Reflections on “The Prisoner”
(1967 TV series starring Patrick McGoohan)
A video presentation of this material is available here.
This is not intended as a detailed analysis or review, but rather a personal interpretation of the much admired and unique TV series.
In terms of the its televisual background, the series is clearly influenced by McGoohan’s previous work in “Danger Man” (known as “Secret Agent” in the USA) and is a sequel of sorts, though this was strenuously refuted by McGoohan who doubtless saw “The Prisoner” as a separate and individual work dealing with much broader and universal themes. Although in the same category as several other spy/action/adventure series of the early sixties, Danger Man’s plots and characterisations reflected a more profound perception of events of the time and were treated with a level of intelligence and awareness not always shared by its contemporaries.
During his time as script editor on Danger Man, George Markstein, who went on to collaborate in the development of “The Prisoner” and wrote and edited the scripts of some 13 episodes, became aware of the existence of a mysterious resort-like prison in Scotland where some were held during World War Two. This style of prison seemed an ideal setting to present ideas McGoohan had been garnering for another series for some time during his stint in Danger Man. An episode of Danger Man was filmed in Portmeirion (on the north western coast of Wales) and it appealed to McGoohan as a location. Executive producer Sir Lew Grade gave the go-ahead to the project based on McGoohan’s outline (with no written contract between the two men), and the rest is history.
What is it about?
In a nutshell, it seems to me that “The Prisoner” is about the place of the individual in society and the restrictions a social framework must impose on the freedom of the individuals within it.
The series considers various aspects of conflict between an individual’s freedom and the lengths to which members of society will go in order to protect the “sanctity” of that society.
We start with the resignation of an agent (who holds important and potentially sensitive information). He is kidnapped and held in a comfortable resort-like village in order that authorities might ascertain just why this agent has resigned and whether or not he represents a threat to the security and best interests of the society he formerly helped to protect.
This contrasts with the right of the individual to exercise his freedom to cease fulfilling this function – whatever his reasons might be.
From this relatively conventional start (which fits well with the end of Danger Man and contemporary issues concerning the lives and careers of former agents), we experience episodes which are increasingly allegorical in nature (to the point of being arcane at times), but which are always engaging, thought-provoking and compelling.
The authorities in the Village seek information from Number 6 (inmates/inhabitants of the Village are deprived of names and are reduced to mere numbers, like cogs in the machinery of society) about why he resigned and use a variety of means to achieve their end.
They play psychological games to test Number 6’s strength of character and spirit, though he frequently manages to turn the tables so that the authorities (usually in the form of the current Number 2) fail and may even reveal important information to Number 6.
Along the way questions are raised about the very nature of democracy and the trust we all place in the (sometimes shady) figures who run our society. “Sides” become irrelevant as ultimately all parties would behave in the same way, leading to the conclusion that no-one can be trusted. We are also invited to question motives and the very positions we are expected to adopt in society, placing the interests of that society above those of the individuals who collectively form it. Clearly, these ideas are a product of their time (the Cold War was at its coldest in the sixties), but the series develops these ideas to deal with universal concepts of freedom and identity.
Within the context of extraction of information, the authorities resort to confidence tricks, application of drugs and even science-fiction duplication – all exploring identity, strength of character and principle (Number 6 doesn’t know which “side” is trying to break him, therefore it could be argued that he is actually trying to protect the society he has known, or, if his own colleagues are responsible for his incarceration, he is fighting for the principle of personal freedom and choice).
The persistent and ubiquitous use of technology throughout the series also serves to emphasise the apparent futility of trying to preserve individuality or escape the clutches and influence of modern society. Yet Number 6 manages to outwit the users of said technology or find weaknesses within it, thus offering hope for humanity.
In the end, when we have moved into purely allegorical territory, Number 6 does indeed escape and returns to London, but it is clearly implied that some degree of supervision is maintained. Number 6 is unbroken and intact but he (and we) can never escape social pressure and supervision. Total freedom is an illusion – the best we can manage is relative freedom within limits, though these may be limits of which we remain largely unaware.
Number 6 also remains a prisoner of himself, condemned to behave in certain ways by his character and genes. Might his refusal to co-operate be regarded as a character defect or weakness? Are the authorities simply trying to help him adapt to reality and enable him to lead a “fuller” life within certain confines? This appears to be the interpretation of the remake of 2009, a remake I found desperately disappointing exactly because it appeared to preach conformity.
“The Prisoner” is undoubtedly a work of art. It is a representation of ideas which all should consider at some point. It is intriguing, inspiring and thought-provoking, but by its very nature it is also personal, subjective, can lack clarity and is open to a variety of interpretations. It has even been suggested that we are witnessing a mental breakdown as Number 6 faces the consequences of his actions in resigning. Perhaps he is in a coma and is dreaming. Whatever the context, the questions the series poses remain valid and the thoughts it provokes remain intriguing, important and relevant.
The performances and production are highly polished and assured. The viewer feels those responsible know exactly what they are doing, suggesting that any lack of understanding is due to some inadequacy on the part of the viewer (though this may be far from the case!).
The idea behind the use of the penny farthing spinning out of control in the end credits was that society was getting too big for its boots, developing at such a rate that control can no longer be exercised and might eventually lead to self-destruction. I suspect something similar can be said of the series itself as, toward the end, it shifted to ever more outlandish and perhaps indulgent representations and arguments concerning freedom and society.
For all that (and perhaps even because of that), I am grateful for the production of this unique series which continues to provoke reaction and thought.
My thanks for taking the time to read this page – I hope you found it of some interest.
I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org .