Sensor Scan: The Prisoner
Let’s get this straight right from the start: Entire analytical projects can, have been, and should be written about Patrick McGoohan and George Markstein’s The Prisoner. It’s rightly regarded as one of the single greatest and most influential, and most oversignified, television series of all time. Given I don’t even regard the entirety of Vaka Rangi, which tackles just about every filmed moment of Star Trek and then some, as a definitive authoritative reading of the Star Trek franchise, there is absolutely no way I can be expected to come up with some comprehensive interpretation of something like The Prisoner in one blog post. That said, this is still one of the most iconic parts of the televisual landscape of 1967-8 (not to mention a show that was a massive source of inspiration for at least one future creative figure) so there’s no getting away from me saying something about it.
Some assorted thoughts then. First, for those who might not be intimately familiar with The Prisoner, it’s a seventeen episode (though apparently only seven were actually intended and are considered by the creators to be part of the overall story arc) miniseries aired during the 1967-8 season on the British channel ITV that was a rather-more-than-spiritual successor to Patrick McGoohan’s previous series Danger Man, in which he starred as secret agent John Drake. The Prisoner follows a nameless agent, played by McGoohan and largely assumed to be Drake himself, who, after resigning from the service, is kidnapped and imprisoned in a mysterious coastal retirement community. The rest of the series follows the agent, who is never named but who is referred to as Number Six in keeping with the Village’s convention of assigning its residents numbers, as he refuses to acclimate and constantly tries to escape his captors. Number Six’s captors, spearheaded by Number Two (a position filled by a revolving door of individuals) and his superior, the mysterious, unseen Number One, launch a campaign to systematically break Six and discern why he resigned so abruptly.
This summary, of course, does the show no justice because one of its biggest signatures is its overt focus on psychedelic and 1960s counterculture themes, best exemplified by its avant garde cinematography and editing and conspicuous usage of jarring, unsettling and downright bizarre imagery. There is a willfully dreamlike and disjointed approach to structure here: The show goes out of its way to muddle its viewers just as much as The Village tries to psychologically manipulate Number Six and frequently violates its own internal logic just to show that no rules or conventions are above reproach (there is infamously an entire episode where the show suddenly and inexplicably becomes a western, complete with unique intro and closing credits sequences). Although this is possibly the most celebrated part of The Prisoner‘s legacy and contribution to TV, it’s also the part that’s most easily misunderstood. First of all, expecting the show’s abject weirdness to be some kind of overly complicated way of obfuscating “The Truth” and trying to use it to discern some kind of secret, hidden meaning or revelation (like the popular fan theory the show’s credits are designed to give away the ending, and thus the show’s “point”, with the exchange “Who is Number One?” “You Are Number Six”-this rather pointedly and obviously does not mean what fans might like to think it means if you actually watch the show) is hopelessly misguided. This is a show that is not designed to make sense. It is a show designed to tear down the concept of sense.
In that regard one of the things The Prisoner (as well as Danger Man) does not get nearly enough credit for being is an actually rather straightforward critique of its genre, which, head trippiness aside, is really spy fiction. Despite starring in a spy series himself, McGoohan was always somewhat sceptical and apprehensive about the prevalence of certain kind of spy story. He was actually one of the first choices to play James Bond, but he turned the role down because he objected to the fundamental ethics of the character and the series. Number Six is in many ways the complete opposite of Bond: He doesn’t carry a gun, refuses to fight unless forced to and is explicitly celibate, the show going out of his way to show his interest in the female characters is purely platonic and that he’s anything but a womanizer. The Prisoner is actually rather excellent on feminist grounds on the whole, being the rare action show without any really significant overt gendered remarks or assumptions. In addition, a reoccurring theme is suspicion over the growing threat of rampant nationalism, and indeed the one real clue we get for why Number Six resigned is that it was “a matter of conscience”.
It’s also possible to read The Prisoner rather easily as another individualist versus collectivist treatise. The Village definitely operates like an oppressive, effacing institution, down to the show’s famous catchphrase “I am not a number! I am a free man!”. What’s particularly interesting about the way The Prisoner does this however is that this theme is not conveyed as a blunt, anti-communal attack on Soviet-style classical “liberal” systems of government that so typifies much fiction of this era. Rather, it’s an altogether more localized critique of a uniquely British, and if I’m being honest Western, kind of power structure. The Village bears more then a passing resemblance to a British holiday camp, which was a peculiarly mid-20th century phenomenon whereby legions of working to lower middle class families would be shipped off to spend several weeks on holiday in a stretch of housing for what basically amounted to the adult version of a summer camp. Part and parcel of this experience would be mandatory communal meals and activities, lots of general forced happiness and even authoritarian monitor who would patrol up and down at night to make sure everyone was in by curfew and that nothing untoward (meaning flirtatious) went on. The nearest fictional US equivalent might be something like Stepford Village, if the secret wasn’t that everybody was a robotic killer but that there’s an authoritarian power out to gain dominance by enforcing an oppressive classist power structure.
In other words, what McGoohan is essentially doing here is likening glamourous spy fiction, and by association the espionage system Western powers like Britain are built on, to a holiday camp where everyone is required to be chipper and behave like good little conformist citizens while a distant and very probably fascist jingoistic power lords over them. So I guess in the end not much unlike Stepford after all. The sort of collectivist mentality The Prisoner is attacking isn’t the kind of generative, bottom up communal living of the sort that typifies the actual left, but the kind of authoritarian statism that has defined Western imperialism since the concept began.
If we were to compare The Prisoner to what we’ve seen on Star Trek so far, the closest point would probably be “The Return of the Archons”, with Gene Roddenberry’s critique of blindly following orders and the whims of centralized powers, or perhaps Robert Hamner’s “A Taste of Armageddon” with the Federation’s constant screwups and the Eminians quietly submissive to war as it’s become ingrained in their society. Were I inclined to be especially charitable to people like Roddenberry, I could read an episode like that a similar way, not as blunt Red Scare rubbish but as a critique of at least the idea of authoritarianism, if not its manifestations in the West. The only problem with this is that Gene Roddenberry was not Patrick McGoohan. If Roddenberry ever intended a theme like that to be prevalent in any of the scripts he worked on in Star Trek‘s first season, he was nowhere near capable enough a writer to adequately convey this in the finished products, and his reactionary tendencies elsewhere make it rather difficult for me to give him the benefit of the doubt on anything. McGoohan has a deft handle on his craft and knows exactly the sorts of things he wants us to think about, and his shows reflect this in turn.
No, a far better point of comparison in my opinion is actually Raumpatrouille Orion. While that show lacks The Prisoner‘s handle on psychedelic, avant garde imagery and themes, it too has a very clear suspicion of hierarchical power structures. Recall the key joke is that the unified Earth government is actually staggeringly incompetent and hilariously petty, and Tamara Jagellovsk’s primary character arc involves her having to come to terms with how slavish deference towards rules, regulations and authority is unhealthy, counterproductive, unsustainable and unworkable. Cliff McClane as well, despite being an ace pilot and one of the best commanders in the fleet, is far more likely to part with official policy then enforce it and he’s become something of an annoyance to some of his superiors in spite of his heroism, valour and upstanding, selfless nature. While Raumpatrouille is far lighter on the whole and doesn’t approach these themes with anywhere near the gravity and seriousness The Prisoner does, it does seem to share them. Much like RaumpatrouilleOrion then, The Prisoner is frequently quite clearly working with the concept of institutionalized and otherwise hegemonic power structures and how to work against them from within.
However, focusing on McGoohan’s basic political statements, as interesting and important as they may be, rather avoids the issue that The Prisoner is still one of the most artistic and unorthodox bits of television ever filmed. Although it remains fundamentally a bit of spy fiction, the show’s explicit embrace of psychedelic imagery means the realms of the mystic and transcendental are never far away, always exerting their wills on what The Prisoner does. It may not have been the trippiest work of its time, that title would probably go to one of The Beatles’ contemporaneous films (although it is worth noting The Beatles were enormous Prisoner fans and had actually originally hoped to get McGoohan to produce their movies), but what’s special about how it’s used here is that it can be seen as bringing together and reinforcing the other concepts the show is working through clear cut meta-commentary. There is a very noticeable televisual motif throughout The Prisoner, most noticeable in the scenes where Number Two and his aides watch Number Six’s efforts on a monitor from the Blue Dome. The camera angles constantly switch between the action with Six and Two watching the same scene from the same perspective. Number Two and his men can also remotely operate different facets of The Village to foil Six’s efforts, and this is another method they use to try and psychologically manipulate him.
An example that comes to mind is in the first episode, where Number Two is remarking on the failure of one of his agents, disguised as Six’s sympathetic housekeeper, to extract information from him. Two says something along the lines of how “well acted” her performance was and how convincingly she played her role, and that he was sure Number Six would be taken in by it. Two sounds exactly like a hypothetical audience member here, remarking on the actions of the characters onscreen and the talents of the actors who portray them. Furthermore, the one bit of knowledge those in charge of The Village keep stressing is of paramount importance is the exact reason Number Six resigned his commission. Interestingly, we actually do get to see the moment Six resigns in the opening scene of the first episode, but we’re unable to hear what he says to his superior as all audio apart from the soundtrack is muted.
Later on, we learn that The Village apparently knows everything about Six’s life except this one minor annoying detail and they’re obsessed with finding out what it is, and Number Two is standing in for the audience. So now, we don’t just have spy fiction equated with British holiday camps and authoritarian Western statism, but also with the act of voyeuristically watching television itself. From a modern perspective, it’s almost impossible for me not to see Number Two’s anal fixation on irreverent and inconsequential details like why exactly this character resigned his post as a rather scathing, yet also hilarious, critique of a certain kind of obsessive genre fiction fan, which is all the more impressive as such an archetype, at least in the way we would recognise it, really didn’t exist in 1967. What this means is that Number Six isn’t just constrained and imprisoned by his job, or the kind of society he lives in, or even by the trappings of his genre, but by, honestly, the abstract concept of television Soda Pop Art itself.
In this regard then perhaps Number Six is more similar to Captain Kirk, at least when he’s written by people who know what to do with him, then might be immediately obvious. Both can be seen as characters who are trapped and restricted by the shows they’re on, and who are constantly looking for ways to escape and grow apart from them. The primary difference between the two, however, is how the shows they’re on work through these ideas. Star Trek is a show that consistently only works in spite of itself, and its various disparate elements are each trying to become their own equally fascinating things while the actual structure and value system the show inherits from its influences keeps trying to hold it back. When Kirk works he’s great and William Shatner is far more savvy then absolutely anyone gives him credit for, but he’s got both the diegetic and extradiegetic shows fighting against him. But while Star Trek is struggling because of these concerns, The Prisoner could be convincingly read as actually being about them, which really says quite a lot about what it was possible for both the television landscape and also the larger zeitgeist of 1967 to be.
Unfortunately, this means that, in 1967, Star Trek is frankly behind the times. Between The Prisoner and Raumpatrouille Orion the world of television around it is going in directions that are pretty clearly forcing Gene Roddenberry and the Enterprise crew to play catch-up. It’s telling that, of the three shows, Star Trek is the only one to be canceled outright by virtue of its own quality and ratings: Raumpatrouille‘s overblown budget made it financially unviable, and The Prisoner almost got another season and Patrick McGoohan actually had to fight and compromise to keep it at seventeen episodes, as it was never intended to be a long-form serial. Star Trek, in spite of its cult legacy and what the material episode lists say, really only has one more year left in it before NBC puts it to bed. But Star Trek the franchise has outlasted almost everything, which is, here in 1967, is just about the most stupefyingly inexplicable thing ever. Why is that? Well, I think part of the reason has to do with things like this…
July 24, 2013 @ 7:13 am
Ah, The Prisoner, yet another Great Thing I've been meaning to watch for years and haven't yet. I really should get on that.
"(not to mention a show that was a massive source of inspiration for at least one future creative figure)"
If we're talking Trek creative figures, Brannon Braga I'd wager, and rarely for the better alas.
July 24, 2013 @ 10:46 am
Which seven are the intended ones? I always start watching this show and then get bored with the random filler episodes and never get to the end. However, maybe I should just watch the important ones in order to keep up my interest? Or since I've seen most of the first eight episodes plus the one where he escapes to England, I should just jump to the Western episode and the two final episodes.
July 24, 2013 @ 10:57 am
The Prisoner is one of those series I kept hearing so much about and I was afraid to watch it, because I read all these good things about it. I thought I am gonna be overhyped and then hugely disappointed. Surprisingly, that was not the case. The series was better than the hype. This rarely happens and I think this speaks about its quality.
I think the difference between The Prisoner and Star Trek is also that the theme is carefully interwoven into the fabric of the show. I think you mentioned that in your analysis, but it must be repeated. I believe Trek always wants to sound intelligent (even in J.J. Abrams' version), but sometimes it just comes off as clumsy, whereas The Prisoner never stumbles (but please – do not mention the remake).
July 24, 2013 @ 11:22 am
According to Patrick McGoohan, the only episodes he had intended and planned for the series, or at least the only ones essential to the main story arc, were:
"Free for All"
"Dance of the Dead"
"The Chimes of Big Ben"
"Once Upon A Time"
All the rest were quite literally filler, written only to satisfy the seventeen episode count the network requested (which was already a compromise, as McGoohan wanted a seven part miniseries and the network wanted a returning, long-form serial).
July 24, 2013 @ 11:24 am
"I believe Trek always wants to sound intelligent (even in J.J. Abrams' version), but sometimes it just comes off as clumsy, whereas The Prisoner never stumbles…"
That's a pretty succinct way of putting it I feel.
"(but please – do not mention the remake)"
No worries! We will return to The Prisoner one day, but that's not how we're going to do it.
July 26, 2013 @ 5:13 pm
I've been following this blog since nearly the beginning, and as a lifelong Trekkie I've been enjoying it immensely. You've been a bit harder on some episodes than I would have been, and a bit kinder to others, but that's what makes it…fascinating (I didn't do that on purpose. I swear). Because of all that I'm a little sad that my first comment is a slightly nitpicky point about The Prisoner.
You call the issue of why Number 6 resigned "Number Two's anal fixation on irreverent and inconsequential details," which is honestly an interpretation that never occurred to me. You're clearly more interested in the genre critique and the psychedelia than the actual spy fiction, which is valid. Especially given McGoohan's history. But within the spy story, the question of why he resigned is not inconsequential. It gets to Cold War issues of possible double agents and defectors. It is never made explicit which side the Number Two and the Village is on, and in some ways that's the point. But the idea that the West, in trying to determine if Number Six has defected would go to these bizzare lengths I've always felt is as important component as anything.
July 26, 2013 @ 8:03 pm
Well first of all, welcome to the site and thanks for reading!
IRT The Prisoner while I think the diegetic spy fiction explanation for the to-do over Number Six's resignation is certainly appropriate on that level, I can't help feeling The Village is styled after a British holiday camp for a reason. It seems very clear to me this is McGoohan criticizing a certain kind of homegrown power structure, and by association the spy fiction genre.
I could see the Cold War-era West growing concerned over a resignation because they fear a defector, but not a double agent (a double agent wouldn't seem to be of much use if they're no longer employed by one of the two necessary parties). But regardless, I still think even if such a detail is important to those in the spy story, it isn't, or at least shouldn't be, to us, the audience: Clearly the part of The Prisoner that ought to be the most interesting to viewers is what the heck The Village is and why it works the way it does, not to mention why the show seems in active revolt against its own structure and narrative coherence.
(The answer, it would seem obvious to me, is of course that the show is, in point of fact, in revolt against its own structure and narrative coherence and the hand-wringing over potential enemy agents is just one layer of a recursive metaphor 🙂 )