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P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
13.3 (Summer 2013)
courtesy of artrenewal.org
Six of One, Half Dozen of the Other: Patrick McGoohan’s Twenty-First Century Dystopia
Peter T. Singleton
I. The Origins of The Prisoner
I discovered the British (ITC) series Secret Agent at a tender age—rather too tender to appreciate its merits, I confess. My parents and older brother quickly made it clear to me, however, that I must either keep quiet or leave the room while British covert operative John Drake was picking locks and microfilming documents in far-off places. (Oh, for those halcyon days of one TV set, when tastes had to meet in compromise and uninformed taste had to serve an apprenticeship!) I will say on my behalf that Drake’s style quickly grew on me. While my peers were swooning over the insipid Man from U.N.C.L.E. (with its strong appeal to adolescent sexual fantasies and adolescent “good guy/bad guy” morality—in other words, its Hollywood progressivism), I stayed with Drake. Over a total of forty-seven hour-long programs (with commercials), he never fired a shot, at least not with a firearm; he was actually a very good shot with some snap-together contraption from which he fired a bugging device. More miraculous still, though Drake chatted up many a lovely lady under his innumerable aliases, he never so much as exchanged a kiss with one of them (one peck on a girl’s virginal cheek—not an exchange). This was all happening in the mid-sixties, as the sexual revolution was starting to melt down Western civilization’s circuitry.
I don’t know how much strength my own early adolescence drew from John Drake’s quintessential British poise, but the effect, I think, was more than negligible. I even forgave his show that blaring, caterwauling, let-it-all-hang-out signature music lifted from Johnny Rivers and his electric guitar. It seemed so very un-Drake-like. Only decades later did I learn that, in fact, the Rivers theme had been grafted onto the series, along with the title Secret Agent itself, for the American audience. In Britain, the theme music was a brieh harpsichord signature (just a hint of that jauntily magnificent concerto over which each specific show’s individual credits ran). That seemed entirely more credible and appropriate. The difference between this series and something like U.N.C.L.E. was the same as between John LeCarré and Ian Fleming—or between the real Cold War and a comic book. The producers apparently sensed a need to dose their export with James Bond gaud and swag in a bid for Yankee viewership; and, sure enough, I had friends who tuned in only long enough to listen to Johnny Rivers. Dumbing down, it turns out, was invented before the seventies.
John Drake never held his adversaries so firmly in his palm as when he allowed himself to be bullied; and if he delivered himself into a woman’s hands (e.g., the French femme fatale played by Dawn Addams in “Battle of the Cameras”), that, too, was a mere ploy.
The same brain trust may have learned a bitter lesson when the original half-hour version of the series was shipped across the pond under the name of Danger Man. The experiment had failed miserably. Certainly no one in my family had ever seen or heard of Drake’s earlier incarnation as a NATO intelligence operative. There, indeed, lies a great irony, for the earlier show was altogether more “Yankified”. The opening signature sequence said as much. The obnoxious brass section of a jazz band blasted the theme loud enough to be heard on both sides of the Atlantic; Drake’s voice-over, meanwhile (above a saxophone interlude as the trumpeters panted before another assault), explained that NATO was his employer, his svelte figure leaping into a convertible; and the voice-over pronounced “r’s”, particularly, in that broad, plain-spun manner which the Irish find relatively easy to achieve, and which the Brits instantly identify as an Americanism. Maybe that was a reason for the show’s failure, come to think of it—maybe Americans couldn’t buy what the Brits were selling here: an Irishman impersonating a Yank. (Though the actor in question was born in New York state, his Irish parents returned to England when he was a toddler.) Drake retained his identity in Secret Agent but, from the start, clearly took his marching orders from MI6, or something of that savor: something very hush-hush based in London. Most of his missions required that he make himself readily underestimated as he padded the corridors of white-collar crime and international intrigue. He frequently wore glasses as part of his disguise, and even more frequently affected the ineptitude of a tipster, a poltroon, or what we would call today a nerd. He could break out his judo when the occasion demanded, but since this almost always involved a rupture of his cover, that occasion hopefully arose only as he made a desperate escape. In several episodes he penetrated the Iron Curtain.
In short, Drake was nothing if not discreet. Patrick McGoohan, the actor who played this part to perfection, might almost have been too good-looking, for a pair of thick glasses and a mousy, fulsome manner were scarcely sufficient to make him seem a pettifogging bureaucrat with documents for sale. On the other hand, one look at the real Drake would have wrung compliance from just about any worldly countess or conspiratorial femme fatale—much sooner, I would have thought, than Robert Vaughn’s rather oily Napoleon Solo. (I never have understood why so many women consider certain men handsome. McGoohan was actually approached before Sean Connery to play the first James Bond, but he was disgusted by the script’s glorification of flippant homicide and casual sex.) As a result of his long undercover career, Drake would have acquired a vast amount of highly sensitive information, it stands to reason. If such a spy were ever to wish to come in from the cold, his employers would be bound to view his relocation as problematic.
As a college student, I used to have spirited debates with the select few of my peers who knew John Drake about whether or not he was, in fact, The Prisoner. The seventeen-episode classic of that name first aired in the U.S. during the summer of 1968, a couple of years after the final episode of Secret Agent. McGoohan’s character in the new series was never formally christened. Among the denizens of the macabre “Potemkin” village (simply called the Village) whither he was kidnapped after being drugged, he was only and always Number Six. Like everyone else here, he had become a file in a drawer. It made sense, as I have just conceded, that John Drake would have ended up this way. He knew too much simply to be allowed to resign for “reasons of conscience”, as he maintained in the series. There had been, furthermore, a literal Potemkin (or “shadow”) village which Drake had infiltrated in Secret Agent. The episode was titled “Colony Three”.
Yet the exception sometimes proves the rule. To be sure, “Colony Three” must surely have implanted McGoohan’s fertile mind with the idea for The Prisoner (in whose writing and production the actor figured prominently) if the seeds were not already there; yet the two settings are also entirely different in ambiance. The shadow community is a school for Russian spies, with zealous English defectors serving as models while going about their daily routine in feigned normalcy. The Village is a darkly futuristic fantasy—a combination of Disneyland and Guantanamo Bay. The spy school’s busy bourgeoisie pretend that they are leading a humdrum English existence; the festive prison’s inmates strut about in carnival garb, seemingly celebrating their captivity with the mind-numbed joy of lunatics or of specters from beyond Alice’s looking-glass.
The new series, in short (or so I always argued), could not simply have been a continuation of the saga of John Drake, Superspy, because it was so clearly allegorical where the previous series had shown such gritty realism. Of course, this debate is finally misguided. I now think that Number Six both was and was not Drake. That is, I think McGoohan and his fellow creators wanted to entice the audience into watching with the suspicion that the ever-popular Drake had staged a comeback—for, after all, Number Six had to be somebody like Drake. It really didn’t matter whether or not they were identical, as faithful and thoughtful viewers would eventually figure out, since virtually all of us might be Drake in the brave new world that our runaway surveillance technology and our highly centralized governments of experts were forcing upon us from both East and West.
(If there was any primetime sixties reincarnation of Secret Agent, I might add in postscript, it was a series called Man in a Suitcase that lasted a mere two seasons. McGoohan’s production associates left their fingerprints all over it. Much of the incidental music [e.g., a saxophone number] is all but plagiarized from The Prisoner, if composer Ron Grainer could be said to have ripped himself off. The flow of the scripts and the editing show close kinship; one of Suitcase’s scripts was indeed lifted lock, stock, and barrel from a former adventure of Drake’s, titled “It’s Up to the Lady”. Many other strategies gave further evidence of holdover from BBC Danger Man’s last days, even though the protagonist was now a disgraced CIA agent turned private eye with a strong and genuine Texas accent [Richard Bradford]: these included borrowing Japanese actress Yoko Tani for a two-part episode. Bradford implied in an interview much later that such parasitizing probably doomed the series. His own character, off-beat and fascinating, was increasingly sabotaged by silly amorous escapades in a fashion common to audience-hungry screenwriters of the late sixties. Secret Agent itself had steeply degenerated toward the end, though Drake was not yet—not quite—machine-gunning the Red Army and jumping into showers with women named Natasha. The final two episodes [with Yoko Tani], the only two ever filmed in color, were scored with “Bondified” music and had Drake, of all things, leading some Japanese islanders in an armed revolution against evil corporate interests. McGoohan himself seems to have been instrumental in pulling the show’s plug at this point. This would be a further argument against The Prisoner’s merely being a vehicle to put John Drake back before the public’s eye.)
McGill (Richard Bradford) inherited neither John Drake’s aversion to guns nor his abstinence from the fair sex. In one of several curious overlaps with the superspy, however, which could hardly have been accidental, the “man in a suitcase” was reunited with the love of his life, played by Yoko Tani, in a two-part adventure. Tani had also starred with McGoohan in the two-part color finale of Secret Agent, where she came close to being a love interest. Such pilfering from the earlier series by the later one was commonplace.
The American public, in any case, was not long fooled by any hint that Drake was up to his old tricks. Surely the BBC executives who had chosen to audition The Prisoner during the summer had feared as much, for summer in those days was strictly the season of re-runs. In the event of failure, losses would have been minimal. (My research indicates that Secret Agent’s trial balloon was also floated in the summer: I had not recalled that.) If my father’s reaction was typical—and I suspect it was—then failure during the American audience’s initial exposure to The Prisoner was abysmal. I can’t blame Dad. Nothing very like this had ever been seen on American primetime: perhaps a few episodes of The Twilight Zone. Naturally, the John Drake connection—real or imagined, intended or accidental—had led to false expectations, as well. John Lecarré had mutated into Isaac Asimov, if not Lewis Carroll. Grit had turned to glitter. Documentary had become caricature and satire.
II. What Is The Village?
It all comes back to that Disney Guantanamo: the Village. In the real world of the Cold War, such places were gulags in Siberia. When people who know too much wake up to find themselves in the Village, however, they are quickly initiated into a utopian colony. Everyone has an apartment stocked with canned goods (labeled “Village Foods”) and rigged with the latest conveniences and amusements. Everyone has a closet full of leisurely, comfy clothes, whose uniform regularity is veiled in festive styling. Everyone has “credit units” for the purchase of a cup of tea at a sidewalk café or the latest edition of the local newspaper, the Tally-Ho. (All papers are local—like all maps, telephone exchanges, and cab routes. Where the Village ends, the universe ends.) Citizens apparently have jobs tending small shops or selling bouquets, and a substantially larger public sector keeps jump-suited technicians servicing loudspeakers and statuary (equipped for round-the-clock surveillance) or playing Strauss and Bizet at public concerts. Everyone, finally, has a number.
That detail is critical. Substituting numbers for names increases efficiency in our Space Age world, and with greater efficiency comes more convenience and prompter, more minutely tailored service. Yet the abandonment of names is also a suppression of personal identity—and, for us, it is a suppression engineered by lifestyle rather than by politics. Most of the critiques of McGoohan’s series devalue, or even ignore, this essential distinction. They typically equate the Village’s most sinister aspects with big government, and big government with a fascist zealotry to command obedience. The plethora of Village gadgetry, in their view, simply manifests this megalomaniac desire of the ruling elite to control.
That view is facile. The truth is that advanced technology already implies totalitarian rule, quite apart from any political ideology. One memorizes the numbers (or, these days, the passwords) one needs in order to access the Machine’s speed-of-light assistance and its colorful varieties of artificial paradise. In the process, one’s real name becomes virtually irrelevant and forgotten—which is merely symbolic, though, of a much more extensive loss of personality. One begins to think like the Machine, or at least in terms that the Machine understands, in order to reap progress’s dazzling benefits; and those benefits, naturally, are themselves transmitted in a mechanistic idiom. I speak now both of our world and McGoohan’s, which I would argue are the same in this regard. Music is automatically piped into all of the Village’s apartments: one need not even touch a dial. Yet the cost of such convenience is that one cannot choose one’s own music—and even less can one choose silence.
The citizen of the twenty-first century will protest mockingly that patrons of iTunes represent the first generation of humans that has been able to have instant and cheap access to precisely whatever music is desired. I would respond that these real-life villagers have already been thoroughly programmed. They now seem unable to pass five unoccupied minutes without a bud in their ear broadcasting their “tunes of choice” (which, statistically speaking, represent a staggering narrowness of taste: the very limitation of “songs” to three or four minutes is in itself an immensely oppressive boundary). Likewise, the vast majority of citizens in the Village seem happy with an individuality concocted from the “personalized” deliveries of various instant-access systems: happy in a stable, if very shallow, sense. Why should they care that they now must answer to a number rather than a name? The specific number, at any rate, is their very own. How many Peters and Pauls littered the old low-tech universe? But there is only one Five Hundred and Forty-Three!
Among the series’ central statements, then, is surely that both sides in the Cold War—East and West, expert oligarch-dictators and enfranchised but unruly masses, Will of the Party Elite and Will of the People—have no practical distinction once advanced technology is stirred into the brew. I believe the abundance of nursery tunes in the series’ incidental music brilliantly underscores this relationship between postmodern society and high technology. Gadgets reduce adults to spoiled brats. Buttons and gestures set into motion an army of wired nannies, while the human “master” of it all loses his will amid a wealth of frivolous powers.
Some villagers, to be sure, are “more equal than others” (in Orwell’s splendid phrase). Number Two, most notably, is the visible captain of the Village ship. Yet he—or she—changes position in every episode, being as servile to the whimsy of the shadowy Number One as other villagers are to his or her commands. After Number Two, the numbering system appears completely indifferent to the chain of subordination. Several episodes imply that this confusion is deliberate, both so that prisoners may not be tipped off to the sabotaging ubiquity of jailers among them and so that the captives themselves—if they cooperate—may be promoted into the ranks of the wardens.
To return to my original point, then… very few of the gatekeepers seem to understand their magical drawbridges, goads, and windows any better than the inmates. At most, the technicians have acquired a mastery over some specific system (in a manner that Ortega y Gasset would appreciate) without having any idea of its broader relevance or consequence. They, too, are but children playing with toys that may one day devour them along with the rest of the community. As the reigning Number Two responds to the lab-coated creator of a risky drug that allows her to eavesdrop on Number Six’s dreams (in “A, B and C”), “Just get it right, or I’ll see that it’s proved on you!”
In fact, the Village Hospital, with its fleet of busy ambulances and its crew in white coats, is always associated with nursery music. It is the premier playground of the technicians. Ever developing new drugs, new high-voltage methods of brain manipulation, and new uses for human Skinner boxes, these eager beavers are constantly warned with regard to Number Six, “Don’t damage the tissue—he’s too valuable,” the way a child might be admonished, “Don’t play tag near the flower bed.” The less valuable are sometimes less fortunate, for the Village also possesses its own graveyard. A more common outcome, though, appears to be something like lobotomy or radical behavior modification. A recurrent vision in Hospital scenes is a tunnel-like room through the one-way glass of whose door Number Six peeks. Straitjacketed figures are forcibly seated back-to-wall up and down the room’s two sides, presumably reconsidering their attitude in an artificial twilight: “Group therapy,” a doctor once explains. One time (during the introductory episode), in an identical room, a single occupant stands at a rostrum talking utter gibberish and laughing merrily. The cure appears to be working, at least in his case, for the objective is for all citizens to be “happy” and “productive” (i.e., cooperative) in their new surroundings. “He’s coming along nicely,” comments the doctor.
The infantilization of the villagers through various technological miracles is so thorough that blunter force is almost unnecessary. Machine-guns appear only in the final episode, and there more as symbols of the homicidal brutality masked within the glister of “progress” than as actual instruments of coercion. Instead, the Village’s watchdog is a ring of all-terrain electronic spheres, so flexible that they cannot be pierced by blade or bullet, so literally oppressive when they catch their prey that they appear to suffocate with their thumping embrace. In keeping with the playground theme, they resemble nothing so much as giant beach balls or bounding balloons.
I recall how widely derided these “rovers” were when the series first aired. The American audience, at any rate, wanted ray guns or robots (like the Daleks in Doctor Who, I suppose). To this day, I don’t think many serious enthusiasts of The Prisoner fully comprehend the importance of this ludic transformation of force and death. All of reality’s sharp edges and hard corners will be shorn away in our “user-friendly” utopian tyrannies of the future. There will be no more horrid images, no more gushing blood. If need be, the uncooperative—in extreme cases—will be deprived of their right to the Village’s air; but the rest of the community may go on about its business of pleasure unharrowed. A child might view such an execution and merely think that he had witnessed a game of pat-a-cake involving a big, bouncy rubber ball.
Finely tuned technology that it is, Rover can stun or immobilize without killing. Number Six is too valuable to be moved to the Village graveyard… yet.
People, as we have noted, are brought to the Village because they know too much. The opening sequence of almost every episode recounts an exchange between Number Six and the latest Number Two: “’Where am I?’ ‘In the Village.’ ‘What do you want?’ ‘Information.’ ‘Whose side are you on?’ ‘That would be telling. We want information… in-for-ma-tion… IN-FOR-MA-TION.’ ‘You won’t get it.’ ‘By hook or by crook, we will.’ ‘Who are you?’ ‘The new Number Two.’ ‘Who is Number One?’ ‘You are Number Six.’ ‘I am not a number! I am a free man!’ [mad peals of Number Two’s laughter].” The emphatic presence of “information” right in the middle of this litany is as much connected to high-tech living as everything else in the series. Despots love secret police and propagandistic news outlets, yes: but political despotism has existed for millennia with little more prying into the private lives of citizens than what is required to detect a conspiracy. People have historically been able to exist in relative peace if they only resided far from court and eschewed “dangerous” acquaintances. In the Village, however, everybody’s brain is constantly being picked—at least until it is an empty wasteland with nothing left to glean. Number Six’s own repeated contention that he resigned from his position for reasons of conscience is scarcely difficult to believe. Yet “they” want to know what was in his conscience, as well.
The contents of that conscience could have little strategic value. The series implies, then, that this world of tomorrow will elicit every secret from every individual, even the most private and least relevant to public security. Why? Out of mere paranoia? Tiberius was paranoid, too. Information-gathering, I think, occupies such a focal position in the Village’s activities just because gathering information is what communications technology does. Whether we like it or not—and, more to the point, whether our particular and temporary rulers like it or not—we are all incessantly being recorded: our voices, our visible motions, our note-writing, our consumer selections, and increasingly (by mechanized inference) our hidden thoughts. Information is harvested and processed every day that no tyrant could conceivably find useful; yet the lust to harvest more and more remains unappeased—because it is in fact no human drive at all, that “lust”, but an impersonal, dispassionate task of tasks implicit in every chip and circuit. No, this isn’t about politics—about Marx or Mao or Hitler, or even Richard Nixon! It’s about lifestyle. “They” will acquire their information until “we” make the final transit to the Village graveyard.
In closing this section, then, I would stress that the Village’s futuristic aspects cannot be overlooked. McGoohan chose with careful premeditation the extraordinary tourist locale of Portmeirion in North Wales. Constructed over a period of fifty years, beginning in 1925, by eccentric millionaire Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, this “hotel town” was intended to model the very best of Mediterranean architecture in a kind of self-contained dream of communal charm. I don’t know if Williams-Ellis ever used the word—but his project was quintessentially utopian. In McGoohan’s vision (and he first came to know Portmeirion as the backdrop of a Danger Man episode), this habitable Disney-space has become Dystopia: a mandatory and indefinite holiday. Citizens of the future will live here. Totalitarian dictators have a well-known predilection for the regimentation of cookie-cutter tenements and barracks. The new slave camp, in contrast, is a tourist resort. Its denizens are always on vacation, having been relieved of choices as little onerous, even, as preference of food or clothing. A “wiser” centralized authority makes such choices inerrantly, based upon an unfathomable supply of… information!
If the politics of past and present have a role in creating this hellacious resort, the extent of that role extends only so far as political ideology has shifted from the power of the ruler to the happiness of the ruled; or, I should say, that role has grown as rulers since the French Revolution have realized that mass control is much better secured by mass complacency than by threats and executions. Cesare Borgia has become P.T. Barnum (with Bill Gates rather than J.A. Bailey for a partner). The shift in thinking had its philosophical underpinnings, to be sure, and these are neither cynical nor unworthy of researching in another context; but the actual means of delivering complacency to the mass—of creating Ortega y Gasset’s “mass man”—became a practical possibility only through technology. One might well argue, even, that liberal political philosophy has been shanghaied (like a civil servant who knows too much) into the propagandistic service of this complacency-slaughterhouse.
I shall not take that turn. This short essay is dedicated to the magnificently nightmarish images of an art work, not to rational arguments and their subversion.
III. Individual Episodes
The confusion originally created by the serial was scarcely helped by the apparent disarray of its episodes. Other than the indispensable introductory show titled “Arrival” and the almost-as-requisite wrap-up in the final two hours, the episodes might have been drawn out of a hat by way of determining their air date. As I lately reviewed the series for perhaps the tenth or twelfth time—but the first in well over a decade—I found myself relegated to some old video cassettes, an older VCR, and a TV that was probably born not long after Number Six’s escape. (Our household has several monitors of various description, and it would seem that some viewers are more equal than others: I always end up with the VCR.) The arrangement of segments in my reprise was therefore as close to random as anyone could desire. I was shocked when my research revealed the “proper” order. I would have said that the haphazard sequencing on my home-recorded cassettes made about as much sense.
The apparent neglect of a coherent plan of attack is the more painful in that a tendency really does exist for individual episodes to fall into certain stylistic classes, making certain patterns much more reasonable than others. Naturally, variations in style correlate strongly to the director’s taste—and The Prisoner employed four directors multiple times, including McGoohan himself. Perhaps if the series had moved steadily from a more objective to a more subjective style, or from a more conventional kind of intrigue to something more like dark comedy… but no. The overall impression left by the finished product is that some scripts were ready for filming sooner than others or some sets easier to arrange than others. The logic tying together the fourteen episodes between the first and the penultimate appears to be little more profound than the rude dictates of budgeting and scheduling.
The truth was far more tragic, but not very different. My purpose here is not to chronicle McGoohan’s ordeal month by month… but the pressures of working with so many personalities on such an original project with so little time and money and so much of his own wealth invested apparently brought the man to the brink of nervous breakdown. Number Six remained invincible, but perhaps the actor who portrayed him fared less well.
A manner of “fan guide” by Carrazé and Oswald, published by Barnes and Noble in 1989, details in its final pages how certain episodes staggered into being. My own essay is not a history. Here I prefer to group all of the episodes by what seems their dominant tendency, whether that is more stylistic or thematic. I will admit that, according to my own method of classification, it looks as though McGoohan’s brain trust attempted to cluster a few episodes, at least, according to style: the ones I have called “chess games”, to be precise. (The two “spoofs”, it turns out, ended up side by side for fully pragmatic reasons.) There is surely more at work in the following list of rubrics, then, than a shared director. In any case, I did not retrieve the directors of individual episodes until after I had viewed and classed all of these latter according to my criteria. In a pinch, I would concede that what I am proposing could perhaps be described (somewhat sloppily) as the “take” that four distinct and gifted creators had on the allegory of the Village and postmodern society.
In parentheses appear the episode’s order in the sequence of seventeen and the director’s name. There are actually two more of these latter beyond the prolific four.
1) Breakout Thrillers: exciting adventures where the imprisoned hero attempts escape. Obviously the Village is no mere Alcatraz or Stalag 17—but the plot is nevertheless familiar enough that the audience notices shocking departures from expectation against a backdrop of generic predictability. Number Six, for example, is physically punching, swimming, and running in the course of his failed escape attempts, whereas later episodes will force the viewer to wonder if such events are being imagined under the stimulus of some drug or high-tech hoax. Though Six is deceived here as elsewhere by the wicked duplicity of the Village’s operators, the lies are “real lies” taking place in real time.
“Arrival” (Episode 1; Don Chaffey)
Number Six is introduced (as are we through his eyes) to his new way of life in the Village. He awakens from the drug-induced sleep during which he was kidnapped to find himself in a charming but utterly strange room. The surrounding community is no less odd. People seem friendly, even jovial—a café waitress, a lovely Chinese cabby (“We’re very international”), the clerk of a shop whose unhelpful maps are all local (“You’re new here”); all of them, however, evade direct questions. When Six inevitably winds up back in his quarters, Number Two rings him up with a breakfast invitation: “The Green Dome—you can’t miss it.” Despite its quaint exterior, the Dome is a kind of bunker whose automatic, ironclad doors enclose a control room full of surveillance displays and subterranean furniture that rises at a button’s push. Number Two exudes exquisitely good manners from his pod-like easy chair (“Delighted you could come!”) and proceeds to have Six served his favorite breakfast even as his responses to the menu leave his mouth—this to demonstrate that his life has been minutely chronicled. There’s only one gap: the reason for his resignation.
To convince the irate Six that escape is impossible and cooperation the only alternative, Number Two gives him an airborne tour of their island prison. The captive is unimpressed. In fact, he almost immediately undertakes his own tour on foot—which leads to his straying across invisible no-trespass lines and having to be subdued by a bounding Rover. Convalescing in the Hospital, he happens to notice a former colleague named Cobb in a neighboring bed. Cobb is too woozy to impart much information; and in any case, minutes after the encounter, he is dead, having either jumped from a window or been pushed. A “funeral” of sorts follows (the bizarre procession marching to Strauss’s jaunty “Emperor’s Waltz”), during which Six accosts a grieving young woman. With some persuasion, the woman admits that she and Cobb had planned to escape, and she bequeaths the key item of the plot to Six. He gets as far as actually putting about a mile between himself and the village in a stolen helicopter… and then the control room, which has had him under surveillance the whole time, commandeers the chopper’s steering and brings it back to its pad.
Two prominent themes emerge. One is that advanced technology cannot be outwitted by the schemes of mere men. The other seems to be that men and women themselves are infinitely duplicitous—or, at their best, hopelessly frail. Cobb had in fact faked his death, and departs at the episode’s end to serve a new power (“Mustn’t keep our masters waiting”). The girl who loved him, though in the employ of the Village’s rulers, was sincerely attempting to betray their cruel “masters”… and will be dealt with accordingly. In the final scenes, by the way, Number Two has already yielded to a substitute. This fluidity of the second-in-command position also characterizes the entire series. The relieved Twos are rarely being punished, it seems, but neither are they being promoted (since there can be only one Number One). The intended implication may be that the highest-ranking flunkeys are still flunkeys. Also, as in this case, a certain “good cop/bad cop” dynamic often contrasts the job’s occupants; so there may be a further hint that such appointments are just another device in the power structure’s manipulative tool chest.
A Village cabby (Barbara Yu Ling) and a map. Note the latter’s childish design and coloring: it isn’t simply uncommunicative—it appears to have been created for imbeciles.
“The Chimes of Big Ben” (Episode 2; Don Chaffey)
This episode, despite my earlier comments, is not a bad follow-up to the first one. Number Six is still naïve enough to be softened by the evident “adjustment anxiety” of his new neighbor, a lovely Estonian who claims to have seen the Village’s secret file by accident in her daily labors. This discovery, while unfortunately leading to her captivity, has also endowed her with precise geographical knowledge of the Village’s whereabouts. Yet Number Six is not at once trustful. He observes the girl’s struggles for a while, which closely resemble his own (including a round with Rover that lands her in the Hospital). At last he convinces Number Two to ease up on her, promising to be more neighborly himself. The specifics of this promise involve entering the Village art contest—an occasion for much ironic humor. Most entries are likenesses of Number Two in one medium or another! Six and his Estonian friend, however, construct an elaborate abstract sculpture which in fact contains the rudiments of a life-sized skiff and a mast. (The puzzled judges are won over by Six’s “it means what it is” nonsense. One must wonder how deep the irony goes—did McGoohan also have his series’ future critics in his sights?)
The night theft of the “art work” and ensuing escape by sea appear to come off without a hitch. The pair makes rendezvous with one of the girl’s underground contacts on the mainland. They are crated tightly together and shipped to London. During the hours-long trip, verbal exchanges in the crate suggest that the girl has become romantically attached to her co-conspirator—an impression which Six had nourished back in the Village to throw off suspicion. Safely delivered to the offices of the Colonel (British Secret Service), Six is being debriefed with whiskey in hand, on the very verge of explaining why he resigned… when he hears Big Ben chime the wrong hour. The trick’s designers had neglected to allow for a change in time zones. The Prisoner promptly locates the tape machine that provides London background noise, then exits the office to find himself back in the Village plaza. His Estonian conquest looks on coldly beside Number Two, remarking that the stratagem almost worked. “It was a good idea and you did your best. I’ll stress it in my report.”
The complementing presence of the Colonel and an Estonian agent preserves our uncertainty about which side operates the Village—or perhaps confirms the conclusion that both sides do, in some covert manner. Indeed, Leo McKern, one of the most memorable Number Twos, had delivered this very revealing speech early in the episode: “I am definitely an optimist. That’s why it doesn’t matter who Number One is. It doesn’t matter which side runs the Village…. Both sides are becoming identical. A perfect blueprint for world order. When the sides facing each other suddenly realize that they’re looking into a mirror, they’ll see that this is the pattern for the future.” One might even say that the plot, which at one level allows Number Six apparent success in order to milk information from him, implies at another that he really did reach London—that East and West have become the same.
“Many Happy Returns” (Episode 7; Joseph Serf [a.k.a. Patrick McGoohan])
A strangely quiet, even pastoral episode, quite uncharacteristic of McGoohan’s direction. In fact, he had fallen out with the original director, Michael Truman, and assumed the job upon his own shoulders only in mid-transit. The result is understandably hybrid—yet surprisingly effective, as well.
Number Six awakens to find the Village utterly deserted. No running water, no electricity, no radio… no kiosks open for business, no marching bands, no Number Two in the Green Dome. Rapidly assessing the situation, he is able to throw together a crude raft of logs and pontoons within a couple of days. The ensuing voyage takes almost a month and leaves him exhausted; he would never have made it, in fact, had he not managed to stow away on a gun-running craft whose operators stole his food supply and left him for dead. Having swum the last furlong to the mainland, he works his way along path and road as a vagabond, finally sneaking aboard a lorry bound for the city.
His London flat is naturally now in someone else’s possession. As luck would have it, this person is a kindly and rather elderly widow, Mrs. Butterworth. She takes pity upon the stranger and allows him to recover somewhat after his arduous journey. Restored to his former energetic self, the escaped prisoner reveals the Village’s existence to his former employers in Intelligence and eagerly volunteers to accompany a jet pilot in a search for the futuristic prison. In this endeavor he succeeds only too well. The pilot ejects him with an ironic, “Be seeing you” (the standard valediction of the Village, said with an eye peering through a finger and thumb circled like a lens). Number Six is thus “repatriated”, apparently having been tricked into a futile flight so as to break his spirit. It is left unclear whether the British high command was complicit in the pilot’s betrayal; but the kind Mrs. Butterworth is the first living soul to greet the returned Six in his apartment/cell, bearing a birthday cake in his honor. Some analyses of the episode claim that she is the new Number Two who has presided over the whole elaborate sham. If so, nothing in the actual footage gives this away.
In any event, the implication is once again very strong that certain elements of the Western establishment are heavily involved in the Village’s operation. It is difficult to imagine what cover-story the pilot might give for the loss of his passenger if he himself were not covered by higher-ups… but this is television, even if exceptionally well considered television.
The episode is notably lacking in any commentary about technology, tyranny, or democratic conformism—all frequent themes of the series. No other episode is so poignantly “lonely”; yet Six, his identity already keenly defined, has nothing to learn about himself, so his little odyssey carries no self-discovery. At most, a rather paranoid hint is dropped that physical isolation, retreat into Nature’s majesty, and casual encounters with kind strangers (there’s one who’s for real—a gypsy girl) are all insufficient resources in our struggle to escape the tentacles of our jailers. At its worst, the episode would seem to justify a hopeless pessimism about the human condition.
2) Objective Nightmares: bizarre scenarios implemented by drugs and/or technology—yet still realistic in perspective since we, the viewers, are constantly privy to the evil machinations of the Village’s technicians. We watch Six’s struggle to retain his identity and his sanity from the same ringside seat as his handlers rather than being thrust into his tortured, confused brain.
“A, B and C” (Episode 3; Pat Jackson)
The new Number Two is feeling unusually pressured in this episode to crack Number Six (drinking milk constantly to settle his stomach.) He risks permanent injury to his captive in order to try out a technician’s untested drug. This substance, with the assistance of electrodes fitted to Six’s temples and various feeds and TV screens (the last a rare example of an imagined technology that would appear laughably antiquated by the eighties), makes thoughts visible. The feeds allow the technician to insert images and voices into Six’s dreams.
The insertions will prove critical, for Number Two has tape footage of three agents suspected of offering Six bribes to resign and defect or sell out. The three cassettes are labeled A, B, and C. Six resists the overtures of the first two agents in his engineered and eavesdropped dreams. By this point, he has begun to realize during his hours of recuperation that some sort of noetic invasion is taking place while he sleeps. He deftly slips into the laboratory unseen, reconstructs the experiment from his hazy memories, locates the final syringe containing the miracle drug, and replaces the liquid with saline solution. Thus, that final night, he is able to manipulate the dream-watchers. The last suspect, C, for whom no photos are available, is unmasked after much cloak-and-dagger tension-building to be… Number Two! In a brilliantly dramatic stroke, the scene has Six enter the lab as his dream concludes, walk past the two real-time observers as they observe, explain to them that he really did resign for reasons of conscience and not to sell out, and finally merge with his torpid body on the gurney.
As bizarre as this episode might have become, Jackson’s rendition of it is at once fascinating and entertaining. The dream-reading experiment seems exactly the sort of thing that we know would make any mad scientist of utopian ambitions salivate (Ray Kurzweil springs to mind). Just imagine: the ability to project one’s thoughts before the world like a motion picture! How fun! How cool! And, for those who would control our thoughts, how convenient!
Number Six almost makes of this nightmare a chess game (Category 4), for the bad dream is at last Number Two’s. While trying to eavesdrop upon someone else’s thoughts, Two is caught with his hand in the cookie jar, his own voyeurism published as in a mirror.
Number Six has been prepped to have his dreams made public—at least before the Village’s elite.
“The Schizoid Man” (Episode 5; Pat Jackson)
The motif of the Doppelganger had done the rounds pretty widely in the decade or so of serial television before the Village opened for business. The bad look-alike almost always got the known-and-loved regular character into deep trouble before the confusion’s source came to light: essentially we had Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with opposite souls but the same exterior rather than vice versa. Even Perry Mason was tormented by a shadow-Perry in one episode (“The Case of the Dead Ringer”).
In “Schizoid Man”, however, the original Number Six meets his double early in the segment and is confronted with the likely proposition that he himself is not the “real Six” at all. The episode’s adaptation of this scenario to Number Six’s special circumstances was brilliant. The requisite preconditioning of the rebellious captive is minimal: just enough time on knock-out drugs in the Hospital to allow him to grow a mustache and be programmed to favor his left hand. The look-alike, having long been training for his role, is ready to step right in and play a belligerent, suave, sarcastic Six. Meanwhile, the true prisoner is revived, given a chummy reception by the new Number Two, and informed of his latest assignment: “It’s our prize prisoner—the one we call Number Six.” Though the real Six repeatedly derides the attempt to undermine his identity, the simple fact that he is now insisting that the number six belongs to him, and him alone, already subverts his resistance; and, in any case, Number Two maddeningly applauds every protest as the professional’s determination to live his role every minute of the day.
Six’s newfound left-handedness is a particular setback. In various physical contests with his double—target-shooting, fencing, boxing—he gives little evidence of being an Olympic-caliber performer, while the double looks much more like the man described in all the official files. A Village girl with whom Six has discovered a psychic link, and who has been practicing mind-reading tricks with him for a forthcoming carnival act, even assists in the conspiracy by pretending that only the double can correctly complete the card trick with her.
On the verge of cracking, however, Six begins to assemble the plot’s pieces: fuzzy recollections of the Hospital, dates that don’t reconcile, etc. Climactically, he engineers an electric shock to reverse his left-handed conditioning. Quickly recovering his former confidence, he confronts the double and beats a confession out of him. Rover arrives to break up the fight and, dull machine that it is, kills the agent of its own side. Number Six seeks to turn this unfortunate event to his advantage: he now impersonates the agent, and very nearly bluffs his way off the island. But a suspicious Number Two asks him one too many questions about “Susan”. He at last takes a false step (“Susan died a year ago, Number Six”), and his captivity continues.
It may be, as they say, that everyone has a double somewhere. Obviously, that’s not the point here. The point, rather, is that the lethal combination of advanced technology and power-hungry “big brothers” reduces all of us to virtual doubles of each other. Our likenesses are running around everywhere since we all now look alike—while, at the same time, our true self can be exhumed only from bits of “trash” deemed unimportant, like an old photograph. A snapshot once taken by the “card trick” girl Alison holds the key to Six’s recovering his identity… but another snapshot in the deceased double’s wallet—presumably Susan—becomes a false hope. The double has no more Susan, no more personal identity. Six’s attempt to bestow one upon him ends his bid for freedom.
Number Six and his double: preconditioned while under sedation, the real Six finds himself inexplicably left-handed and also unable to enjoy his favorite cigars without choking.
“Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darling” (Episode 13; Pat Jackson)
If there were one too many McGoohans in “Schizoid Man”, there is one too few in this high-tech fable. In a lugubrious procedure little less Gothic than Dr. Frankenstein’s experiment, Number Six’s body remains twitching and unconscious in a laboratory chair after a thunderbolt of high voltage transfers his mind to the body of a Village operative. The surrogate awakens in our hero’s London flat, apparently unsurprised to find himself back home. Was the Village even a dream—does he recall any of it? The real nightmare begins when he sees himself in a mirror. Almost immediately, the doorbell rings. His fiancée steps in and asks if “he” is back. “Who are you? How did you know my name?” demands the woman, less and less satisfied with her answers. “Why did you tell me he was here?”
The episode has several rough edges, as if it had been somewhat rushed to completion. The focus of the evil experiment isn’t even to extract information from Six about his resignation so much as to trick him into leading the Village’s spies to Dr. Seltzman, the scientist who invented the mind-transfer technique and then went into hiding lest his discovery be abused. The trans-corporated Six (played tolerably by Nigel Stock) leads the agent tailing him straight to the good doctor in an alpine retreat—with rather implausible naiveté; and Seltzman, manhandled back to the Village along with Six, agrees to reverse the experiment for his unhappy friend, of course. During more Jovian snap-crackle-and-pop of mysterious electronic headgear, Seltzman himself slips into a rig. He appears to be mortally wounded in the transfer process, though Number Six emerges as Patrick McGoohan, once again. As for the operative (Stock’s character), he boards a helicopter and departs for his next assignment. Only when Seltzman exhales the dying words, “You must contact Number One and tell him that I did my duty,” does Number Two realize that he has been duped. Six sententiously sums up, “Dr. Seltzman had progressed more than any of us had anticipated. He can and did change three minds at the same time. He’s now free to continue his experiments in peace.”
This is surely the weakest conclusion of any episode. Quite apart from the fact that the reincarnated doctor has only just lifted off in the chopper (is it not equipped with radio?) and that Village agents appear capable of kidnapping anyone from anywhere in the world (haven’t they just discovered his lair in Switzerland?), why should Seltzman wish to continue the work whose diabolical implications had caused him to give it up? Doesn’t the value system projected by the whole series demand that evil geniuses with a passion for playing with minds and souls always be ranked among the enemy?
In their book about the serial, Carrazé and Oswald explain that McGoohan had left the country to film Ice Station Zebra as his project began to fall apart before his eyes (while driving him into bankruptcy), and that this particular episode was an ingenious bid to add one more bead to the all-too-short string without the star’s being physically present.
The best thing about this episode, I think, is lost in its middle. Stock’s Number Six cannot convince his former director at British Intelligence that he isn’t merely a very well prepped plant with an incredible story. The fiancée ends up being the only person to believe him, after he recounts several of their best kept lovers’ secrets and then, to clench the argument, kisses her in a special way. At no other point in the series (or in the Danger Man saga, for that matter) does such a window open upon our enigmatic hero’s private life. The fiancée’s devotion is also virtually unique as a ground of optimism about human nature in this serial. It is a shame that more could not have been made of these moments.
3) Dionysiac Mobs: a category whose subjectivity on my part is probably indicated by its including three different directors. In some ways, each of these episodes is unique; and in other ways, Episodes 6 and 12 could certainly be ranged under Categories 2 and 6. The dominant fascination for me in this group is its portrayal of the demos as an easily led yet, beyond a point, uncontrollable beast capable of fearfully irrational acts. McGoohan (as director) underscores this theme both in “Free for All” and “Fall Out”. Yet the “democratic elections” in the former show only the mob’s mindlessly passive side, while the hooded councilmen in “Fall Out” who chant monosyllables and clap on cue are not really the rank and file. By the same token, “The General” shows little more than the possibility of manipulating a human mass to incredible degrees: it does not demonstrate how that mass can be just as lethally oppressive as a fleet of Rovers. I am left, finally, with a high level of objective emphasis upon the mob’s dangers in these three episodes that sets them apart. Together, they are a gripping cautionary tale about the “rule of the people”.
“The General” (Episode 6; Peter Graham Scott)
A lot of subtle things are going on concurrently in this episode, and in many cases we see their like nowhere else in the serial. For instance, Number Two’s right-hand man, Number Twelve, sincerely wishes to sabotage the inner workings of the Village. He makes contact with Number Six early in the episode as the pair observes from a café the arrival of the Professor by helicopter. The entire Village (primed by the public-address system and ubiquitous posters) is in a tizzy about Speed Learn. “One hundred percent entry, one hundred percent pass. A three-year course in three minutes.” Six is leery both of his new acquaintance’s wry coolness and of the villagers’ enthusiasm (his café shuts down so that the waitress may go glue her eyes to a television in preparation for a Speed Learn lesson). As he wanders restlessly, he sees—of all things—the Professor himself fleeing from a mob of villagers in their party-colored clothes. The mob’s intent is unclear, but the old man evidently wishes to escape its clutches. His flight is in vain—he is soon run down and hauled away; but he leaves behind a tape-recorder, which Number Six spots and takes care to conceal.
Having retreated to his flat, Six’s own TV comes on unbidden. His curiosity is piqued, and he watches in mild amusement. A moderator appears and announces (in an American accent—this, too, is unique in the series) the Professor’s imminent arrival on the set. There has been a small delay while the great man gathers his notes. The Professor’s wife also emerges to stall for time… but the delay is indeed minimal. The Professor himself fills the screen, stares deeply into the camera… and a minute of eerie, wordless pulsation follows. The lesson is concluded.
Number Six is disturbed, without knowing why. Number Two enters unnoticed behind him and has an attendant search him for something—something the Professor has lost. Six is his usual evasive, ironic self until Two fires a few “history” questions at him. “When was the Treaty of Adrianople? What happened in 1830?” Six answers correctly without thinking: he realizes that his mind has been programmed.
More than ever, the Prisoner is determined to sneak out and retrieve the tape-recorder. He does so under cover of darkness, finds his buried treasure, and also snares Number Twelve lurking at his heels. Twelve urges him to believe that they are both working toward the same goal. Left alone, Six plays the message. It is an urgent warning from the Professor: “You are being tricked. Speed Learn is an abomination. It is slavery. If you wish to be free, there is only one way. Destroy the General.”
The General’s name has also been tossed about heretofore, but this shadowy figure’s connection with the Professor remains opaque. Much skullduggery separates us from the solution—too much to recount in this space. Enough to say that Six pays a very interesting visit to the plush setting where the Professor is said to be preparing his next “lecture”. The old man and his wife, it appears, have been given all they could want in a Faustian bargain which the Professor has begun—too late—to resist, and in which his wife has taken the Village’s side.
Number Twelve, meanwhile, has engineered the climax. He covertly presents Six with a tube whose contents are essentially the tape-recorded warning. This tube is to be introduced into the heavily guarded broadcast technology just as the Professor’s lecture is scheduled to begin; and Twelve, furthermore, has provided Six with the means to slip through the defenses undetected. He is to disguise himself as one of Board of Directors (responsible, presumably, for Village “education”). This Number Six does, in a scene that grows reminiscent of Alice and her Wonderland. The Directors are adorned in top hats, white gloves, and other formal wear. Since they also sport sunglasses—no doubt to obliterate their personal identity and make them more “numberish”—Six has no trouble reaching the inner sanctum. The plot might very well have worked, but that a vigilant Number Two is alerted by a suspicious detail. Six is apprehended, the intended broadcast is transmitted, and the recreant is brought before the Professor and the General to see the futility of resistance.
For the General is none other than an all-knowing computer, the life’s work of the Professor. The latter, plainly having been persuaded to resume his work, displays the machine with great pride. Number Six asks if he might feed in a single question to demonstrate that the computer is not omniscient. The Professor and Two disdainfully consent. Six hits four keys, and the General proceeds to overheat and melt down. The Professor is fatally electrocuted while trying to save his creation, as is the benign Number Twelve while trying to save the old man. The question? “Why?”
Of course, the little word “why” no more poses a legitimate question than “how” or “who”: “Why live?” might have been more plausible. But the point is clear: the most advanced technology in the world cannot answer fundamental questions of human value. The implication of this point is indispensable to the series’ meaning: that a society built upon machines can only grow less and less human. The General is not Number One, however, any more than is the master computer at the end of “Dance of the Dead”. The responsibility for building a machine-based society must remain in human hands. The ultimate decision-maker, furthermore, does not bear that responsibility solely. The Professor clearly recognized the evil of his creation at one point, yet was able to be seduced from his principled stand. The mob that chased him down with something between adulation and murder in its collective heart, finally, cannot be blameless. If Number Twelve, a fairly ordinary man, was capable of seeing the need to resist, then why were other villagers willing to surrender themselves like cattle to the slaughterhouse for programming with “education”?
Even the contents of the early lessons (and we must suppose that these would have become much more dictatorial as the experiment proceeded) are conceived with exquisite subtlety: dates and phrases, no analysis. What happened in 1830, indeed! The minds of the villagers were already being conditioned (like ours) from the very start of their “course” to regurgitate certain formulas as gospel rather than respect the infinite complexity of human existence.
Looking like something out of Lewis Carroll, Number Six assumes his place on the Board of Directors.
“The Dance of the Dead” (Episode 8; Don Chaffey)
I have seen the claim in print that this episode, though ready early on, was held back in apprehension that its extreme originality might have chased away viewers before they had somewhat settled into the serial’s grounding assumptions. Perhaps. I myself find this the most “stand alone” of the hour productions. Its degree of ironic humor and pithy commentary on human society’s vicious side is unique.
At the episode’s heart is a magnificent masque, said to be part of the annual Village Carnival. Of course, it’s always playtime in the Village—but this occasion multiplies the ludic element tenfold. Before the evening’s events, Number Six appears in a scene whose plain-spun sadness counterpoises the gathering air of surreality. Wandering the beach alone, he finds a drowned sailor’s body. This he returns later to launch at high tide with a message attached. Upon wading back out of the surf, he discovers that the shrieking gulls have not been his only companions. A colleague once known as Dutton on the “outside” sits gloomily in the secret cave. He has been given a few hours, he says, to reconsider his lack of cooperation “in the peaceful atmosphere of the Village”. By the time they realize that he has told all he knows, says Dutton, it will be too late for him. No figure in the series more realistically represents the pathos of the ordinary victim—a prisoner less valuable and less determined than Six, yet a decent man who could have been a good friend.
The extraordinary new Number Two, a diminutive and impish but rich-voiced Mary Morris, radiates a sinister brilliance. She frames in paternal cynicism and sly double-talk the brutal machine destined to consume Dutton. Courting Six throughout the episode with Satanic mesmerism, she seems determined to have his soul rather than the mere fragments of information housed in Dutton. “Everything you ever wanted is here,” she says; and later, “This is your world. I am your world. If you insist on living a dream, you may be taken for mad.” Number Two appoints a loyal, humorless drone to shadow Six—a pretty functionary, but possessing the personality of a robot. “Questions are a burden to others,” she scolds her charge once, quoting a Village proverb, “answers a prison to oneself.”
On carnival night, this servile, pouty girl becomes Little Bo Peep—and Number Two dresses as Peter Pan, the guide to Never-Never Land. Six remains himself. He drifts through the deathly stale festivities like a man among mannequins, asking one awkward question after another. The ball’s 1789 theme veers appropriately into formal charges against Six for subverting the community. When a panel of three assembles to be judge and jury, Six wryly notes the similarity to the murderous French Directory, drawing from Number Two the response, “They cut through the dead wood.” Yet Two is appointed to be his defender! She pleads for the court’s mercy, confiding to Six that she has no authority over these proceedings. Naturally, her plea is brushed aside. Number Six insists on calling a character witness before sentence is pronounced: his friend Dutton. The unhappy man, wearing the bells and motley of a fool, is led forward in a permanent daze, apparently having been lobotomized by the Village’s methods of interrogation.
The crowd is then released upon Six to tear him limb from limb. Yet he evades them in the winding corridors of the Village Town Hall. After much probing and snooping in a lab coat that he has snitched, he finds himself in the presence of a master computer, whose circuitry he proceeds to tear apart. Number Two appears and shakes her head condescendingly: the computer, having briefly paused, resumes its activity.
The “trial and execution”, we must suppose, were never more than part of the night’s macabre game. The mass of nameless, witless villagers had no doubt intended to rip its victim apart… but the Village rulers must have had every confidence that Six’s resources would triumph over the mass’s collective ineptitude. The episode’s portrait of the modern body politic is thus one of utter contempt. It is expertly manipulated, this body, by those who claim to defer to it and to have no power over it. Given party clothing and some facile sort of drama to play out, it will stick to its part as if hypnotized. The only real decisions are made behind the scenes—and not even, perhaps, by human brains, a notion put forward forcibly in “The General”. At the same, all authority, including chips and circuitry, must play the game of courting mass favor. Ultimately, then, isn’t even the mysterious Number One a prisoner?
Bo Peep (Norma West) and Peter Pan (Mary Morris) register the different emotions of a shocked lackey and a confident autocrat.
“A Change of Mind” (Episode 12; Patrick McGoohan)
This episode, I think, brings out with more finesse than any other the dynamics of the “democratic” mass in undermining those who would resist authority. The villagers are not the brainless, voiceless herd that we find them to be in “Free for All” or “The Dance of the Dead”. In fact, Number Two repeatedly insists (without great plausibility—and he is indeed most likely lying) that he has no control over the citizens’ group called the Committee. Six has been summoned before this august body for his persistently antisocial behavior. The waiting room is filled with other citizens (including an inconsolably lacrimose young poetess) who emerge from their dressing-down, one by one, to a public rostrum where they confess their guilt and promise to change. Number Six handles his “hearing” just as we would expect, treating the occasion as the farce that it is. The Chairman adjourns his yes-men with a thinly veiled threat.
After a few hours of deliberation, the Committee announces—via newspaper headline and loudspeaker—that Number Six has been declared “unmutual”. Six is left to pass a day of communal ostracism, which actually seems to disconcert him somewhat. A citizens’ group concerned about his rehabilitation (and consisting entirely of strident women) is unsatisfied with his progress… and after its unfavorable report, his fate is sealed.
The next morning, Six is publicly dragged into an ambulance by a half-dozen official thugs (always clothed in horizontally striped shirts). At the Hospital, he is sedated but left conscious in a ghoulish procedure that appears to be a high-tech lobotomy using laser technology. Eager interns fill the observation room along with the Committee: the treatment is known by the Orwellian name of Social Conversion. A white-coated Number Eighty-Six (Angela Browne) conducts the operation with evident pride in its success. The newly “sociable” Six is returned to his flat to recuperate.
Of course, the operation, like virtually everything in and about the Village, is a sham. Six soon figures out that his aggressive impulses are being subdued, not by any permanent alteration of his tissues, but by drugs. In a classic bit of shtick, he swaps tea cups with Browne’s character, then hypnotizes her into declaring Number Two unmutual over the loudspeaker when the Village clock strikes four. Though Two and his operatives have been remotely observing the progress of their bluff the whole time, Six’s little joke is engineered with such subtlety that they don’t catch on until the clock chimes and the scheme explodes in their faces.
The image of the assembled Village rank and file marching about and chanting to the beat of a drum, “Un… mutual! Un… mutual!” is one that has stayed with me since the first time I ever saw it. Though this plebs is indeed being moved by behind-the-scenes forces that it scarcely dreams of, it has a lot of genuine resentment and aggression—and Six is a clear and safe target for it. The lynchmob-like procession explains much about the Crucifixion, if I may volunteer a religious insight. People generally have enough intelligence and conscience to feel guilty about their spinelessness, but not enough moral courage to correct it. They therefore typically pillory the rare individual who displays such courage. He makes them feel bad—he is antisocial. Guilt and self-loathing become furious indignation at him who does not acknowledge the need to “compromise”. Nobody can grasp how masses of people work in the body politic who does not understand this much.
4) Chess Matches: ingenious episodes that show Six exploiting his jailers’ own inherent weaknesses. Though “Checkmate” might be called another Breakout Thriller (Category 1) from the direction of Don Chaffey, its primary focus is the captive’s upon his keepers rather than vice versa; and though the breakout fails, Six has nevertheless discovered a chink in the psychological armor of his oppressors. The other two episodes add further discoveries.
“Checkmate” (Episode 9; Don Chaffey)
An old salt who passes his days playing chess appears in several episodes, including the first, during whose final moments he remarks to Virginia Maskell’s character, “We’re all pawns, my dear.” “Checkmate” is explicitly constructed around the chessboard theme. Two masters are literally playing chess with the Village’s inmates on a life-sized board that occupies the town square. Number Six is invited to join, which he does in wry humor and out of curiosity. For the “pieces” are not allowed to choose their own moves, of course: when a Rook does so and declares “check”, he is promptly carted off to the Hospital for therapy. A conversation with one of the masters after the game convinces Six that important lessons applicable to an escape attempt lurk in the game. On the surface, any given citizen might be either guardian or inmate—but the former cannot suppress a certain contempt for the latter, so the careful observer can eventually sort friend from foe, the pawn from the powerful.
Six builds up a coterie of fellow conspirators with various skills; and together, the group hatches a plot to escape using radio transmissions and a small boat. The Village technicians create a temporary problem by brainwashing a girl into believing that Six is her lover and using her pulse to determine his proximity, a fraudulent locket with his picture sending out steady signals; yet Six cleverly unravels the trick and even steals the locket’s transistor for the group’s secret radio. What at last undoes this scheme, rather, is Six’s own behavioral test. The Rook and the rest of the group apply it to him: his commanding manner clearly indicates that he himself cannot be a prisoner. Though he makes it alone as far as a little trawler, Number Two appears on a monitor behind the vessel’s wheel and steers her remotely back to the Village—for she is “one of ours”.
“Checkmate” has a playful, spirited quality lacking in the adventures where Six’s mind has been altered or where the escape briefly seems to have succeeded. The episode illustrates that humanity may basically be divided into those disposed to lead and those disposed to follow—and that the lines of these two groups can become densely fouled. The image of the human chessboard, with dozens of fools assembled who fancy themselves actually playing the game as they hop to obey orders, is among the most memorable in the series.
“I like a good game of chess,” says the human piece next to Number Six.
“Hammer to Anvil” (Episode 10; Pat Jackson)
Our captive has always been a chivalrous chap. Despite his suspicion of women, he will not stand by passively while they are abused. A particularly sadistic Number Two stirs his undying enmity, then, when a young woman is killed during what might be called enhanced interrogation at the Hospital. Six vows revenge, while Two is infuriated at the intrusion—and it doesn’t seem that the threats have an equal chance of success. But the weaker party is about to turn the tables.
Precisely because Two is such an autocrat, he surveils Six rather too narrowly—as the latter counts on. Peculiar behavior—playing over and over the first few bars of several identical recordings, leaving hidden notes on pieces of paper that appear blank, signaling a boat that isn’t there, passing the time of day with the goon he knows well to be Number Two’s henchman—makes Six seem to be engaged constantly in a very secret endeavor. Two, being already of a paranoid nature, increasingly isolates himself. When his underlings fail to crack a code or find a co-conspirator, he assumes that they, too, must be in on the plot. At last he confronts Six defiantly with spying for XO4. Six exploits the careless opening. “Let us say for argument’s sake… that I was planted here… by XO4. To check on Village security. To check on you…. What would have been your first duty as a loyal citizen? Not to interfere.” Recognizing the validity of the criticism, Number Two begs the “plant” not to report him. “I don’t intend to,” responds Six. “You are going to report yourself.”
This fairly straightforward episode nevertheless makes some profound observations about the liabilities of power. Number Two’s brutality soon isolates him. His most loyal adherents become those whose imagined treachery affects him most bitterly—and his mistrust accelerates in unhealthiness with each suspect uncovered. He turns out not to be a difficult man to manipulate: his megalomania is a folly which will not submit to any reasoning beyond jungle law. This leaves him, inexorably, the victim of the weaker many who have learned how to organize themselves. Such is the only logic within his capacity.
“It’s Your Funeral” (Episode 11; Robert Asher)
Neither the best nor the worst episode, this one perhaps defines mediocrity in terms of the series. The premise has merit: we learn that small groups of subversives called “jammers” exist in the Village whose objective is to stir in a great many fake plots with the occasional real one. The authorities will not know when their adversaries are crying wolf and will thus have to waste time checking out every rumor. The viewer sometimes wonders if the series’ allegory has been too heavy-handed in characterizing the mass of prisoners as witless sheep. This episode, it seems to me, adds some needed humanity to the portrait of Village life.
What’s far less clear is why the authorities should be drawing Number Six into contact with the jammers, to begin with–for Number Six’s introduction to this underworld is watched and even engineered by his handlers every step of the way. In contrast, the young woman who begs for his help appears unaware that she is an instrument of Number Two. She genuinely wants Six to stop her father from constructing a bomb to assassinate Two, fearing that the inevitable reprisals will not only cost the old man dearly but also the entire Village. Skeptical at first, Six is eventually won to her cause. He goes so far as actually to warn Two of the plot… only to be laughed out of the Green Dome.
And here matters grow rather cloudy. The incoming Number Two really does want the assassination plot to be carried out: he wants his predecessor taken out by Village malcontents. When Six grows wise to this, he speculates that the Village’s inner circle must have wanted to eliminate one of its own without letting collaborators within the prison witness how cutthroat and ungrateful it can be to its servants. The old Number Two, as well, finally realizes that this particular plot isn’t bogus, yet he doesn’t know how to avert it. He is a doomed man. “They” will dispose of him eventually, one way or another.
I still don’t understand why the Village’s handlers would bring Six, of all people, in on the plot if they truly did not want it to be waylaid; for this most capable of men, thanks to his keen eyes, fast feet, and iron fist (not so much his wits this time), does indeed keep the remote detonator from doing its work as power is publicly being transferred from the old to the new Two. The rising tension and exciting climax, I’m sure, were welcomed by more convention-minded viewers; but the series’ penchant for allegory has perhaps been too repressed this time. At most, this episode, like the previous one, shows us that power structures often become self-destructive when the arrogance of firm control grows overweening. Not a bad insight–but this script had more potential.
5) Spoofs: stunningly inventive episodes that almost seem to exploit the serial’s wide-open premise as a means of delivering entertainment of an entirely different genre (a Western and a James Bond spy extravaganza). I could well understand how a critic might maintain that David Tomblin had gone off the reservation (in a Number Sixish manner) in creating these two gems. Were they late entries produced in a frantic bid to grind out two more episodes? That seems to have been the case, according to Carrazé and Oswald: the essential filming had ended, with the series facing no possibility of renewal, so these episodes appear in afterthought at the tail end in order to round out a very limited stock of merchandise. Yet I also believe that they both add brilliant nuance to the show’s message. Those who would call my opinion too much of an interpretive stretch probably would not care for the rest of the series, either.
“Living in Harmony” (Episode 14; David Tomblin)
The Portmeirion days were long past, and McGoohan staring at financial and professional ruin, when David Tomblin assisted him in whipping together this episode (said to be the first English Western ever made) with the help of some ready-made sets at the MGM studios. The Western, of course, is the most iconic of genres—the original incarnation of the Village, if you like. A town in the middle of nowhere, its rigid political machine backed up by blunt force, its various classes resigned by hard experience to the pecking order, its saloons and brothels providing temporary release of frustration, its “respectable” quarter layering over the gritty truth with starched hypocrisy, its Boot Hill the final and utterly discreet repository of dirty secrets… what could sound more like the dystopian prison camp where Number Six wakes up? All it needs is a drifter to stir things up…
And we know who that drifter must be. Robbed of his horse by local hooligans, Six wanders into Harmony afoot, saddle slung over his shoulder. He is picked on constantly because he refuses to pack a gun; but the wealthy gambler who runs the place—called “the Judge” because he has usurped formal authority—likes the stranger’s grit. He wants him to wear a sheriff’s badge, and brings pressure to bear upon him by railroading a saloon girl, Cathy, into legal trouble. We have seen before that Six is chivalrous. He accepts the star, yet still refuses to buckle on a gunbelt. This creates an ambiguous relationship between his badge and the ordinary folks he is sworn to protect, for the town’s spineless population seems to enjoy watching him get worked over by thugs who scoff at his being unarmed. We know that tendency, too, from the rest of the series: the demos is not a reliable source of common humanity.
When Cathy is slain by the Judge’s psychotic bodyguard, the Kid, Six at last grabs a Colt and guns down the killer in a classic fast-draw duel. During the melee that follows, he shoots more bad guys but is himself brought down from behind by the treacherous Judge.
Rising from the dead, as it were, Number Six shakes off the effects of some drug, gapes at the life-sized cardboard figures representing the drama’s key players, and stalks out of Harmony to find the Village waiting just through a gate. Then we see that Number Two and a couple of lately arrived technicians (a.k.a. the Judge, Cathy, and the Kid) have observed the whole farce from Two’s grand office. They blame the stratagem’s failure (in proper English accents) on one or another’s having gotten too involved, with Cathy—or Number 22—finally rushing away in tears. Yet the show isn’t over. Six wanders back into the Western stage set later that evening, only to find that Cathy and the Kid have preceded him. They have been captured by their parts! The Kid once again strangles Cathy before Six can pull him off, then appears to commit suicide. In her last words, Cathy sighs, “I wish it had been real.”
Though no credible pretext is provided for this massive feat of psychic eavesdropping (as in “A, B and C”), the episode doesn’t thereby suffer, in my opinion. Its real accomplishment is what some might call its lamest leg: the shift from sci-fi thriller to Western. That shift both liberates the series from any attempt to classify it (or “file and stamp” it, as Six would say) and also summons other allegorical genres to its aid. The truth here is of the immutable human sort—and technology plays its role, I hasten to add, in the formula, even though the six-shooter is the most high-tech thing about Harmony (and is eschewed by the stranger, note well). The ending after the Western spoof reminds us that our new mechanistic ability to realize fantasies—to walk, love, and fight in distant times and places—cannot produce happier results as long as the same human heart beats at the center of the fantasy. That’s a pretty profound message, especially for a segment that was last-minute filler.
The stranger without a name or a gun. This episode was not originally shown in the U.S. for reasons that seem incomprehensible. It was said that a pacifist sheriff might be construed as criticism of fighting in Vietnam. Has nobody ever heard of the gunless Destry, played by the most decorated American hero of WW II?
“The Girl Who Was Death” (Episode 15; David Tomblin)
Much of what was written above of “Living in Harmony” applies here. The series had miscarried before it was even completed and ready for airing, and a few episodes were desperately being sought to round out the package. Access to Portmeirion was a thing of the past: settings readily available in the ITF studios would have to be utilized. I have seen one source claim that the script for “Girl” had been lying around since McGoohan’s Danger Man days. If so, then it had languished for a reason: the elaborate spoof has nothing whatever in common with that series.
Yet it is a terrifically fun and funny spoof—even the incidental music is unforgettably jaunty and alive. There’s little to be gained here by recounting each of the Master Spy’s disguises as he chases down his beautiful but deadly adversary (Justine Lord). The show begins with cricket matches where bombs are substituted for balls, adjourns to a spa and then a pub, lingers at an amusement park (“You’ll never pick up your teeth with a broken arm!” screams a Cockney sailor when our hero, in Sherlock Holmes disguise, mistakes his sweetie for Lady Death on a roller-coaster), enters a high-speed chase, works through a ghost town of traps (such as cyanide-releasing candles that explode if you blow them out), and finally comes to ground in a lighthouse wherein a giant missile intended for London is veiled. A latter-day Napoleon (played with brilliant absurdity by Kenneth Griffith, who would help McGoohan out in the final episode) is Death’s father, and together—along with a half-dozen epauletted generals—they are launching an invasion of England. The Spy thwarts their plot in the nick of time. Seeing McGoohan conk Field Marshall O’Rourke over the head and then resume singing “Danny Boy” where it was interrupted, one cannot suppose that the final weeks of the series’ filming were devoid of joy for those involved.
The tall tale is just what it seems to be: a bedtime story for the Village children. Sourpusses observe that children appear in no other episode, and one could speculate usefully about the progressive state’s antipathy to families if one wished (the citizens being essentially children already, as we have remarked); but if brain surgeons and horses can be imported to manipulate Six, then why not children? At least this fantasy requires no drugs. The images simply follow the flow of Six’s ingenious narration. Number Two and his assistant (Griffith and Lord, of course) have been listening in to see if their most difficult prisoner may let his guard down in the nursery; but he has seen through their ploy, and the wildness of his story, we must conclude, was intended to twit their voyeuristic curiosity as much as to entertain the little ones.
I like that. The fun may be an end in its own right; but especially since many within the industry and in the general public were waiting for McGoohan to grind out some James Bond version of The Arabian Nights, this episode seems powerfully wry, upon reflection. Watching Number Two watch Number Six is a television-besotted public that, for the most part, demands childish escape from its high-tech boxes rather than thought-provoking puzzlers. Would that public walk away sulking, like Griffith’s Two? Perhaps not from this romping hour—but from the series as a whole? McGoohan must have known to expect a “yes” answer.
McGoohan, Griffith, and Justine Lord: a burlesque that twitted dull viewers as well as Number Two?
6) Subjective Nightmares: very challenging episodes for the viewer—they plunge him or her into situations that have little real-world reference and then build the adventure with disorienting angles, frequent and quick editing cuts, and blasts of racket and screaming. This, alas, appears to have been McGoohan’s typical style of direction. (An episode of Danger Man with the same qualities—“The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovelace”—was also directed by McGoohan.) The raucous, staccato manner forces the series to conclude in a veil of confusion that seems, in part, manufactured—and that therefore may irritate rather than stimulate some viewers. While the action is by no means always projected from Six’s very skewed and pressured point of view, it is seldom presented from anything approaching a “third-person omniscient” vantage, either. The technique of thrusting heavy symbolism onto static settings and having actors stir the audience through loud, far-ranging vocalization belongs to the stage. I wonder, then, if McGoohan might have imported his stage training excessively into these creations? A stage is surrounded by seats from which spectators do not move. To mix numerous angle shifts and frenzied editing with a thespian approach is not a promising recipe.
“Free for All” (Episode 4; Patrick McGoohan)
Of the series’ many hints that Number Six, if he resists long enough, may actually be elevated to the rank of Number Two should he survive the ordeal, this episode is the most insistent yet most ambiguous. The current Two recruits Six to stand against him in the coming “election” since, so he claims, the people need an alternative. Six is naturally very skeptical of this claim, surely made by many a totalitarian ruler who has wished to conceal his absolute power; yet he at last allows himself to be cozened into participation with an air of mild amusement.
As we would expect, much of his early “campaign” is merely a matter of deriding the charade. The “voters” wave placards, march, cheer, and applaud on cue without any semblance of intelligence or real spontaneity: they might as well be wind-up toys. The situation’s absurdity is underscored when posters with Number Six’s image appear almost from nowhere and a campaign assistant, who speaks some incomprehensible Slavic tongue, carts Six about with plenty of giggling chatter.
The episode turns distinctly dark, however, when Six is submitted to treatment after asking too many questions of the Village Council. A combination of drugs and electro-shock is used to put him into an almost vegetative daze. There is a certain grim humor, to be sure, in his subsequent mouthing of many campaign lines we will recognize even today among our speak-much-say-nothing candidates. One might say that lobotomy is an eminent qualification to run for public office!
Six appears to win by landslide. The outgoing Number Two concedes defeat with perfect sportsmanship, and his seeming replacement enters the high-tech vault he has visited so often as a problematic prisoner. Still heavily doped up, he is induced by his nonsensically jabbering assistant to push every button he can reach. Enough of the old spirit remains in him, however, to activate the loudspeaker system and announce to the Village, “You’re free! Free! Free to go!”
At this point, the giggly little Slav begins to slap him brutally and repeatedly. When the stunning bout ends, she says in perfect English and with bottomless contempt, “Will you never learn?”
This episode was the second to be completed yet was aired much later—thanks to sound judgment, I would like to think. Its portrait of the demos as a mass of brainless puppets all dancing on the same set of strings is Swiftean in its pessimism. The brutality of the entire exercise also strikes me as rather severe. The elaborate ruse does not even aim at teasing out of Number Six a few words about his resignation. No allegorical nightmare could project a much more dismal image of human nature or the human condition.
Number Six’s candidacy for the position of Number Two begins within seconds of his agreeing to run. The race has a slightly “arranged” look!
“Once Upon a Time” (Episode 16; Patrick McGoohan)
McGoohan had intended this episode to conclude the first of two seasons that he envisioned for the series, as I gather. The second year would have been most interesting if the first one had truly left Number Six on the verge of becoming Number Two. Yet this eventuality had often been hinted at throughout the series. As Number Two in “The Chimes of Big Ben”, Leo McKern had already explained to Six that he had reached his position by choosing to collaborate in the inevitable coalescence of the Cold War’s two sides. Now McKern returns, and the gambit he runs will either leave him in possession of Six’s most intimate secrets or else elevate Six to his place: that, apparently, is what we are to understand by the ominous phrase, “degree absolute” (the episode’s original title).
Two and Six—the latter heavily medicated again to be more amenable—are locked up together for a week in the Embryo Room, a subterranean space that has all the props necessary to reconstruct the stages of life. Two’s only help is the mute, impassive dwarf who has served as every Number Two’s butler throughout the series (Angelo Muscat). Obviously, no episode is more theatrical than this one. Its intensity and abstraction are bound to have shocked the viewer of the typical TV adventure. With Six being periodically re-hypnotized on a gurney placed beneath something like a strobe light, Two leads the captive through a sequence of make-believe days at the playground, visits to the headmaster’s office, fencing and boxing drills, graduation ceremonies, bombing missions, job interviews, etc. The question, “Why did you resign?” comes up frequently, of course; but there also seems to be a general assumption that recognizing the source of his rebellious streak will somehow soften Six up.
Yet Two, we learn, is also a rebel. “I’m beginning to like him,” he says of his adversary early on. The jovial autocrat (McKern steals the show from McGoohan, frankly) seems to realize that he will fail in his mission and not leave the room alive. This is exactly how the episode ends. Two is celebrating a now mature Six’s triumph with him over a glass of wine. The drink is apparently poisoned, and he collapses dead in the middle of the sleeping/dining/kitchen module at the room’s rear, which a technician proceeds to seal off with bars like a sort of railroad car. The outer door has been opened, and Number Six is now to be introduced to Number One.
Something seems to me missing from this very, very ambitious episode. It isn’t Shakespeare, though McKern begins his term in the Embryo Room by reciting the “all the world’s a stage” speech. What lesson were we to have drawn from the capsulization of Six’s life? That his father was difficult? That he had a hard time at school? There are no such suggestions. Is his life ours? Then what does he share with us that elucidates the central tensions of the series? More was needed to make the drama work. If anything, it is Two’s life rather than Six’s that we see telescoped into an intense sequence of unanswerable questions.
“Fall Out” (Episode 17; Patrick McGoohan)
Perhaps no episode has done so much to infuriate the series’ detractors. This reaction is all too understandable. Carrazé and Oswald report that McGoohan, faced suddenly with the need to terminate the entire series rather than allow “Once Upon a Time” to bring down the curtain on its first season, feverishly wrote the final script himself in his dressing room over a weekend. The result (say the same sources) was so sketchy that Kenneth Griffith had to produce his own lines.
If this is true, then Griffith did a splendid job. Number Six, having triumphed over Number Two in “degree absolute”, is himself eligible for the position—or may now leave the Village, if he prefers. Griffith’s character (another erstwhile Number Two, now styled the President), officiates in a red robe and powdered wig over the formalities as representatives of each Village bureaucracy sit behind him in hooded gowns and thick, simian masks (colored half-white, half-black). Armed guards (a first for this series) stand about at attention as Six is reverently seated in a throne-like chair of honor. The servile administrators clap—and cease clapping—on cues from Griffith’s raised hand or his gavel as he mouths pompous imbecilities, manifesting the same genius for such comedy as he had shown as a faux-Napoleon in Episode 15. The ceremonious power transfer seems to consist of reviewing the three types of rebellion: youthful, disillusioned, and principled.
The former two types are represented by figures assumed to have died earlier in the series, but apparently revived and preserved in mist-gushing tubes. The Kid from “Living in Harmony” (played by Alexis Kanner) is resurrected first. He persistently lapses into choruses of the Negro spiritual “Dry Bones” as the President attempts to categorize his resistance, finally leading the guards in a merry chase until they can once more strap him into his misty preservative chamber. Leo McKern’s late Number Two, now numberless and nameless, is next. He explains that he collaborated with the Village’s project in the spirit of realistic compromise… but that he now utterly rejects that decision. Neither of these displays is really enough of a revelation to justify the time invested in it or the confusing mystery in which it is veiled. To be perfectly honest, I have always found both the reprises of “Dry Bones” and McKern’s incessant mad laughter to be rather annoying at every viewing.
Number Six—now simply addressed as “you, sir”—embodies the third rebellious type: “He has revolted, resisted, fought, held fast, maintained, destroyed resistance, overcome coercion. The right to be Person, Someone, or Individual…,” grandly explains the President. If this classification seems as muddled as the previous two, Six’s solicited “speech” before the assembly scarcely clarifies it. He can get no further than the opening word “I” before the hooded bureaucratic ghouls burst into loud applause. After several attempts with the same result, he desists. The implication may be that this bunch cannot comprehend the distinction between individualism and egotism.
A prisoner no longer, our hero is led to meet Number One. An electronic eye has marked the Leader’s presence thus far in the episode, sometimes beeping in ominous tones that the President seems able to interpret. Now, after a maze of guard-lined corridors and a lonely ascent up a spiral staircase, the Free Man meets… a hooded figure behind a mask. He strips away the mask: a face appears, but this he also strips away—and another, and another. The final face in the lightning succession is his own.
The spiral staircase was already a reminiscence of Napoleon’s lighthouse two episodes earlier. Are the ensuing resemblances, too, mere coincidence? Having chased off Number One (who squawks unintelligible words like a madman), our hero pushes so many buttons and throws so many switches that the entire Village operation seems on a countdown to incineration. The Free Man liberates his new comrades, the Youth and the Reformed Statesman (i.e, Kanner and McKern), with the help of the dutiful mute dwarf who has served as the ubiquitous butler throughout the whole series. Machine-gun fire is exchanged without any semblance of realism as the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” plays, and the four make their way to the caged Embryo Room of the previous episode, which turns into a trailer of a “big rig”. The butler (Angelo Muscat) drives the diesel cab as the other three cavort in the rear. The vehicle heads for London, apparently escaping the Village in the nick of time as helicopters frantically evacuate it. (The actual fate of the island remains doubtful—nor, we now understand, can it be considered an island.)
I love the reemergence of the escapees into the free world as much as I lament the obscurity of several earlier scenes. The young man goes a-hitchhiking, the august McKern struts his way into a lofty government building, and the former Number Six “adopts” the lonely little butler as he heads for his flat. The final footage shows the Free Man shooting along a deserted highway as we have seen him do at the beginning of almost every show while opening credits role. Is he headed right back into another Village—is the loop closing, and the same old misery about to begin anew?
The Youth (Alexis Kanner) is covered by guards, and the Free Man later addresses the assembly. Viewers looking for ultimate answers in the final episode were not very satisfied.
IV. Concluding Thoughts
Most of the obvious “lessons” to be drawn from this postmodern allegory have been mentioned several times. They include the following:
1) The series’ creators find any significant difference between the two sides of the Cold War—between the democratic republic and the socialist democracy—increasingly hard to discern as the twentieth century labors toward its close, and the probability is that these converging energies will soon unite.
2) Advanced technology is rapidly producing means of observing people minutely not only in their private lives, but even in their very thoughts and dreams.
3) Reverence for the “will of the people” can quickly morph into dictatorship, for the collective is far less intelligent, reserved, and discriminating than the sum of its individual members. Dynamic leaders always emerge at the head of an unreasoning mob.
4) Dictatorship of this sort is itself very fluid in nature, since its power is based, not on some divine right or ancestral dynasty, but upon the fickle will of the people, precisely.
I have added to these fairly obvious generalizations the further thought that modern technology plays a role here quite beyond intrusive surveillance. The ancients already knew that the demos was not to be trusted; examples like those of Themistocles and Alcibiades abounded. The contemporary situation is unique in history, however, in that the mass can be fed thoughts constantly by multiple media, and also in that all of these “feeding tubes” can pipe in plenty of sugar and sweet dreams. The combination of amusement or titillation with the steady barrage of propaganda renders the cycle of new Number Twos offering tasty new pabulum to an infantile electorate a virtual sure thing for the foreseeable future. The Prisoner escaped three times from the Village all the way back to his London flat: in “The Chimes of Big Ben”, “Many Happy Returns”, and “Fall Out”. On the first two occasions, he ended up right back in the Village… and the final scenes of the final episode strongly imply that this escape, too, is anything but final. Each village is simply contained within a bigger village, like a Russian babushka doll: ultimate escape is impossible.
David Rogers’ little book on the series reports that McGoohan himself would tell an interviewer in 1984, “Freedom is a myth. There is no final conclusion to The Prisoner. We were fortunate enough to do something as audacious as that [i.e., inserting an ending] because people do want the words, ‘The End’, put up there. Now, the final two words for this should have been, ‘The Beginning’!” (This entire interview, conducted at a college symposium, may be found on YouTube under the title, “Freedom Is a Myth: An Interview with Patrick McGoohan”; the proper date belongs to the late seventies, as is clear from internal references.)
It doesn’t surprise me that McGoohan should have felt thus pessimistic about the contemporary political conundrum, primarily because our technology appears to have sealed the labyrinth’s one exit. In an age when thought itself is ever more digitalized, and when digitalization is ever more capable of being processed, formatted, iconified, publicized, categorized, anticipated, expedited, and otherwise “handled”, what hope have we now that our kind will ever again live as a race of individuals? The show itself was a sad testament to the inaccessibility of the individual intelligence as of 1968. Vast numbers of John Drake’s faithful were furious with the series for not giving them that end of which McGoohan spoke; for, despite his utterance, the final episode left it all too clear that a pernicious circle was being created with the beginning of the Prisoner’s ordeal. People already demanded of television that it give them an artificial, highly manageable and upbeat alternative to daily reality. They had already fitted themselves out with party-colored Village dress for etiolated bursts of Village dance and song.
Life cannot be objectively portrayed with true and complete pessimism, however. I think McGoohan was drawn to gloominess by something rather more than the stark facts of the case: I think the shadow that settled over him personally, as we see most powerfully in those episodes that he himself directed, was excessively dark. In his particular visions, those who would stand up and say “no” were too few: except for Number Six, they practically didn’t exist. Those who fabricated false expectations for irrational ends that can only be called sadistic were too many: most people do not, in fact, enjoy pulling wings off of butterflies. Surely nobody could have better cause to grow depressed about humanity than Solzhenitsyn, the real-life figure with whom my young mind most readily associated Number Six. Starved and tortured for years in a freezing gulag without any of the Village’s amenities, this lion of truth and freedom nevertheless discovered an enduring hope in Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection. Not only did the Prisoner overlook that option: he must inadvertently have made his captors very happy in so doing, for no totalitarian progressive likes to see people discover hope in God.
I have read that the young McGoohan had once considered the priesthood. I have no idea how his belief changed, if at all, as he matured; I should be very interested to read more on that score. The chief director and producer of our series certainly seems to have had a lively sense of original sin, for none of the final episode’s loose ends vexed its viewership more than discovering that Number One’s bedrock face was… Six ‘s own. “I nearly got lynched and had to go into hiding,” insisted McGoohan earnestly in the interview mentioned above. “But what is the greatest evil? If you are going to epitomise evil, what is it? Is it the bomb? The greatest evil that one has to fight constantly, every minute of the day until one dies, is the worse part of oneself. And that is what I did. And I would do the same again.” Later in the same interview (YouTube version), he responded to a student’s probing question that, yes, he believed Number Six must have meditated upon God’s truth at the start of every Village morning. It would have been helpful and instructive to see this meditation somewhat dramatized, if also very risky in a primetime medium… but why would Patrick McGoohan be concerned about risk?
A final reflection, perhaps less religious than political: for though every person carries the seed of evil, not every person has the exceptional gifts necessary to lead. The series often implies that Number Six could one day be the new Number Two—or perhaps aspire even higher. Does that mean, though, that we are all potentially Number One? I recall writing something to that effect myself as I began this essay; but are we who read or view allegories, think about them, and study what others have to say about them more than one percent of our society? A very few of the many are truly superior in some way, like Number Six—and these few are indeed the greatest danger, to the many as well as to themselves. The more ordinary sort will always be relatively harmless to society as long as they aren’t psychopaths, but if you are gifted, exceptional, extraordinary… then you will forever run the risk of discovering the “truth” that you are more fit to lead than others. For with this discovery comes the insight that you are really not the equal of the average Joe, and with that discovery comes the temptation to start telling Joe how to live—for his own good, of course; and with the surrender to that temptation comes a deal with the devil.
A Number Six, then, stands in more need of faith in God than ever, since he must somehow cling to the conviction—in the very teeth of the objective evidence—that his soul and his neighbor’s carry the same worth before their common Creator. When such a man sees over and over again how willfully obtuse his neighbor can be, and when he conceives of no unearthly Village ruled by utter goodness and truth rather than by human design, then I can well understand how life might seem to him a circular trap without escape.
Peter Singleton’s two pieces on the aesthetics of the female face appeared in 12.4 and 13.2. When Patrick McGoohan briefly came up during his discussion of Susan Hampshire, he tells us that an overpowering urge to write the present essay overtook him. Dr. Singleton resides in the North Texas area in a semi-retirement of writing, consulting, and occasional teaching.