The Prisoner inspires Trekker / Browncoat levels of devotion in me. (When I saw last week that AMC is streaming the original series online, my first thought was, “which episode order are they using?”) It was my first exposure to science fiction TV other than Star Trek, and it shaped my tastes immensely at a fairly young age. (I seem to recall that my father taped the show when CBS aired it after The Pat Sajak Show—which would make me ten or eleven years old at the time—but I think that I actually saw it on PBS before that.)
The Prisoner wasn’t a perfect show on an episode-by-episode basis; like too much television, it was padded out for commercial reasons to a greater length than its premise could sustain. But on the whole it did what any good show does, blending familiar story elements into something distinctive.
(For the uninitiated: imagine if Keifer Sutherland left 24 to star in a show about a nameless man exactly like Jack Bauer, who has been imprisoned and tortured by his former employers because he doesn’t want to work for them anymore. Also, there’s a enigmatic monster like on Lost, only it’s a sentient weather balloon that acts as a guard dog, which is way cooler than a cloud of smoke that thinks it’s a taxicab anyway, so stop snickering and get off my lawn.)
A huge part of the appeal of The Prisoner to my younger self was McGoohan’s ferocious performance. The Prisoner (the character) is a loner who absolutely refuses to compromise with the society he has rejected:
I will not make any deals with you. I’ve resigned. I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own.
But just because he’s dropped out doesn’t mean he’s mellowed, man:
I’m going to escape, come back, wipe this place off the face of the Earth, obliterate it; and you with it.
I mean, come on. That’s awesome. Not exactly a likeable character, true, but one comes to admire his sheer determination in the face of the seemingly limitless resources that The Village expends in its attempt to break him. (Come to think of it, I wonder if my failure to succumb to Rand or Heinlein the way so many of my peers did as a teen is because I’d already been exposed to a far cooler Rational Superman, at an age when it couldn’t do me as much harm.)
In my favorite episode, The Village, which has always refused to call The Prisoner anything but “Number Six”, creates an imposter Number Six, and insists that The Prisoner is—and always has been—Number Twelve. The scheme, of course, is to goad the individualistic Prisoner into asserting his “true” identity as Number Six, cementing his socialization into The Village. In the end, he wins (they don’t break him) but loses (he doesn’t escape). The moral? Doppelgängers + electroshock aversion therapy + spies + monsters = entertainment.
Certainly The Prisoner compares favorably with many shows that have followed it. Despite the occasional absurdity of the genre trappings, the padding, and its infamous ending, The Prisoner still had a much clearer point of view and narrative thrust than a certain inexplicably popular sci-fi drama ever has.
(Oh, yeah, they’re remaking it. Whatever.)
- I am not a number, I’m a mefi front page post
- Warner Troyer interviews Patrick McGoohan (March 1977)
- The LOL’ing Prisoner, a variant on the LOLCats meme from Fiona Moore, which has just been updated with a surprisingly effective tribute.