Number Six At 50: The 50th Anniversary Of 'The Prisoner'
It was a little bit James Bond, a little bit George Orwell, and — eventually — a whole lot of Franz Kafka.
It was The Prisoner, a stylish and surreal 17-episode sort-of-spy show that premiered exactly 50 years ago in the U.K. — on Sept. 29, 1967. (Here in the States, CBS started airing it the following summer, on June 1, 1968. Opposite, among other things, Bewitched.)
If you tuned your telly to the British network ITV half a century ago tonight, you were greeted with a shot of a cloudy sky, a crack of thunder, and a man driving a tiny sports car straight towards the camera.
If you were British, you likely recognized the driver as the actor Patrick McGoohan; he'd just starred in four seasons of the spy show Danger Man (known as Secret Agentover here).
As the opening credits roll, McGoohan drives into London, parks his car in an underground garage, enters a building through an exit door (such a rebel!), marches down a long corridor and into a tweedy-looking gentleman's office, where he forcefully resigns. (He does everything forcefully.)
What happens next happens quickly: He goes home, starts packing for a vacation, but wait! Someone starts pumping knockout gas through his front door's keyhole. He passes out ...
... And awakens in a ridiculously picturesque Italianate seaside village known only as ... the Village. (Actually the North Wales tourist hamlet of Portmeirion.) He, like all the other residents of the Village, is a former spy, imprisoned there to either protect, or extract, the information he's accumulated over his long, clandestine career.
Everyone in the Village is forbidden to use their real names, and are instead assigned a number. Our hero, we learn, is Number Six.
The person in charge of the day-to-day running of the Village is known only as Number Two — a position filled by a different actor each week.
In a dialogue that would run over the opening credits of most of the show's subsequent episodes, Number Six queries that week's Number Two relentlessly. And fruitlessly.
Six: Where am I?
Two: In the Village.
Six: What do you want?
Six: Whose side are you on?
Two: That would be telling. We want information. Information. INFORMATION.
Six: You won't get it.
Two: By hook or by crook ... we will.
Six: Who are you?
Two: The new Number Two.
Six: Who is Number One?
Two: You are Number Six.
Six: I am not a number! I am a free man!
Two: [Maniacal laughter]
The information they're so het up about is why he resigned. He's not saying — both because he doesn't know who really runs the Village, and because he just wants to be left alone:
"I will not make any deals with you. I've resigned. I will not be pushed, filed, indexed, stamped, briefed, debriefed, or numbered!"
Maybe not, but what he willbe, over the course of those 17 episodes, is constantly surveilled and cruelly interrogated.
So far, this all might sound like some pretty straightforward James Bond stuff. But that's because I haven't told you about Rover yet.
Rover is the Village security system — a giant, white, round death-balloon that chases anyone who steps out of line and smothers them. It's only one of the series' many striking, and exultantly weird, visual elements that are still referenced in pop culture.
As the series went on, and those symbolic elements kept piling up, it became clear that McGoohan — who created the show — was offering an extended, increasingly surreal allegory about the battle of the individual against society.
In the final episode, all that allegorical, Kafkaesque stuff bubbles over. Characters representing Youth and The State deliver monologues about Freedom and Rebellion.
Number Six escapes the prison of the Village but not the prison of himself— get it?
... No, yeah, lots of people didn't. They wanted clear answers — Where WAS the village? Which side ran it? Who WAS Number One? — but McGoohan gave them symbols and speeches.
For fans, it was more than enough, and they continue to unpack those symbols and speeches today. For casual viewers, though, it was infuriating. They wrote outraged letters — McGoohan claimed he had to go into hiding for a while.
Since then, the finales of shows like Lost, Dexter, True Bloodand most recently Twin Peaks: The Return have sharply divided viewers.
But 50 years ago, that was a brand-new phenomenon — The Prisoner may have been the first television show to generate enough passionate devotion for its finale to split its audience into fans and haters.
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