“Where am I?”
“In the Village.”
“What do you want?”
“We want information.”
“Whose side are you on?”
“That would be telling….We want information. Information. Information.”
“You won’t get it.”
“By hook or by crook, we will.”
“Who are you?”
“The new Number Two.”
“Who is Number One?”
“You are Number Six.”
“I am not a number. I am a free man!”
Thus began nearly every episode of classic British TV show, “The Prisoner”, created by and starring the late Patrick McGoohan, most recognizable to this generation as the evil king in Braveheart. The show, a startling dark satire about the Cold War, politics, the identify of man and his relationship to society, was absolutely groundbreaking. It feels like what might happen if G.K. Chesterton, in a really cynical mood, decided to write a James Bond novel immediately after hearing the story of Alice in Wonderland for the first time. I first saw it shortly after finishing college, when I discovered that the local library in Waco had copies of many episodes. I had heard references to it hear and there in years before that, and my curiosity was piqued.
I was instantly hooked, and devoured all 17 episodes as fast as I could get my hands on them. And I still remember the day I finally got to see the finale, a hard to come-by episode. In its last two hours, the highly-philosophical show abandons most attempt at traditional television and storytelling and explodes into almost purely symbolic dialogue and images. Put another way, the finale follows a thread of a story but is possibly one of the most unsettling things ever written and broadcast. When it was over, I sat on the couch, shocked, unable to move for probably 15 minutes or so.
The show is largely hailed as one of the true masterpieces of the TV age, and has been highly influential. The Simpsons parodied the show twice, and the producers of Lost acknowledge the debt they have to the show, this year even giving Sawyer a Prisoner-signature line: “Be seeing you!” A “reimagining” comes out this fall, with Sir Ian McKellan and Jim Caviezel.
Lately, I’ve been in a Prisoner mood again, thanks largely to my recent visit to Portmierion, the resort in northern Wales where much of the series was shot. Portmierion IS “The Village”, and I have racked my brains trying to think of another real place that has become such an iconic part of a piece of visual media. I mean, certain locations in New York City are important to many films, but I can’t think of a single place so tied to a single piece. Here’s a look:
The opening credits show us a man determinedly quitting his job. The setting and manor suggest he is quitting a sensitive, important job–perhaps he is a spy? Why he is quitting is unclear, but he is upset and determined. He goes home, is in the midst of packing for some long-awaited vacation when a mysterious man in a dark suit walks to his front door and pumps gas through the keyhole. The newly-resigned man is knocked out. He awakens, confused, in what seems to be his own apartment, but when he looks out the window he sees a bright and odd village instead of his busy London street. He is in The Village, where no one is known by name but instead by number. He is Number 6. Number 2 is in charge. Number 2 wants to know why he resigned. Number 6 wants to escape. There are hints of a Number 1 behind everything. Nearly every week, there is a new Number 2, trying a new tactic to break Number 6.
As I said before, behind the plot there is commentary and satire on a man’s relationship to society, with key questions about individuality, personal freedom, the relationship to communtiy, education, politics, art, power, and many other ideas which would dominate the turmoil of the 60s.
Patrick McGoohan, who created the show as well as starred in it, said that there were only 7 episodes he wanted to do, and thus 7 that stuck to the core of his basic idea. His network wanted more, and a deal was struck to make 17.
The first 13 of the 17 can be broken up into three basic plots. Sometimes all three are present, sometimes just one.
1. Number Two tries a new tactic to break Number 6.
2. Number 6 tries to break, humiliate, or outfox Number 2.
3. Number 6 tries to escape.
Then the last four episodes are a bit odd. One is a western. Another is a very entertaining spy story taking place back in the real world. This episode was made in response to criticisms that the show was too intellectual and thus too confusing for the average viewer. So McGoohan made a goofy, simple spy story, and at the end it is revealed that the story is a tale that The Prisoner is telling a group of children. At the end he looks straight into the camera and says, “Good night–to children everywhere,” thus calling his critics a group of children.
And then we get to the two-part finale, which as I mentioned before are deeply weird. Don’t believe me? Try this clip from part one:
Number Two has forced Number Six to revert to his childhood self in an attempt to pinpoint the moment at which he became so rebellious, and is attempting to get him to confess why he resigned from his job while in that mindset. But you wouldn’t get that from the clip (skip to the last minute to see the weirdest part). Context and a study of the dialogue would help it make a bit more sense…but it’s still pretty insane. And the last hour is even weirder, as Number Six is given the chance to lead a trial over some other numbers, one of whom is obsessed with singing a song based on the Valley of Dry Bones parable from Ezekiel.
Most of my favorite episodes fall outside McGoohan’s “7 Pure Episodes.” The seven key ones tend to be just a bit stranger, with plots that kind of meander in order to make a point about art or politics or whatever. The ones that fall outside those seven tend to adhere to more traditional television rules and are therefore more easily entertaining. Not necessarily a good thing, but TV shouldn’t always be work (I think if you’re going to watch it it should give you something worthwhile most of the time, though.) Some of those favorites include “A,B,C” in which the new Number Two induces Six into a dream state, and make that dream state enact a fictional party in which he is supposed to encounter three people (A B or C) who might have enticed him to retire. Six, after a time, realizes what has happened and takes back his dreams in a thrilling climax.
Another favorite is “Hammer into Anvil”, in which Six decides to break a Two he finds particularly despicable. Here’s a clip, just so you can see that the dialogue on a typical episode was a bit more normal:
I also like “Schizoid Man” and “Change of Mind”, but my favorite is probably the last hour, because it is so stunning, and the statement he makes about the fallenness of man so clear and powerful. And a bit unexpected. We are all prisoners, but what does freedom mean?
Do a bit of research on The Prisoner and you’ll find I’m not just blowing smoke. Look past the dated look of the cinematography and the weirdness that at times borders on silly. You’ll be glad you did.
Be seeing you!