The Prisoner: Classic TV with Modern Echoes

Since I don’t watch much TV it was not surprising that I first saw the TV Series “The Prisoner” (starring “Secret Agent Man” Patrick McGoohan) in a theater. The year was 1976 and the place was the University of Central Florida. For a number of successive Friday nights we dorm rats would traipse down to the Student Union to watch three back-to-back episodes from the classic British TV Series “The Prisoner”. I was hooked on the first show “Arrival”. Recently I got to enjoy the series again. Yes, the complete 17 episodes are now in my DVD collection.

For those of you who have never seen “The Prisoner” it is a British produced series about a secret agent who abruptly resigns from the spy service. The actor, producer and occasional writer and director Patrick McGoohan plays the resigned spy. He returns home to pack for an extended holiday. As he packs gas comes through a keyhole in his door and renders him unconscious. He wakes up to find himself in “The Village”. The Village appears to be on a large unknown island. All the villagers seem to be people who used to work for the intelligence services and know too much to be free. So they are confined in “The Village” instead. Stripped of their names they are given numbers. McGoohan plays a man identified only as “Number Six”.

The plot is one of irresistible force meeting an immovable object. In pretty much every episode the head honcho of The Village (Number Two) tries every nefarious means he can think of to get Number Six to tell him why he resigned. Number Six of course wants to know what side Number Two is on. Has he been captured by the enemy or by his own government? Number Two refuses to tell him. All he wants to know is why he resigned. Number Six resists. “I am not a number, I am a free man!” he exclaims. When Number Two is invariably foiled by Number Six in the next episode we find a new Number Two to take his place bent on cracking his will.

For a series produced in the middle of Beatlemania the shows holds up very well. The series consists of seventeen episodes. With every episode the pressure on Number Six grows. Increasingly the strategies get more desperate and bizarre. All sorts of mind games, medical experiments and drugs are used to try to break Number Six.

It still seems a bit futuristic, even if the styles are dated and the computers are huge boxes sporting large reel-to-reel tape recorders. It has a creepy film noir all its own that includes an amorphous large object (actually a weather balloon) that tracks down escapees and miscreants and smothers them. Number Six does actually manage to escape a couple times, only to find himself back in The Village at the end.

Throughout the series one hanging question is who is the unseen “Number One”. It is Number One who gives orders to Number Two. If you watch all seventeen episodes you will eventually have the satisfaction of finding out. The series ends on an existentialist note that made many angry. But now forty years later it looks increasingly brilliant.

Essentially the series is a parable on the boundary between freedom and the needs of a larger community. Does anyone have the right not to conform and live by his or her own rules? Or all we all bound together in a common collective whether we like it or not? McGoohan plays an unyielding individual who proclaims and exercises his innate right to live his life ordered his way. Number Two represents obedience to a higher authority and the necessity of everyone to fit in.

A feeling of low-grade horror pervades the series because everything seems so ordinary. Seemingly happy people who have had their soul ripped out populate the Village. They move around and talk and do things but they don’t seem alive. They are wholly superficial. And yet some people mysteriously disappear when they don’t conform. The state watches everything and everyone, but seems abnormally obsessed with Number Six.

As a parable, the series seems more familiar these days than I would like. Since the oxymoronic Patriot Act was passed many of the things shown in “The Prisoner” are now quite legal.

For example our president is now permitted by law to detain anyone, including a United States citizen, indefinitely and without trial based on national security grounds. All he needs to say is that it is justified as being necessary for the security of the state. Potentially today anyone considered “unmutual” (a term used in “The Prisoner”) might be locked up. President Bush doesn’t even have to tell anyone who he has “detained”. Our modern day “prisoners” (potential terrorists and “enemy combatants”) can be locked up indefinitely in their own far less lovely villages, never seen by the International Red Cross and tortured by our own government. At some point they may be subjected to Village-like “tribunals” without benefit of a lawyer or the right to gather evidence in their defense. Number Two and the Village Council would approve of these tactics, I think.

Today the new Number Two no longer lives at the Green Dome. He is living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But hopefully those of us who are still Number Sixes at heart will form a critical mass and put in a more benevolent Number Two this November. Perhaps the latest Village Rules (The Patriot Act) will be repealed and we can all get back to living in glorious disharmony again.

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