British Sci-Fi TV Summer Rundown: THE PRISONER
By Kyle Anderson on June 5, 2014
Last week, I gave you my chronological, unranked list of ten British sci-fi TV shows that have fewer than 50 episodes for you to test out while waiting for Doctor Who to come back. (I give all the adjectives because, judging from the comments, many people were confused by the opening paragraph.) For the next couple of weeks, I’ll be writing these more in-depth breakdowns of some of my favorites from that list.
For the first round, I’m choosing one of the first TV shows that legitimately blew my mind: 1967-’68’s The Prisoner, starring and co-created by Patrick McGoohan. McGoohan had been playing spy John Drake in the long-running series Danger Man (also called Secret Agent here in the States) which ran from 1960-1968. McGoohan at one time was even considered to replace Sean Connery as James Bond. He’d been playing a spy for a long time, and was getting kind of tired of it and wanted to stop. This gave him and Danger Man story consultant George Markstein the idea: what if a spy wanted to quit? What would happen to him? What if he didn’t break and they kept using stranger and more complex methods? How frigging weird would that get? How much acid should an audience take to watch it? These are all questions posed (but not necessarily answered) during the 17 episodes that all begin with the longest, jauntiest, and most explanatory opening credits sequence in TV history (probably).
The first episode, “Arrival,” began like this:
All subsequent episodes (except the finale) began with a variation of this:
FUN FACT: That awesome theme song was written by Ron Grainer who also wrote the Doctor Who theme.
Made and originally broadcast on Lew Grade’s ITV Network, The Prisoner was eventually sold and broadcast around the world, including CTV in Canada and CBS in the US. Initially, McGoohan had seven episodes in mind, then Grade talked him into doing 14, and then 17 when it was proving popular elsewhere in countries with longer seasons (here in America, for instance). Six of McGoohan’s seven were filmed first, then the next seven, and then the next three, before the finale was finally filmed. McGoohan and the writers had to come up with more and different ideas to fill the new episode number that they hadn’t originally planned on before. As a result of this, the show starts to get really, really weird as it goes on. But we’ll get to that in a moment.
The premise of the show, if you hadn’t gotten it from the opening titles, is this: An unnamed high-ranking secret agent, with lots and lots of information in his brain, suddenly and angrily says he wants to resign his post. He plans to leave the United Kingdom immediately and head somewhere tropical. His superiors don’t like this and are worried that he’s going to defect to the enemy. He is gassed and taken to a picturesque and idyllic place called simply The Village which looks like an Italian Renaissance Disneyland (filmed in the North Wales resort of Portmeirion). He is told he’s Number 6 and everybody else has a number as well. No one will tell him where he is other than “The Village” and there are no maps or roads that lead anywhere except back to it. The person in charge of the place, it seems, is Number 2 (played first by Guy Doleman) who tells Number 6 that it will all be a lot easier if he just cooperates. He does not respond favorably.
This is the beauty of the entire program: every episode, a new plan is hatched to try to get Number 6 to crack under the pressure and he refuses. The will of this one human is stronger than all the torment and torture technology has to offer. He does such a good job at resisting that Number 2 is fired and replaced every time they fail so each episode save a couple begin with a different person narrating and saying they are “The New Number 2″ (see above). This constant turnover of Number 2 leads Number 6 to realize the person he really wants is the allusive Number 1, who may or may not even exist.
The plots of the Number 2s include: trying to make Number 6 think he’s lost his mind, making him think he’s escaped, making him think other people, usually female, want to help him escape and/or find Number 1, bringing people he knows into The Village to try to make him talk, putting him in a virtual reality scenario where he meets three different people in whom he might confide, conducting experiments on him and other similarly trapped peoples, and even just summarily trying to murder him. It’s clear by the end that they’re just getting tired of him and want to just completely destroy his brain. He’s quite the thorn in their side.
Now, the Village being a seaside town, there are boats and things that Number 6 can, and often does, attempt to use to get away, but each time he’s met by Rover, the guard and sentry of the place and the area where the show gets particularly sci-fi-y. Rover is, in actuality, just a large, white weather balloon. Not particularly impressive, but within the narrative of the show, Rover is omnipresent and nearly unstoppable. Number 6 tries many times to outrun it, but he can’t. It is impossibly fast on both land and water, and it can engulf its prey within its plastic membrane and take them back to Number 2. Pretty freaky.
Only two actors played Number 2 more than once; Leo McKern (in the above clip) played Number 2 in “The Chimes of Big Ben,” “Once Upon a Time,” and “Fall Out,” and Colin Gordon played Number 2 in “The General” and “A.B. and C.” An issue at hand, though, is that the episode order is incredibly jumbled and there are no fewer than five different “official” chronologies depending on which source you look at. As they were originally broadcast, McKern’s first episode was shown second, and his final two 16th and 17th. As they were shot, his episodes were 5, 6, and 17, and they were originally intended by McGoohan, they were to be the final three. Gordon’s were shot 10th and 11th, but when broadcast his first chronological episode was shown 6th and his second was shown 3rd, leading to a lot of weird confusion when he says “Number 2″ instead of “The New Number 2″ in the episode that was shown first but filmed second. Make sense? No. I don’t blame you.
The final three episodes shot prior to the finale were three of the strangest hours of television probably ever produced for mainstream television. “Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling” was filmed whilst McGoohan was on location filming the John Sturges action movie Ice Station Zebra. As a result, Number 6’s consciousness gets transferred to another body, that of actor Nigel Stock, who portrays our main character for the majority of the episode. “Living in Harmony” is a western in which Number 6 is a sheriff who resigned and he’s trapped in a town called Harmony in which people want him to be their new sheriff “by hook or by crook.” And “The Girl Who Was Death” is a nearly dialogue-free action story apparently set during one of Number 6’s more colorful spy missions, the finale of which takes place on a roller coaster. Just the weirdest.
And perhaps, strangest of all is the final episode, “Fall Out.” While it was pitched as one of McGoohan’s original 7, it wasn’t filmed until the very end when McGoohan had gotten really weird. It was following the three episodes above, remember, but it was meant to follow the 6th episode filmed. The tones are quite different. After having defeated McKern’s Number 2 yet again, Number 6 is allowed to enter the inner sanctum and meet Number 1. He doesn’t get to right away of course. First he has to go into a sort of Kafkaesque nightmare world where he and a strange hobo-ish prisoner called Number 48 are rewarded, sort of, for being rebellious, and Number 2 is punished for being not rebellious. There is a riot and Number 6 eventually sees Number 1, or does he? I will absolutely not spoil it for you; it’s a thing of perverse and troubling beauty.
A different essay could be written about each of the different episodes and how strange and brilliant they are, but for our purposes today, this will have to do. If you haven’t watched The Prisoner, I could not recommend it more highly to you. But what order should you watch them? Like everyone, I have a personal order in which I prefer to watch these episodes, so if you’d like to watch it The Kyle Way, do it the following (it’s not much different from the Fan Club order, but it is a little bit).
1. Arrival (The beginning, of course)
2. Free For All (Number 2 makes Number 6 run against him in a public election)
3. Dance of the Dead (Number 6 tries to save an old friend)
4. Checkmate (Literally a giant chess match. Number 6 thinks he can tell the prisoners from the wardens)
5. Chimes of Big Ben (A new prisoner may have info to aid in an elaborate escape attempt)
6. The Schizoid Man (A duplicate Number 6 is introduced to make the real one lose his mind)
7. The General (Number 2 plans to use a speed-teaching machine to remove Number 6’s independence)
8. A. B. and C. (Desperate, Number 2 tampers with Number 6’s dreams)
9. It’s Your Funeral (Number 6 must prevent the assassination of a Number 2 by his would-be successor)
10. A Change of Mind (The Village ostracizes Number 6 for his “unmutuality”)
11. Hammer Into Anvil (Number 6 plans revenge on the most sadistic Number 2 yet)
12. Many Happy Returns (Number 6 manages to return to England not sure who to trust)
13. Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling (Number 6 turns into a different guy)
14. Living In Harmony (It’s a western!)
15. The Girl Who Was Death (It’s a silent movie almost!)
16. Once Upon a Time (An old Number 2 returns to put the final mental clamps on Number 6)
17. Fall Out (The true nature of the Village is explained. Sort of.)
Also, there was a 2009 miniseries remake made by AMC starring Jim Caviezel as Number 6 and Ian McKellen as Number 2. It’s not very good, so avoid like Rover.
Next week we’ll look at Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but until then – Be seeing you.