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
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.
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.
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
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,
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.
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.
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.
Photo courtesy of ITC Entertainment
Prisoner..................................... Patrick McGoohan
Van Gysegham Kenneth
Kid/Number 48.................................. Alexis Kanner
Angelo Muscat The Supervisor.......................................
Peter Stanwick Shopkeeper ................................................Denis
17 50-minute Episodes
Films for ITV
September 1967-February 1968
Thomas. The Prisoner. New York: Ace, 1970
for All (fan magazine), (Ipswich, England). McDaniel, David.
Who is Number Two. New York: Ace, 1969.
Dave. The Prisoner and Danger Man. London: Boxtree, 1989.
Hank. The Prisoner: A Day in the Life. New York: Ace, 1970.
Matthew, and Jaffer Ali. The Official Prisoner Companion. New
York: Warner, 1988.