Six of one

>> Thursday, January 08, 2009

There was a long stretch, I think, when The Prisoner was easily the greatest show in the history of TV. Yeah, I know, that's a helluva hyperbolic statement, and there are a lot of TV shows you could hold up in various genres as challengers. But The Prisoner was maybe the first show to really mindfuck and audience in a way that I don't think anything on television even attempted until David Lynch and Mark Frost hit the airwaves in 1990 and opened the floodgates for television as a medium that could be interesting and twisty and smart.

Well, sort of. Peaks opened a door, but the door didn't really get kicked in until HBO and Showtime started to really get into putting their own serial productions on the air.

Television is inherently a limited medium. I think it was David Gerrold who said that what made television basically awful was that it was hard to say anything profound or uplifting when every fifteen minutes you were interrupted by somebody trying to convince your audience they smelled bad. Or words to that effect. But that's one of the problems with pre-cable TV, and the real reason British shows tended to be a little superior; it's not an Anglophiliac thing, it's that shows done for the BBC (and, an aside, The Prisoner was an ITC show, and suffers from a lot of the structural problems shared by pre-90s American commercial television) were generally commercial-free and sufficiently subsidized that they could spool out stories and character development without those fifteen minute breaks.

But all of that, actually, is maybe something for a later post. It's interesting to me, I'll say this much, not because I like TV (I don't even have cable anymore and I only watch stuff on DVD) but because I do think television is interesting as a medium; a show like Buffy or The Sopranos has years to develop storylines and characters, making contemporary television (in many respects) more like the 19th-century novel than like movies or plays, the creative media TV shows usually get compared to because they're largely visual and feature actors and makeup and lights, etc. But aside from soap operas, few television shows prior to the '90s attempted to capitalize on the structural strengths of television because of syndication and similar commercial prejudices.1

The Prisoner was sort of a non-follow-up to Patrick McGoohan's extremely successful series Danger Man a.k.a. Secret Agent. See, McGoohan was kind of sick of Danger Man, apparently, but he was friends with ITC's head, Lew Grade, and so when he basically walked out during Agent's last season, Grade was able to cajole him into coming back, kind of. There's a story that McGoohan and, if I remember correctly, George Markstein (it might have been David Tomblin) were at a party where somebody who was really associated with British intelligence was in attendance, and this person was asked "What happens when a spy wants to retire?" to which the response was "Oh, well we take care of them," which obviously can be taken a number of ways. Anyway, it seems McGoohan pitched Lew Grade on the idea that he'd keep working if he could take the show in another direction--if he could show what "we take care of them" really means.

The problem with this being that McGoohan didn't actually own any of the rights to the character he played on Secret Agent, John Drake. So, to answer a classic question, "Is The Prisoner John Drake?" the answer is that about half of the writers for The Prisoner were convinced they were working on a new season of Agent while Patrick McGoohan insists his character on The Prisoner--the nameless "Number Six"--is in no way, shape or form connected to the character he played on Secret Agent/Danger Man. Make of that what you will.2

Anyway, The Prisoner is a show built around the premise that a (nameless) secret agent (who bears some uncanny resemblances to John Drake beyond being played by the same actor) retires without explaining why he's retiring, and as he's packing to leave he's abducted by mysterious gents in top hats who cart him off to a mysterious retro-yet-futuristic place called The Village.3 Once there, our hero finds everybody has a number (he's Number Six), nobody has a name, and the ostensible head(s) of The Village, Number Two4 (who is Number One? That would be telling...) keeps coming up with nefarious schemes to break him--including, for instance, allowing him to think he's escaped, convincing him he's a spy on a mission to break Number Six, and making him believe he's a cowboy.

Along the way, naturally, the series is about all sorts of other things: the nature of individuality, man's responsibility to society, the sense of self, the role of technology, and so on.

And then there's the show's distinctly surreal aspects: aside from the way the premise allowed the writers to do something different in nearly every episode and the surreal setting provided by Portmeirion, The Prisoner's iconic image is Rover, the local security force consisting of a giant white balloon that suffocates people, bats people around, and otherwise abuses the hell out of miscreants. Rover is a good example of how CGI has ruined so many TV shows and movies now: see, the original concept for Rover was that it was supposed to be a kind-of-typical all-terrain robot, but the BBC people The Prisoner's producers contracted the design out to came up with something that looked a bit like a wedding cake, built on top of a go-kart, and (1) it looked really retarded and (2) the go-kart exhaust wasn't properly ventilated, so it nearly killed the driver the first time they took it for a test drive on the set. So McGoohan and one of the show's technical people are sitting outside the pub at Portmeirion, a little drunk and thinking they're pretty well fucked, the security robot playing a big and indispensable role in the pilot, when they look up and see a weather balloon. Now, if The Prisoner were made today, of course they'd just CGI the robots in and they'd probably look like robot spiders or something, but they didn't have that option in '67, and the brain-flash when they saw this big white sphere mysteriously, silently, ominously drifting through space over their heads was apparently simultaneous: how cool would it be if the "robot" was this giant sphere that bounced and flew and rolled around? Very cool, it happens.

Don't take my word for it. The reason I find myself writing about The Prisoner this evening is that it seems AMC has put up all seventeen episodes of the series as streaming video. So if you're one of the poor souls who never saw The Prisoner when it aired internationally '67-'69, or on your local PBS affiliate in the '80s, or if you've missed it on cable or VHS or DVD in the meantime--here's your chance. I won't be checking these out myself (I have the boxed DVD set--surprised?), but I think it's a fine chance to introduce or reintroduce yourself to a show that was the most brilliant and frustrating and mind-blowing thing TV had to offer for about twenty-five years.5

So please, if you have an hour--go, watch some old episodes of The Prisoner. Because the series was (regrettably) set up for syndication, all episodes except the first one and last two can be viewed in nearly any order, but might I suggest "Arrival," "A, B & C," "Many Happy Returns," and "The Schizoid Man" as being personal favorites that stand alone fairly well? The final episodes, "Once Upon A Time" and "Fall Out" are brilliant, but don't watch them first. And avoid "Do Not Forsake Me, My Darling," the series' one true dog.6

Be seeing you.

1I feel I have to justify that characterization, but it's the kind of thing that belongs in another post, so here's a footnote to compromise: "prejudices" is the right word not because it's pejorative, but because television producers/programmers tended to make assumptions about the consumers of television (audiences and station managers) that haven't been borne out by recent trends. Specifically, (1) that audiences would be baffled and confused to come into a series in the middle of a plot, and so a show that was too clever or depended too seriously on extended plot-arcs would fail, and (2) that the real money in a series would come later, in syndication, and so every episode of a show ought to stand alone so audiences wouldn't be frightened and so that programmers could shuffle episodes without losing those easily-distraught viewers.

In all fairness, one of the flaws in this model is relatively recent: the consumer VCR radically altered TV not just by allowing time-shifting (so audiences don't miss that one crucial episode), but also by making it possible for somebody who comes into the middle of a lengthy and complicated plot and is intrigued by it to go back and watch all the old episodes as video rentals or purchases. In 1967, '68, when The Prisoner aired, few people owned VTRs, because VTRs weren't consumer products (the first "consumer" VTR cost six grand in adjusted dollars and came out in '72--yeah).

2My own opinion being that both sides are correct. If you're familiar with the two series, that answer probably makes more sense.

3Much of the series was shot at a mind-blowingly cool-looking village resort called Portmeirion, in Wales. The town was designed from the ground up by a man named Sir Clough Williams-Ellis over a fifty-year period, who gave it a kind of Mediterranean-Deco look and apparently wanted the place to be a kind of Utopia blending the best architectural and communal aspects of the past, present and future (that future being what the future was supposed to be in 1925).

Yes, it's one of my fantasy vacations.

4No job security: there's a new Number Two in nearly every episode.

5Also, you might suddenly "get" a whole bunch old of Simpsons episodes that might have seemed really, really, really strange.

6It's a filler episode made to pad out the series (McGoohan originally wanted to do six, Lew Grade thought twenty-four would be easier to sell in syndication, McGoohan agreed to do thirteen, then they compromised on seventeen); "Forsake" was made while McGoohan was doing Ice Station Zebra (Howard Hughes' favorite movie!)--hence the retarded brain-swapping plot, which would have been dumb even if McGoohan had actually been in the episode for more than five minutes.


vince Thursday, January 8, 2009 at 11:01:00 PM EST  

The Prisoner remains one of the best, if not the best, example of what episodic television can be. It takes what it is trying to explore seriously, without taking itself seriously and it examines large questions without necessarily providing a "right" or "correct" answer.

Danger Man/Secret Agent wasn't a half-bad show itself.

Eric Friday, January 9, 2009 at 9:48:00 AM EST  

I'm not sure whether to thank you or curse you, Vince, for summing up the awesomeness of The Prisoner in two paragraphs (as opposed to my rambling epistle).

So: what Vince said, and if you haven't seen the show, you can watch it legally and free at

Carol Elaine Friday, January 9, 2009 at 1:55:00 PM EST  

I had to skip large parts of your post because I've not yet seen either Danger Man/Secret Agent or The Prisoner. I know, I know. Both are in my Netflix queue, along with about 80 other DVDs. But now I'm tempted to head over the, even though I cannot watch it whilst at work (my only regular internet access at the moment).

Curse you, Eric!

Ilya Saturday, January 10, 2009 at 7:11:00 AM EST  

I've never even heard of Prisoner before we started researching points of interest for our Wales trip last year. Since then, it seems to be popping up all around me :-)

Portmeirion is a pretty cool village, if so obviously artificial.

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