Saturday, November 14, 2009

TV Review: The Prisoner (1967-1968)

With a remake of The Prisoner starting Sunday night on AMC (starring James Caviezel and Ian McKellen), I thought I’d take a chance to talk about the original before we review the remake.


** spoiler alert **

The Prisoner is a 17-episode British television series created by, and starring, Patrick McGoohan (a one time candidate to play James Bond). At its core, it’s a sort of spy story on crack (though I guess LSD would be more appropriate). In many ways, The Prisoner highlights the best and worst aspects of the 1960’s postmodern film culture. For example, while it is both very creative and willing to take huge risks, it can also be nonsensical and esoteric. Allow me to explain.

The opening sequence of The Prisoner has become iconic. As the intro music blares, you see Patrick McGoohan, a British spy, angrily resign. He rants and he raves to his boss, though, we don’t know what he’s saying. As he storms out of the building, we see a vast computer network process his retirement. He returns home and begins to pack. But a man dressed as an undertaker shoots gas through the keyhole of his home and knocks him out. When he wakes up, he finds himself in what appears to be a resort. This is the village.

He has been assigned a number, Number 6, in place of a name. You then hear the following famous exchange done as a voice over, while you watch McGoohan try to escape the village:
McGoohan: Where am I?
Number 2: In the village.
McGoohan: What do you want?
Number 2: Information.
McGoohan: Whose side are you on?
Number 2: That would be telling. . . We want information. . . information . . . INFORMATION!
McGoohan: You won’t get it!
Number 2: By hook or by crook, we will.
McGoohan: Who are you?
Number 2: The new Number Two.
McGoohan: Who is Number One?
Number 2: You are Number Six.
McGoohan: I am not a number, I am a free man!
Number 2: (laughs)

At the end of this exchange, McGoohan is knocked out. He awakes within his new home within the village, and the episode begins.

Over The Prisoner’s seventeen episode run, a succession of Number Twos (the most memorable being Leo McKern and Alexis Kanner) and Angelo Muscat, the omnipresent midget butler, do their best to break McGoohan, while McGoohan does his best to escape the village. It’s a battle of wills between an unbreakable man and an Orwellian government intent on breaking him.

Beyond that, it’s difficult to tell you more. Not that I can’t give you specific details, it’s just that they don’t make much sense. The Prisoner was very surreal and very experimental. You get episodes that make no sense. Episodes that inexplicably start as westerns or in Napoleonic garb. One or two go black and white. Some episodes start straight forward enough, only to get stranger and stranger until you find out at the end it was all a story being told by one person to another. Sometimes, you’re wondering if you’re on the wrong channel.

Yet, it's surprisingly compelling. It’s a puzzle without enough pieces to let you figure out what the image is, but with just enough to give you some good guesses, and that keeps you hungry for more.

I must admit that, having seen the ending several times, I still don’t understand what was really going on. I can give you some interpretations, but I don’t know. I suppose McGoohan might have imagined the entire village, that this was simply a view into the insanity taking place within his mind as he struggled to give meaning to a life that suddenly no longer had meaning? I suppose we could take it at face value that it’s just a village designed to isolate important people when they’ve outlived their usefulness. . . people who know too much to remain free or people who need to be broken to satisfy the curiosity of an Orwellian government? It could be that the undertaker killed him, and this is his own personal hell? Or it could all mean nothing at all. I don’t know, but I do know that it’s sufficiently memorable and puzzling that I’ve been thinking about it (off and on) for years.

Frustratingly, McGoohan has remained silent on the show’s meaning: “If one gives answers to a conundrum it is no longer a conundrum.” Yeah, I was afraid he’d say that.

In the end, The Prisoner is one of the strangest shows I’ve ever seen. I don’t know that I like it, but I find it incredibly compelling.

Will Sunday night’s remake live up to the original?

That would be telling. . .


Unknown said...

Andrew: I'm really looking forward to the new show. I watched all the originals with rapt attention when they first appeared on American TV, frequently not having a clue what was going on. Then I re-watched them multiple times. I still have no idea what was going on in most of the episodes. But underlying it all, it was clear that there was a sensibility of freedom from government mind control.

James Caviezel is a very fine actor, and has frequently been cast in movies which have clear conservative messages (or at least he was the rebel against oppressive authority in a liberal message movie). His role as Christ in Gibson's "The Passion" was certainly not uncontroversial. Unlike my jaundiced view of "V," which I had to revise, I'm going to be looking at this series as also having an anti-mind control message. I just hope they don't go off track with bizarre special effects that can be done so much more realistically than in the original.

AndrewPrice said...

We'll see Lawhawk. I like Caviezel and McKellen and it has an excellent pedigree. Plus, the cable channels have been doing some really good work lately on their original shows -- much better than the networks. And from what I've seen AMC is willing to go out on a ledge and do something original.

So I'm hopeful.

Joel Farnham said...


All I recall from the Original is that the big ball bouncing after Six. That and an odd chess game.

Mike K. said...

I only watched "The Prisoner" over the last year (Netflixing a DVD every few weeks). I only kept watching for two things: McGoohan's acting and the oddly compelling visuals.

I watched the ending twice, and with all due respect to McGoohan---and I mean that---I don't think it was a conundrum but a mess.

I liked the show, but I have to admit I'm puzzled by the worship it receives in some quarters.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, It was an odd game indeed.

AndrewPrice said...

Mike, I think it's a combination of things.

First, it stood out. It was like nothing else on television at the time (except maybe The Avengers). I had really high production values -- it's been described as having "film quality" compared to "television quality." McGoohan is a phenominal actor with great presence, and the role he played was truly original for what you see on television.

Then you add the themes -- anti-conformity, the individual v. the government, and it really struck a chord.

Finally, by never explaining what was going on, they stoked a debate that's raged for years.

Mike K. said...


It did have a very "pure" theme, I'll give you that. No conflicted hero, and you knew who you were rooting for. At first you're rooting for him to escape, and then you just hope he can endure.

But the ending comes across as an LSD-induced nightmare. I don't need every loose end tied up, but I'd like a hint. (Hear that, "Lost?")

AndrewPrice said...

Mike, It probably won't surprise you then that the creators of Lost claim inspiration from The Prisoner! LOL!

I'm with you, I like to have either some guidance on the ending OR enough clues to figure it out. The ending on this one only made it even more confusing. But like I said, it's kept me wondering for years.

(FYI, a lot of entertainment claims to have been inspired by The Prisoner. Iron Maiden based a song on it, the Simpsons did a parody, the movie Truman was supposedly a direct reference to it, and so on. It's been very influential.)

Writer X said...

I hadn't heard too much about this show (didn't know it was a remake) but now you've piqued my interest. And you really can't go wrong with James Caviezel. He always plays such layered characters and plays them so well.

I'll be tuning in.

JB1000 said...

I read somewhere that the ending wasn't supposed to be the ending. The decision to cancel the series came near the ending of the first season. I wonder if the whole 'ending' was just another attempt to find out why he resigned. In the second season, he may have found himself right back in the village.

Sorry I can't remember where I read that and I would not put too much weight on it. That might have been someone else's speculation.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, I first heard about it about the remake about a month ago and I was naturally curious, having enjoyed/been tortured by the original.

In the past week or so, AMC has been advertising it heavily, and it looks good. They also seem to go out of their way to say the concept has remained the same. And I do like both actors. So I figure it might be good! I will keep my fingers crossed.

AndrewPrice said...

JB1000, I honestly don't know for sure if they ever planned a second season, but I do know that there was a lot of friction over the ending.

The studio wanted a wrap up, and McGoohan (who was the primary writer) refused. So they applied pressure. He then wrote the ending under pressure and that's how we ended up with the ending we got.

I wonder how the history of the show would have changed if he had given them an ending that wrapped everything up? Would it have the following it does today?

Joel Farnham said...


Do you ever write an ending to entice people to read another book in the series?

Writer X said...

Joel, it depends on the story. With genre fiction, absolutely. I've done it. With literary fiction, not so much.

Mike K. said...

It's quite a coincidence that McGoohan was a very serious Catholic, and Caviezel is supposed to be as well...

AndrewPrice said...

Mike, I didn't know that about McGoohan. That is an interesting coincidence. I'll tell you though, I wish that McGoohan had made more films. He's one of those actors that I really like seeing in films.

Joel Farnham said...

Andrew and Company,

Adam Baldwin (Jayne) has an interesting take on good story-telling. He maintains that good story-telling is conservative in thought and mode. I only mention this in that I read some where that the new Prisoner series is supposed to be a celebration of communism and socialism.

I wonder. Is Adam on to something?

Mike K. said...

Joel, I think that's definitely true. When talented writers surrender themselves to a story and write the truth---the way the world is, and the way that people are as opposed to "should be"---they end up with a strong story.

And as Margaret Thatcher said, "The facts of life are conservative." It tends to be a conservative story, too. Not in terms of politics, but of worldview.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, One of the ironies of modern Hollywood is that while they do all kinds of stupid leftwing stuff throughout movies, they ultimately fall back on conservative ideas to finish the movie -- because liberal ideas just don't work out in film. . . or real life.

I haven't heard that about The Prisoner.

Joel Farnham said...


It was one of the Big Hollywood articles about new shows and communism. I haven't seen the show, so I can't tell.

Mike and WriteX,

Do you have more?

Writer X said...

Sorry, Joel. I don't recall the article.

Joel Farnham said...


In your writing, do you write characters who overcome long odds against things, or do you write about people who succomb to the collective ideal?

I mean, do you have HEROs in your story-telling, or do you have collectives?

Writer X said...

Joel, there's usually a hero or two in my stories. ;-)

Joel Farnham said...


Okay, we are on to something here.

Here is a thought. The United States was created for Heros in thought and deed.

Joel Farnham said...


I didn't mean to take this thread over. I just thought that this is what is unique about the US and about movies and stories that resonate with other cultures.

The HERO is celebrated in this country. The guy who takes on impossible goals and wins in the end. Like it or not, that is what HUMANS respond to.

StanH said...

Wow, …The Prisoner, now that’s a blast from the past. Even in the weirdness that was the ‘60s, The Prisoner stood out. The British are always good at future shock and this show did not disappoint. I’ve got the DVR set, incase this version is as exhausting as the original.

AndrewPrice said...

Stan, I hope so. If they do this right, it could be really good because the premise is so interesting.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, I think it's the human condition to want heroes. You see it in the stories of the Ancient Greeks all the way to the present. The only people who seem to like collectivism in their stories are the modern politically correct, and even they are only paying it lip service when it comes to entertainment -- e.g. they buy that kind of crappola for their kids, but they don't want it themselves.

Unknown said...

Andrew: I think that's one of the things that bothers me most about Obamamania. The lefties have spent most of their lives debunking anything that even faintly resembled an American hero, and out of the clear blue sky, they've found not only a hero, but a god-hero in the Messiah from Chicago. The "birthers" have it wrong. He was born in the U.S., in the rebuilt Mrs. O'Leary's barn, in a manger. Their only problem is they can't find three wise men to verify the birth.

MegaTroll said...

This was a cool show and I'm looking forward to the new show. Thanks for the review.

USArtguy said...

"Frustratingly, McGoohan has remained silent on the show’s meaning..."

I wonder if the last thing he said when he died early is year was "rosebud"?

AndrewPrice said...

USArtguy, That would be something. We should start an internet rumor that he gave the answer to the riddle, and then see what happens.

Mega, You're welcome.

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