“Where am I?”
“In the Village.”
“What do you want?”
“Whose side are you on?”
“That would be telling. We want Information. Information. Information.”
“You won’t get it.”
“By hook or by crook, we will.”
“Who are you?”
“The new Number #2.”
“Who is Number #1?”
“You are Number #6.”
“I AM NOT A NUMBER, I AM A FREE MAN!!!!!”
[stranger laughs diabolically at his assertion of freedom].
THE PRISONER (1967) STARRING PATRICK MCGOOHAN (SOON TO BE SHOWN AS A REMAKE ON CABLE TV) – This is truly one of the legendary TV shows of all time, and an inspired choice for a remake. The originals are now out on Comcast on demand and available to be seen for the first time in quite a while. They are in color and in excellent, really superb quality, considering they were filmed more than forty years ago and have been in the vaults a long time. The Prisoner was a cult hit in both Britain, and later in the US, where it was shown on PBS sometime after it was shown in Britain. Along with Monty Python and Sesame Street, it was one of PBS’ biggest hits of the late 60s/early 70s.
Every episode of the Prisoner started the same.
McGoohan, who is a british spy, obviously working for British Intelligence, has an angry argument with his superior, then bangs the table and throws his resignation letter on the desk.
Then cut to McGoohan’s apartment, where we see him packing. Meanwhile, next cut to a strange looking man in a top hat who approaches the apartment door from the outside. Cut to inside view and gas starts pouring visibly inside McGoohan’s flat, overcoming him.
He wakes up in a strange bed in a strange place. He does not know where he is. He looks out the window and sees a strange town. Then cut to a strange place, a strange person seated in a throne like chair in a round room. McGoohan is being interrogated by the Stranger.
McGoohan: “Where am I?”
Stranger: “In the Village.”
McGoohan: “What do you want?”
McGoohan: “Whose side are you on?”
Stranger: “That would be telling. We want Information. Information. Information.”
McGoohan: “You won’t get it.”
Stranger: “By hook or by crook, we will.”
McGoohan: “Who are you?”
Stranger: “The new Number #2.”
McGoohan: “Who is Number #1?”
Stranger: “You are Number #6.”
McGoohan: “I am not a Number, I am a Free Man!!!”
Stranger: [laughs diabolically].
So many aspects of the show are classic—the bubble chasing down anyone trying to escape, the taxi which goes nowhere (local service only), the oblique references to a “New World Order”, the bicycle logo with its subtextual semiotic references to Orwellian dystopias, the constant references to the battles between McGoohan and science, McGoohan and psychology, McGoohan and being watched all the time, and the hilarious fact that every week, McGoohan defeats #2 and a new #2 has to brought in to break him down because McGoohan has broken down the previous #2. No one has money in the Village, only “work units,” and there appears to be a sort of communitarian utopia. There is a democratic council, but there are no actual rights. In one episode, McGoohan runs for election, but he quickly finds out he is not actually allowed to say or do anything that would upset the status quo. “your local council” is just a hollow slogan, a catch phrase for a democracy that doesn’t exist at all.
The key concepts of the show are freedom, human aspiration, knowledge, escape, dignity, free will and liberty. Everyone in the village has all their material needs met, but they must sacrifice all of their liberty, including their own individual identities, their memories and their minds, in order to obtain it.
In short, this show presents a working picture of what a communist or fascist society must really be like, in which everyone enjoys health care, work, food, leisure and a decent living quarters, but absolutely no freedoms whatsoever to think or exist except as dictated by the state. Presented hour after hour, episode after episode, the Prisoner is an unqualified call to freedom everywhere.
In our own times, many movies and series have been inspired in whole or in part by the Prisoner. The X-Files, certainly, draws some inspiration from the Prisoner. The Jim Carrey movie “The Truman Show” draws heavily on the Prisoner for its set designs and concept of an observed, controlled village, and for the notion that a person is subject to psychological control by an unseen central force.
Finally, we have the current phenomenon, worldwide, of people being arrested and detained without due process of law, in places unknown, for periods of time, and being interrogated in all sorts of ways for what they know. Every side politically does this, including our side with Guantanamo Bay and all our allies who assist in the war on terror. Of course, at the time of the Prisoner, it was understood that Russia and the US were both doing this as part of the Cold War—and yet both the James Bond series of movies, as well as Get Smart, the Prisoner, the Man from Uncle, and numerous other fictional spy shows continued to assert the existence of a third, “shadow” force, as powerful as the US or Russia, which also employed spies, torture methods, interrogation methods, and bargained or double-dealt using agents who had defected from one or both sides—under such acronyms as KAOS, SPECTRE, and so forth. Even the recent series of Mission Impossible films remade with Tom Cruise as their star clearly posit a so-called “third party” of international force. This premise was cleverly lampooned in the Austin Powers-Man of Mystery series of spy-lampoon movies, where the third power was led by a man called “Dr. Evil”, who was laughably played by the same actor playing Austin Powers, in perhaps the most brilliant series of spy spoofs ever committed to film.
Without commenting on the right or wrong of it, imagine if you will the situation of a man seized and placed in a “village” one day, deprived of his freedom and dignity, and forced to give up not only his secrets and knowledge, but also his identity, his selfhood and everything that makes him a man. Every dystopian novel or non-fiction work ever written—Fahrenheit 451, Animal Farm, Player Piano, the Gulag Archipelago, The Road to Serfdom, the Open Society and Its Enemies, Atlas Shrugged—posits precisely this sort of situation coming to pass in our own day.
Perhaps no two writers were more articulate about this phenomenon than Arthur Koestler and George Orwell, who wrote frequently, passionately and articulately about the dangers and evils of communism, socialism and false utopias. Koestler’s Darkness at Noon is the dystopian novel which most clearly reflects, and inspires, the series “the Prisoner,” in that it is directly a synopsis of the main character’s experience of what must have been the experience of Stalin’s purge and show trials of the late 1930s—first capture, then interrogation, then brainwashing, then being made to confess one’s sins in public, and finally, the inevitable lengthy prison sentence in Siberia or, perhaps more mercifully, death. The forturnate few were “rehabilitated” if they could be made to “understand” Stalinist communism and completely confess and revoke their sins, and be made to be a number, and not a free man.
The Prisoner is a powerful reminder of why liberty is the most important right we have.
Art Kyriazis, November 1, 2009
Eagles Pounding Giants as we speak