October 1, 2013

Mitchell's Top Ten, #4: The Prisoner

Each week for the next couple of months, I’ll profile one of the series that appear on my personal Top Ten list. I don’t claim that these are the ten greatest series of all time; that would be presumptuous. However, I do presume to identify those shows that mean the most to me.

These aren't academic histories or encyclopedic entries; rather, they’re personal memories of shows that, through the years, have brought me delight, influenced my way of thinking and doing, left their indelible traces imprinted on me. Think of it as a memoir of my life as seen on TV.



This is another of those stories that can’t be properly explained without drifting back to my misbegotten youth. It began late one summer when I was in high school in the world’s worst town. For the past few weeks I’d noticed a listing on Channel 8, the PBS station*, for a late Sunday night program called The Prisoner. Since it kept appearing, it had to be a series; and it had these bizarre descriptions in which nobody had a name, only a number. It was summer; there was no reason to get up early on Monday morning; thus emboldened, I decided to stay up late one Sunday night and see what this strange show was all about.

*Yes, even though we only had one commercial station (KCMT, Channel 7, about which I’ve written frequently), we did have a PBS affiliate, which was based in Appleton. It’s thanks to them that I first started watching Sesame Street, even though I was probably out of their demographic; that’s how bad the programming on Channel 7 was.

And when that episode was over, all I could think of was:: What the hell was that?

Things haven’t been quite the same since.

I don’t know where, in the 17-episode run of The Prisoner, I came in; it was in the second half, for sure, because the final episode ran on the Sunday prior to the first Monday after school resumed, so I probably only saw the final five episodes or so. I remember this because that final episode (which I was determined to see, despite having to get up early the next day) was so bizarre, so utterly unlike anything I’d ever seen before, that it agitated me to the point that I couldn’t go to sleep for a couple of hours afterward.

Number 6 (Patrick McGoohan) with the
best Number 2, Leo McKern
But it wasn’t only me; The Prisoner wasn’t quite like anything that had ever been on television before. It was another British import which had originally appeared in this country as the summer replacement for Jackie Gleason, and two more different programs couldn’t be imagined. The Prisoner changed the way I looked at a lot of things. I suppose it did that to a lot of impressionable youth. It captured the sense of the rebel against the system, which is what all of us were when we were in school, especially if the school’s system was repressive, inane, or both.*

*My high school certainly qualified on that account.

The Prisoner has a timelessness about it, though, that means you don’t have to be a young rebel to watch or appreciate it, and no matter how many times you see it you’re always picking up something new.

However, in order to truly appreciate The Prisoner, I think you have to go back even further in TV history, back to a modest half-hour espionage series called Danger Man.

Danger Man starred Patrick McGoohan as John Drake, a NATO agent who globetrotted on various assignments designed to preserve world peace. Although Drake was a tough cookie, he eschewed conventional forms of force, preferring to defeat his enemies not with guns, but though cleverness – and a good pair of fists, when necessary. Danger Man was a good, if not great, series, and when it reappeared in 1964 after a two-year break, it had expanded to an hour, and Drake was now a British secret agent.*

*In the United States the show was aired under the title Secret Agent, using Johnny Rivers’ hit single “Secret Agent Man” as its theme.

This new incarnation of Danger Man ran an additional three seasons*, and ended only when McGoohan announced his plans to start a new series which he would produce, write, and star in, called The Prisoner.

*I didn't list Danger Man as a "Best of the Rest" series, partly so as not to tip my hand, but it really does belong as one of my favorites. Perhaps the two could be thought of as a joint entry.

One of the favorite occupations of Prisoner fans is to debate whether or not Number 6, McGoohan’s hero in The Prisoner, is the same character as John Drake. They are, after all, played by the same actor, and Number 6 is introduced to us as a secret agent who has resigned from the service. McGoohan always denied that the two were the same, possibly because he didn’t own the rights to “John Drake,” and therefore couldn’t safely use the character in his new series.

McGoohan strikes one of several Messianic-type
poses during the series
I prefer to think that the two are one and the same (although I won’t go to the mat over it), because it makes so much sense to watch the three series one after the other: the two versions of Danger Man followed by The Prisoner. Drake and Number 6 do in fact share a lot of characteristics, including an unshakable integrity and a quirky cynicism, both of which can at times work to undercut his devotion to his job. Obviously you can watch and enjoy The Prisoner without the Danger Man prologue, but I think you find yourself with a much deeper appreciation of Number 6’s character if you accept the earlier series as backstory.

The other controversy surrounding The Prisoner deals, of course, with the ending. The first time I saw it I was dumbfounded. I mean, I got what he was trying to say (SPOILER ALERT: Number 6 is Number 1), but I just couldn’t see how that could be. I was too literal-minded to fully understand the concept of allegory, and I’d never encountered that kind of hallucinatory abstractness. It was by far the most sophisticated level of storytelling I’d ever seen before, and it deeply influenced my artistic outlook.

If The Prisoner changed the way I thought about writing, it also changed the way I thought about other things. I’d always bristled somewhat when it came to authority, but for the most part it had been a latent feeling. The Prisoner, with its celebration of the dignity and value of the human individual (“I am not a number! I am a human being!”) made a profound impact on me, and brought this attitude closer to the surface (not, always, to my advantage), eventually influencing everything from my attitude toward Corporate America to my feelings on the sanctity of life. I don’t want to overstate this, because there are a lot of things that have impacted me over the years, but there’s no question that The Prisoner deeply influenced my methodology of thinking: it taught me to look at things differently, to question authority, to look beyond easy answers, to question whether or not things could always be tied up neatly. Its emphasis on the individual nicely complimented my political ideology and its strong moral foundation would be compatible with my eventual conversion to Catholicism. (McGoohan himself was said to be a devout Catholic.)  This doesn't even begin to address the "Number-6-as-Savior" allegories that pop up during the run of the series. When you add that to its influence on my creative process, you can see how important it’s been to me.

Perhaps three years ago I watched The Prisoner all the way through for the first time in several years, as a way of topping off my then-recent purchase of the Danger Man box set. I was surprised, and I suppose I shouldn’t have been, to find that the series was as fresh as ever. I’d forgotten the outcomes of some of the stories; others, while I remembered them well, caused delight in their twists and turns. It was a thoroughly satisfying experience.

It’s true that The Prisoner isn’t for everyone – its lack of a clear-cut ending, combined with its ambiguous and challenging themes, mean you really have to be in the mood for it, and you have to commit to staying with it for the long haul. And if it does win you over, you’re invariably going to wind up comparing other shows to it, often unfavorably. But on the upside, watching The Prisoner can make you not only cynical, but paranoid, and those are two qualities that can come in pretty handy nowadays.

Next week: A man with no sense of time - or place, for that matter
Last week: What's My Line?

1 comment:

  1. The third season of the hour-long "Danger Man"/"Secret Agent" was filmed in color and had been set to premiere on both Britain's ITV and on CBS in January of 1967 (although it would have been broadcast in black-and-white on the former, since color TV didn't come to England until mid-1967, and not to ITV until 1969).

    But only two episodes for that season were filmed when Patrick McGoohan pulled the plug to start "The Prisoner".

    I believe they were aired in the UK in 1968, while here in the 'States, they were edited together into a two-hour special titled "Koroshi" (also the title of the first of the two episodes that did get filmed) which didn't air in the 'States until about 1970, as a TV-movie on ABC.

    Today, "Koroshi" probably would have been promoted as being "The Lost Episodes Of 'Secret Agent'!".

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