The Prisoner

The Prisoner

***1/2

Reviewed by: Stephen Carty

After a high-ranking British Secret Agent (Patrick McGoohan) suddenly resigns, he is mysteriously kidnapped and wakes up in a small, isolated seaside town known only as "the village". Having a look around, he finds out that it is an open-prison of sorts where a group of unknown allegiance keep those with important information captive until they reveal their secrets. Being labelled as “Number 6” (everyone there is assigned a number instead of a name), the former spy has to deal with a number of supervisory figures all referred to as "Number 2" while constantly trying to escape, figure out who "Number 1" is and protect the reason for his resignation.

Back in 1967, popular actor Patrick McGoohan was fed up with how generic television had become and decided to do something about it. Just a few episodes into the fourth season of successful show Danger Man, he suddenly resigned (in true Number 6 fashion) in order to pursue his new vision; The Prisoner which was inspired by the surreal Welsh resort Hotel Portmeirion. Conceiving a story that defied every normal convention of TV, McGoohan took a 40-page plan and decided to blow the weird-o-metre right off the map. Acting as star, producer, showrunner and occasional writer/director, there was a lot riding on McGoohan's school-blazer wearing shoulders.

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The result is one of the most unique shows ever imagined. While sold as a spy thriller similar to Danger Man, The Prisoner was complex, well ahead of its time and completely removed from the mainstream with more intention of baffling the non-intelligent audiences than pandering to them. Though there are elements of espionage, the show is primarily a bizarre one that operates on multiple levels and poses questions about identity, authority, trust, politics and sanity while teasing us with truckloads of subtext, metaphors and symbolism. Think you have an idea of what to expect? Trust me, you don’t.

Ultimately, what this means is that you constantly need to be paying attention. Though much of the early debate surrounded whether Number 6 was actually McGoohan’s character in Danger Man, John Drake (the star denied this strongly) we end up with more question marks than one of Edward Nygma’s jackets. Who is Number 1? Is there even a Number 1? Where is The Village? Are those in charge British or foreign? Who are the prisoners and are they part of the conspiracy? Did the camera man get whiplash from all the quick zooms?

Indeed, the ambiguity even spread to the sequence of episodes as there has still never been a firmly established order aside from the first and last. Though McGoohan had only planned for a seven-part series, he was forced to extend it to 17, which resulted in more than a few ‘filler’ episodes (including Do Not Foresake Me, Oh My Darling where he doesn’t play Number 6 as he was off shooting Ice Station Zebra). While there are enough great episodes to make up for this (The Schizoid Man, Many Happy Returns, Hammer Into Anvil) anyone looking for answers in the two-part finale will be as disappointed as an inhabitant of The Village trying to book a holiday.

Though Leo McKern, Anton Rogers and Patrick Cargill all stand out as Number 2, The Prisoner is the Patrick McGoohan show. He may be known as ‘that old guy that plays Edward Longshanks in Braveheart’ by today’s audiences, but here his lip-curling smile and r-r-r-remarkably articulate voice makes for compelling viewing. I have to admit kinship with his dislike of conformity and admiration that he turned down playing both James Bond in Dr No and Simon Templar in The Saint to realise his vision. Looks like he didn’t have to look far to gain inspiration for Number 6…

Summarising The Prisoner, McGoohan mused that “a thousand people might have a different interpretation of it, which I think is very gratifying… because that was the intention." Despite airing over 40 years ago, it remains one of the most talked-about and over-analysed television series ever with an influence that can be seen in shows like Lost and Twin Peaks as well as movies like The Matrix and The Truman Show. Personally, while I loved the start of the series, the increasing craziness left me scratching holes in my head.

For those intending on watching it, if you’re a fan of reality television or annoyed by Lost for its lack of answers, this isn’t the show for you. However, if you crave something way beyond the normal (and then some) that forces you to think outside the box, the hop to it. With a modern six-part remake on the way featuring Jim Caviezel as Number 6 and Ian McKellen as Number 2 (please don’t screw it up), it looks like we will indeed, be seeing you.

Reviewed on: 08 Feb 2009
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A kidnapped secret agent finds himself trapped in "the village".
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