses to run for office in the Village. The new and humorless No. 2 (esteemed character actor Eric Portman) assigns the Prisoner a maid, the non-English speaking No. 58 (Rachel Herbert).
Although the spy element is naturally retained, “Free For All” is more of a political parable (making it rather apt in this American election season, especially with delusional paranoia about fixed elections being bandied about). As a matter of fact, the Prisoner here could actually be in the predicament that a certain narcissistic candidate today likes to fancy himself in. Fortunately, the Prisoner is devoid of both demagoguery and rhetoric. He’s too inherently broken for that.
Next week will cover the middle episodes of “The Prisoner.”