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Prisoner, The

Entry updated 7 August 2023. Tagged: TV.

UK tv series (1967-1968). An Everyman Films production for ATV. Produced by David Tomblin. Created, starring and partly written and directed by Patrick McGoohan (1928-2009); other writers included George Anthony Skene, Terence Feely; other directors included Don Chaffey, Pat Jackson. Script edited by George Markstein. Theme music by Ron Grainer. 17 50-minute episodes. Cast includes McGoohan, Leo McKern, Angelo Muscat, Peter Swanwick. Colour.

In this Kafka-esque, sf-related series a UK ex-secret agent (McGoohan), who for unknown reasons has resigned from his organization, is gassed in his apartment and wakes to find himself in The Village: a mysterious establishment whose geographical location is ambiguous and whose inhabitants consist of either rebels like himself or stooges of "Them" – the shadowy Secret Masters who run the place. Names are verboten and all villagers are identified by number, the central character being assigned as Number Six and repeatedly declaring "I am not a number. I am a free man!" This former spy (McGoohan had previously starred in a spy series called Danger Man [1960-1962, 1964-1968]) is unable to discover just who "They" are – perhaps the communists, perhaps his own government. His every movement in The Village – externally a cross between a bland Mediterranean holiday camp and an old people's home (in reality the bizarre resort of Portmeirion, Wales, designed by the architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis [1883-1978] in collaboration with his wife, Amabel Williams-Ellis, between 1925 and 1975) – is watched by Number Two and his staff via pervasive CCTV. Various episodes concern his attempts to escape from The Village, his never-ending search for the unseen Number One, and the efforts of the different Number Twos (they generally change with each episode, though McKern made three appearances) to break him and discover why he resigned. The most obvious sf elements are the balloon-shaped Robot watchdogs and much complex brainwashing and surveillance equipment, including a Dream Hacking device that monitors dreams and projects them on to a screen in "A, B and C" (13 October 1967), and another machine that forces literal Identity Exchange in "Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling" (22 December 1967). One episode, the Western-themed "Living in Harmony" (29 December 1967), features Drug-enhanced Virtual Reality. Another violation of Number Six's mind is the force-feeding of knowledge via televisual hypnotic education in "The General" (3 November 1967), whose title character is an advanced Computer.

McGoohan was a puritan (no kissing on screen) and an acknowledged political conservative. The many liberal supporters of the series may have misinterpreted its Libertarian emphasis on individual strength, especially the power to resist incursions into one's mind, seeing the series instead as a plea for human rights and especially democratic freedoms. The excellent, surrealist final episode "Fall Out" (1 February 1968) interestingly renders the Politics of the whole series retrospectively ambiguous by suggesting that our metaphorical Prisons may be self-imposed; that Number Six is also in some sense Number One. (This is perhaps clued by dialogue in the repeated opening sequence: "Who are you?" "The new Number Two." "Who is Number One?" "You are Number Six." The finale inserts, as it were, a subliminal comma into that last statement.) The Prisoner who continues to resist brainwashing may have brainwashed himself into a prison of the mind. The series' thesis may thus be that freedom is impossible, as is opting out.

The Prisoner, not popular at first, soon developed an enthusiastic cult following which has lasted ever since, especially for its thought-provoking aspects and its deliberate bafflements, unusual in television drama. It has been repeated on television several times in the UK and shown in the USA. Its confident manipulations of Surrealist and sf themes, its literate scripts, its sophisticated understanding of visual metaphor and its enjoyably obsessive evocations of a whole range of fantasies of Paranoia together created what is in the opinion of many – often those discontented with Space Opera – the finest sf television series to date. Its strengths in many respects resemble those of the early-1990s television cult favourite Twin Peaks (1990-1991).

Novels based on the series are The Prisoner (1969) by Thomas M Disch, The Prisoner #2: Number Two (1969; vt The Prisoner: Who is Number Two? 1982) by David McDaniel and The Prisoner 3: A Day in the Life (1970) by Hank Stine (see Jean Marie Stine). Many books about The Prisoner have been published by the show's fan club Six of One and by others: a small selection appears unde further reading below. A poorly regarded Comic-book sequence (four issues 1988-1989), originally from DC Comics, served as a Sequel by Other Hands to the television series. [DRL/PN/JB]

see also: GURPS; Seiun Award.

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