Friday, November 13, 2009

The Original Prisoner

It came and went forty years ago on American TV as a Summer replacement series. I was syndicated in the 1970s on independent stations. It went on to have a huge, devoted cult following. I'm referring to The Prisoner staring Patrick McGhoohan.

The premise was simple. A secret agent angrily resigns. As he is packing his clothing he is gassed. He wakes up on in the Village on an island where he is told that no one has a name, just numbers. He is Number 6. The island is governed by Number 2 (who changed weekly). Everyone on the island was under constant supervision. Many of the people there were there against their will. Others were spies. There was no way to tell who was who.

That's about all that we ever learned. We were never sure if Number 6 was abducted by his own government who suspected him of defecting or by a foreign government that figured that whatever made him resign must be important. It is possible that the Village was run by multiple governments as a sort of retirement center for spies who knew too much to be left out in the wild.

Every episode was different. Sometimes the new Number 2 would try a new interrogation technique. Sometimes he simply played mind games with Number 6, making him think that he was escaping only to fail at the last minute. A few times Number 6 played mind games with Number 2, doing meaningless activities designed that looked like a plot with the idea of implicating Number 2.

Prior to making the Prisoner, McGoohan had played a secret agent (Danger Man in the UK, Secret Agent in the US with the song "Secret Agent Man" as the theme song). We never learned if he was playing the same agent or if this was a different character. In fact, about the most we ever learned about Number 6 was that he built his car himself and it was one of his few prized possessions.

The show finally ended with Number 2 and Number 6 locked in a bunker until one of them broke. Number 6 won and was told that he was the new Number 2. In a surrealistic episode, he brought down the Village and escaped to London where he had the option of returning to his old life (symbolized by his apartment) or leaving (symbolized by his car). He drove off. The last shot had the door of his apartment closing automatically - something that the door in the village did.

The show was the only tv show or movie that the Beatles licensed a song to (All You Need Is Love in the final episode). They were big fans.

The show had long-term impact on other media. The Fantastic Four did a couple of issues inspired by the show. The Simpsons did a great parody. AMC is showing an updated version this Sunday.

Side-note: Patrick McGoohan turned down the chance to replace Sean Connery as James Bond. It was a wise move. The Bond movies of the 1970s were progressively sillier and he would have been a poor fit.

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