In 1967 The Prisoner aired on British TV. It was about secret agent who, after resigning, is kidnapped and held captive in a mysterious village where the authorities aim to get to the bottom of why he walked away from the agency.
The star and creator of the show was Patrick McGoohan who had previously appeared in a popular spy series, Danger Man. When McGoohan told the head of the TV company he was not willing to make another series of Danger Man, he was asked if he had anything else he wanted to work on. The Prisoner was born.
It would be reasonable to assume that most viewers and many at the TV company assumed that the Prisoner was in fact a sequel to Danger Man. The parallel of the plot to McGoohan “resigning” from the role of Danger Man and ending up in a series about someone not having his resignation accepted at face value is no coincidence in how the show played out.
In the mysterious village, everything is very pleasant on the surface. The village is pretty and colorful and most inhabitants seem happy at first pass. No one in the village has a name, they are all allocated a number. McGoohan is Number 6 and is in constant conflict with Number 2.
Because they are all numbers, no one in the village including Number 2 is ever certain who is a prisoner and who is a guard. In one episode – Hammer into Anvil – McGoohan’s character fools number 6 into thinking he has been placed in the village as an informant. In another episode – Free for All – he stands for election for the position of Number 2.
“I am not a number, I am a free man”
The prisoner is not sure who he is a prisoner of. Is it his own agency that holds him or is it the enemy? He constantly tries to escape and also find out who Number 1 is. Escape is impossible and he is repeatedly caught and returned to the village.
To viewers familiar with series like Lost, Life on Mars, Westworld and countless other “puzzle” storylines the ending would probably not be a surprise. To a 1960s audience watching to see if Danger Man is really a prisoner of MI6 or the Russians it was not obvious.
In the final episode Number 6 has defeated number 2 and won the right to a trial where he can finally gain his freedom. In a country without streaming, DVD’s or satellite there were only three channels to watch. A massive audience tuned in to see an episode that drove straight into a surrealist narrative where number 1 is briefly revealed as having an identical face to number 6. Without pause and rewind, many weren’t sure what they saw.
Number 6 escapes back to his London apartment, but although no longer a prisoner his door opens in the same manner as the automatic doors from the village. The ending was slated by disappointed Danger Man fans and not surprisingly by the tabloid press. What they had thought was a James Bond scenario was in fact more like an existential thriller with the main character seeking to exercise his free will, with himself as the hidden enemy.McGoohan claimed he went in to hiding for a while, such was the backlash. He was also never offered another spy series on British TV and did most of his work in America afterwards. McGoohan’s “resignation” as Danger Man, seemingly delayed by a stay in the village was finally accepted with his bridge burning finale. Was it part of a conscious plan, a way of undermining his own weaker side that would accept lucrative and comfortable options?
Number One was depicted as an evil, governing force in this Village. So, who is this Number One? We just see the Number Two’s, the sidekicks. Now this overriding, evil force is at its most powerful within ourselves and we have constantly to fight it, I think, and that is why I made Number One an image of Number Six. His other half, his alter ego. — Patrick McGoohan