The British series “The Prisoner” (1967-1968), starring and co-created by Patrick McGoohan, 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.
Does 6 plus 6 really equal 12? So asks the aptly titled “The Schizoid Man” (directed by Pat Jackson). After a seemingly innocuous trifle about bonding with a psychic villager and a bruised thumb, the Prisoner lies down for a good night’s sleep, but it appears that the room night light has a faulty bulb.
Drugged once more, the Prisoner is taken by men in white coats who wheel him into the hospital, turn him into a southpaw (via electroshock, in a moment of karma for all us lefties who were at the mercy of brainwashing status quo teachers with rulers back in first grade), throw away his razors, and give him a new do. After an indeterminate amount of time on the gurney, the Prisoner awakens with a new look in a new surrounding, as pawn of an elaborate scheme composed by the new No. 2 (Anton Rodgers), a surprisingly young administrator.
“You are Number 12,” the Prisoner is told at the Green Dome, “and you are to break Number 6.” “But I am Number 6.” And so he is, or at least his double is. And if you think that in addition to being an attempt at uncovering the reason for the Prisoner’s resignation, this is also a ploy to get him to own his number, you would be right. See Number 12 fence with Number 6. See them box. See them duel with pistols.
Now actually, Number 6 is Number 12 , Number 12 is Number 6, and Number 12 is in cahoots with Number 2. Of course, No. 6 (12) knows this is a feeble scheme hatched by No. 2. Of course, No. 2 knows that No. 12 (6) knows that No. 6 (12) knows. But, what if No. 12 pretends to be No. 6? Perhaps then he could escape. And the helicopter circles back, as it always does. And the psychic is remorseful over having cooperated with No. 2, but neither she nor No. 2 counted on a bruised thumb. Ah!
The script for “The Schizoid Man” so impressed McGoohan that he hired its writer, Terence Freely, to join the production company’s board of directors. In contrast, for years director Pat Jackson claimed to have been utterly confused by the script, but simply directed it as written. His confusion was an honest one and shows in one of the series most legendary episodes. McGoohan responds with a tour de force performance.
Director Peter Graham Scott was reported to have been equally confused by the script for “The General.” Again, that turns out to be a plus (and undoubtedly an astute choice by McGoohan and company).
The Prisoner cannot even enjoy his coffee without Village trauma drama when he hears an announcement ordering history students to immediately return to their dwellings, which is followed by his witnessing the Professor being caught and manhandled (by his students) while attempting to escape.
The Village is obsessed with a new fad, Speed Learning: “Learn a three-year course in three minutes.” “It’s not impossible,” says No. 12. The Prisoner finds the Professor’s tape recorder, which has “information” that may prove damaging to the General and No. 2 (Colin Gordon, this time out). However, before he can listen to it, the Prisoner is forced to bury it and attend the very same history course subliminally taught by the Professor.
No. 2 actively searches for the tape recorder, which he believes is in the Prisoner’s possession. After finding no incriminating evidence, No.2, still convinced that No. 6 has it, hints at offering a ticket out of the Village.
After losing the tape recorder, and retrieving it via No. 12, the Prisoner hears the Professor’s message: “Speed learning is slavery,” and learns it is the General who is behind it all. Allies are hardly that, and this No. 2 underestimates the Prisoner’s cunning, as does the General who is asked an unanswerable question.
This episode is a chillingly contemporary one with commentary on mindless trends and shades of a Big Brother Fox Network appealing to and manipulating their sycophants.
Gordon makes for a winningly effective No. 2 , who, along with Leo McKern, will be the only returning administrator to play the role.
McGoohan himself returns to direct “Many Happy Returns,” where he awakens quite alone. The Village is entirely deserted. Even the rover is missing. Apart from the Prisoner, the only sign of life is the No. 2’s black cat. Building a raft, he finally escapes and, after a tumultuous journey at sea, the Prisoner makes his way back to London.
Sharing his incredible story, the Prisoner is accused of lying by his superiors, and that barbed wire fence he comes across isn’t just a prop. But, in the blink of an eye….
“Many Happy Returns” is often listed as an archetypal episode. Despite the multiple altercations, including a physical one at sea, this is a minimalist episode, sparse in actual dialogue.
“Dance Of The Dead” (directed by Don Chaffey), is, as its title indicates, is one of the bleakest episodes, with a female No. 2 (Mary Morris) who could probably give Harry Potter’s Dolores Umbridge a good run. She leads likeminded merciless, bloodthirsty women who the Prisoner will face, in a trial, after having found and stolen a transistor radio attached to a dead body. The ending is awash in harrowing despair, making this an episode that is often ranked as quintessential Prisoner.
Director Chaffee returns to helm “Checkmate,” and again shows a flair for suffocating gloom. This is one of the episodes whose chronology is debated, since it was actually filmed before the pilot. Regardless, in a human chess match played on the Village green, the Prisoner discovers a potentially useful ally in the Rook. But, nonconformity necessitates therapy as this week’s No. 2 (Peter Wyngarde) is apt to remind us.
A distress signal, a pawn (brainwashed to fall in love with the Prisoner), would be rescuers, and guards who will be pawns are all symbols in this highly expressionistic episode that is one for connoisseurs.
“Hammer Into Anvil” (directed by Pat Jackson) is an adrenaline rush tale of revenge against No. 2 (Patrick Cargill), whom the Prisoner blames for the suicide of No. 73. The revenge is psychological as the Prisoner searches for and finds flaws in his nemesis. It’s an episode of reversals as the Prisoner mercilessly begins his campaign to destroy No. 2. With the Prisoner slightly less sympathetic than before, our empathy for No. 2 rests on Cargill’s performance, which he succeeds in soliciting. Such shrewd emotional manipulation requires a degree of absurdity, which is bounced straight off a trampoline into a paradox of a finale. This is one of the most visceral and wily episodes that lingers well past its compact running time.
“It’s Your Funeral” (directed by Robert Asher) involves an assassination plot against the current No. 2 (Andre van Gyseghem) before a new No. 2 (busy and acclaimed character actor Darren Nesbit) steps in, although, he may or may not be be No. 2 after all.
The Prisoner’s preoccupation with freedom is relegated to the back burner as he and Monique join forces to thwart the plot. Paranoia is the weapon of choice in a Village mutiny, but the lingering question lies with the mutiny itself: is it to be avoided or desired?
“A Change Of Mind” (directed by Patrick McGoohan) opens with the Prisoner confronted by thugs from the gymnasium (which is fairly typical for workout fundies). Seeing that No. 6 would rather exercise in the woods, they accuse him of being “unmutual” (not status quo) and ferociously pick a fight with him. The Prisoner reacts by beating the hell out of them. Then, like all bullies who get whupped, they go and tattle. Of course, No. 2 (played by John Sharp this week) and his gang threaten a spanking, in the form of a lobotomy for No. 6—a literal change of mind. Unfortunately, they haven’t found out yet what they need from No. 6: why the Prisoner resigned as an agent. The solution? Make the Prisoner believe he has been lobotomized. The episode uses Rod Serling circularity, with another confrontation in the woods and a table-turning that leads to the charge of “unumutuality” going much higher.
“Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling” (directed by Pat Jackson) is a genuine oddity in a genuinely odd series. Its contrasting textures are off-colored, with the presence of “star” McGoohan kept to a minimum. He’s hardly even in it, as he was busy filming Ice Station Zebra (1968). Of course, the production team could have simply waited for McGoohan’s return. Instead they found an opportunity for a change of pace. Whether they succeeded or not is intensely debated.
On paper, the plot sounds fatigued. Yet another mind-swapping thriller, the type that “one idea” Universal hack Curt Siodmack wrote repeatedly. When the Colonel (Nigel Stock) arrives in the Village, he is informed by No. 2 (Clifford Evans) that a professor Seltzman (Hugo Schuster) has invented a mind-swapping machine. Unfortunately, Seltzman is missing and, apparently, once done, the process cannot be reversed, which is hardly going to stop No. 2, if it means obtaining information from the Prisoner.
Yet again, the Prisoner is abducted and drugged, only to awaken in the body of the Colonel. It doesn’t take him to long to do the math and go looking for Seltzman. Along the way, No. 6 has his only love scene in the entire series, played by Stock (because the hyper-Catholic McGoohan refused to ever do a love scene). Stock plays the Prisoner throughout most of the episode without resorting to impersonation. His performance is an effective one, matched by Evans’s charismatic No. 2.
Apparently, the script was loathed by almost everyone, and many “Prisoner” fans rank it as the low ebb of the series. There’s no denying that it doesn’t quite come together, but it is a compelling effort.
“Living in Harmony” (directed by David Tomblin) is another episode which sounds wretched and could be dubbed “the Prisoner goes west.” However, as when the original “Star Trek” crew relived the gunfight at the OK Corral (in “Spectre of the Gun,” also from 1968), the end result is among the most refreshingly ludicrous in the show’s run.
The Prisoner finds himself in the guise of a recently resigned sheriff in the town of Harmony, which has a corrupt judge (David Bauer as No. 2) and an upstart trigger-happy gunslinger, known as The Kid (energetically played by Alexis Kanner). The Kid, of course, wants to challenge the Sheriff’s reputation. Every western genre cliche is tapped: from an unruly, hysterical mob, to a trial, to a brutal beating of the pacifistic protagonist. There’s even a Wyatt Earp-like call for gun control, a damsel-in-distress saloon girl for the Sheriff to protect, and a despicable murder, which forces a reluctant hero to put his guns back on. The real question, after a heterodox resurrection, is: “why did the sheriff resign?” The answer is hardly going to be located in acid-induced visions of cardboard cut-outs.
“The Girl Who Was Death” (directed by David Tomblin) is yet another mind-boggling episode that plays silly putty with formula writing. We are taken away from the Village to (apparently) the Prisoner’s past as a “Secret Agent.” This episode is in full satire mode, with a femme fatale Lady Death (Justine Lord, looking like a prototype from the modish 60s) and her mad scientist father Schnipps (Kenneth Griffith, AKA No. 2) wanting to blow up London with his big rocket. Death could be a dominatrix villain straight out of Adam West’s “Batman” series (or any Fu Manchu plot): threatening our hero with spikes, trapping him in a room of exploding poisoned candles, and locking his head in a fish bowl.
The macho spy, detective, and serial genres are all mercilessly parodied, and references abound to Sherlock Holmes (McGoohan in comical mustache), “Mission Impossible,” “The Avengers,” and even the Prisoner’s predecessor “Danger Man.” It’s delightfully corny and kinetically paced, like any good children’s action book should be.
Leo McKern returns as No. 2 in “Once Upon A Time” (directed by Don Chaffey), which usually makes every fan’s top ten list. In addition to pop/abstract editing and sumptuous visuals, one major reason for this episode’s broad acclaim is a tour de force performance from McKern (who reportedly suffered a nervous breakdown due to the role’s intensity). No. 2 has sworn to “Degree Absolute,” meaning that he will engage in a battle of wills, to the death, with No. 6. McGoohan also gives one of his most determined, sustained performances in this despair-laden entry.
Drugged again, the Prisoner finds himself regressed to a childlike state with an unwanted paternal figure in No. 2, who fatally discovers, through the seasons of life, defiance and resistance accompany knowledge in his contentious student. The cruel secrets and dark purpled heart of the Village lie dead on the floor in the Embryo Room.
As the new No. 2, the Prisoner is finally asked:
“What do you desire?”
Aptly, the two-part “Fallout” (directed by McGoohan) is a “Looney Tunes” finale that, in hindsight, couldn’t have been anything else, which is why it was nominated for a Hugo award. A tying up of loose ends or satisfying narrative conclusion would have rendered the entire series hypocritical. Fortunately, McGoohan is too vital an artist to solicit any kind of applause for the ending.
For the last time, we are subjected to the opening ritualized credits, but the Prisoner has evolved. He is no longer even No. 2. He is a cool-toned rugged individual. McGoohan throws in the allegorical kitchen sink with his Prisoner facing the temptation to become the Village idol. As a simian No. 1 is blasted into outer space, the previous No. 6, with the resurrected Kid from “Living in Harmony” (Kanner) and No. 2 (McKern) rumba to “Dem Dry Bones.” It’s a final image that ingeniously provokes even its most rabid fan base: paradoxically of its time and relentlessly contemporary.