THE PRISONER

British Spy/Science Fiction Series

The Prisoner, an existential British spy/science fiction series, was first aired in England in 1967. Actor Patrick McGoohan conceived of the idea for the series, wrote some of the scripts, and starred in the central role. McGoohan had become bored with his previous series, The Secret Agent, and wanted something very different. The new series comprised 17 "adventures," each self-contained, but each also carrying the story forward to its remarkable, highly ambiguous conclusion.

The series has attained cult status because it is so complex, so filled with symbolism, with dialogue and action working at several levels of meaning, that the entire story remains open to multiple interpretations. The Prisoner was shot in the Welsh village of Portmeirion, whose remarkable architecture contributes to the rich, mysterious atmosphere of the series. In many ways an allegory, the adventures within The Prisoner can be read as commentaries on contemporary British social and political institutions.

The hero of the series is an unnamed spy first shown resigning his position. He leaves the bureaucratic office building housing his agency, goes to his apartment, starts packing--and is gassed--presumably by those for whom he used to work. He wakes up in "The Village," a resort-like community on what seems to be a remote island. "The Village," however, is actually a high-tech prison, and the spy is a prisoner, along with others, men and women who were, it is understood, spies. All have been sent to "The Village" to be removed from circulation in any circumstances where their secret knowledge might be discovered.

Every member of "The Village" is known only by a number. The McGoohan character becomes Number Six, and finds himself engaged in constant intellectual, emotional, and sometimes physical struggles with Number Two. But each episode presents a different Number Two. With a few exceptions, each episode begins with a repetition of some of the opening sequences from the first episode--McGoohan resigns; his file is dropped by a mechanical device into a filing cabinet labeled "Resigned"; he is gassed; he wakes in "The Village" and confronts (the new) Number Two. This beginning is followed by a set piece of dialogue:

Prisoner: Where am I?
Number Two: In The Village.
Prisoner: What do you want?
Number Two: Information.
Prisoner: Which side are you on?
Number Two: That would be telling. We want information, information, information...
Prisoner: You won't get it.
Number Two: By hook or by crook we will. Prisoner: Who are you?
Number Two: The new Number Two.
Prisoner: Who is Number One?
Number Two: You are Number Six.
Prisoner: I am not a number. I am a free man. Number Two: Ha, ha, ha, ha....

Some fans of the series argue that there is a slight gap between the words "are" and the "Number Two" in this exchange ("You are. Number Six."), which would mean that Number Six is also Number One, a character who remains unseen until the final episode. Number Two pushes the inquiry. He wants to know why Six resigned. Six says he will not tell him, then vows to escape from "The Village" and destroy it. Each episode in the series consists of an attempt by a new Number Two and his or her associates to find out why Six resigned and of measures taken by Six to counter these attempts. Every possible method, from drugs to sex, from the invasion of his dreams to the use of supercomputers, is used to get Number Six to reveal why he resigned. In some episode Six shifts his focus from escape attempts to schemes for bringing down the administration of "The Village," though it is always understood that escape is his ultimate goal.

The concluding episode, written by McGoohan, was extremely chaotic, confusing, and very controversial. Number Six has defeated and killed Number Two in the previous episode, "Once Upon A Time." When Number six finally gets to see Number One, he turns out to be a grinning ape. But when Number Six strips off the ape mask, we see what appears to be a crazed version of Number Six, suggesting that Number One was, somehow, a perverted element of Number Six's personality. Six, aided by several characters also deemed "revolutionaries" by the administration (including the Number Two of the previous episode, somehow brought back to life), does destroy "The Village." He escapes with his associates in a truck driven by a midget, who may have been the servant of all previous Number Two figures. They blast through a tunnel just before "The Village" is destroyed and find themselves, surprisingly, on a highway near London.

The Prisoner is considered by some critics to be television's first masterpiece, the most brilliant television series ever produced. It is continually rebroadcast, usually presented as a science fiction program, though it is probably best described as a spy series filled with technological gadgetry. Each program and every aspect of the series has been subjected to scrutiny by its fans. Dealing with topics ranging from the nature of individual identity to the power of individuals to confront totalitarian institutions, The Prisoner remains one of the most enigmatic and fascinating series ever produced for television.

-Arthur Asa Berger

 


The Prisoner
Photo courtesy of ITC Entertainment

CAST

The Prisoner..................................... Patrick McGoohan Number Two(s)..........................................Guy Doleman                                                                George Baker                                                                   Leo McKern                                                                  Colin Gordon                                                                 Eric Portman                                                               Anton Rodgers                                                                   Mary Morris                                                             Peter Wyngarde                                                                Patrick Cargill                                                                Derren Nesbitt                                                                  John Sharpe                                                                 Clifford Evans                                                                   David Bauer                                                          Georgina Cookson                                                    Andre Van Gysegham                                                              Kenneth Griffith
The Kid/Number 48.................................. Alexis Kanner The Butler.............................................. Angelo Muscat The Supervisor....................................... Peter Stanwick Shopkeeper ................................................Denis Show

PRODUCER David Tomblin

PROGRAMMING HISTORY 17 50-minute Episodes

ITC/Everyman Films for ITV
September 1967-February 1968

FURTHER READING

Disch, Thomas. The Prisoner. New York: Ace, 1970

Free for All (fan magazine), (Ipswich, England). McDaniel, David. Who is Number Two. New York: Ace, 1969.

Rogers, Dave. The Prisoner and Danger Man. London: Boxtree, 1989.

Stine, Hank. The Prisoner: A Day in the Life. New York: Ace, 1970.

White, Matthew, and Jaffer Ali. The Official Prisoner Companion. New York: Warner, 1988.

 

See also Spy Programs