Regular readers of Balladeer’s Blog are very familiar with my high regard for Patrick McGoohan’s 1967 science-fiction/ existential drama The Prisoner. Over the many times I’ve referred to this 17-episode program I’ve heard back from a few readers here and there saying they have heard of the show but never saw any episodes and don’t understand its appeal.
I’ve decided to do an in-depth look at The Prisoner, episode by episode, for the benefit of readers who’ve never seen the show and in the hope of reigniting interest among Prisoner fans who mistakenly feel the program’s relevance ended with the Cold War. Actually, The Prisoner is more relevant than ever, in my view, what with its brilliant blend of Orwell and Kafka plus its foreshadowing of shows like Twin Peaks and Lost.
The premise of The Prisoner reflects Patrick McGoohan’s disillusionment and disgust with the way pop fiction romanticized Intelligence Agents, who are actually just government thugs, not heroes. From interviews McGoohan did over the years he seemed to feel a certain sense of personal guilt over his own contribution to that romanticized image, especially from his successful run as Intelligence Operative John Drake on Danger Man and Secret Agent. (His acclaim from those programs was such that Patrick was supposedly approached to play James Bond in Dr No. He declined.)
LET’S GET THIS OUT OF THE WAY: Many Prisoner fans still engage in a fairly pointless argument over whether or not Patrick McGoohan’s never-named character on The Prisoner is supposed to be John Drake from his earlier series. IT. DOES. NOT. MATTER. (And in one oft-cited episode another character rather clearly says “break” not “Drake,” but there’s no convincing the pro-Drake crowd.)
Either way, John Drake or not John Drake, the point is that McGoohan portrays a Secret Agent who resigns from the Intelligence Services in disgust. Soon after, he is gassed into unconsciousness and abducted.
He comes to in an isolated, high-tech but dystopian community known only as The Village (or “The Island” if you’re a fan of The Simpsons episode that parodied The Prisoner.)
The Prisoner learns that all inhabitants of the Village are assigned numbers and are punished for ever using their previous, real identities. All of the captive Village dwellers are either former Intelligence Operatives like our protagonist or government officials, high-ranking military figures or brilliant scientists. Some of the seeming prisoners are secretly working for the ruling Villagekeepers so one never knows who to trust, thus encouraging hopeless resignation to one’s captivity.
They have all wound up in the Village for rocking the boat or for trying to leave governmental service or for trying to deprive the government of their scientific inventions, etc. In this post-Cold War world that we live in it’s much easier to get McGoohan’s concept – often misunderstood from the 1960s to early 1990s – that the Villagekeepers may work for an aspiring one-world government and the whole notion of “which side are you on” is part of the overall deception.
Though The Prisoner is often classified as Science Fiction it is even more accurate to define it as a Kafkaesque allegory. The series and its storylines thus function in a way that transcends the usual notions of continuity. In other words you can’t really think of The Prisoner in the “realistic” way that fans can think of Star Trek and its offshoots.
The Prisoner is like The Trial with science-fiction elements added. The program’s central conflict involves the Individual against the forces of conformity, especially governmental forces. This has become MORE relevant since the end of the Cold War, not less relevant.
McGoohan took his cue largely from George Orwell with background details of the Village. Everyone is under constant video and audio surveillance, people who displease the Big Brother-style Villagekeepers simply disappear and slogans are driven home through constant repetition.
“Questions are a burden to others” and “Answers are a prison for oneself” are two Alphaville-style slogans used by the Villagekeepers in their goal to force the Villagers to stop questioning their circumstances and just accept their plight.
McGoohan cleverly uses a variation of Orwell’s “2 + 2 = 5” from 1984. In that Orwell novel 2 + 2 =5 is a notion enforced by the governmental Powers That Be. It isn’t supposed to make sense, it’s a sign of surrender to their authority. Citizens are not to question it. If Big Brother says 2 + 2 =5 then you are to simply parrot that nonsense.
You are NOT to show independent thought by questioning it. Eventually, people who resist spouting the clearly false math are browbeaten into reciting it, showing that they have been defeated and will think the way the Powers That Be want them to think.
McGoohan’s variation involves the secret reasons that the Prisoner – called Number Six – resigned from the Intelligence Service. He refuses to tell the Villagekeepers why he resigned. This type of defiance is unacceptable to the totalitarians, so they set out to use all the forces at their disposal to MAKE him tell them. If he tells them why, it will symbolize his defeat and acceptance of their authority over him.
This element of The Prisoner is one that removes it from literal reality and establishes it firmly in the realm of allegory and metaphor. We all know that in reality there are certain drugs or electronic tortures that no human body could resist. The drugs alone could manipulate a person into revealing information without any conscious thought involved.
However, since this is allegory and not reality, the Prisoner’s successful defiance in the face of all the technology and drugs and torture that the Villagekeepers throw at him is meant to show that the human spirit, especially one’s adamantine individuality, can triumph over all the forces of oppression.
Sadly, I think Orwell’s more depressing take on humanity’s future is more likely to be true than McGoohan’s optimistic take, but the Prisoner’s continued resistance to the Powers That Be is inspiring from a storytelling standpoint.
Next time I’ll examine the very first episode of The Prisoner, titled Arrival.
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