What if James Bond tried to resign?
It is this intriguing premise that lies at the heart of influential British television series The Prisoner. Coming off the spy show Danger Man, actor Patrick McGoohan and writer George Markstein created a decidedly unconventional follow-up (some say sequel) that turned the espionage genre on its head. It was a show unafraid to defy expectations right down to the uncompromising final episode that so infuriated viewers back in the 1960s that McGoohan famously went into hiding. It’s legacy of messing with viewers’ minds lives on to this day in T.V. with the likes of The Sopranos, Mr. Robot and the recent revival of Twin Peaks, but no one did it better than The Prisoner.
The opening credits are a marvel of efficient visual storytelling by brilliantly establishing the premise in only a few, dialogue-free minutes. Top-secret government agent Number Six (McGoohan) resigns rather emphatically from his job. Unbeknownst to him, he’s followed home and as he packs to leave for somewhere else, smoke is piped into his place. He loses consciousness and so it begins….
He awakens in a quaint, remote seaside resort known as “the Village.” One almost might say it is an idyllic place except that he is forbidden to leave. The denizens act nice enough – maybe a little too nice – but in a way that feels slightly off. This is best encapsulated in the often-repeated phrase, “Be seeing you,” that the villagers say to one another and that quickly goes from provincially charming to downright creepy.
Each episode sees a different Village administrator, known only as Number Two, try to find dissimilar ways to get Number Six to reveal why he resigned while he devises ways to escape and figure out the identity of the mysterious Number One who supposedly rules over the Village. His captors don’t want Number Six running around in the world with the kind of knowledge and secrets that he knows. After all, information is power and they want to know what he knows. Naturally, Number Six resists (“My life is my own.”), and it is his resilience the Village will put to the test repeatedly, and therein lies the main source of conflict.
Patrick McGoohan brings his trademark intensity and intelligence to the role. In every episode we see Number Six thinking and scheming of ways to outwit his captors and escape. While the actor displays a wide range of emotions, he also plays the role enigmatically, never revealing too much as Number Six resists any kind of inquiries from the powers that be.
The actor famously turned down playing James Bond on two different occasions and “The Girl Who Was Death” sees the show at its most playful as the spy genre and detective shows are satirized, complete with overly complicated plots and an insane, power-hungry baddie with the requisite femme fatale. This episode certainly conveys McGoohan’s feelings about the spy genre and why he had no interest in playing Bond.
Watching several episodes back-to-back is like a experiencing an acid trip – the more you watch the more you lose touch with reality as you become deeper immersed in this strange world as the show goes from a spy fantasy story to a science fiction/horror hybrid fused with ‘60s era psychedelia and “pop art.” It as if artist Jim Steranko had decided to take a break from drawing Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD and decided to go into art direction for The Prisoner.
The show’s overriding theme is free will as Number Six resists Number Two’s repeated attempts to get him to divulge his reason for resigning. The Village is a false utopia. In “Arrival,” Number Two claims that it has everything one could want. Everything that is, except for freedom – the commodity that Number Six values most. Number Two controls every aspect of the Village, including its inhabitants and anyone who steps out of line is dealt with in ruthless fashion as a big white malleable sphere known as a Rover emerges with a horrific sound and absorbs said troublemaker. There are hidden surveillance cameras everywhere, eerily foreshadowing the way we live today.
The Prisoner also explores the abuse of power. The government that Number Six used to work for thinks that they own the secrets in his head and do everything in their power to extract them. To this end, they have an entire Village under their control to aid in this endeavor. It is all about control – who has it and how they exert it. As the show begins, the Village administrators have all the power, but over time Number Six gradually wrests control and repeatedly resists their various methods to extract information from him.
“A. B. and C” is an excellent example of the lengths that Number Two will go to extract information out of Number Six – dream manipulation – while also serving as a showcase for the show’s style, employing rear screen projection right out of a Classic Hollywood movie, and skewed camera angles and quick cuts inspired by Orson Welles’ adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial (1962), which only draws attention to the artifice of the dream.
While there is some dispute over who came up with what, McGoohan is often credited as the driving force behind The Prisoner, starring in every episode, and writing and directing several of them. This is a rare actor as auteur project – an accomplishment that has rarely been equaled on T.V. with the notable exception of Twin Peaks: The Return where David Lynch directed and co-wrote every episode and also appeared in many of them. The Prisoner was clearly a passion project for McGoohan and it shows in every detail, right down to the décor of Number Six’s home and the blazers everyone wears, that this was all thought out beforehand and with great care.
The Prisoner’s legacy is impressive. It has gone on to inspire comic book writers (Grant Morrison), musicians (The Beatles), films (The Matrix), and T.V. shows (Lost). The less said about the mediocre six-episode miniseries remake on AMC in 2009 the better but hopefully it motivated some to seek out the original, which continues to provoke and remains even more relevant today than when it first came out. We are even more prisoners of our own making, trying to control every aspect of our lives and that of others through technology. McGoohan was warning us of these dangers way back when but clearly his admonition was not heeded.