Mike's news last week concerning a remake of the classic 1967 British television show The Prisoner put me in a mind the other night to drag out my copy of the show on dvd. Though I've seen the show before now obviously, from watching the first episode I was hooked again. So I've decided, as time permits, to watch it and comment on the episodes here.
Why should I do this? By turns brilliant, baffling, and infuriating, The Prisoner is, in my humble opinion, the finest television program ever made, so far ahead of its time that today, over 40 years after the initial broadcast, it's still ahead of the times, a show that makes Lost, which borrows liberally from The Prisoner, look as easy to figure out as Dora The Explorer.
In this post, the first of several, I'd like to go into detail as to what I love about this show, and why you should watch it. Although I'll discuss the plot, it's impossible spoil the show, because years after watching it for the first time, I still don't know what it was about, nor does anyone except for the program's creator, actor Patrick McGoohan.
What is The Prisoner? The story is the only simple element.
An international secret agent, played by McGoohan, resigns from his agency for reasons he won't fully explain. But he knows too much, about something, and someone wants to know everything that he knows. He is abducted after handing in his resignation and taken to The Village, which may be a warehouse built by Them for People Who Knew Too Much, or may be a prison designed to hold one man, to have that information extracted. Virtually everything we know about the agent, who is never referred to by name, but only as Number Six, is told in the show's opening title sequence:
From there, each episode of The Prisoner is an increasingly intricate battle between Number Six and the people who control The Village, as he attempts to preserve his secret, learn who his captors are (his own people? the Americans? the Russians? the Illuminati? someone worse?) and to escape, while they attempt to extract that information, through psychological torture, drugs, and manipulation, a cat and mouse game played out over seventeen episodes.
But have no fear, this is no gritty Dostoevskyan psychodrama set in a Gulag. It's also whimsical, funny, and aesthetically one of the most beautiful shows ever televised, a riot of color which was filmed in one of the strangest places in the British isles, a real place known as Portmeirion, a mad architect's successful attempt to build a renaissance Italian city in miniature in a forest on the border of England and Wales. You really should visit it sometime.
The show is also helped by the musical work of Ron Grainer, the television and film musician best known for composing the original theme of Doctor Who, the spooky synthesized version that ran over the opening "tunnel" credits during the Tom Baker years and earlier.
As for the cast, Patrick McGoohan is perfect as Number Six, the only character appearing in every episode. He's suave, distinguished, British upper-middle class, and he knows how to wear clothes. As much a good British secret agent man as Sean Connery on the small screen, McGoohan was also a great television developer, but he never made anything this good again because he broke himself in studio battles getting The Prisoner made. The guest cast is equally fine, consisting of BBC and other British television and stage veterans playing the inhabitants of The Village, who may be fellow prisoners who have been converted or who all may be in on it, and, in each episode, a new Number Two, the person who runs The Village and leads the efforts to get information from its citizens.
The Prisoner is one of the most influential television shows ever made, though its influence extends more to the movies, comics, and geek culture (catchphrases like "I am not a number! I am a free man!") than to television. You owe it to yourself to sit through it one time before you shuffle off this coil.
In the next post in this series, I'll discuss the show's first episode, Arrival, in which we learn a little more about who Number Six is, and how he came to The Village.