The Prisoner was a daring and original 1967 UK television series, created by and starring Patrick McGoohan. McGoohan himself wrote and directed several episodes, often under a pseudonym. Only 17 episodes were made, though McGoohan's original plan was for just seven. The network wanted a full season of 21 episodes, and 17 was decided upon as a compromise. The entire series is available on DVD in a boxed set.

Warning: Spoilers follow

The titles sequence featured the hero, played by McGoohan, apparently a secret agent working in some government intelligence building in London, having a fierce argument with his superior and resigning. Returning to his flat (the location for which was at Number One Buckingham Place, London — an address that hints at a surprise in the final episode), he quickly packs his possessions, with a colourful travel brochure nearby. Knockout gas is piped into the room by a tall man dressed in black formalwear, rendering him unconscious.

On awakening, he finds himself in a strange village of Mediterranean architecture, filled with other English-speaking people dressed in bright colours. These also turn out to be ex-spies being held captive, not all of which are on Six's side. No one has a name; they all have numbered I.D. badges. Our hero is Number 6; his real name is never mentioned in the series, although fans like to think it is John Drake, the lead character of McGoohan's prior series Danger Man (Secret Agent in the US). McGoohan however has publicly stated Number 6 is not Drake.

The following dialogue exchange ran over all the show's opening titles (except Living in Harmony and Fallout, which is the last episode):

Where am I?
In The Village.
What do you want?
Whose side are you on?
That would be telling.
What do you want?
We want information.
You won't get it.
By hook or by crook, we will.
Who are you?
The new Number 2.
Who is Number 1?
You are Number 6.
I am not a number — I am a free man!
(Laughter from Number 2.)

The Village is located in an unknown country (the series was filmed at Portmeirion and Penrhyndeudraeth in Wales, and at Pinewood Studios in England, using clever camera tricks to make the resort look larger than it is). In one episode of the series its location is hinted somewhere in Morocco, in another, somewhere in eastern Europe (on the Baltic coast); but the final episode suggests it may be much closer to home.

The Village is ruled by Number 2, whose identity changes each episode, though some Number 2s did make repeat appearances (notably Leo McKern, who appeared in three episodes). Number 1 was never seen (except perhaps in the final episode, though even this is unclear and subject to interpretation).

The Village publishes a newspaper, the Tally Ho; its headlines and all public signs use a version of the Albertus display typeface in which the lowercase letter e was altered to make it look somewhat like the Greek letter epsilon (ε), and the dot above the lower case i and j are removed. The Village administrators consist of a formal council which meets in a large chamber, which of course in reality is completely under the control of Number 2. Debates are held with a strange, mindless uniformity of opinion. "Credit units" serve as currency in Village shops.

An underground control center monitors closed-circuit television cameras located throughout The Village. Regular observers continually spy on Villagers' every movements, and foil Number 6's escape attempts with the aid of Rover, a large balloon-like device that would chase him, suffocate him, dragging him back to land if he was attempting to escape by sea via the nearby beach. Rover was originally intended to be a robotic machine, but when the prototype failed to work during the first episode's shoot, the crew used a weather balloon out of desperation.

Throughout the series, Number 2 tried to find out why Number 6 resigned. A variety of interrogation, intimidation, drugs and mind control techniques were used. An intriguing subtext is that Number 6 never learns the identity and loyalty of his jailers — is he being questioned by "us" or "them"? And, since he cannot determine any difference, in the final analysis is there any difference?

Number 6 spent the first half of the series seeking ways to escape, then turned his attention to finding out more about The Village and how to bring it down from within. In "Hammer into Anvil," he reduces the new Number 2 to a mad, paranoid wreck through a series of pranks. While the powers behind The Village always foil Number 6's escape attempts, he never reveals why he resigned. Several episodes end with Number 2 being sent home in disgrace, having failed to break him. (Evidently, this is enough to warrant some kind of severe punishment for Number 2.)

The series featured striking and often surreal story lines, including one diversion into outright parody ("The Girl Who Was Death") and simulations of hallucinogenic drug experiences. In "Many Happy Returns," Number 6 awakens to find the entire Village deserted, and eventually makes it back to London on a makeshift raft, only to find a surprise waiting for him; more than half of the episode contains no dialogue. "Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darling" did not star McGoohan at all (except for a few shots), as he was in America filming Ice Station Zebra; the episode featured the contrivance of Number 6's mind being implanted in another man's body (Nigel Stock, from The Great Escape), who is then sent out of The Village to help capture an enemy scientist.

Number 6 always wore a Village-supplied black suit with white piping, though never his "6" I.D. badge (except briefly in an election campaign in Free For All). Characters said goodbye to each other with the phrase "be seeing you," accompanied by a waving gesture consisting of thumb and forefinger forming a circle over the right eye, then tipped forward in a kind of salute. "I'll be seeing you" was a popular expression in Britain in the 1940s, when it was jocularly pronounced "Abyssinia", and McGoohan uses the phrase in real life. (The Psi Corps in Babylon 5 used the phrase and gesture in a deliberate homage to The Prisoner.)

The major philosophical theme of The Prisoner is the corruption and impoverishment of a life lived under subjugation to those who believe that authoritarian rule is best, versus "the right of the individual to be individual."

The series attracted considerable attention. Rather like the later Twin Peaks, many viewers had no idea what was going on in the episodes, but watched it compulsively anyway. However, the final episode caused so much confusion that the television network was besieged by phone calls and McGoohan was even hounded at home by baffled viewers demanding explanations.

There is a Prisoner Appreciation Society devoted to the series, and a Prisoner memorabilia shop in Portmeirion. Portmeirion has also played host to several fan conventions.

External links

Interesting trivia/things to watch out for:

  • There are two world maps on the wall behind Number 6's former superior in the title sequence.
  • Leo McKern's hair and beard are trimmed much shorter in the final episode than in the one preceding it because he did another film during the long lag between the two episodes' shoots. The show accommodated this by showing McKern covered in shaving cream and getting barbered before making his entrance.
  • Some Village exteriors were actually shot on a sound stage, and sometimes backgrounds are clearly discernible as large blown-up photos of Portmeirion.