Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner
A&E’s DVD (and Blu-ray) release of The Prisoner bills this cult series as “television’s first masterpiece.” In truth, it is probably television’s only masterpiece. The Prisoner is a triumph of acting, photography, design, writing, and thought. More generally, of course, it is a triumph of audacity and imagination. Like a great work of art, it is timeless. Very little about The Prisoner is dated — even though it went into production forty-five years ago. For the most part, the series looks as fresh as it did when first aired. And its message seems more relevant than ever.
Of course, the central problem with The Prisoner is what that message is exactly. Fans love to emphasize the “open-endedness” of the series: everyone has their own Prisoner. But when we interpret a text (even a cinematic text) our goal should not be to come up with a purely subjective, idiosyncratic interpretation. Interpretations of The Prisoner are often wildly speculative and subjective — and often completely ignore the public statements that Patrick McGoohan (the series’ creator) made about it. Surely what we want is an interpretation which causes the text to open itself and reveal the meaning its creator put into it, if any. Serious-minded people don’t treat texts as Rorschach blots. One begins the task of interpretation by carefully studying every detail of a text. One also studies the background of its author, and what its author has said about it.
Some interpretations work better than others. Some can explain the text as a whole, others only in part. The former is obviously preferable to the latter. For example, in the final episode of the series we at last discover the identity of the mysterious “Number One”: he is the Prisoner himself. Can one interpret this in an atheistic, or “secular humanist” vein? Does the final episode teach us that Number One is God, but that God is really us? One could indeed interpret things that way — but only if one ignored the fact that McGoohan was a devout Catholic.
What I have attempted to do in this essay is to present an overall interpretation of The Prisoner, situating it within the tradition of twentieth-century “anti-modernism.” As an artist, McGoohan must be understood as belonging to the school of Pound, Yeats, Eliot, Joyce, Huxley, Lawrence, Kafka, and (to some extent) Orwell. It does not matter if McGoohan never read these authors; they would have recognized him as one of their own. It is my belief that such an interpretation is the most fruitful way to understand The Prisoner. But first, a little background information for the uninitiated . . .
At the time The Prisoner went into production, Patrick McGoohan was the highest-paid actor in British television. He was the star of Danger Man (shown in the United States as Secret Agent), in which he played a spy by the name of John Drake. But Drake was no James Bond knock-off. Danger Man premiered on September 11, 1960, almost two years before the release of the first Bond film, Dr. No. Incidentally, McGoohan was the first actor offered the part of Bond, but he turned it down. He felt that Bond’s womanizing and killing were immoral. McGoohan made sure that Drake was never depicted in any amorous encounters with women, and that he never killed his enemies. But Danger Man was plenty violent. Fisticuffs were a major feature of the series (and also of The Prisoner). McGoohan was physically imposing in the role of Drake. He was tall, tough, determined, and deadly serious. McGoohan’s odd, sing-songy voice (a product of being born in New York, and later raised in Ireland and Sheffield) was also crisp and powerful. He radiated enormous intensity and intelligence.
In 1966, McGoohan’s contract for Danger Man ran out, and he decided to quit (even though the first two episodes of the new season — the only ones in color — were already in the can; they were later edited together as a seldom-seen feature called Koroshi). Lew Grade, the head of ITC, the firm that produced Danger Man, wanted very much to keep McGoohan on. When the star put to him the idea for The Prisoner, Grade immediately agreed to it. He had no idea what he was getting into.
The germ of The Prisoner was provided by George Markstein, the script editor for Danger Man. Markstein had worked in British intelligence, and knew of the existence of a secret “rest home” called Inverlair Lodge, where old spies could live out their days without accidentally revealing their secrets when Alzheimer’s set in. Somehow, Markstein, thought, this could be developed into an exciting series. This was basically the extent of Markstein’s contribution to the series’ format. The Prisoner was Patrick McGoohan’s creation.
Here is the premise: A secret agent — whose name is never revealed in the entire series — angrily resigns his job and prepares to leave the U.K. on holiday. Unbeknownst to him, however, he is followed home by a man in a hearse, who knocks him unconscious using some kind of gas. When the secret agent awakens, he is in his own bedroom, but when he looks out the window, he finds that he is in a strange, cosmopolitan little town. He discovers that he is being held prisoner in this place, which is known only as “the Village.” No one is referred to by name, only by number. The inhabitants wear colorful costumes, and spend a good deal of time parading and having fun, yet they are all curiously soulless. Underneath the Village is a complex of underground control rooms, from which a vast bureaucracy watches the Villagers’ every move using sophisticated electronic surveillance equipment.
The highest ranking authority in the Village is called “Number Two,” and the office is constantly changing hands. Number One remains in the background. The location of the Village is never revealed — nor is it ever revealed “which side” runs the place. The Villagers are cared for from cradle to grave. Some seem to work, whereas others do nothing. The masters of the Village have at their disposal the most advanced technology imaginable. They can invade one’s dreams, brainwash one into believing anything, switch minds from one body to another, and bring a dead man back to life. Escape is impossible. The perimeter of the Village is guarded by a mysterious creature that looks like a balloon and is called only “Rover.” It lives at the bottom of the sea and can suffocate escapees, or merely stun them. Is it alive? Is it a machine? “That would be telling,” says Number Two in the first episode (see the Appendix to this essay).
The men behind the Village want to know why our hero — who they call “Number Six” — resigned his job. He refuses to tell them, or to conform. They try to break his will in various ways. They drug him. They hypnotize him. They trick him into thinking he has escaped, only to reveal that he has never left. They raise him to the exalted position of Number Two, then literally beat him and deposit him back in his bed. They turn his old friends against him. They make him doubt his own identity. They perform a mock lobotomy on him. They trick him into believing he is a gunfighter in the Old West. They regress him back to his childhood, then “bring him up” all over again. They even allow him to actually escape, and then lure him back. Finally, with no more tricks left up their sleeves, the Villagers admit defeat and beg the Prisoner to lead them.
Oh, and aside from McGoohan the only other regular is a dwarf.
This was — and is — quite simply, the most unusual thing ever made for television. Only David Lynch’s Twin Peaks rivals it for sheer strangeness and originality. McGoohan arranged with Lew Grade to produce The Prisoner under the auspices of his company, Everyman Films, which he had set up in 1960. This gave him total control over every aspect of the production. ITC budgeted the series at £75,000 an episode, a huge amount in those days. Extensive location shooting was done at Portmeirion in Wales: an artificial village constructed over several decades by architect Clough Williams-Ellis. McGoohan planned out in detail the world of the Village. He contributed to the design of sets, props, and costumes. The Village even had its own font (based on Albertus), which was also used for the opening and closing titles of the series.
The production included many Danger Man alumni. Particularly striking were the sets designed by art director Jack Shampan. They included a large, circular chamber which could be redressed to serve as several settings: No. 2’s office, the sinister “Monitor Station,” and others. These sets are ultra-modern and ultra-simple. They look as impressive today as they did in 1966. The music was one aspect of the production that McGoohan was less happy with. The original theme, contributed by Wilfrid Josephs, was deemed too avant-garde (though it still appears in the background in several episodes). Ron Grainer, the composer of Dr. Who, contributed the theme that was finally used. Albert Elms contributed background music which works brilliantly in the series, but sounds thin and repetitive when heard apart from the visuals (a series of CDs was released a number of years ago).
The Prisoner is visually opulent and looks even more expensive than it was. The photography is crisp and provocative. Scenes call to mind Bergman, Fellini, and Hitchcock. The color is vivid. The editing is like that of a Bond film: fast-paced, each shot lingering only briefly, presenting only essentials. Indeed, every aspect of this series is polished and top-drawer. The Prisoner exhibits that same consummate professionalism that one finds in other British series of the time, like The Avengers and The Saint. Some of the best direction in the series came from McGoohan himself (he helmed five episodes, wrote three, and probably re-wrote all the rest).
The story goes that as production of the series went on, McGoohan began asserting more and more control over every aspect. He was a perfectionist, who delegated little. George Markstein quit and subsequently attacked McGoohan in interviews for his “megalomania.” But one can hardly argue with the results, for The Prisoner is a brilliant creation. Nevertheless, after a year in production, only thirteen episodes were completed, and the stories were getting stranger and stranger. ITC decided to pull out and told McGoohan to wrap things up with a final four episodes. When the last episode was broadcast, viewer reaction in Britain was so hostile that it is said McGoohan and his family felt they had to leave the country.
Originally McGoohan had only wanted to do seven episodes. Indeed, roughly ten of the episodes are fairly routine adventures, lacking much intellectual substance. The seven “primary episodes” are:
- “Dance of the Dead”
- “Free for All”
- “The Chimes of Big Ben”
- “Once Upon a Time”
- “Fall Out”
Like many television series, the episodes were not broadcast in the order in which they were filmed.
Interpreting The Prisoner
So, to quote No. 6 in “Arrival,” what’s it all about? The Prisoner, like many texts, has different levels. The exoteric Prisoner is an adventure series with lots of action, gee-whiz technology, and a dashing, intransigent hero. Even at this level, the series makes the viewer ask certain questions. Chief among these are:
- What is the hero’s name?
- Who runs the Village?
- Where is the Village?
- Why did our hero resign?
- Who is No. 1?
The first three questions are insignificant and will lead one astray. Anyone who thinks that these are important questions probably also thinks that the central question of The Trial is what the K in Joseph K stands for.
The Prisoner is not John Drake. He is Patrick McGoohan, if Patrick McGoohan had been a secret agent. The Prisoner’s birthday is March 19 — the same as McGoohan’s (this is mentioned twice in the series). In the final episode, he credits each of his stars — Leo McKern, Alexis Kanner, and Angelo Muscat — at the bottom of the screen, but bills himself as “Prisoner.” Furthermore, the Prisoner shares other biographical details in common with McGoohan: he boxed in school and had a talent for mathematics (“Once Upon a Time”).
But there is much else to the character that is not McGoohan. In fact, at times it seems No. 6 is everything. He can build a boat and navigate it, he can fly a helicopter, he can fence and shoot, he can speak several languages, he can water-ski, he is a gymnast, he can ride a horse, he knows the sciences, he knows literature, etc. In truth, he is Everyman. He is all of us. (In Biblical terms, six is the number of man, for man was made on the sixth day.) What is he trying to say about all of us? I will address that in section four, below. As to the location of the Village and who runs it, I will deal with those issues in passing.
Of the above questions, only those concerning the Prisoner’s resignation and the identity of No. 1 have any real significance.
It is made clear that the Prisoner resigned his job for matters of principle. (“The Chimes of Big Ben” has the Prisoner revealing that his resignation was “a matter of conscience”; in “Once Upon a Time” he says that he resigned for “peace of mind.”) Part of McGoohan’s message must surely be to convey that principle.
In “Living in Harmony” the story of The Prisoner is played out in an Old West setting. The Prisoner resigns his job as sheriff, then is kidnapped and taken to another town where he is forced to become the new sheriff. He refuses to wear guns, however. Naturally, this calls to mind John Drake. So, did our hero resign his job because he could no longer stomach killing? This cannot be the case, for in the same episode he does put on his guns briefly in order to kill the homicidal “Kid.” This shows that he is willing to kill, if he thinks it justified (he also kills with abandon in “Fall Out”). No, our hero did not resign because he thought it never right to kill; he resigned because he could no longer, in good conscience, kill for, and in the name of, his society. His act of resignation is a rejection of his society, and its regime (in “Once Upon a Time,” when Leo McKern says “You resigned,” McGoohan replies “I rejected”).
One of the mysteries of The Prisoner is why the Villagers cannot see that this is all there is to it. But this is what one should expect: modern people find nonconformists to be thoroughly inexplicable creatures. How could anyone reject this wonderful world in which, to quote Ned Beatty in Network, “all necessities [are] provided; all anxieties, tranquilized; all boredom, amused.” There must, they think, be another reason why he resigned!
Nevertheless, the Prisoner clearly has some vestigial loyalty to Her Majesty. In “Arrival” he insists that his loyalties don’t change. In “A, B and C” he condemns B for working on the “wrong side.” Almost every episode opens with No. 6 demanding of his captors “Whose side are you on?!” This is one of the two ways in which No. 6 is portrayed as being misguided. He is portrayed as a hero, and as an extremely virtuous individual, but he has failings nonetheless. In “The Chimes of Big Ben,” No. 2 tries to set him straight on the issue of “whose side” they are on:
No. 2: It doesn’t matter which side runs the Village. Both sides are becoming identical. What in fact has been created [here] is an international community. When the sides facing each other suddenly realize that they are looking into a mirror, they will see that this is the pattern for the future.
No. 6: The whole earth, as the Village is?
No. 2: That is my hope.
“A, B and C” informs us that the Prisoner believes in “absolute truth.” But he needs to realize that neither side (democratic-capitalist or communist) embodies his ideals, and that neither side is salvageable. He tries to escape the Village to get back to “my world” (as he puts it in “Dance of the Dead”), thinking that it’s “different” (“The Chimes of Big Ben”). But, in essence, they are the same. The Village is the essence of modernity laid bare. But No. 6 does not see it.
What he needs to see is that, as Heidegger claimed, the two sides are metaphysically identical. Both capitalism and communism are based on the supremacy of materialism, and on the rejection of man’s higher nature. In “Arrival,” No. 2 says “We have everything here.” But there is one thing conspicuously absent from the Village: a church. The Villagers are devoid of any spiritual dimension. They are happy, healthy, well-fed humanoids, with an army of psychologists at the ready to drug away their every doubt and blue mood.
The Village is a microcosm of modern society. (In fact, No. 6 calls it that in “Many Happy Returns.”) First of all, it has no cultural or ethnic identity. (“Are you English?” the Prisoner asks No. 2 in “Dance of the Dead”; she does not answer.) Physically, the place is a mix of international architectural styles. (“It’s very international,” says a girl in the first episode.)
The authorities know everything about you — but no one cares, because it makes everyone feel “safe.” Don’t worry about car accidents, you aren’t allowed to drive yourself anywhere (too dangerous). And don’t forget to be in by curfew at 10:00 pm.
The Villagers pride themselves on their democracy, even though the whole process is rigged (“Free for All”). “Of the people, by the people, for the people,” a sign proclaims. They think themselves free, even though their “freedoms” are things like the freedom to walk on the grass (“Arrival”). “You do what you want. . . . As long as it’s what the majority wants,” No. 2 tells us in “Dance of the Dead.” Run for office by all means, but don’t try and change anything if you win. (“You want to spoil things!” No. 6 is told in “Dance of the Dead.”) Don’t make the mistake, however, of thinking that the Villagers have no ideals. “Progress! Progress! Progress!” they scream in “Free for All.” (McGoohan has said that the “penny-farthing bicycle,” seen in the series as the Village’s emblem, represents the ideal of progress.)
A cheery radio announcer makes sure that a light, informal tone is maintained at all times. To “simplify” things, everyone goes by number, rather than by name. Those who claim not to be numbers are laughed at (“Free for All”) — and resented. The Villagers wear silly costumes — colorful capes, straw hats, striped sailor shirts. Dignity is, of course, a terribly old-fashioned idea, and, again, likely to stir resentment.
Everything is automated. The houses have radios and TVs which can’t be shut off because, after all, why would anyone want to shut them off? Leaving for the Village store to buy processed food? Don’t forget your credit card and identity card.
Got troubles? Go to the Citizen’s Advice Bureau (“A Change of Mind”). Need work? Queue up at the Labour Exchange, where you will be given an aptitude test (“Arrival”). Suffering existential Angst, or anti-social tendencies? “There are treatments for people like you!” (“Dance of the Dead”). Do you wonder “Who am I? Why am I here?” (“Schizoid Man”). Sign up for Group Therapy at the hospital. It “counteracts obsessional guilt complexes producing neurosis” (“Arrival”). And remember: “Questions are a burden to others; answers a prison for oneself” (“Arrival” and “Dance of the Dead”). In fact, “if you get [an] attack of egotism, don’t wait. Go . . . to the hospital immediately” (No. 2 to the Rook in “Checkmate”). The Village treats men as soulless pieces of meat to be manipulated by science (“We mustn’t damage the tissue,” No. 2 cautions in “Free for All”). Pavlovian methods of conditioning are employed (methods first perfected — as No. 6 points out twice in “Checkmate” — on dogs).
When your mind is completely gone and you can no longer shop for yourself, you are retired to the Old People’s Home, where you are encouraged to enjoy a second childhood.
The Prisoner as Anti-Modern Manifesto
In short, The Prisoner attacks modernity on the following grounds:
- Modernity rests upon a materialistic metaphysics (all is matter), and champions materialism as a way of life (the focus on material comfort and satisfaction).
- Modernity is spiritually empty (again, no church in the Village); it must deny or destroy what is higher in man.
- Modernity destroys culture, tradition, and ethnic and national identity in the name of “progress” (called “multiculturalism” and “globalization” today). It is significant that we do not know where the Village is, for modern people are really “nowhere.” As Nietzsche’s “Madman” said, “Where are we headed? Are we not endlessly plunging — backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions? Is there an up and a down anymore? Do we not wander as if through an endless nothingness? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Hasn’t it grown colder?” (The Gay Science).
- Modernity promises only trivial freedoms (e.g., the freedom to shop) while suppressing freedom of thought, freedom of religion, freedom of association.
- Modernity involves the belief that nature (including human nature) is infinitely malleable, open to the endless manipulation and “improvement” of science. In a 1977 interview with Canadian journalist Warner Troyer, McGoohan said, “I think we’re progressing too fast. I think that we should pull back and consolidate the things that we’ve discovered.”
- Modernity systematically suppresses ideals that rise above material concerns: ideals like honor, and dignity, and loyalty (the Village is filled with traitors).
- Modernity preaches a contradictory ethos of collectivism, and “looking out for No. 1.”
- Modernity banishes the sacred, and profanes all through oppressive levity, irony, and irreverence (masking cynicism).
- Modernity places physical security and comfort above the freedom to be self-determining, to be let alone, and to take risks.
- Modernity fills the emptiness in people’s lives with noise (the TV and radio you can’t turn off). Silence might start people thinking, which could make them unhappy.
In addition to the hostility to religion, the Village also seems to be hostile to marriage, sex, and procreation. It is not clear whether there are any married couples in the Village. Sex is probably forbidden. No children are seen until “The Girl Who Was Death,” and those children are depicted as living in a kind of barracks. There is a touch of Plato’s Republic in The Prisoner.
The Villagers are Nietzsche’s “Last Men.” In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche has his prophet proclaim:
“Alas the time of the most despicable man is coming, he that is no longer able to despise himself. Behold, I show you the last man.
“‘What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?’ thus asks the last man, and he blinks. . . .
“‘We have invented happiness,’ say the last men, and they blink. They have left the regions where it was hard to live, for one needs warmth. One still loves one’s neighbor and rubs against him, for one needs warmth. . . .
“One still works, for work is a form of entertainment. But one is careful lest the entertainment be too harrowing. One no longer becomes poor or rich: both require too much exertion. Who still wants to rule? Who obey? Both require too much exertion.
“No shepherd and one herd! Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same: whoever feels different goes voluntarily into a madhouse.
“‘Formerly, all the world was mad,’ say the most refined, and they blink.
“One is clever and knows everything that has ever happened: so there is no end of derision. One still quarrels, but one is soon reconciled — else it might spoil the digestion.
“One has one’s little pleasure for the day and one’s little pleasure for the night: but one has a regard for health.”
Zarathustra’s audience is not horrified by this vision of man at the end of history. When he finishes speaking, he is interrupted “by the clamor and delight of the crowd. ‘Give us this last man, O Zarathustra,’ they shouted. ‘Turn us into these last men!’”
To borrow from Eliot, the Villagers are “hollow men.” Or to borrow from C. S. Lewis, they are “men without chests.” They have no soul and no spirit. They are concerned only with comfort, safety, and satisfaction. They have no ideals, and consider nothing to be worth fighting for. In “Free for All,” No. 6 tells the Villagers, “I am not a number, I am a person.” They laugh at him. Then, when he continues to address them, briefly expounding views which No. 2 characterizes as “individualistic,” their faces are blank, uncomprehending. Later in the same episode, No. 6 addresses the Town Council: “Look at them. Brainwashed imbeciles. Can you laugh? Can you cry? Can you think? . . . In your heads must still be a brain. In your hearts must still be the desire to be a human being again.” McGoohan’s portrayal of modern man might have seemed an exaggeration in 1967, but not today. Contemporary man — forty-five years on — does not even rise to the level of a Babbitt or a Willy Loman. He is Dilbert. He is Homer Simpson.
All right, we have seen what McGoohan is against, but what is he for? I will offer the following guesses — with apologies to the late Mr. McGoohan if I happen to misread him.
First and foremost, based on what we know of McGoohan himself, as well as clues internal to the series, I think we can say that he was a theist who believed that man is a creature of God, with an immortal soul, subject to divine law. (Obviously, McGoohan was against materialism in metaphysics and in culture — in “Fall Out” the President states that No. 6 has triumphed “despite materialistic efforts.”) He believed that when men no longer turn their souls toward God, they stop being men. He believed that societies have souls too, and that the soul of a society is its spirituality. Again, the most significant fact about the Village is the total lack of any religious or spiritual institutions.
McGoohan also seemed to place importance on cultural and ethnic identity. We cannot simply be “citizens of the world.” We are English, or Irish, or French, or Estonian, or Japanese. He was against the modern homogenization of the globe (physically embodied in the “internationalism” of the Village) which is rapidly making every place look pretty much like every other.
McGoohan seems also to have advocated minimal government and self-reliance. He opposed government intrusion into our lives, as well as “cradle to grave” socialism. This is the “libertarian” aspect to The Prisoner (the least interesting aspect and, of course, the one that gets the most attention). McGoohan also would seem to have favored somehow limiting what science and technology can meddle with. One supposes that he was a conservationist, who in particular regarded human life as sacred and inviolable.
If McGoohan wanted us to identify him with his character, then, based on what we learn about No. 6 in the course of seventeen episodes, we can conclude that McGoohan believed in honor, in dignity, in fighting for what one holds dear, in discipline, in self-denial, and in absolute truth. He believed in self-sacrifice and service to others (note how he buys the candy for the old lady in “It’s Your Funeral”), not out of duty to “the majority” or to the state, but out of benevolence (note the use of the Beatles’ tune “All You Need Is Love” in “Fall Out”). Quite simply, he was a Christian. Not a mushy “Jesus Freak” sort of Christian, but a tough, muscular C. S. Lewis sort of Christian.
Finally, McGoohan believed in a life that makes room for silence, for thought, for contemplation. He believed in taking life seriously. Was McGoohan a liberal or a conservative? His emphasis on freedom of thought and freedom of expression, and his belief in minimal government seem to make him a classical liberal. But his spirituality, his emphasis on place and culture, his skepticism about “rule by the majority,” and his old-fashioned ideals make him look like a conservative (in “A Change of Mind” one Villager accuses him of being “reactionary”). In truth, it is really unimportant where we locate McGoohan on the political spectrum. If we had asked him, we can be fairly sure he would have eschewed all our ready-made labels.
So what did McGoohan propose doing about our plight? Here the answer is simple: he advocated a revolution. In “Dance of the Dead,” “Bo Peep” states: “It is the duty of all of us to care for each other, and to see that the rules are obeyed. Without their discipline we should exist in a state of anarchy.” No. 6 replies “Hear! Hear!” In the same episode, he finds a transistor radio on a dead body. When he switches it on, we hear the following: “I have a message for you. . . . The appointment cannot be fulfilled. Other things must be done tonight. If our torment is to end, if liberty is to be restored, we must grasp the nettle even though it makes our hands bleed. Only through pain can tomorrow be assured.”
Furthermore, in interviews McGoohan has actually said that he had hoped the protest movement of the 1960s would lead to a revolution. He referred to the action of the final episode of The Prisoner as “revolution time.” But who are to be the revolutionaries, other than McGoohan? He probably wondered the same thing. In the world of the Last Man, what can one do except cultivate one’s own garden? McGoohan made his impassioned, seventeen-hour speech on behalf of revolution. He spent his last years writing poetry that may never be published, and acting only occasionally.
Patrick McGoohan’s Anti-Individualism
Earlier, I said that although No. 6 is clearly portrayed as a hero, he is not perfect. He is misguided in two significant ways. The first I have already discussed: he does not seem to realize that in essential terms his own society and the Village are identical. There is no physical escape from them. The second way he is misguided is that he is an individualist. This statement will surely shock many fans of the series.
Several episodes (such as “Free for All”) explicitly refer to his individualism. No. 6 continually asserts his individuality. In “Arrival” he tells us that he will not be “pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered! My life is my own.” Fourteen episodes open with his proclaiming “I am not a number! I am a free man!” In “Dance of the Dead,” No. 6’s costume for Carnival is his own tuxedo, specially delivered for the occasion. “What does that mean?” asks his maid. “That I’m still . . . myself,” he answers, dramatically. In the same episode, No. 2 tells him, “If you insist on living a dream you may be taken for mad.” “I like my dream,” he says. “Then you are mad,” she replies.
But the attitude of the series toward individualism is, contrary to appearances, ambivalent. Up to the final episode, one could perhaps be excused for thinking that The Prisoner is an unqualifiedly positive portrayal of an individualist hero. But in “Fall Out,” when No. 6 addresses the assembly, he begins his first sentence with “I” and the assemblymen drown him out chanting “I! I! I! I! I! I!” The President states that No. 6 has “gloriously vindicated the right of the individual to be individual” — but his unctuous manner suggests that these are merely empty platitudes. When the Prisoner enters No. 1’s chamber, he sees himself on a TV screen saying “I will not be pushed, filed, stamped,” et cetera, as quoted earlier. Then we hear his voice speeded up, hysterically chanting “I! I! I! I! I! I!” And we see the image that closes almost every episode: iron bars slamming shut over McGoohan’s face, this time over and over again. Are we being told here that the ego is a prison?
No. 1 wears a mask like that of the assemblymen: half-black, half-white. When No. 6 rips it off, underneath is a monkey mask. The monkey face gibbers “I! I! I!”along with the soundtrack. When No. 6 rips that mask off we see that No. 1 is McGoohan. He laughs maniacally and disappears through a hatch in the ceiling. The Prisoner had wanted to discover the identity of No. 1, and now he finds out that he has been No. 1 all along. Understanding the meaning of this is the key to understanding the entire series. In the 1977 Troyer interview, the following exchange occurs:
McGoohan: [The audience] thought they’d been cheated. Because it wasn’t, you know, a “James Bond” No. 1 guy.
Troyer: It was themselves.
McGoohan: Yes, well, we’ll get into that later, I think. (Knowing laughter from Troyer) Come back to that one, that’s a very important one.
That the Prisoner is No. 1 is hinted at throughout the entire series. McGoohan has said that he did not know in advance that things would work out the way they did. However, given his description of how “Fall Out” essentially “wrote itself,” we have some grounds for supposing that McGoohan knew the identity of No. 1 all along, subconsciously. The number on the Prisoner’s house in London is “1” (the actual address is 1 Buckingham Place). The dwarf butler always bows to him. The large red phone No. 2 uses to speak with No. 1 in “A, B and C” (and seen again in other episodes) is shaped suspiciously like the number 6. Finally, at times it seems that the Village exists just in order to break No. 6; as if he is at the center of the whole thing.
No. 1 represents man’s ego in the bad sense. In an interview that predates The Prisoner, McGoohan was quoted as saying, “But what is the greatest evil? If you’re going to epitomize evil, what is it? Is it the [atomic] bomb? The greatest evil that one has to fight constantly, every minute of the day until one dies, is the worst part of oneself.” In the Troyer interview, we read the following:
Audience member: No. 1 is the evil side of man’s nature?
McGoohan: The greatest enemy that we have. No. 1 was depicted as an evil, governing force in this Village. So, who is this No. 1? We just see the No. 2’s, the sidekicks. Now this overriding, evil force is at its most powerful within ourselves and we have constantly to fight it, I think, and that is why I made No. 1 an image of No. 6. His other half, his alter ego.
No. 1 is the embodiment of what I call “Will.” Will is that dark impulse inside all of us which desires to close itself to what is other (including the transcendent, divine other) and to raise oneself above all else. No. 1’s monkey mask represents this primal, brutish aspect in all of us. (Significantly, the first task No. 2 sets for himself in “Once Upon a Time” is to find the Prisoner’s “missing link.”) When Warner Troyer asked McGoohan about the monkey mask, McGoohan said:
Yeah, well, we’re supposed to come from these things, you know. It’s the same with the penny-farthing bicycle symbol thing. Progress. I don’t think we’ve [truly] progressed much. But the monkey thing was, according to various theories extant today, that we all come from the original ape, so I just used that as a symbol, you know. The bestial thing and then the other bestial face behind it which was laughing, jeering and jabbering like a monkey.
Will manifests itself in more or less sophisticated forms. In “Knowing the Gods” I write:
In its higher forms, Will manifests itself . . . in (1) the transformation of the given world according to human designs, and (2) the yearning to penetrate and master the world through the instrument of the human mind — through exploration, analysis, dissection, categorization, observation, and theory. In its most refined form, Will becomes what might be called a “Titanic Humanism”: a seeking to make man the measure, to exalt man as the be-all and end-all of existence, to bend all things to human desires.
Modernity is the Age of Will, the age of this Titanic Humanism. It is this which The Prisoner so brilliantly lays bare and parodies as “the Village.”
Why is Will, as “No. 1,” the head of the Village? Or: why is Will the true master of modernity? I write, further, in the same essay:
It is no accident that all the grand schemes and contrivances of modernity (the technological mastery of nature, the global marketplace, socialism, universal health care, etc.) have as their end exactly what [Will in its infantile form] seeks: the satisfaction of desires, and the maintenance of comfort and security.
East and West, Communism and Capitalism are metaphysically identical because both are run by Will; both are run by an exclusive concern with the values of the Last Man: comfort, security, and satisfaction of (physical) desire. McGoohan has said, “I think progress is the biggest enemy on earth, apart from oneself, and that goes with oneself, a two-handed pair with oneself and progress.”
But why does McGoohan confront us with this hard truth by having our hero discover that No. 1 is himself? Isn’t he the exception? Isn’t he the man who has rejected Will and the world it has created? No. 6 has indeed rejected modernity, but he himself exhibits Will in one of its more subtle forms. He does not turn from modernity to anything higher than it, or higher than himself. He turns inwards and wills himself as, in effect, an atomic individual. As I have said, the most significant thing about the Village is that it has no church. But perhaps the most significant thing about No. 6 is that he doesn’t ask about this. Again, we see him fly a helicopter, build two escape rafts, mix it up with thugs (countless times), box, fence, shoot, play chess, demonstrate his psychic powers, display his knowledge of Shakespeare, do gymnastics, and much else, but we never see him pray. No. 6 is, in effect, a secular humanist who believes that he can stand alone, needing no one, not even God. (In this respect, of course, he is not McGoohan, but “Everyman” — or, perhaps, McGoohan in those moments of doubt that all of us have.)
The series presents us with numerous examples of No. 6’s hubris. In “Free for All” he shouts “I’m afraid of nothing!” In the same episode, after he is elected the new No. 2, he gets on the Village loudspeaker and cries “I am in command! Obey me and be free!” A psychologist in “Checkmate” expresses the desire to learn No. 6’s “breaking point.” “You might make that your life’s ambition,” he says to her. In “Once Upon a Time,” the silent butler obeys No. 6. “He thinks you’re the boss!” Leo McKern exclaims. “I am,” McGoohan replies. When he sits down on the throne in “Fall Out” he seems quite pleased with himself. No. 6 is a strong man, but he is not introspective. He is a man of action. He lacks self-criticism.
“Many Happy Returns” is an episode that many take to be a straightforward thriller: No. 6 wakes up to find the Village deserted, sails away on a raft, but, predictably, winds up back in the Village by the end of the hour. There is more here than meets the eye, however. Consider what No. 6’s behavior in this episode reveals. Finally left alone — a lone wolf, a true individual, an atom in the void at last — he does not look inside himself and take stock. Instead, he promptly goes in search of the world that, in the beginning of the series, he rejected and sought to escape from. Then, once back there, he goes in search of the Village! No. 6 is the proverbial rebel without a pause. He is constantly reacting against the world. He needs others, he needs the world, in order to reject them, for he can do nothing else. He is sheer negativity — sheer rejection and cancellation of otherness. His constant activity — pacing around his apartment, walking around the Village, working out — as well as his acts of violence, are expressions of this.
Now, this life of rebellion and negativity is not a truly human life. It is a kind of Purgatory. It is no accident that there are continual references in the series to No. 6’s being dead. An undertaker in a top hat, driving an old hearse, is the man who kidnaps him and takes him to the Village. (This lends itself to the irresistible, but wrong-headed speculation that in the beginning McGoohan really dies, and that the Village is Hell, or Purgatory!) In “Dance of the Dead” No. 6 asks No. 2 why he doesn’t have a costume for Carnival. “Perhaps because you don’t exist,” she says. In the same episode, after the Villagers try and kill the Prisoner, No. 2 tells him, “They don’t know you’re already dead.” She tells him that the body he found on the beach will be “amended” to look like him, so that to the outside world No. 6 will be dead. “A small confirmation of a known fact,” she says. There are suggestions that the Village is populated by the living dead. Once again, in “Dance of the Dead” (note the title itself!) No. 6 finds the key to the morgue hanging on a hook outside the door. What can this mean, except that the door is locked not to keep people from getting in, but to keep them from getting out? In “Once Upon a Time,” No. 2 cries “I’ll kill you!” “I’ll die,” whispers our hero. “You’re dead,” No. 2 replies. Then there is No. 6’s dalliance with “The Girl Who Was Death.” And finally, there is the fact that No. 6 almost always appears in black.
The best literary parallel I can think of for No. 6 is the character of Hazel Motes in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. Motes is also an atomic individualist who despises society and modern people. Raised in a religious home, he rejects the God that society believes in and founds an atheist “religion”: “the Church Without Christ.” He buys a disastrous used car (an old Essex), but no matter how many times it breaks down and reveals its frailty, he insists that it’s a fine car and will get him wherever he needs to go. “Nobody with a good car needs to be justified,” he says. The car represents man’s mortal coil, and the Catholic O’Connor is telling us that man cannot stand totally alone; he must turn his soul to something higher.
McGoohan is telling us something similar. He is saying, “Fine. Reject society. Reject materialism and the modern world. But if you reject them in the name of your own ego you are buying into that primal, Biblical sin that is at the root of modernity itself: the placing of ego and its interests, narrowly conceived, above all else.” Without preaching to us, without ever mentioning religion, McGoohan invites us to rise above our No. 1, and turn our souls toward the Real Boss. One need not be a Christian, let alone a Catholic, to understand and sympathize with this message. Indeed, the idea that it is our ego that holds us back from enlightenment or true liberation is a perennial idea. (One of the ironies of the series is that resignation is a trait No. 6 is singularly lacking!)
Christian themes are to be found throughout The Prisoner. In several episodes we hear a march-version of the hymn “How Great Thou Art.” This occurs first in “The General,” in which No. 6 destroys a supercomputer with the question “Why?” (One is reminded of the old story — probably apocryphal — of President Eisenhower asking Univac if there is a God; “Now there is,” the computer is said to have shot back.) In “Once Upon a Time” we hear this theme played on a church organ. In “Fall Out” we are repeatedly bombarded with the old spiritual “Dry Bones.” “Them bones, them bones, them dry bones! Now hear the Word of the Lord!”
“Dry Bones” is an old Negro spiritual inspired by the Book of Ezekiel, which is one of the prophetic books of the Old Testament. In Chapter 37, the prophet relates his “vision of the dry bones”:
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he led me out in the spirit of the Lord and set me in the center of the plain, which was now filled with bones. . . . How dry they were! He asked me: Son of man, can these bones come to life? “Lord God,” I answered, “you alone know that.” Then he said to me: Prophesy over these bones, and say to them: Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! Thus says the Lord God to these bones: See! I will bring spirit into you, that you may come to life.
In the Bible, the bones represent the Israelites who have lost hope and faith. In “Fall Out,” the dry bones are modern men, who have lost their souls. When the young rebel No. 48 sings “Dry Bones,” the members of the assembly (who bear such titles as “Welfare,” “Identification,” “Therapy,” and “Education”) go mad: “Them bones, them bones gonna walk around!” They are the dry bones of our world. “The bones is yours, dad!” says No. 48. “They came from you, my daddy.”
No. 48 and No. 2 are fastened to metal poles, in a manner that suggests crucifixion. When No. 6 speaks some soothing words to No. 48, the young man says “I’m born all over,” suggesting the Christian theme of the second birth. No. 6 also undergoes a Christlike temptation at the hands of the President, who offers him “ultimate power.” Then there is the small matter of Leo McKern’s “resurrection.”
Does No. 6 get the message in the end? Not at all. In the Troyer interview, McGoohan states that his character is “essentially the same” at the end of the series. The final shot of the series is the same as the very first: there is a thunderclap, and the Prisoner comes speeding towards us in his hand-built Lotus. He is caught in the circle: an eternal cycle of rebellion, leading nowhere, and certainly not upwards. He is still a prisoner — not of the Village or of society, but of his own ego.
Appendix: What About Rover?
The one thing everyone seems to remember about The Prisoner is Rover. Mention the series to people over 40, and they are likely to say “Is that the one where he’s chased around by the big white balloon?” Indeed, Rover is one of the most curious, frightening, and unforgettable aspects of the series. Despite his claim (in “Free for All”) that he is afraid of nothing, No. 6 is clearly frightened by Rover. Here are some of the odd facts about this strange beast/machine:
- It is first seen in “Arrival” as a tiny white ball, bobbing on a jet of water at the top of a fountain. It then expands into the size of a weather balloon (which is apparently what the prop man used).
- It roars.
- It can stun (several episodes) or kill (“Schizoid Man”). How it does this is not clear, but it involves covering the victim’s face.
- It can understand language (“Schizoid Man”).
- It can divide into small balls in order to move unconscious victims (“Chimes of Big Ben” and “Free for All”).
- It has some connection with the “lava” inside the lava lamps seen throughout the Village.
- It seems to “live” on the ocean floor, where it is apparently part of a larger body of “goop.” When “activated” (by a flick of a switch on No. 2’s desk) it separates itself from this goop and rises to the surface.
- It can move at high speeds.
Now, some of the above suggests that Rover is a living thing — but other things suggest that it is a machine (in “Schizoid Man” No. 2 commands, “Deactivate Rover immediately!”). That it has a mind of its own was implied in the original “Arrival” script, in which Rover is a sort of windowless hovercraft with a police light on top. “Who drives it?” No. 6 was to have said. “Drives it?” No. 2 was to have replied, incredulous.
What does Rover mean, if anything? Here there is a danger, for making Rover a balloon was a last-minute inspiration. The original Rover machine — just described — sank in the ocean during filming. But over time, the new form of Rover must have acquired some significance in the minds of McGoohan and the other writers, and so we can ask about its “meaning” nonetheless.
My suggestion is that Rover is supposed to be a hybrid animal-machine. It represents the mysterious, amorphous, chthonic, primal, uncanny element in nature, which modern man tries to factor out, to deny, or to control. It is what Sartre calls “the viscous.” But man cannot fully tame the chthonic. Rover’s imprisonment in the lava lamp represents man’s attempt to do this. Rover’s killing “Curtis” in “Schizoid Man” represents man’s failure to do so. Even the masters of the Village are afraid of their “machine.” No. 6’s fear-reaction when confronted by Rover has a special quality: he is reacting to the terrible, the uncanny. When not doing man’s bidding, Rover sinks to the bottom of the ocean, where it reunites with a much vaster “viscous,” the parameters of which we do not see — suggesting our inability to comprehend the chthonic. It is our confrontation with the uncanny that is often our first confrontation with something that transcends human knowledge and power. Thoughtful people reflect on this, and eventually turn their gaze upwards.
First published in TYR: Myth—Culture—Tradition, vol. 1, ed. Joshua Buckley, Collin Cleary, and Michael Moynihan (Atlanta: Ultra, 2002), 167–90.
1. Since this essay was first published in 2002, I learned that McGoohan gave an interview a few years before his death, in which he stated that the real reason he turned down Dr. No was that he did not want to work with a certain individual on the crew, with whom he had worked before. Although he does not name that individual, it could only have been director Terrence Young, with whom McGoohan worked on Zarak (1956).
2. Since this essay was first published, I have seen two television series that remind me of The Prisoner in terms of their intelligence and imagination: the Sci-Fi Channel’sBattlestar Galactica (the “re-imagined” version of the original, god-awful ’70s series), and the Fox Network’s Dollhouse. Both are flawed, but have much to recommend them. The ABC series Lost has often been compared to The Prisoner. I was intrigued by this series at first, but ultimately disappointed by it. In 2009 AMC aired a six-episode remake of The Prisoner starring James Caviezel as No. 6 and Ian McKellen as No. 2. I made it about twenty minutes into the first episode before shutting it off, and can honestly say I have no desire to return to it.
3. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Viking Press, 1986), 17–18.
4. After writing the above, I purchased a lava lamp to celebrate the completion of this essay. The lamp came with a card from the manufacturer, which concluded with the following statement: “The Lava brand is a philosophy. It stems from the primordial ooze that once ruled our world [and] has now been captured in perpetual motion in our Lava brand wax. . . . The Lava motion lamp is pre-historic and post-modern.”
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