To sit down and begin to watch The Prisoner is a somewhat daunting task. While only 17 episodes, it goes to unusual depths. Watching The Prisoner is to television drama what reading Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings is to the fantasy genre in that when you sit down to partake in it you realize more than once that what you’re experiencing is the invention of a genre. For Tolkien it was the invention of high fantasy, and for The Prisoner it was the invention of open-ended, philosophical storytelling on television.
Having grown up on reruns of Star Trek (The Original Series, of course), first runs of Battlestar Galactica, the release of Star Wars and its numerous rip offs, and having grown up in the South and raised Southern Baptist, I had some pretty clear ideas about morality in my head. Star Trek, for better or worse, relied heavily on morality as part of its storytelling. At the end, Captain Kirk was the good guy. The bad guys in Star Trek may not have always ended up being truly bad (in fact, that was a great deal of the ongoing story of Star Trek), but Captain Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise were definitively good guys. They knew it and we knew it. The same was true of Star Wars, of course. Good and Bad were clear and definite. Good wins the day at the end. Evil is destroyed. Heroes are given medals. All is well in both a galaxy a long time ago and far, far away and all is well (albeit challenging) in our bright future of exploring strange news worlds.
Yet, during all of this, during the days of Star Trek especially, beyond my knowledge, a show existed that simply didn’t adhere to this idea. A show that, had it flowed through my periphery as a young television and movie goer, quite likely would have set me down a very different sort of thinking about morality that I honestly didn’t discover until my mother decided that at 14 I was old enough to go see Apocalypse Now with her.
Even more daunting than watching The Prisoner is is sitting down to write about it. The Prisoner has been the subject of speculation in written form on the Internet since the very beginning. Given that the SciFi Channel’s run of The Prisoner hit in the early-mid 90s it generated a whole new generation of fans (myself included) that were able to go online in one way or another and discuss The Prisoner and write about it. Some of us were steeped in the world of telnet BBSes, others were deeply linked to Compuserve or AOL. But by the time it hit, we were there and connected. And we discovered many others that were either discovering it for the first time or had serendipitously caught it through random PBS airings. What you would find out is that while Doctor Who was thought of highly and beloved, The Prisoner was not only thought of highly and beloved but also still the subject of an ongoing conversation that started the day the first episode aired. The conversation was full of threads including why Number 6 resigned (it doesn’t matter), who he worked for (it doesn’t matter), who was responsible for The Village (it doesn’t matter), if the show was directly connected to McGoohan’s Danger Man (it matters from McGoohan’s perspective as an actor) and the most opened ended thread of all that has yet to be genuinely, definitively answered (for a very good reason): What does it mean?
Below I describe the first episode, Arrival, in italics. I break to non-italics to discuss things.
Clouds. Thunder. Car. Driver. Lonely road. Desolation. Then the city. London. A very clean, well trimmed London. We are go down into the depths of London via our driver as he pushes a button, receive a parking card and drives in the parking lot. Isolation. A lonely, angry, determined walk down a hall. Approach. Conversation between our driver and someone. We see speaking but hear no words, only thunder. Anger from our driver. A fist is pounded on a desk. Our driver leaves. Smiles. He is followed. Cut back to the an identification card with his face and punchcard information is Xed our and mechanically dropped into a file within a long, large skylight room. The camera focuses in on the file of our driver showing his status: RESIGNED. Cut back to our driver. He drives home. He begins to pack. A very Victorian undertaker-esque figure approaches his door. Gas.
Our driver awakes, looks out the window to see a lovely mediterranean village. There are no people. He makes his way up to a bell tower. He wanders the grounds of the village and makes his way to The Cafe.
“We’ll be open in a minute.” “What’s the name of this place?” “You mean The Village?”
The village is exactly what it seems, in fact. The Village. The Cafe has no phone. Our driver makes his way to a call box. He is informed “Local calls only.” He is also immediately prompted on the phone: “You number please.” “I haven’t got a number.” “No number no call.”
Our resigned driver makes his way to a map of The Village. It is interactive. Buttons adorn it and he presses one and a young Asian woman arrives driving a golf cart taxi.
“It’s very cosmopolitan. You never know who you’ll meet next.”
She goes as far as she can take him, to the general stores. The charge is two units. “Two units?” “Two credit units. …Oh well, pay me next time. Be seeing you.” and she gives a round fingered zero pulling away from the eye salute as she says this.
Our resigned driver walks into the general stores and a transaction is taking place between the proprieter and a customer, and as the customer leaves… “Be seeing you.” The round fingered salute. Our resigned driver request a map, and the proprietor does his best, but we find that like the taxi, only local maps are available. “No demand for anything else.”
“Be seeing you.” Rounded fingers, around the eye, pulled away. A salute.
I was very much reminded of Noel’s description of the Pilot episode of Farscape: “What strikes me most about this pilot is just how generic it is. John Carter of Mars. Flash Gordon. Buck Rogers. Science fiction is filled with classic examples of a square-jawed American zapped out of his everyday existence and dropped into an alien world of fantastical creatures and sights. This is no exception.” Of course, instead of a square-jawed American we have a stiff upper lipped British secret agent. Serious. Thoughtful. We think we might know him. Indeed, he might have traveled the world and stopped terrible things from happening. Nevertheless, we know this character. To the point that in as essay on The Prisoner by Isaac Asimov we see even Asimov viewing the show as standard fare: “Then he got captured, but I wasn’t worried. He would escape. I kept looking at my watch and chuckling. In 10 minutes he would escape; now in only five minutes, for minutes, three minutes. I was overwhelmed at the ingenuity of the writers, for he had only one minute left and there was no sign of escape yet. He didn’t escape. You won’t believe me, but he didn’t. I was thunderstruck!” Yes, we know this character, but somehow something is different. We are introduced. In the wordless opening credits we are told the story immediately that drops our character out of his everyday existence (his resignation and kidnapping) and dropped into a world of fantastical creatures and sites (The Village and its inhabitants of whom we will learn more about later).
A loudspeaker chimes an alarm and it is announced: “Good morning all. It’s another beautiful day.” Our resigned driver sees a traditionally outfitted maid shaking our a rug on the balcony the place where he woke up. He rushes back in. He looks around. He is welcomed by a note card being held by a small wooden doll with a stern looking. The note is in all lower case letters: “welcome to your home from home”
His phone rings. Focus on the phone. It has a number: 6
He answers, hesitantly: “Is your number six?” More hesitance, and a bemused look: “Yes.” “Just a moment, I have a call for you.”
A friendly voice “Good morning to you. I hope you slept well. Come and join me for breakfast. Number Two. The Green Dome.”
And a fade out and back in. Our accompanying music as 6 leaves the apartment and wanders the grounds to find the green dome is Pop Goes the Weasel as only the 60s BBC orchestra arrangement can provide.
Every time I watch this I am taken aback by the control room in which our resigned driver, let’s simply call him “6” now that he has tacitly accept his number (more of which I will discuss in a moment), As a child of the 60s that took part in the culture of the 60s via time shifting through reruns and Saturday afternoon movies, everything about the control room that 6 enters into touches every fiber of my being as modern, even futuristic. Sparse design. Roundness. Automation through lit plastic buttons. Mood lighting. It touches in me everything that I thought the future might be like when I watched 60s scifi television reruns and 60s movies reruns (I could write a book about Danger: DIABOLIK! and its impact on me), not really understanding anything about set design or how movies and television shows worked when I was a kid. If anything, when I watched Stark Trek and saw these same elements of set design that I see in The Prisoner in the control room, I remember, even as a kid, watching new shows at night in prime time in the 70s wondering to myself “Why are things darker and uglier? What happened to the future?”
We meet Number 2.
2:”I supposed you’re wonder what you’re doing here.”
6:”It had crossed my mind. What’s it all about?”
This is the exposition. 6 angers. He knows nothing. He is giving nothing.
6:”I will not make any deals with you. I resigned. I will not be pushed., filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or NUMBERED.”
Unfortunately, 6 has tacitly accepted his number earlier in order to get just a little bit of information. And soon, quickly in fact, he is actually confronted by Number 2, which he understands. But his tacit acceptance of the number is critical. Whoever has brought him has already had their first success in simply letting 6 pick up the phone and say “Yes.” to the question: “Is your number six?” The captors have established the rules, and even though 6 must play by the rules, accepting the rules of the captor puts him at an immediate disadvantage.
6 is taken on a tour of The Village via helicopter. Banter between 2 and 6 is mockingly civilized. We are introduced not only the The Village but also to the residences of The Village. There are those, for example, that would not “come around” and would now never leave.
6:”You mean you brought them around to your way of thinking.”
Suddenly, 2 yells” “Stop! STOP!” We see, floating around the fountain and then above a building, a large balloon. It moves.
2:”Don’t move!” But someone does move. As they move, 6 watches as the balloon consumes the runner.
6 asks: “What was that.”
2: “That would be telling.”
This event is short but critical. We see that those that listen and follow orders, those that recognize 2 as authority and stop when he says stop, stay still when he says to stay still, they continue. But those that do not listen. Those that respond viscerally and with fear, are consumed. Perhaps destroyed. We simply know that the amorphous, quivering balloon understands who is in charge and who is not and knows what to do with those that do not listen.
2 and 6 go for a visit to the labor exchange. Another control room very similar to the one where we met 2. “First of all the aptitude text.” which seems remarkably simplistic. “And now the questionnaire. Just fill in your race, religion, hobbies. What you like to read. What you like to eat. What you were. What you want to be. Any family illnesses. …Any politics.” A look direct to from the questioner. 6 reacts. With anger. He throws the aptitude test and other object to the floor. 2 remarks: “We may have a challenge on our hands.”
6 has nowhere to run or go. He returns to where he awoke. A maid is there. He angrily sends her away. A wall lifts to show the entire apartment. It is automated. Modern. And entirely infested with a pleasant music which 6 attempts to combat by tearing a speaker out of the wall. Over the loudspeaker it is announced that an “adjustment” is needed in number 6’s apartment.
The maid returns. She has left something. 6 grills her. She is The Village’s sympathy card as she begs, but we also get an important Village saying: “A still tongue makes a happy life.”
6 makes her leave.
Here we begin to find out that the Villagers are not entirely brainwashed. Or are they? We simply don’t know yet. That is an ongoing theme that sets itself up quickly from the beginning: We simply don’t know anything about anyone. Not even 6. We don’t know intentions aside from 6 wanting to leave. We are given 6 as a protagonist, yes, but we know nothing about 6 ourselves. Is he the enemy? Is The Village the enemy? Is 2 the enemy?
Electric arrives to replace the speaker. A short discussion ensues, and 6 states that he feels like a bit of a walk and his door automatically opens. And he simply says to the technician “Be seeing you.” He bumps into a gardener who is identical to the technician from elective. 6 moves to the gardens and makes every effort to make his way through the adjacent woods, through the overgrown areas of The Village, then to beach. Another larger control room monitors 6 and sets the local police upon him, which 6 easily overcomes. The control room watches. And the balloon approaches 6. He attempts to attack but he is… consumed. Medics arrive.
Later, he awakes. Hospitalized. He spots the only person we get by name: Cobb. Someone 6 knows. Cobb is in bed. 6 is frustrated. “Who brought you here!” And a doctor arrives. “What are you doing out of bed?” The doctor wishes to have a “routine” exam. 6 glances into another room called “group therapy” by the doctor (everyone is straighjacketed with covers over their eyes, catatonic on the floor).
While 6 has his exam, 2 watches and talks on the phone and says “No, no. He’s having his medical.” 6 also does not receive his own clothes back. He wanders down the hall, glances into another room where we see a man behind an odd desk, laughing crazily as water balances a ball, then… an alarm. The doctor is met by an orderly: “The amensia case! Cobb, sir! He’s jumped out the window! He’s dead!”
6 is released the next day. He immediately goes to confront 2. But…
2:”I am the new number 2.”
Number 2 is someone else. He is different in style but he is no different in loyalty.
6: “Get Number 1.”
2: “As far as you’re concerned I’m in charge. What can I do for you?”
2: What we do here has to be done. It’s the law of survival, it’s either them or us.”
6: You imprison people, steal their minds, destroy them…
2: It depends whose side you’re on.
6: I’m on our side.
2: Then we’ll have to find out where your sympathies lie.
6: You know where they lie.
2: *reading from a folder* ‘Subject shows great enthusiasm for his work. He is utterly devoted and loyal.’ Is this a man that suddenly walks out
6: “I didn’t walk out. I RESIGNED!”
2: “People hange, exactly. So do loyalties.
6: “Not mine.”
2: “All very commendable. But let’s be practical. I’m interested in facts. Your only chance to get out of here is to give them to me… and if you don’t give them, I’ll take them. It’s up to you. Think about it. Good day, Number 6.”
6: “Number what?”
2: “Six. for official purposes. Everyone has a number. Yours is number 6.”
6: “I am not a number. I am a person.”
2 watches as 6 leaves and then dictates into a microphone: “Report on Number 6. Normal classification. On arrival subject showed shock symptoms followed by accepted behavior pattern. Since then has been uncooperative and distinctly aggressive… attempted to escape… Subject proving exceptionally difficult, but in view of his importance no extreme measures to be taken yet.”
Here we are quickly shifted to a new adversary for 6. A new Number Two. A Number Two with a different style, for example much less sympathy. A Number Two who both is frank in saying what he wants and who is obstructive and dodging when 6 asks to see Number One. We are introduced to the idea that there might be a Number One. We see that The Village numbers everyone and that enumeration is important in some way that isn’t provided to us through exposition. What we are introduced to here is that The Village makes the rules and there might be a leader and even a figurehead, but rule changes at random are part of The Village.
Soon, we are quickly drawn through a series of events in quick succession.
*6 seems a funeral for Cobb
*6 meets a woman who says she knew Cobb
*she offers to help
*she is the employee of 2
*she successfully convinces 6 she can help him try to escape
*she provides him with a pass to get past the balloon
*he boards and pilots the helicopter
*the woman watches as he flies away
*2 watches from the control room as he flies away
*a hand in the control room pulls a lever
*6 knows the helicopter is being controlled
*the woman watches and is invited to a game of chess by an old admiral
*she says “I don’t play.”
*he says “You should learn my dear.” she sits down to play and he simply says “We’re all pawns, dear.”
In the control room Cobb, in regular street clothes, prepares to leave. He discusses 6 with Number 2.
Number 2: “I think I’ll let him keep the watch, Cobb, just to remind him that escape is not possible.”
There is brief banter regarding the woman and her being “taken care of”. Number 2 says goodbye in French. Cobb in German.
We are zoomed to the face of Number 6 and bars close over it. Credits. A modified version of the opening theme plays over a penny farthing bicycle.
It is difficult for a modern viewer to imagine this show’s original airing. Television in the 60s was not the medium setting out to challenge people. While films, including even the most banal b-movies, provided people with levels of ideas to grasp and think about, television of the 60s could at the best of times serve up parody and satire to provoke thought through humor. Star Trek, in hindsight, certainly approached a great number of controversial subjects of the modern era, but always in guise of a the fantastical and through the eyes of a pretend future society that has collectively settled its differences enough to represent Earth as a united whole (albeit an Earth that traveled with its self-assured attitude on its sleeve at all times). The general outlook from Star Trek was positive. We’ve settled our differences. We travel the universe. We have achieved and continue to achieve great things. The Prisoner offers us something markedly different.
This is not the future, but now. This is not a society on its way to collective enlightenment, but a society steeped in unspoken loyalties, secrets, betrayals. This is a now without a happy ending. This is a now without a resolution. This is a now of entrapment and a demand for the things we know to be given to anyone who demands it of us. A now of Villagers burying the truth in order to live without repercussion. This is a now without a future you want to see.
This is the Now of Network nearly ten years before Network: “It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don’t go out any more. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we’re living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, ‘Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials, and I won’t say anything. Just leave us alone.’ Well, I’m not going to leave you alone. I want you to get mad!”
This is what The Prisoner is saying to us. It wants us to get mad. Number 6 looks around The Village and sees what Howard Beale sees in that everything everywhere is going crazy. The people of The Village don’t go out anymore. They have accepted their smaller world. Number 6 has not. He won’t settle into this madness. He is mad. And he wants us to get mad.