I was in high school the first time I saw The Prisoner on television. It ran, as most British series did at the time, on our local PBS station, in this case at 10:30 on Sunday nights. I kept seeing the listing in the TV Guide for this show with characters who had numbers instead of names, and after a few weeks of this I decided I had to check it out for myself.
I was hooked, as so many high school kids of that era would have been - high school being the time for angst and existentialism and deep introspection, of course. I knew nothing of the background of the series, of the controversy it had caused during its initial run in Britain in the 60s. It didn't always make sense - actually, to be perfectly honest, it often didn't make sense. And since I had no idea how many episodes there were in total, I had no clue that, after a few weeks of viewing, the series was approaching its stunning finale.
That final episode - appropriately entitled "Fall Out" - had an opening unlike that of the other episodes, and that, along with the bizarre conclusion of the previous episode ("Once Upon a Time"), gave me the hint that something was up. And at the end of that magnificent, mystifying, infuriating, mind-bending hour, I sat in front of the TV and thought to myself, "Did I just see what I think I saw?" I won't tell you what it was, of course, since some of you may not have seen The Prisoner, but suffice it to say that I had, indeed, seen what I thought I saw - I just wasn't quite sure what it meant. Then or now. Which puts me pretty much in the majority of people who have, at one time or another, watched Patrick McGoohan's most famous television project.
It was a premise that, in other hands, could have been quite hoary: a secret agent, for reasons unknown, retires from active duty. Soon after, he is kidnapped and held prisoner. His captives? Well, we're not sure. They could be the enemy, trying to find out his secrets. On the other hand, it could be his own side, desperate to make sure he doesn't spill them. And about that opening sequence - wasn't that something? McGoohan, as the Prisoner, demanding of his unknown captors, "What do you want?"
"Information," an unseen voice would respond. "We want information, information, information."
"Who are you?" McGoohan would ask. (Although, with his booming voice, it was more like a demand.)
"The new Number 2," the voice (a different one each week) would inevitably respond. To McGoohan's question "Who is Number One?" the voice simply and blandly replied, "You are Number 6."
"I am not a number; I am a free man!" McGoohan would bellow. And at that, the voice would simply laugh.
Week after week, we would watch the desperate attempts of the guardians of this place - "The Village" - try to elicit information from Number 6. Or rather, the answer to one question and one question only: why did you resign. It was a question that Number 6 refused, week after week, to answer. Sometimes he would outwit his captors totally, turning the tables on them. Other weeks, they would defeat his attempts to escape. In the end, - but then, I'm afraid I can't give that away.
Patrick McGoohan, who died today at age 80, was what George Clooney wishes he was: handsome, articulate, provocative, brilliant. True, Clooney's got the good looks (he even looks good in a tux), and he's no slouch when it comes to words; but the shallow political fables that he tries so very earnestly to sell to the public can't begin to hold a candle to the layered depth and sinister undertones present in The Prisoner" and many of McGoohan's other works.
He first came to the public eye in a half-hour British spy series called Danger Man, which later expanded to an hour and was known (in this country) as Secret Agent. In it, he played a mysterious agent named John Drake, who never carried a gun and fought the bad guys with his wits as well as his fists. He was twice offered the role of James Bond in the 007 movies, and twice turned it down. He won two Emmys for his work with Peter Falk in Columbo.
But it was as Number 6 that the public most knew and identified with him. The Prisoner was always something of a cult favorite - one critic called it "brilliantly obscure." Not only was he the star, he was co-creator, wrote several of the episodes himself, and even suggested the show's famous theme. There was no doubt that McGoohan's DNA was imprinted on every inch of The Prisoner.
It will be interesting to see if any of the obituaries in the next few days touch on the religious overtones of The Prisoner. Mary Morris, the actress who played Number 2 in "Dance of the Dead," referred to McGoohan as "a very religious man." McGoohan's famous hand gesture, delivered with the cryptic "be seeing you" to fellow villagers, was, according to Morris, intended to represent the sign of the fish. Number 6 often put himself on the line for fellow Villagers, urging them to stand up for their rights, all to no avail; was it an allegory for Christ's self-sacrifice, which also went unappreciated by so many? In one famous scene, Number 6 is shown struggling against his captors, his body ridid, his arms stretched out to the side in what is clearly a Crucifix form. One of the definitive books on the series, The Official Prisoner Companion, devotes an entire section to the idea of Number 6 as "the Prophet." The apocalyptic overtones of "Fall Out" were unmistakable. (The fact that the role of Number 6 in the coming Prisoner miniseries is to be played by Jim Caviezel can only make that speculation more ironic.)
It will also be interesting to see what the obituaries make of the political content of The Prisoner. Based on several comments made in interviews, McGoohan appears to have been no political conservative; nonetheless, The Prisoner was most decidedly a cautionary tale against the pervasiveness of big government. "I am not a number, I am a free man!" was the rallying cry for the rights of the individual - rights that seem to disappear a little more each time we turn around. His weapon, the authors of the Companion point out, was "his uncrushable spirit." It was that spirit that we saw in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, in the rise of John Paul II and the fall of the Berlin Wall, and any other place where man years for freedom. In the words from another great British television series, Doctor Who, human beings "always have to fight for their freedom," and it was this sensibility that emanated from The Prisoner.
One of the enduring questions that Prisoner fans continually asked from the outset of the show: was Number 6 really John Drake, the star of Danger Man and Secret Agent? McGoohan insisted publicly that it was not so, but that could have been a product of not owning the intellectual rights to Drake, a character which he did not create. The real answer, one suspects, was - like so many things - to be found inside that brilliant mind of Patrick McGoohan. And that secret is now safe with him.