My first thought about The Prisoner in the year 2013: Will it hold up?
The answer is yes, it does. But that’s not necessarily a good thing.
The secret to watching The Prisoner is understanding the three “secrets” which I will mention.
This show should first be judged from the perspective of the era it came from. Our government has always controlled our paths of free speech. That is, the Post Office stopped many magazines from being distributed and the FCC really stopped major issues of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s from being discussed on TV and radio. While every network had censors, they were only there because the FCC came down hard on networks for showing things they didn’t want to be shown or discussed. You may be too young to remember things like “The Fairness Doctrine” and “Equal Time” laws, but they were in place so that the government’s side of the issues was ALWAYS presented. And the government “punished” the networks, economically if they did not conform. So TV shows were pasteurized, it was hard to get things that related to war, politics, and social issues through.
Everyone wants to be first, so QB III and Rich Man, Poor Man are often proclaimed to be the first mini-series for TV. This totally ignores that in the 1960s and into the 1970s, TV often had summer replacement shows. One of those shows was The Prisoner, made in England, and first aired here on CBS in the summer of 1968, as I recall. It was like nothing I had ever seen.
So here is the first secret:
You have to watch this series twice, and it helps if you watch it in order, not the jumbled way it was put on TV. You see, the show seems to be a mystery and when you begin looking for clues and then you miss the bigger picture.
The show is “WAY OUT” and it tells you that in its introduction. (Look for that sign on the door). A “nameless” government agent, played by Patrick McGoohan, resigns his post in anger and is kidnapped and placed in the Village…a strange place where people are given numbers and not names, but everyone there seems to have been at one time or another associated with the government–or a government, you may not know which one. This was the era of the Cold War, of a divided Europe.
Who was Number 6? Was he John Drake?
We don’t use this term anymore, but it was popular in the 1950s, especially in MAD Magazine. McGoohan’s character, Number 6, was a “non-conformist.” He was someone who didn’t seem to care what other people thought of him and went his own way. Back then it was often implied that you were selfish and not “part of the group.” As if there was something wrong with individuality. Today, we don’t think that way (but we really act that way).
John Drake was also played by Patrick McGoohan. He was a NATO agent in a TV show called Danger Man, that aired from 1960-1962. This 30-minute show (available on DVD) was a great influnce to the Bond movies which followed, in plot, in devices and in casting. After the Bond movies become popular, they brought back the show in 1964, renamed it Secret Agent, and made it an hour long.
One other thing: Drake was no longer a NATO agent; he no longer was connected, in any way, to America. The Vietnam War and political scandals from all over the world were eroding people’s trust in government, something that continues to this day. But why did it start then? In my opinion, it’s when media, mostly TV and radio, got into everyone’s home, whether you bought a newspaper or not. Again though, the Vietnam War changed how the world saw America and how America saw itself.
So here is the second secret:
His character was absolutely based on John Drake, but unless they wanted to pay the creators of Danger Man residuals they could not use his name. So they didn’t and it added to the fun. There was no political or storytelling motivation here, it was all about money. For some reason this take up a lot of people’s time. The other part is that this was a surreal show, a fantasy, not the realistic show like Danger Man. By the way, several episodes of the Danger man were filmed in the Welsh resort of Portmeirion, which served as the village. And, in several episodes actors from the first series showed up in the village and Christopher Benjamin even appears as the same character.
The final secret:
The show is not a mystery, it’s not a whodunit.
The show is about asking questions, not answering them. If you are looking for answers you will not find them here. Which is why the show holds up after all these years.
The world had turned since WW II and things were not as clear as they once were.
The show on education, for example, asked whether people were learning and processing information or just memorizing facts. It didn’t answer the question.
In the end, where the differing political groups so very different?
Why does every new leader promise to be different, but turns out to be nearly the same, answering to the same people?
And why do we seem to wind up where we started from?
It’s not a mystery; there is no secret at the end, because there is no real end. The joke about The Prisoner is that the big picture may be smaller than you thought it would be.
The acting is great, the show has great drama and great humor and even great music. It looks better on Blu-ray than it ever did, but it was still a British show filmed (which means the colors are a bit off, it always raining there). So it gets 3.5 (out of 5) for both sound and picture.
But 5 stars for the show.
PS: Notice that I didn’t try to explain too much about the setting, the plots or the characters. It would take too much time, everything here is unique. If this review isn’t clear enough, or perhaps a bit confusing, then I succeeded.
Here is the best order for watching the episodes:
“Dance of the Dead”
“The Chimes of Big Ben”
“Free for All”
“The Schizoid Man”
“A. B. & C.”
“A Change of Mind”
“Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling”
“It’s Your Funeral”
“The Girl Who Was Death”
“Many Happy Returns”
“Living in Harmony”
“Hammer into Anvil”
“Once Upon a Time”
“Dance of the Dead” should be the second show. It explains a lot.