Friday 16 March 2018

The Prisoner (1967-68)

There’s probably no British television series of the 60s more highly regarded than The Prisoner, at least among fans of action/adventure/spy/science fiction series. Certainly no British series has ever engendered such fierce debates about its meaning.

A British spy resigns, for reasons that he refuses to reveal. Upon arriving home he is drugged. He wakes up in The Village. The Village is remarkably picturesque and could be regarded as a perfectly charming place in which to live, apart from one thing - it is a prison. There are no walls or fences surrounding The Village and nobody is locked in a cell and life is extremely comfortable and even pleasant but it is still a prison.

The problem for the British spy (whose name is never revealed), or at least the most perplexing problem, is that he has no idea whose prisoner he is. It might be the Soviets. It might be another foreign power. It might even be the British Secret Service. He has no idea where The Village is.

He does know what is wanted of him. Information is wanted, and more specifically his captors want to know the reasons for his resignation. Partly because he doesn’t know the identity of his captors, and partly out of sheer stubbornness, he has no intention of telling them. It quickly becomes apparent that he is a man who does not deal well with authority figures and who does not like having his rights or his privacy infringed (which is rather ironic given that he is a spy and spies are not renowned for respecting other people’s privacy).

All the residents of The Village are spies. No names are used. Everyone has a number. The new arrival is informed that he is Number Six. This is exactly the sort of thing that makes him even more stubborn. He does not like being a mere number.

The first episode, Arrival, sets up the basic premise (and does it very well). It also introduces Number Two. There must logically be a Number One but this mysterious personage is not in evidence. Number Two has the task of getting the vital information out of Number Six.

In fact there will be numerous different Number Twos over the course of the series. Number Twos who fail to persuade Number Six to talk get replaced and it seems quite possible that the fate of an ex-Number Two is not a happy one.

The Chimes of Big Ben introduces the most celebrated Number Two of them all, the great Leo McKern. McKern will be seen again later in the series. Number Six has planned an elaborate escape attempt with another resident.

In A. B. and C. Number Two has formed the strong suspicion that the reason for Number Six’s resignation was that he was intending to turn traitor. But to whom was he going to sell out? Number Two has narrowed it down to three possibilities. The interactive dream idea is quite cool.

Free for All was written and directed by Patrick McGoohan. An election is to be held for the position of Number Two and Number Six decides to run. He discovers that democracy in The Village does not quite live up to the propaganda. Of course that may well be true of democracy in general (which may have been McGoohan’s point).

The idea of the double, having the spy hero encounter a perfect doppelganger, was perhaps the most over-used cliché in 1960s spy television. The Schizoid Man is one of the better examples. In fact it may be the cleverest ever use of the double idea. There are now two Number Sixes but even Number Six doesn’t know if he’s the real Number Six or not. An excellent episode.

The General is one of the weaker episodes. Speed Learn is the latest craze sweeping The Village. It offers a three-year course in modern history in just three minutes. Unfortunately the two surprise twists at the end are much too predictable.

I must confess that I have no idea what the point was of Many Happy Returns although It’s clever enough in its own way. Number Six wakes up one morning to find The Village deserted. Now surely nothing can prevent his escape but of course it’s not going to be quite so simple.

Dance of the Dead involves a dead body washed ashore that may give Number Six a chance of escape. He also encounters an old intelligence agency colleague who is not coping well with life in The Village. Like other episodes written by Anthony Skene (such as A. B. and C. and Many Happy Returns) it has good ideas but doesn’t make much sense. Of course The Prisoner is supposed to be a series that is puzzling and ambiguous but it works best when the stories at least have some internal logic.

Checkmate sees Number Six trying to escape again. The escape method is a bit too reminiscent of the methods he used unsuccessfully in an earlier episode. This one has the feel of more or less a straight spy thriller and it has a nice twist at the end.

In my personal opinion the episodes that focus on the battle of wills between Number Six and Number 2 (and the unseen forces that are really controlling things) are far more interesting than the episodes that focus on Number Six’s escape attempts. An excellent example of the former is Hammer Into Anvil. This is more than just the usual battle of wills. It’s a duel and it might well be a duel to the death. Number Six blames the new Number Two for the death of a prisoner and this time he is determined to strike back. One of the strengths of this series is that the ongoing battle of wills and wits between Number Six and the various incarnations of Number Two is fairly evenly balanced. Sometimes Number Six loses, but sometimes he wins. Patrick Cargill gets to demonstrate his acting chops as a nasty but perhaps slightly unhinged Number Two and Patrick McGoohan gets the chance to show us a side to Number Six that we haven’t seen before. A superb episode.

It's Your Funeral involves an assassination which Number Six has to prevent although he’s not really sure if he believes it’s a real plan or another elaborate mind game cooked up by Number Two.

In A Change of Mind it’s Number Six’s mind that is going to be changed, permanently. He has been declared unmutual and disharmonious. Fortunately there’s a cure for these faults but the cure is rather drastic.

Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling is unusual in that it’s pure science fiction - transferring personalities from one body to another. It’s not exactly an original science fiction idea but it has a nice twist at the end. Since identity and individuality are major themes of the series as a whole it’s an idea that was worth exploring but this episode is less than a complete success.

In Living in Harmony Number Six finds himself in the Wild West, and Harmony is a violent town and he’s the sheriff. Of course it’s not hard to figure out what is really going on. This episode is an interesting anticipation of what would later become a standard science fiction trope. This one is a lot of fun.

It was probably a mistake scheduling The Girl Who Was Death straight after Living in Harmony. It’s a bit too similar in the basic premise. This episode tries to be a light-hearted spoof combined with a surrealist dreamscape feel. It’s visually quite impressive and inventive and Kenneth Griffith is a delight as Napoleon (!) but it doesn’t quite work and the ending is infuriating. Despite some amusing moments I’d pick this as the weakest episode of the entire series. It’s the sort of thing The Avengers could  get away with (Patrick Macnee would have had a wonderful time with this script) but it seems out of place here.

This series reaches an emotional crescendo with Once Upon a Time. Leo McKern returns to the role of Number Two and this time he’s decided that extreme measures are called for. His plan is exceptionally risky. Using drugs and hypnosis he will regress Number Six to childhood. He will act as father figure and psychoanalyst. It will be a psychological roller-coaster ride for both men with the probability that only one of them will survive.

McGoohan wrote and directed this episode and he achieves an extraordinary dreamlike intensity. It’s quite disturbing at times. McGoohan and McKern pull out all the stops and give superb performances (which apparently took their toll on the actors). Getting into the realms of psychoanalysis in movies and TV can be risky. The results can easily turn out to be embarrassing but McGoohan knows what he’s doing and it’s a great episode.

Then we get to the final episode, Fall Out, also written and directed by McGoohan. Don’t worry, I’m not going to offer any hints at all as to what actually happens. It was always going to be a tricky series to write an ending for and it’s probably fair to say that no ending would have satisfied everyone. I’m not overly fond of Fall Out, partly because stylistically it’s everything I like least about the 60s.

The Prisoner is unique in television history. It was entirely Patrick McGoohan’s baby. He came up with the original idea. No-one, no star and no producer, has ever had the degree of creative control that McGoohan had over The Prisoner. In fact he had too much control and in some ways the series was an act of self-destruction. The series was a huge hit but he burned himself out and gained a reputation for being impossible to work with, and his career never recovered.

So what is The Prisoner actually about? What does it all mean? The good thing about this question is that you can discuss it quite openly without spoiling the series since no two viewers have ever agreed on the matter. It was always McGoohan’s intention to make the series open to multiple interpretations.
It could be a political allegory. Interesting enough it can be interpreted equally convincingly from either a liberal or a conservative perspective. Or a left-wing or a right-wing, a libertarian or an authoritarian, or a democratic or anti-democratic perspective. McGoohan seems to have regarded all political ideologies and systems with a certain scepticism, and to have both the loss of freedom and the consequences of too much freedom. Most of all he was profoundly suspicious of the 60s and the simplistic utopian visions that were so popular at the time.

It could also of course have a purely psychological meaning. The Village could be his own mind.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that McGoohan was a devout Catholic, and presumably viewed questions of freedom through the lens of Catholic doctrines on free will. Most critics  seem to overlook the possibility of religious meanings in the series, which may be a mistake.

I suspect that the key is that Number Six is a spy. His whole life has been based on deception, on living a lie. The perfect spy is a man with no identity. Number Six famously declaims that, “I am not a number, I am a free man.” The irony is that being a spy he has always been a number, he has never been an individual, he has never been a free man. In a way, he has always lived in The Village, and always will live in The Village. Even if he escapes he can’t really escape. We never do learn his real name, because he’s a spy and a spy doesn’t have a real name. He is trying to discover his own identity only to find that he doesn’t have one.

Which of course could apply to all of us, not just to spies. We’re told we’re free but are we really? Is The Village a vision of a nightmare totalitarian future or is it just the world we already live in?

But that’s just my theory, there are countless others!

And is Number Six really John Drake, the spy from Danger Man? Again it hardly matters. After all, John Drake is a spy and his real name is probably not John Drake anyway. There are a couple of Danger Man episodes that do anticipate some of the themes of The PrisonerThe Ubiquitous Mr Lovegrove and even more especially the superb Colony Three.

The Prisoner is exasperating, often incoherent, wildly uneven, always fascinating and despite its flaws undeniably brilliant.

1 comment:

  1. I remember watching it in black and white on TV way back in the 1960s. What was it really about ?.It turned out that what it was about was our future .Then we lived in a low tech country with steam trains and no central heating and a considerable amount of personal freedom including freedom of speech.The Prisoner showed us the total surveillance state we have now become.The smiley face totalitarianism of the Village is also remarkably prescient of the working environments that many people find themselves in now.