Patrick McGoohan’s ‘The Prisoner’ and the Birth of Modern Television Mind Fuckery

 

Patrick McGoohan and his pet Orb on The Prisoner.

Patrick McGoohan and his pet Orb on The Prisoner. Via ITV

In 2016, I fell deep in the thrall of both Westworld and Mr. Robot, fascinating and intense stories about reality, identity, and the place where progress and individuality meet and come into conflict.

However, I kept on thinking: I had been to this place before. I had met the father of these shows.

At the base of all these wonderful new psych-fi dramas was a very old television show: The Prisoner, which first aired in Great Britain in 1967 and ’68. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that The Prisoner was the first ultra-modern television series, the first show that anticipated the mind-fucking limited-run dramatic series that are such a powerful part of today’s television landscape.

This “new” television get inside your head and heart and challenges you to think in multi-dimensional ways about what you are watching. The limited run format has freed storytellers to tell their tales in more dramatic, intensive, or supernatural ways. The storylines have become more spectacular and, ironically, the characters more realistic, even as they’ve become more improbable – they are complicated and uncertain, just like real people. Frequently, the viewer and the preconceptions they bring into the act of television viewing are a necessary facet in establishing the drama and the conflict. This is an exciting and joyful thing, especially to those of us raised in the numbing, nodding, predictable rhythms of the old system. It’s made television into a medium that evolves, contracts, and expands with the viewers ability to consider it. It uses the viewer to complete the story, instead of just regarding the viewer as inert furniture and consumers.

The Prisoner, a fully contained, 17-episode series that originally aired in the United Kingdom between September 1967 and February 1968, feels like the foundation stone for all modern mind-fucking limited-run television serials (please note: This piece is about the original version of The Prisoner, and not the little-loved remake that appeared on AMC in 2007). Created (and frequently written and directed) by it’s titular star, Patrick McGoohan (1928 – 2009), it has same relation to, say, Westworld or Mr. Robot that the Beatles had to Oasis or Jerry Lee Lewis had to the Sex Pistols. The Prisoner contained all the pieces of the golden digital future of twisted ideas, techno-foggy plots, and psycho-technical mysteries that would later enthrall and entertain us a generation or three later. Via stunning visuals, self-reflective and conceptually incestuous plots, spectacular non-resolving non-solutions, intensive reveals buried deep within visual and textual landscapes, and emotionally and physically muscular performances, The Prisoner is supremely modern, vastly foreshadowing the medium’s future (while at the same time full of mind-bending graphics, scripting and characterizations that make the show a gorgeous arty-fact of London in the psychedelic ‘60s). Vastly ahead of its time, it is far more in tune with today’s HBO or Showtime psychodramas than it was with all the numbskull sitcoms and moralistic cop shows that also were on the air in the late 1960s.

The premise of The Prisoner is relatively easy to digest, and can be summed up in one sentence: What happens if a Bond-esque superspy wants to quit?

The premise of The Prisoner is relatively easy to digest, and can be summed up in one sentence: What happens if a Bond-esque superspy wants to quit?

(It’s not like when you quit your job at Tru-Value Hardware in Trumbull, Connecticut that summer between 11th and 12th grade. You didn’t even tell anyone. You just went to the Friendlys next door for Fribble and you never came back.)

Think of everything inside of a superspy’s brain: enormous state secrets, seismic military intelligence, the vulnerable points of every security system in every nation, the psychological profiles of all those diplomats and heads of state. Surely, you cannot risk having someone waltzing around out there with all that knowledge in their head; in addition to the possibility of them selling what they know, they could be kidnapped. So what do you do with them when they want to retire?

The opening credits to every episode of The Prisoner spells out this dilemma. Each week, our super-spy is seen resigning angrily (we only see this, we don’t hear it), and then returning to his posh London home, where he proceeds to pack for (presumably) a long vacation at Beautiful Mt. Airy Lodge, or a suitable Bahamian equivalent. But then the room fills with some kind of gas, and our hero/anti-hero passes out. When he awakes – in a room absolutely identical to the one he was gassed in – he opens the door and finds himself not on London circa Sgt. Pepper’s and Piper at the Gates of Dawn, but in an alien place called The Village.

As the credits continue – these are really long and rather spectacular opening credits, over three minutes in length — we see the superspy (McGoohan) in a peculiar futuristic setting, the nerve center of The Village, where he addresses a man (or woman – McGoohan’s chief warder changes each week) with the following legendary dialogue:

Number Six: Where am I?

Number Two: In the Village.

Number Six: What do you want?

Number Two: Information.

Number Six: Whose side are you on?

Number Two: That would be telling. We want information… information… information.

Number Six: You won’t get it.

Number Two: By hook or by crook, we will.

Number Six: Who are you?

Number Two: The new Number Two.

Number Six: Who is Number One?

Number Two: You are Number Six.

Number Six: I am not a number! I am a free man!

Number Two[laughs]

Then the weekly story begins, always unfolding along similar lines: The former super-spy finds himself relocated someplace where he has no identity, he doesn’t know where he is located or what side his captors are on, and he cannot distinguish his captors from the other prisoners. Pretty fucked up, huh?

The Village (the setting is the curious amalgam of cottages, domes, and follies at a resort in Portmeirion, Wales, which still does good business off of tourism related to the series) seems like a perfectly nice place to live, and all of No. 6’s needs are taken care of…except he is a number, all aspects of his past or potential future have been stripped, every time he tries to leave he gets chased down and smothered by a giant spherical object named Rover, and the powers that be are constantly questioning, brainwashing, and torturing No. 6 in order to determine why he resigned and what he knows.

McGoohan’s Prisoner fucks with one of our most famous and most loved fictional characters: It provides an unhappy ending for the Bond story. This was deeply intentional, since the association between Bond (or the idea of Bond) and The Prisoner’s creator/star, Patrick McGoohan, is not just implied, but explicit: the television role McGoohan’s played immediately prior to The Prisoner was John Drake, the Bond-esque superspy on Danger Man (re-titled Secret Agent in the United States). Most contemporary viewers would have assumed that No. 6 is Drake (and that The Prisoner is a continuation of that character), but McGoohan (deliberately) never confirmed this. Likewise, McGoohan was one of the “finalists” considered for the role of Bond when it was originally cast for the first Bond film, Dr. No, in the early 1960s (McGoohan appears to have been offered the part, but turned it down; likewise, he was also offered the Bond role when Connery initially left the series in 1968). So it is absolutely safe to assume that No. 6 is fully intended to be a stand-in for Bond, Drake, or both.

(There is also an explicit connection between Bond and The Prisoner, a number-pun so obvious it is easy to overlook: Bond was 007; The Prisoner was 006. McGoohan seems to be saying that any Bond-level superspy is a Prisoner, regardless of whether they are restricted to a “village” or not.)

Whereas the standard American series show traditionally makes great use of heuristics (characters are who they say they are and perform reliably from episode to episode), these shorter-run series are far more liable to joyfully fuck with the perceptions and perspectives we take for granted; for instance, Westworld made great use of a viewer’s natural assumption that they were watching a narrative unfold within a linear time frame, and Mr. Robot played on our idea that we could trust that the storyteller at any give time was actually telling is the “truth,” as opposed to showing us just one aspect of a perceived reality.

The Prisoner went to this place a generation or two ago, and exploited some basic heuristics that virtually all 1960s’ television viewers might take for granted: The hero always wins, a resolution is necessary and/or final, and that we know who is the good guy and who is the bad guy. Virtually none of this can be taken for granted in The Prisoner. This is a long freaking way from Adam 12, yet it will be very familiar to viewers of modern, limited runs series.

Perhaps most fundamentally, The Prisoner assaults the most basic idea in the lingua franca of television: That we know who the primary character is. For 17 episodes, we never formally know what No. 6’s actual name is –we don’t even know if he was a “good guy” to begin with – and his identity is not revealed at the end of the show. Nor do we know any actual or effective backstory about him, other than what they viewer may presume to know, based on McGoohan’s prior role as John Drake. We construct the premise of the show in our minds, and McGoohan knows this.

You are generally always on shaky ground in The Prisoner in a way that is virtually unique within 1960s television. Not only is the hero always nameless and always thwarted, but also the primary villain is never identified, and the idea that the villain might be No. 6 himself is left open-ended. Likewise, No. 2, the series co-star and the character that No. 6 finds himself in direct conflict with throughout the series, is played by a different actor in nearly every episode. Heck, there’s even an entire episode set mostly in the old west, and in another episode, No. 6 is portrayed by an actor who isn’t McGoohan. In other words, we are talking about the sort of mind fuckery that was to play such a major part in today’s television landscape, but McGoohan got to it nearly half a century earlier.

Let me also note that you don’t have to care about the psychological mysteries and intricacies of The Prisoner to enjoy the series (and there are a lot of these; an entire body of literature, online and off, deals with theories about The Prisoner, and that’s without even going into the Buddhist subtext I find in the series). It’s a fantastic looking show, full of attractive quirks and eye candy, and at the forefront of The Prisoner is the muscular, clench-jawed performance of McGoohan, an intense, ice-eyed, furrowed-brow actor who always appears to be carrying a great physical and mental weight, and who seems like he’s about to explode even when he’s doing the most commonplace gesture. In this sense, he reminds me both of Daniel Craig playing Bond or Rami Malek playing Elliot Alderson; and I don’t think either of these similarities is coincidental.

It’s also very much worth pointing out that Orson Welles is a notable influence on The Prisoner. Clearly McGoohan (who was a protégé and friend of Welles), was influenced visually and conceptually by Welles’ extraordinary version of Kafka’s The Trial; like Welles’ Trial, The Prisoner is simultaneously visually expansive and catastrophic, and leaves open the concept that the protagonist is likely guilty of something. McGoohan is also clearly in debt to Welles’ visual style, most notably the blend of odd-angles and quick-cuts he adopted (largely as a result of budget limitations and make-shift sets) on his post-Hollywood films (such as Othello, The Trial, Mr. Arkadin and Chimes at Midnight); since it so happens that these stylistic elements also fit in with the post-Richard Lester filmic tics of late 1960s England, Welles’ influence have largely been overlooked.

Listen, some of my younger colleagues at The Observer have noted The Prisoner is one of the many extraordinary aspects of our culture that they first learned about from The Simpsons (Season 12, episode 254, “The Computer Wore Menace Shoes,” is largely a tribute to The Prisoner, and features McGoohan reprising his No. 6 role for the first, last, and only time). Of course, The Prisoner is more than that; With it’s constant and provocative questions about identity, reality, and technology, all told in a visually alluring style, it is also the first truly modern television show, a show that will be instantly familiar to people acclimated to the more cinematic and psychologically-based rhythms of modern television.