The Prisoner was a British TV series that aired between 1967 and 1968.
Set in a “constructed” town known only as “the Village” it follows the story of Number 6 a spy who resigns only to be gassed and taken against his will to the Village. The Village is a state of the art centre that houses various members of the spy community breaking them down in order to extract the information that they may know. One of the central themes being escape is impossible and the mysterious group that run the Village are all powerful.
It stared Patrick McGoohan who was very much at the peak of his acting powers. McGoohan was also producer/co-creator on the show and had a huge influence on the show including writing several of the episodes, particularly the last.
The main control
Episode 1: The Arrival
The story opens with number 6 driving into the agency where he works and angrily delivers his resignation to his superior. As he returns to his apartment a black hearse pulls up and a man gets out injecting gas into number 6’s apartment. Number 6 wakes up disoriented in a place called the village. He immediately tries to work out exactly where he is and what he needs to do to escape. He is met by a man who identifies himself as number 2 who wants the answer to a single question “why did you resign?” and then attempts to convince him to willingly join the community. Number 6 refuses and makes a futile attempt to escape ending up in hospital after being captured by the balloon like “Rover”. Before the episode ends, number 2 has changed. The episode ends with Number 6 accepting he is trapped for the moment with no way out.
Who is number 6 (John Drake)
The way he delivers the resignation (many times he says he resigned on principal)
The patience with which they crafted the story
The use of sound to make rover menacing
Throw to Simon.
Episode 2: Chimes of Big Ben
Number 2 has again changed and engages number 6 more personally, encouraging him to take part in the local activities in the village, including the art competition. In the meantime Number 6 befriends a spy who says she knows where the village is and can help them escape. Number 6 builds the shell of a boat under the disguise of “abstract art” and then wins the competition. He donates his prize to number 48 (an elderly lady) in exchange for her tapestry. Number 6 then constructs a boat using the artwork piece and the tapestry for a sail and then escapes with the woman. After narrowly avoiding rover, they are met by a man who seals the two into crates and ships them off to England. Number 6 and the woman arrive in London to be met by Number 6’s superior who repeats the question,”why did you resign?”. Big Ben chimes 8 and Number 6 realises he can’t be in London. Story ends with number 6 opening the door and there is the village.
Leo McKern as number 2 (his much more personal approach, much more banter)
The scenes during transport
The fact that number 6’s name isn’t used
Throw to Simon.
Episode 3: A B & C
Number 2 is under pressure to get information on what Number 6 was going to do when he resigned so brings in a doctor who has a variety of drugs and machines that can invade Number 6’s dreams. Number 2 has narrowed it down to three options, which he wants to explore via Number 6’s dreams to discover which one is correct. They capture him and put him through scenario “A” successfully discovering that he wasn’t going to do that option. Number 2 wakes up with a needle mark on his arm and confronts number 2. Number 2 shrugs it off before Number 6 is captured again, this time resisting forcing the doctor to influence the dream unsuccessfully. After he wakes up with a second needle mark, Number 2 suspects the new doctor in the Village and follows her back to her lab, replacing the drug with water. Number 6 is once again captured and it looks like the dream control is working. Finally the contact number 6 was going to meet is revealed to be Number 2, then number 6’s dreams return to a loop of his resignation moment. Ominously the phone rings for number 2.
This is the first episode with a number 2 that is not really in control.
With the fact number 6 works it out this story is a lot more spy vs spy.
The dream machine.
Throw to Simon.
Episode 4: Free for All
It’s election time in the village and number 2 convinces number 6 to run for office. Number 6 is goaded into agreeing as a chance to escape. After speaking to the crowd (which are told when to cheer) he goes into number 2’s office to attend a town meeting, where everyone just stands there. Seeing the meeting as a farce, number 6 is sent to a man who is to prepare him for the campaign. He drugs number 6 with something that makes him more compliant. Number 6 is assigned a woman who doesn’t speak English as a driver, uses the customary term “be seeing you” to say goodbye and looks more like a normal village member. The drug however fades in and out of it’s effectiveness, Number 6 at one point tries to escape and at another seeks real alcohol. Finally the election is run and number 6 wins, becoming the new number 2. His driver starts to play with the panel, then shows number 6 a panel on the wall that has a pattern of lights. Number 6 goes into a stupor and the woman takes the number 2 badge off him. She repeats the words tick tick and starts to hit him repeatedly. Number six wakes up and tries to use the communications panels to tell everyone to escape. No-one in the village does so and when number 6 tries to escape himself he is confronted by guards who beat him. The new number 2 confronts him and warns that this is just the beginning.
I loved the scene early on where he is talking to the reporter with the No Comment and the reporter just makes things up on the spot. The news is then ready by the time they get to the speech.
I found this episode quite disorienting, as I wasn’t sure how aware number 6 was of what was going on.
I didn’t see the driver coming as the next number 2
Throw to Simon.
Episode 5: Schizoid Man
Number 2 brings in a new spy to work with number 6. The spy (number 12) has two special abilities, one he looks like number 6 and two he is very good at impersonating peoples mannerisms. He is planted into the village and confronts number 6 accusing him of being a fake. He sets up a series of tests to prove he is the real number 6 performing better in all of them than the real number 6. Even rover is confused as to which number 6 is the imposter. Number 6 is then interrogated as an imposter, undergoes a fingerprint test and even a visit from a partially psychic woman. The one mistake that they made with number 12 is a missing mole on the left wrist. Number 6 is then put into a programme where he is trained to act and be like number 12, he grows a beard is taught to be left handed, eat number 12’s food and finally made up to look like number 12. He is returned to his room dressed as number 6 and fights the programming, electrocuting himself. Number 6 breaks free with Rover in pursuit and then confronts number 12 in his apartment, still appearing disoriented. Number 6 fools number 12 attacking him and getting the password off him before taking the fake mole. When they exit the apartment number 12 is killed by rover as an imposter. Number 6 then impersonates number 12 in a bid to escape. On the way to the leaving the village he makes a minor slip up and number 2 becomes suspicious. Number 2 lets number 6 fly off in the helicopter before bringing him back.
The scenes with number 6 being re-educated are pretty horrible, I have no idea how he survives what he is put through in his time there
I loved rover in this episode, he is always present and always a menace, not easy for a giant balloon.
Episode 8: Dance of the Dead
This time we get an older woman as number 2 (a precursor to M in bond?) The village is going to hold a ball and number 2 wants number 6 to attend with a partner. A new woman has been assigned to watch over number 6 and he notices her nearby. He tries to follow but is delayed by rover and then unable to enter the town hall as it is protected by an electric field. Number 6 finds a cat which he takes home with him, his maid objects to him having it and Number 6 questions how things enter the village. Number 6 escapes his room and heads down the beach at night. He wakes up to find a body washed up and on the man locates a radio. Number 6 uses the radio to listen for signals and his female observer and number 2 catch him using it. Number 6 steals a life ring and plants a message on the body sending it out to sea attached to the life ring. Number 6 is caught doing this by a man called Dutton who number 6 knew previously. Dutton has given up fighting and is a broken man. Number 6 attends the dance, sneaking into the town hall he discovers a secret room where the body is being stored. Number 2 enters with the cat letting him know that the body will still be sent to sea but in this case with a note that says number 6 is dead. Number 2 takes him back to the ball where he is put on trial for having the radio. Number 2 acts as his defender, his observer the prosecution. The trial doesn’t go well, number 6’s only witness Dutton is now completely broken and number 6 is sentenced to death. Number 6 fights his way into the town hall finding an opulent room. He is once again confonted by number 2 who tells him that the angry villagers will find out he is the dead man in the long box.
Despite this being quite some way in and a lot happening, Dutton says he has been there a couple of months and number 6 says he is there quite recently.
The purpose of the trial is quite confusing as is the objective of number 2. She seems determined to cut off his options and get him to accept life in the village yet it isn’t clear as to what end.
Throw to Simon.
Episode 9: Checkmate
Number 2 gets involved in a game of chess where people are the pieces, during the game one of the pieces decides to make his own move to win the game, for which he is captured and taken off to hospital. In hospital he is dehydrated then shown several water coolers. When he tries to take water he is electrified until he follows instructions correctly then he is allowed water. Number 6 befriends the man and they hatch a plot to pretend an aircraft has gone down at sea so they will be rescued. The two work together and even gather a larger group to assist, all seems to go to plan and they manage to contact a boat. Number 6 enacts the plan, capturing number 2 and putting him in the custody of the man from the chess board and his followers before heading out to meet the boat. When he gets there he is greeted by the captain. An image of number 2 appears on the monitor, the group have set him free and the ship is one of the villages. Number 2 tells number 6 that the man from the chess board was programmed to believe that number 6 as an authoritative man was an agent not a prisoner. The man is horrified to discover his mistake. Number six smashes the viewscreen and tries to take over the boat. It’s controls don’t respond and rover appears to retrieve him.
The scene with the water coolers probably isn’t that scary by todays standards but I found it really creepy
I felt in this episode they were testing the prisoner to see what he would do and that the story has changed from what he was going to do when he resigned to his potential to work for the people who run the village.
Throw to Simon.
Episode 10: Hammer into Anvil
We open with number 2 confronting a woman who has slit her wrists. He tells her about her husband who has been having an affair with a woman, she gets upset and screams as she is being restrained. Number 6 hears the commotion and comes to investigate, only to see the woman break free and jump out a window. Number 2 tells number 6 he will pay for interfering but number 6 makes it clear it will be the other way around. Number 2 summons him to his house, which number 6 ignores until he is brought in by force. Number 2 says he will get number 6 under control that he will be the hammer to number 6’s anvil. Number 2 puts number 6 under strict surveillance. Number 6 starts to play games with number 2, he goes to listen to a record leaving behind a paper with the word security encircled, with the man in the store reporting his activities. This he repeats through a number of different ways sending messages that are meaningless but picked up by number 2 who becomes more and more paranoid sacking staff and mistrusting his closest advisors who he believes are in league with 6. Even the butler gets the sack. ? Finally number 6 confronts number 2. Number 2 believes number 6 is D6 sent by X04 to spy on number 6 to report back on number 2. Number 6 breaks number 2 down taking control of the conversation and convincing him that he is an agent and Number 2 has been either a saboteur or incompetent and that he needs to be replaced. As a final stroke he makes number 2 make the call to replace himself and it is clear it is going to take a tough man to break number 6.
This number 2 makes the mistake of pissing off number 6 and we get to see just how methodical and resourceful number 6 can be. We also get to see that when it comes down to it number 6 can be every bit as nasty with the mind games as the village controllers but that he has a moral line. This leads me to believe he did just resign over a matter of principal.
I am beginning to suspect Number 6 is an innocent man, well you are supposed to but I suspect that McGoohan’s catholic faith is bleeding into the character here as he takes a “righteous” stand to enact retribution on a bad man who was responsible for the death of another. Yet he has done nothing quite as bad to people who have wronged him directly.
Throw to Simon.
Episode 11: It’s your funeral
This story opens with a woman coming to number 6 for help. Number 6 is immediately suspicious and turns the woman away. Number 2 (in waiting) is watching and unhappy with proceedings. There is a bigger plan at work here and number 6 is a critical element. Number 2 reviews his daily activities until he discovers 6 will be attending “Kosho” practice, a martial art practiced on trampolines where each opponent battles to put the other into a pool of water lodged between the trampolines. While he is practicing 6’s watch is replaced with a broken one, forcing him to go to the clockmaker. There he discovers that the clockmaker is making a bomb. As he leaves he runs into the woman who came to him for help, now believing her that there is a plot at work. Number 6 confronts number 2 to help avoid the village being punished for the assination who dimisses him as being used by jammers (people who make up stories). Number 2 has taped the meeting for the purposes of using the video later. 6 continues to investigate uncovering a bomb to be placed inside the seal of office. He returns to number 2 to find a different and older number 2 in place. Number 6 is confronted with fake evidence that he has been making up assassination plots while the older number 2 is away but number 6 is convinced that number 2 is going to be killed rather than be allowed to retire. Number 2 becomes suspicious that he is to be killed when he requests the tape of the assassination plot and is not provided with it. The next day there is a ceremony for the older number 2 to hand over to his younger successor. Number 6 attends looking for the clockmaker who he finds in the bell tower. Number 6 relieves the clockmaker of the bomb detonator, then fights off agents there to make sure the assassination takes place. The plot foiled 6 gives the older 2 the detonator while the younger 2 wears the bomb. The older 2 escapes leaving the younger 2 to take the wrap.
Kosho just became my favourite fictional sport!
At this point I suspected a much longer story arc in play. The last few episodes the prisoner has settled in and is now acting as a counter balancing force to the village. He is no longer powerless and is taking charge despite being unable to escape. At this point he has the better of the number 2’s and understands how they work and is using that against them.
Throw to Simon.
Episode 16: Once upon a time
The number 2 from the second episode (chimes of big ben) has returned to examine the progress report of number 6, who has confounded all attempts to integrate into the environment. He orders “degree absolute” treatment for 6. Six is sedated and moved in with number 2. 6 is subjected to hypnotic treatment in his sleep and responds to commands when he wakes up. The two head to a chamber below number 2’s office where the butler awaits in a room where they are locked in for a week and only one of them will leave. Number 2 plans to find what makes 6 what he is and turn him to their side and if not, kill him. 2 takes 6 back to his childhood examining different situations to see how 6 reacts. 2 pushes him through his ‘school years’ until graduation where he confronts him with the question 6 was first asked when he came to the village. ‘Why did you resign’. 6 fights back and pins 2 to floor before he is knocked out by the butler. 2 then has 6 in a boxing ring and goads him to kill him during a fencing match. 6 stabs 2 in the shoulder as 2 presses him to answer why did he resign. 2 then progresses things, pretending to give 6 a job at the bank then putting 6 on trial for speeding after having 6 ride around on a little scooter. Throughout the trial 6 rufuses to say the number 6 or accept that he is a member of the village for which he is put in jail for ‘contempt of court’. 6 is dragged off into a room with bars. When asked again why he resigned he says it was because too many people knew too much then accuses 2 of being an enemy. After a struggle 6 tells 2 to kill him. 2 then puts him in a fake fighter plane and when he refuses to say the number 6 makes him bail out. 2 then interrogates in german. 6 is now starting to gain control, refuses to answer then asks for supper. Having broken through the “degree absolute” treatment, they have now swapped places with 6 taking change of the interrogation while 2 submits. With 5 minutes to go before the treatment finishes 6 tricks number 2 into the cellroom, locking the door behind him. The butler refuses to help as he see’s 6 is now the boss. 6 lets 2 out as he taunts him with the countdown to the door opening. 2 gets desperate as the clock ticks down and he isn’t able to get the answer. As the countdown reaches 0, two dies. The door opens and the controller appears congratulating 6, he then asks him what he desires and 6 asks to be taken to number 1.
This is by far my favourite episode, the performances of mckern and mcgoohan are electrifying.
The room 6 and 2 are in is amazing with it’s childhood toys, door in the middle of the room and way they use simple items to create a scene.
The ideas presented in the episode, the breaking down of a man are really confronting
The butler makes this episode work with his constant presence.
Throw to Simon.
Episode 17: Fall Out
6 is lead through a corridor lined with juke boxes into an open chamber where his is welcomed by a judge and jury of men in white robes. 6 is offered a royal blue chair while he is applauded. A door the number 1 on it and a light fised in the centre seems to communicate with the judge and as a result number 2 is bought out of the chamber, he is put in a chair, his beard shaved off and apparently he is being brought back to life. Number 48 who has appeared in previous episodes is bought into the chamber from below and begins singing ‘dem bones’. This breaks out among the jury and after a bunch of singing 48 is found guilty of being a revolutionary and is sent back below presumably to be punished. Number 2 is resurrected now clean shaven and with an orange mustache (looking a lot more like Rumpole of the Bailey). Number 2 congratulates 6. He turns to the butler and asks him to follow but the butler is now aligned with 6. 2 addresses the Jury stating that he once was a powerful man but that upon being bought to the Village he resisted for too short a time. He thanks them for their faith in him. 6 asks 2 If he has ever met number 1 to which 2 laughs, turns to the door with the 1 on it and asks should he give it a stare. 2 looks into the light on the door directly, suggests he doesn’t know who or what 1 is but removes the village badge and throws it on the ground. The light begins to smoke and then is covered up. 2 is secured and taken off to be with 48. 1 is shown his apartment and car, and is given travel passes, money, everything he needs to be free. All the while 6 is just sitting there smiling. He is given a choice, to lead the group or leave the village. 6 is encouraged to give a speech but every time he gets to ‘I feel that despite…’ the Jury start to chant ‘I’ presumably because 6 is the ultimate individual. 6 is then finally given the chance to meet number 1. 6 Descends below to the chamber with 48 and 2 where 2 is still laughing madly and 48 is still singing dem bones. 6 ascends a spiral staircase to a room filled with globes of the earth. There is a man in a robe watching 6 on the screen saying ‘my life is my own’. He is holding a crystal ball which he hands to 6 then flings his arms wide to a number 1 on his robe. 6 smashes the ball then removes the man’s mask to reveal a gorilla mask under it, then he removes the second mask to reveal a mad ‘6’ is number 1. Six chases 1 around the room as he screams madly until he escapes through a hatch in the roof. As he closes the hatch the light on the door is also closed off forever. 6 takes a fire extinguisher and and then aided by the butler attacks men that are watching over 6 and 48. 6 releases 2 and 48, knocks out the remaining guards and then reveals they are in a rocket which 6 sets to launch. 6, 2, 48 and the butler arm themselves with machine guns, exit the rocket and attack the everyone present, killing many to the tune of ‘all you need is love’. The evacuation order is given to the village. 6,2 and 48 get into the caged room 2 died in and the butler gets into the front lorry to drive them away. They escape the complex just as the rocket launches leaving the village abandoned. Rover dies to the tune of ‘I, Yi, Yi, Yi, Yi (I Like You Very Much)’ and it appears the village is finished. The butler drives the lorry down the highway, dropping off 48 who proceeds to hitchhike. Under a police escort the van drops off 2 outside Westminster which 2 enters. Number 6 is approached by a policemen who he has a conversation with then he catches up with the butler and the two board a bus. 6 and the butler return home, the hearse from the first episode appears to drive past and the butler enters the apartment which now has a door like those used in the village. As the story closes 6 is seen driving down the road in his lotus.
It appears the village was in the UK all along.
This is the twin peaks episode of the prisoner. Having seen this episode, McGoohan could easily have made could have rivalled Lynch or Gilliam.
This episode breaks the covenant with the viewer, breaks expectations and fails to deliver on the key promises at the beginning of the story and yet if you look at the subtext of the story it does. 6 does answer why he resigned (he didn’t he rejected) and stays true to that to the end. However the ‘Mad’ 6 that is number ‘1’ is never explained and so in the end the episode raises more questions than it answers. That part is where it looses it for me, is 6 having a dream, is this part of another session or if this is real how could a mad 6 run this kind of organisation.
That said, whatever McGoohan was trying to do with this episode, it failed in the minds of the ordinary punter. People didn’t get it and were angry. I think McGoohan was partly too clever in his storytelling but not quite clever enough in the execution or maybe by now he was just at the end and couldn’t quite put it all together. Or maybe he does and we just don’t get it. We will never know. To me though the only part that doesn’t fit (well other than 48 who is annoying and pointless) is mad 6 aka no 1 and the rocket and why people ran when the rocket launched. What was on it?
It is an amazing episode none the less.
In the end McGoohan said 6 never left the village, I think that sums it up.
I can see why the remake failed even though I haven’t seen it. This last episode leaves so much unresolved or explained leaving the desire for ‘more prisoner’. I think that could be mistaken however, what people wanted was the story finished or continued not redone, so any reboot no matter how good (and I heard the reboot wasn’t so good) was destined to fail. McGoohan puts so much into this story through his acting it would be impossible to replicate. For that matter I doubt McGoohan could have picked the story up and continued it years later.
Throw to Simon.
What makes the story special
The village, this world is awesome but scary
The Kafke/Orwell elements of one man against the system
The examination of psychology and torture, this is not a nice world and makes no pretence either way. It’s cold hard and brutal.
McGoohan. McGoohan as the prisoner creates the story, it’s doubtful anyone else could have made it work.