The Prisoner

From Academic Kids

For the 1979 Australian television soap opera see Prisoner.
Template:Infobox television

The Prisoner was a controversial 1967 UK television series, starring Patrick McGoohan, created by McGoohan and George Markstein. McGoohan's leading character, Number 6—a former secret agent of the British government—is a prisoner of an isolated yet stylish resort town, The Village, in order to garner—"by hook or by crook"—his personal reasons for resigning the service. Throughout the series Number 6 cunningly resists his captor's efforts to break his will, and meanwhile investigates the identity of Number 1 and executes various plans for escape. McGoohan also wrote and directed several episodes, often under a pseudonym.

With its 1960s counterculture message and themes, the programme has had a far-reaching effect upon science-fiction-fantasy-genre television, and popular culture in general.

There is a Prisoner memorabilia shop in Portmeirion, Wales, the site of the filming of the series. Portmeirion has also played host to several fan conventions as the series has attracted a minor cult following.

In 2002 the series won the Prometheus Hall of Fame Award.

Contents

Format and setting

The series features striking and often surreal story lines, and themes include hypnosis, hallucinogenic drug experiences, identity theft, mind control and dream manipulation.

Though 17 episodes were made, McGoohan originally intended to shoot just seven. The network wanted a full season of 26 episodes, and 17 was decided upon as a compromise. There is debate as to whether the series ended by mutual agreement or cancellation. According to The Prisoner: The Official Companion to the Classic TV Series by Robert Fairclough, the series was indeed cancelled, forcing McGoohan to write the concluding episode "Fall Out" in only a few days.

As in Twin Peaks, the viewer sees much of the story from the protagonist's point of view, who often does not understand what is going on. In their attempts to understand, people started watching it compulsively. The final episode caused so much confusion that the television network was besieged by phone calls and McGoohan was even hounded at home by baffled viewers demanding explanations.

The opening and closing sequence

The trademark intro title sequence features Number 6 having a fierce argument with his superior and resigning. The hero then drives home in his Lotus Seven. Returning to his flat he quickly packs his possessions. A black car pulls up and a tall man dressed in black approaches the front door. A white smoke then floods the room through the keyhole, which renders Number 6 unconscious. The hero awakens in The Village, whose decor and people are of peculiar nautical style and bright colours.

The following dialogue exchange runs over the opening titles of most episodes. The questioner is Number 6 and the respondent is Number 2, who changes each episode:

Where am I?
In The Village.
What do you want?
Information.
Whose side are you on?
That would be telling.
We want information. Information. Information.
You won't get it.
By hook or by crook, we will.
Who are you?
The new Number 2.
Who is Number 1?
You are Number 6.
I am not a number — I am a free man!
(Laughter from Number 2.)

In some cases, the voice of Number 2 in the above exchange is provided by the actor playing the character in that particular episode. However, in several episodes a different voice is used, often to maintain the element of surprise as to the real identity of No. 2.

At the close of each episode, an image of Number 6 appearing behind shutting bars serves as the episode's outro.

The Village

The location of The Village is not known. In one episode its location is is estimated to be Morocco. In another, Lithuania, on the Baltic coast "30 miles from the Polish border".

The Village has a daily newspaper called the Tally Ho and the logo of The Village is a penny farthing bicycle. The Village is under the control of Number 2 (See below). "Work units" or "credits" serve as currency in Village shops, and are kept track of with a hole-punched credit card. Pleasant classical music and public announcements can be heard constantly in dwellings and outside. The media and signage in The Village consistely incorporate sailing and resort themes.

Scenes of the The Village were filmed at Portmeirion, at hotel near Penrhyndeudraeth in Wales, and at Borehamwood Studios in England.

Security and surveillance in The Village

An underground control center monitors closed-circuit television cameras located throughout The Village. Regular observers continually spy on Villagers and foil Number 6's escape attempts with the aid of Rover, a large white balloon-like device that chases and pacifies or kills would-be escapees. Rover was originally intended to be a robotic machine, rather like a Dalek (See Doctor Who), but when the prototype failed to work during the first episode's shoot, the crew used a weather balloon out of desperation.

Citizens use the phrase "be seeing you" as a farewell, accompanied by a waving gesture consisting of thumb and forefinger forming a circle over the right eye, then tipped forward in a salute.

Number 6

Number 6 typically wears a black suit with white trim, and forsakes his "6" ID badge. Little is known about Number 6's background other than that he fought in a war (presumably WWII) and was born on March 19, 1928 (which is also McGoohan's birthday).

He refuses to reveal the reason behind his resignation, despite constant efforts by Number 2 to get this information from him.

Number 6 initially spends his energy seeking ways to escape, and later in the series turns his attention to finding out more about The Village and its unseen ruler, Number One. The later episodes feature less action-packed escape attempts and more psychological themes such as the nature of power and authority, and their relationship with liberty. His cunning and defiance only increases while in captivity; in one episode he reduces Number 2 to a mad, paranoid wreck through deception. As the Number 2s become more coercive and desperate, Number 6's behavior becomes increasingly sharp and uncompromising.

Number 2

The Village is openly administered by Number 2, whose identity changes each episode, though there are repeat appearances (Leo McKern appeared in three episodes). It appears that 2s main duty is to break the will of Number 6. The Number 2s answer to Number 1 fearfully.

The episode "Free for All" suggests that Number 2s could be "democratically elected by the people." However, this does not happen and is never mentioned in later episodes—they are simply replaced.

Throughout the series, Number 2 tries to discover why Number 6 resigned. Number 6 refuses to answer, stating only that it was a "matter of conscience," and not open to inquiry. A variety of interrogation, intimidation, drugs, and mind control techniques are used by sequential Number 2s. There is an unrevealed policy which prevents the Number 2s from using brutal methods—routinely used on other prisoners—against Number 6. Most episodes end with Number 2 being sent home (or to a worse fate) in disgrace, having failed to break Number 6. However two of these individuals are seen returning to the Village, most notably the final Number 2 (as played by Leo McKern) who appears to hold a position of some distinction.

In the final episode we see the last Number 2 enter the Peers' entrance to the Palace of Westminster, perhaps suggesting he is (or was) a member of the House of Lords.

Episodes

This is the original order in which the episodes were broadcast in Britain, not the production order or chronological story order.

Episode Title Original airdate (UK) Number Two played by
1-1 Arrival October 1, 1967 Guy Doleman
George Baker
1-2 The Chimes of Big Ben October 8, 1967 Leo McKern
1-3 A, B and C October 15, 1967 Colin Gordon
1-4 Free for All October 22, 1967 Eric Portman
Rachel Herbert
1-5 The Schizoid Man October 29, 1967 Anton Rodgers
1-6 The General November 5, 1967 Colin Gordon
1-7 Many Happy Returns November 12, 1967 Georgina Cookson
1-8 Dance of the Dead November 26, 1967 Mary Morris
1-9 Checkmate December 3, 1967 Peter Wyngarde
1-10 Hammer Into Anvil December 10, 1967 Patrick Cargill
1-11 It's Your Funeral December 17, 1967 Derren Nesbitt
Andre Van Gyseghem
1-12 A Change of Mind December 31, 1967 John Sharpe
1-13 Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling January 7, 1968 Clifford Evans
1-14 Living in Harmony January 14, 1968 David Bauer
1-15 The Girl Who Was Death January 21, 1968 Kenneth Griffith
1-16 Once Upon a Time January 28, 1968 Leo McKern
1-17 Fall Out February 4, 1968 Leo McKern

Interpretations and Rumors

A major theme of The Prisoner is the conflict between individual needs versus those of society, and the compromise which each make to co-exist. While The Village tries to assimilate Number 6, Number 6 strives for independence—usually through escape. Sometimes Number 6 succeeds, sometimes he fails, and sometimes he fails by resisting, in that in resisting on their terms he has succumbed to the greater trap, that is, playing the game The Village has put before him.

During the opening dialogue in most episodes, Number 2 says "You are Number Six". Some view this as a direct response to the previous question "Who is Number 1?", implying that Number 6 is in control. Similarly, Number 2's reply of "Information" to Number Six's question "What do you want?" could be interpreted as 'information'or 'in formation', the latter being a command to follow orders and conform.

The identity of Number 6 is debated; many believe he is John Drake, the spy character McGoohan played for many years on Danger Man a.k.a. Secret Agent. At least one later episode of The Prisoner ("The Girl Who Was Death") was adapted from an unused Danger Man script, and a character named Potter who appeared in the earlier series appeared on The Prisoner. Otherwise, McGoohan has stated for decades that No. 6 was not John Drake, while Markstein said he was. Still others find the evidence for this view scant.

References in popular culture

Themes from The Prisoner are persistently referenced and parodied in popular culture, appearing in the songs of several bands, table-top RPG and video games, movies, and television shows. Many references draw upon the shows unconventional technocratic fantasy prison, The Village. Also heavily referenced—oftentimes with humour—is the memorable robotic sphere arbiter of The Village, Rover.

Among the most popular references to The Prisoner are The Simpsons, The Matrix, The Truman Show, and several Star Trek spinoffs.

  • Babylon 5
The Psi Corps in Babylon 5 used the phrase "Be Seeing You" and the accompanying Village salute in a deliberate homage to The Prisoner. The shows creator, J. Michael Straczynski, has admitted this is Prisoner reference. In the episode "Signs and Portents", one of the rangers initiates radio contact to his ship with the phrase "Six to One", and in the episode "A Voice in the Wilderness" the phrase "EYE AM KNOT A NUMBER AYE AMA FREE MAN" appears on a computer screen in the background. The episode "Comes the Inquisitor" in the second season features an extremely Prisoner-like interrogation sequence, in which an archaically attired British man attempts to break Ambassador Delenn's personality.
  • Brazil
Several images from the final episode, Fall Out, of which a house on a trailer bed is the most obvious example, appear in Terry Gilliam's 1984 film Brazil.
  • Colossal Cave Adventure
One of the most obscure pop culture references to Rover (see above) comes in David Platt's 1979 version of Crowther & Woods’ ancient computer game, Colossal Cave Adventure — when a player attempts to enter a large vault without the correct password, Platt sics Rover on him/her. Platt's laconic prose correctly captures all the eldritch noises, shrieks heard in the distance and terrifying suspense as Rover is "born" from a glop of subterranean goo (like a blob in a Lava Lamp) and begins a chase which proceeds with the unerring ferocity of Nemesis to inevitable death. Mike Goetz’ 1983 extension of this version also summoned Rover when a player pilfered a poster off the walls of the computer room (in Witt’s End).
  • Devil Doll
The Italian/Slovenian progressive rock band/collective headed by the anonymous Mr. Doctor released their second album titled The Girl who was... Death, a concept album fully based on The Prisoner, from the album title, to the lyrics (which heavily quotes the show), to the track listing (Though the album is comprised of a single track, the track listing is simply the name of every single episode of the television show), to performing the theme song as a secret song at the end of the album.
  • Double Team
In the 1997 Hollywood action film Double Team (also known as The Colony), protagonist Jack Quinn (Jean Claude Van Damme) finds himself held against his will on an island community reminescent of The Village. The Colony as it was called was home to a large number of criminal experts thought dead to the outside world, and featured a high-tech anti-escape system that involved a laser perimeter.
  • GURPS
Steve Jackson Games' popular role-playing game system GURPS released a (now out of print) world book for The Prisoner. It included maps, episode synopses, details of the Village and its inhabitants, and much other material.
  • The Invisible Man
In the 2000 American television series The Invisible Man, the agency that he works for uncovers that there are some former government agents that are still receiving paychecks. All but one of them have been dead for years. When the invisible man and his partner go to talk with the remaining agent, they get caught up in the faked death of this agent. They are rendered unconcious and wake up in a place very much like The Village. It is populated by former secret agents, and there is no escape. Except that the security measures didn't account for an invisible man.
  • Iron Maiden
The opening dialogue is sampled in the intro to the Iron Maiden song "The Prisoner", inspired by the series. The band has also recorded another song called "Back In The Village", also inspired by the series.
  • The Matrix
The Matrix is very thematically similar to The Prisoner, with the protagonists struggling to maintain identity (represented by the fact that they give themselves new names, which the agents refuse to refer to them by) in a false simulation of the real world. The deja-vu black cat that Neo sees when "they change something inside The Matrix" is a reference to episode 7 of The Prisoner ("Many Happy Returns") where a black cat symbolizes a change in The Village. When Neo runs through an apartment in the final sequence, frame by frame scrolling reveals that an episode of The Prisoner is playing on the television.
  • Nowhere Man
The critically acclaimed, but short-lived 1995 TV series Nowhere Man was directly influenced by The Prisoner. The UPN series stars Bruce Greenwood as a man who finds his life "erased" and a secret government organization pursuing him.
  • The Simpsons
The popular show The Simpsons had multiple references to the Prisoner. In one episode, Marge tried to escape a cult and was pursued by Rover. Marge turned and Rover enveloped Hans Moleman. Another episode, "The Computer Wore Menace Shoes", had the final act completely based on The Prisoner. Homer became trapped on an island which was similar to the Village and Patrick McGoohan even reprised his role as Number 6 (Homer was Number 5). While on the island, some of the reasons for prisoners being there were revealed. Number 27 could turn water into gasoline, Number 12 knew the deadly secret behind tic-tacs, and Number 6 invented the bottomless peanut bag. While trying to escape, Homer was pursued by Rover and easily popped it with a plastic fork. The episode ends with Homer returning to Springfield, only to be abducted again, this time with his family, but they find that life in The Island isn't that bad after all.
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Later seasons of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine introduced a shadowy organization within Starfleet called Section 31. The interaction between its leader, Mr. Sloane, and Dr. Julian Bashir is reminiscent of The Prisoner, particularly in Sloane's final appearance, which took place during a reality-bending trip inside Sloane's mind, in similar fashion to the Prisoner episode "A, B, and C". Section 31 also appeared in several episodes of Star Trek: Enterprise.
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation
Patrick McGoohan was scheduled to appear in a second-season episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation entitled "The Schizoid Man" which was named after a Prisoner episode. Although McGoohan ultimately pulled out of the episode, the title remained the same. A later episode, "Chain of Command", featured an interrogation sequence reminiscent of the "degree absolute" brainwashing method seen in "Once Upon a Time".
  • They Might Be Giants
In They Might Be Giants' song "Damn Good Times" on their album The Spine, there is a line that is "When my friend got amnesia/She can't remember the show she saw/Like the one with the guy with amnesia/Who got off from the island on a helicopter." This may or may not be a reference to Number Six in The Prisoner.
  • The Truman Show
When the main character of The Truman Show, Truman Burbank, a man whose entire life is filmed, goes to visit his friend Marlon at work, the outside view of the shop pays homage to The Prisoner, with the familiar red and white awnings of the village. Marlon's cart has the word "goodies" written on the side, in the village font, Albertus.
  • Other references
Brief references to The Prisoner appear in many TV shows and movies and comic books, such as Three's Company, ReBoot, the comic book series Crisis on Infinite Earths and The Invisibles, and the 1986 documentary series The Celts. The series has also been referenced in a number of music videos. They include the video for the XTC song The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul, which was filmed entirely on location at Portmeirion and featured costumes and props similar to those used in the series. The XTC video was filmed as part of a larger programme, The Laughing Prisoner, as part of the last episode of the UK Channel 4 music series The Tube, in which presenter Jools Holland was abducted to The Village. The programme also featured British comedy actor Stephen Fry as No.2, and Stanley Unwin. XTC were also filmed in Portmeirion singing The Meeting Place. Other guests were Siouxsie and the Banshees, filmed playing The Passenger on the Hotel lawn, and Magnum, playing at night on the Bristol Collonade. The Supergrass video "Alright" was also filmed on location at Portmeirion. Popular Italian rapper Caparezza winked at the series in his video "Fuori dal Tunnel", featuring the aforementioned giant white balloon.

Trivia

  • The episode "Living in Harmony" was not aired in the United States, for the ostensible reason that it used (unfeatured) psychedelic drug use as a feature of its plot. Since many other episodes feature blatant drug use, it is more likely that the episode was withheld on account of its strong pacifist message, and that message's implications vis a vis the Vietnam War.
  • The non-speaking superior seen receiving Number 6's resignation in the opening credits is played by series co-creator and script editor George Markstein. Markstein later reprised the role for the episode "Many Happy Returns."
  • Number 6's address in London, shown in the opening sequence, is at Number One Buckingham Place, a real-life address which as of the early 1990s was a law office. The buildings seen swirling around at the end of the opening credits are those that could actually be seen when you look out the window of this location, although most were demolished during redevelopment in 2003.
  • Leo McKern's hair and beard are trimmed much shorter in the final episode than in the one preceding it because he took part in another film during the long interval (about a year) between the two episodes' shoots. The show accommodated this by showing McKern covered in shaving cream and getting barbered before making his entrance.
  • Some Village exteriors were actually shot on a sound stage, and sometimes backgrounds are clearly discernible as large blown-up photos of Portmeirion. Other exteriors said to be part of the Village (including a mock-up of a western ghost town, and the Recreation Hall), were not filmed at Portmeirion, but rather at MGM's studio backlot near London.
  • The interrogation dialogue does not play over the opening credits of the episodes "Arrival", "Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling", "Living in Harmony" and "Fall Out", the last episode. As well, the voice of Number 2 in this sequence is not always the same as the voice of Number 2 in the episode (primarily to hide Number 2's identity until the episode's finale); the uncredited voice actor used on these occasions never actually played Number 2 on screen.
  • The Tally Ho newspaper headlines, all the public signs in The Village, and the show's credits use a version of the Albertus display typeface in which the lowercase letter e was altered to make it look somewhat like the Greek letter epsilon (ε), and the dots above the lower case i and j are removed.
  • In the episode "The Chimes Of Big Ben", Number 6 and his Russian neighbour Nadia are encased in a box, with a wood divider between them. While conversing, McGoohan ruins the illusion that they are separated by sticking his hand over the edge of the wood divider.
  • Number 6 is occasionally seen participating in the game or martial art of kosho, which was conceived by Patrick McGoohan for the series. It is played on two trampolines set on either side of a four-by-eight-foot pool of water and surrounded by a wall with an angled ledge and hand-rail. Two opponents wear a boxing glove on their left hand and a lighter padded glove on their right, and attempt to knock each other into the pool.
  • The musical score in the final episode is different in style to the previous 16 episodes. It has a more popular feel (and even features the Beatles' song, "All You Need Is Love"; this turned out to be a fortuitous selection as the song is still popular today).
  • The striking theme tune was composed by Ron Grainer and was originally entitled "The Age of Elegance". According to legend, Grainer composed the theme based upon a phrase whistled by McGoohan, but there is evidence that Grainer's composition had its origins several years before The Prisoner entered production. Grainer's theme was chosen to replace an earlier theme by Albert Elms which can still be heard on the alternate versions of "Arrival" and "Chimes of Big Ben", and as incidental music during a couple of early episodes including the broadcast version of "Arrival" (in the aired version, the theme can be heard as No. 6 approaches the helicopter at the climax of the episode).
  • The female Number 2 who appears in "Dance of the Dead," is speaking dialogue originally written for a male actor, Trevor Howard, who pulled out of the production just before filming.
  • Numerous plans to make a big screen version of the series have been considered since the 1970s, usually with star Patrick McGoohan in the position of executive producer. To date, no film production has come to fruition.
  • Alternate versions of "Arrival" and "Chimes of Big Ben" exist and have been released on DVD.
  • "Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darling" was produced while McGoohan was in America filming Ice Station Zebra; the episode featured the contrivance of Number 6's mind being implanted in another man's body (Nigel Stock), who is then sent out of The Village to help capture a scientist.
  • The series gives several clues as to the location of the Village. In "Chimes of Big Ben" it is said to be in Lithuania (although as this information is given during a ruse it isn't reliable). In "Many Happy Returns" there is compelling evidence to suggest that it is on the coast of Morocco and Number 6 even flies to the apparent location as a passenger in a jet fighter. In the series finale, "Fall Out," however, we learn that The Village is actually located somewhere in Great Britain, within driving distance of London.
  • "I'll be seeing you" was a popular expression in Britain in the 1940s, when it was jocularly pronounced "Abyssinia." McGoohan uses the phrase "be seeing you" in real life. According to the documentary The Prisoner Video Companion (produced to promote the series when it was released to home video in the early 1980s), the salute was meant to represent the "sign of the fish", a symbol of Christianity.
  • The first episode reveals that the keepers of The Village are already aware of the reasons behind Number 6's resignation; they simply want to perform (in Number 2's words) "a double-check." Combined with repeated references to Number 6's "importance," this suggests that he's been kidnapped for reasons beyond his resignation. Later episodes contradict this, as various Number 2s accuse or speculate about Number 6's loyalty to another government. Number 6 never learns the exact loyalty of his jailers, which is one of the reasons he refuses to co-operate.
  • The show's co-creator, George Markstein, supposedly felt that Number 6 resigned because he discovered the existence of The Village, though the series doesn't appear to support this.

Novels

In 1969, Ace Books in the United States published three novels based upon the series. These books, which take place after the events of "Fall Out" are somewhat controversial for stating explictly that Number 6 is John Drake from Danger Man and are not considered canonical with the rest of the series.

Some sources erroneously list Disch as the creator of the TV series as he is the writer of the first novel based upon the show. All three novels have been reprinted numerous times over the years; most recently the Disch and Stine books were republished in 2002.

In the 1980s, Roger Langley of the Prisoner Appreciation Society wrote three novellas based upon the series:

  • Charmed Life
  • Think Tank
  • When in Rome

These books were made available through the fan club, and at the Prisoner Shop in Portmeirion and are long out of print.

In 2004, Powys Media (http://www.powysmedia.com) announced plans for a new series of novels based upon the series, with the first volume scheduled for release in the United States in March 2005. To date three novels have been announced, with the first to be published in trade paperback format with a hardcover edition to follow later. According to Powys Media, at least six books are planned.

Comic books

In the early 1970s, Marvel Comics considered launching a comic book based on The Prisoner, with art by Jack Kirby. A test issue was put together but never published. Original artwork from this comic still exists and occasionally turns up for auction. The surviving artwork suggests that the first issue, at least, would have been an adaptation of "Arrival."

In the late 1980s, DC Comics published a four-issue comic book mini-series based on The Prisoner, written by Dean Motter and drawn by Mark Askwith. The comic story takes place 20 years after the events of the series, and involves a female former agent washing ashore at The Village, where an elderly Number 6 now lives alone. In a nod to both the idea of "I am not a number!" and the episode, "A, B and C", the four issues were not numbered, but were rather Issue A, B, C, and D. The mini-series was later reprinted as the graphic novel, Shattered Visage.

Computer games

In the 1970s, Eduware produced The Prisoner, a video game for the Apple II computer based upon the television series. The game was reportedly not officially licenced, so a number of changes had to be made in order to distance the game from a few of the more recognizable Prisoner elements. The game designers incorporated elements of Franz Kafka's The Castle into the game, in which the players assumed the role of a character referred to as # (the "number sign" in the United States and Canada). # wakes up on The Island, and explores the 20 homes, shops and service buildings there, trying to find clues as to how to escape.

The player is given a three-digit number, which signifies #'s reasons for resigning. The game then attempts at numerous times to trick the player into revealing the number. One of the most nefarious was a simulated game crash which included the error message "Syntax error in line ###" where the line number was the player's resignation code. The significance of this is that this was a commonly seen error message in the Apple II's BASIC programming language; out of pure habit, the next step most users would take at this point would be to investigate the erroneous line to try and correct the error, using the command "List ###" where ### once again is the line number. Typing the game's three-digit code at any time resulted in the game being lost, and that included typing the line into the BASIC command.

Considered unique among games of this sort, The Prisoner was reportedly used as a training tool for Central Intelligence Agency agents. (Around this time, Eduware also released a "game" that simulated terrorist attacks - up to and including nuclear - and the player's task is to respond to these incidents.)

In 1981, Eduware released a version of the game, Prisoner 2, with colour and improved graphics.

External links

fr:Le Prisonnier ja:プリズナーNo.6

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