The Prisoner (17 TV episodes,1967–1968)

The Prisoner – The Complete Series DVD Rating: ★★★★★

“I will not make any deals with you… I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own…”

The PrisonerThe Prisoner was one of the most original dramas ever aired on television. Brainchild of producer and star Patrick McGoohan (1928- 2009) the series portrays a high-ranking but un-named secret agent in the Government who resigns from his position and while leaving for a holiday, is immediately abducted and taken to what looks like an idyllic resort, but is really a sinister prison known only as “The Village.”  No one has a name. Everyone has a number, all are watched continually by unseen eyes, both in and out of the homes that are given to them. Escape is regarded as impossible by those who have come to accept their captivity. The residents generally appear very ordinary, but there is no knowing who are friends and who are enemies; who are fellow Prisoners and who are spies.

 “I am not a number. I am a person”.

Number 6 ( the new “identity” given to him by his captors) soon learns that no one can be trusted, not even one of his oldest and closest friends whom he finds is there, and certainly not the girls who come into his new life, right from the start.

From here onwards, the series is concerned with his attempts to escape and his rebellion against the efforts to make him conform, with the reiterated demands that he should reveal why he has resigned from his job, why he should have dared to challenge authority.

Those in charge (whose governmental and political affiliations are unknown) will take extreme measures to prevent his escape, and break him.

Originally aired in 1967, the 17-episode series begins with Number 6’s arrival in The Village, and ends with a two-part finale which many would claim raises more questions than it answers. During the course of the series, Number 6 struggles both to learn the identity of his captors and how to escape from the isolated Village, cut off from the rest of the world by mountains and sea. Each episode features a new “Number 2” (right-hand man to the unseen Number 1), who brings new ideas and methods for breaking the unyielding Number 6. Servant to the current Number 2 is the mysterious butler, a silent dwarfish man who is the only other regular than McGoohan.

Portmeirion, Wales - home of The Prisoner
Portmeirion, Wales – home of The Prisoner

“The Prisoner” is a unique piece of television. It forced you to think. Nothing was ever what it appeared, no one had a real name, you never knew who was the good guy or the bad guy (or if they were one and the same!). It addresses issues such as personal identity and freedom, the meaning of democracy, education, scientific progress, art and technology, all while still remaining an entertaining drama series. As each episode builds upon the last, we witness a war of attrition between the faceless forces behind ‘The Village’ and its most strong willed inmate, Number 6. who struggles ceaselessly to assert his individuality while plotting to escape from his captors. The Village is determined to crack The Prisoner by attempting to get the answer to why he resigned from his post. As time passes, two questions plague The Prisoner’s mind – How can he escape? and, who is the real leader of the Village – the mysterious Number 1?

Many search for symbolism and hidden meaning in The Prisoner, and volumes of interpretation and speculation have been written in the thirty years since the series premiered.

Did Patrick McGoohan anticipate the level of attention the series has generated? Surprisingly, McGoohan had on at least one occasion stated that he found it “marvellous” that people discussed the meaning of The Prisoner, but that if they did actually understand it, he would appreciate them explaining it to him! He generally refuted notions of hidden meanings, and regarding characterizations of the series as “Kafka-esque,” of course being a reference to “The Trial” and Kafka’s  protagonist Josef K, who is never told why he has been arrested and imprisoned, then released only to have to report regularly to court, always without a resolution.

“He makes even putting on a dressing-gown a gesture of defiance” (Number 2)

This TV series was, and probably still is, way ahead of its time. McGoohan said: “I believe passionately in the freedom of the individual – and “The Prisoner” is basically about the de-humanizing, the loss of individuality, which is happening to us all.” People are the prisoners of our society. This series is a comment on life.

Who is the Prisoner? It could be the viewer himself. The Prisoner of the title has no name. He has become simply a number. The menacing “Rover” is a giant balloon-like object which has been interpreted as symbolizing repression and the guardianship of corrupt authority, but also in contrast, one’s own inner fears we cannot escape from. A penny-farthing bicycle is the Village symbol, This has been interpreted as representing the slow pace of progress in the modern world. The butler (played by Angelo Muscat) represents the little man of every community who is prepared to follow, faithfully, any established leader and switch his loyalties as the occasion demands.

But “The Prisoner” was more than a modern morality play. Each episode is gripping, fascinating and tense, complete in itself except for the constant theme showing one man’s fight for freedom…, freedom of mind as well as physical freedom.

“Free For All” shows the Prisoner standing for election as the new “Number 2,” the man in direct control of the Village, responsible to the unseen Number 1 and also with the onus of trying to break new captives.

It was portrayed as a democratic election, but the word had a hollow ring about it. As in so many countries, the voter really had little choice. And if an outsider should get in, what chance had he? Even if victorious, as the Prisoner is in this story,  what can he do with victory? The Prisoner found himself in control. He could free his fellow prisoners – but the real truth is that they were the only people who could free themselves.

Life, it might be said, it like a game of chess – and a game of chess, played with humans as chess-pieces, features in the episode “Checkmate.” Move and counter- move lead to an ingeniously planned relationship between the prisoner, as Queen’s pawn, and the chess Queen, played by Rosalie Crutchley. A new treatment is tried out on the Queen in which the belief is implanted in her brain that she is in love with the Prisoner and that he is in love with her; and that she will do anything for him, even betray him to save him from his own folly. She is given a necklace which she is told is a gift from him – a necklace with a bugged detector-transmitter in the locket which enables the unseen watchers to follow her movements and, because of her attention to the Prisoner, follow him around too.

An old friend is used to try to trick the Prisoner in the episode “Dance of the Dead,” in which grim drama is played out against the garish background of a carnival, and a tense climax in which the Prisoner is put on trial and discovers how easily crowds can be swayed when the villagers turn against him.

One of the most unusual episodes in the series is “The Schizoid Man,” in which Patrick McGoohan plays two roles – as the Prisoner of the title and also as his double. The Prisoner undergoes a complete transformation to make him believe he is the other man; in turn, his double claims that he is the real Number 6. Which is which? This is a story which develops on surprising lines, with an attractive girl (played by Jane Merrow) as the pivot in the plan.

Experiments into changing a man’s mentality by means of ultrasonic waves provide the basis for “A Change of Mind.” This is a fast-mounting suspense story which also shows how others in the village are controlled when they show signs of resistance. Two lovely young actresses are seen with McGoohan in this episode: Angela Browne, who plays the part of the ultra-sonics process operator Number 86, and Kathleen Breck as a village girl, Number 42, who goads the Prisoner into taking an action which entraps him.

The world of medical science also provides the theme for “A, B and C,” in which experiments are carried out to manipulate the Prisoner’s dreams. His sub-conscious thoughts are converted into electrical impulses and finally into pictures on a television screen so that his observers can watch what is going on in his mind. In this way, he is mentally transported to Paris to meet people there to whom he may have been willing to sell his secrets.

“Knowledge is not wisdom!” is the theme of another of the highly unusual episodes, titled “The General”, which is the story of a frightening new method to control men’s minds. A form of subliminal implantation feeds information into the mind, which provides knowledge but robs the person of the power to think for himself. This is one of the most significant episodes in the series in that it develops Patrick McGoohan’s message.

“The Prisoner” series covers a wide range. There was one story, “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling,” in which Number 6 is subjected to mind transference. His mind was switched to another man’s body.

There is even an out-and-out Western, a drama in traditional style, with McGoohan as a lean and laconic hero who comes to the rescue of a lovely girl (played by Valerie French) and avenges her when she is killed. “Living in Harmony” is the title of this first Western ever to be filmed for television in England.

“The Girl Who Was Death”, an episode in which Justine Lord is a girl who believes she and the Prisoner were made for each other: he is a born survivor and she is a born killer. She’s lovely but lethal, with the Prisoner as her prey. Her methods of trying to kill him are comical, yet with serious intent, and range from an explosive-filled cricket ball to a poisoned drink in a public house.

By contrast, “Once Upon A Time” is a grim battle of wits between the Prisoner and Number 2 (this time played by Leo McKern) – the ultimate in brain-washing in which, day in and day out, the two men indulge in a battle of will-power, in the knowledge that one must break and that death awaits the loser.

In the final episode “Fall Out”, we learn of a mysterious hooded & masked assembly of Village delegates who met in an underground chamber. Twenty-nine delegates are seen in three rows, each with a small sign in front of them indicating the faction of Villagers or aspect of Village life they represent. The represented factions include: THERAPISTS,  REACTIONISTS, PACIFISTS, ACTIVISTS and ANARCHISTS.

When “Fall Out” was first shown in Britain, it made head-line news because of the controversy it caused. This is no cosy, tidily wrapped-up ending of the type one might expect in a more straight-forward series. There is physical excitement, but there is much more. The answers are there for those who search their own minds. It forms the climax to the most talked-about and argued-over series ever filmed in the UK.