March 15, 2023

The Descent into Hell: "The General" (1967)

indoctrinate (in·​doc·​tri·​nate) verb. 1: to teach or inculcate a doctrine, principle, or ideology, especially one with a partisan or sectarian opinion or specific point of view. 

In man's eternal quest for knowledge, it sounds like a panacea, manna from heaven: an online learning program that allows a student to take a three-year college-level course in history in just three minutes. It's the most egalitarian of education opportunities, available, free, to everyone. You don't even have to leave home for it: it's delivered right over your television screen. And if you think you're the kind of person who can't learn like that, just ask The Professor: "It can be done," he says. "Trust me." 

What could possibly go wrong?

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There was something about The Prisoner from the very beginning, something that set it apart from other programs on television, before or since. It might have been the vividness of the color, or the style of Ron Granier's arresting theme, or the near-surreality of Portmeirion, the Welsh tourist village that became The Village in the series. Most likely, though, it was the defiant statement made by the series' protagonist in the initial episode. When told that he is, from now on, to be known not by his name but simply as "Number 6," he replies, "I am not a number; I am a free man!

This proclamation of individuality was different from those we're most familiar with, which usually have to do with greed or licentiousness—free to do, free to be, etc., etc. No, this was different—it was not external, but internal; not about an act, but about a state of being. It was a radical statement, coming as it did in the chaos of the 1960s, and part of its radicality was that it was not only a separation from the establishment, but from the counterestablishment as well. It meant free will, yes, but also freedom from organizations, from ideologies, from movements. "I am my own man," the statement says, and when we try to reconcile that with Donne's reassurance that "No man is an island," we can only think that this man is not afraid to stand alone against those who seek to subsume him; he hopes, however, that in so doing he will set a standard to which others can rally. It may mean a life of loneliness, of ridicule, contempt, exclusion, even death; his triumph will eventually come in the end, however, even if he is not alive to witness it.

The Prisoner presumed to tell the story of this struggle over the course of 17 episodes, and while its conclusion—that we are in fact our own jailers, our own oppressors—shocked and outraged viewers everywhere, it also inspired those who believed that one man could make a difference, that integrity could win out, that resistance wasn't necessarily useless, as long as that resistance itself didn't become a means of conformity. Heady stuff, for a television series with a cumulative running time of less than 17 hours, not including commercials.

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The premise of The Prisoner is critical to understanding the series; at the same time, its role in the big picture of each episode is often insubstantial. The Prisoner began as a quasi-spin off of a 1960s British espionage series called Danger Man (broadcast in the United States as Secret Agent), which starred Patrick McGoohan as John Drake, an agent at war against England’s enemies and, at times, against his own bosses. Unlike James Bond, Drake (at McGoohan's insistence) resorted to violence only as a last resort, and eschewed any romantic interest in women. Despite this (or perhaps because of it?), the series ran for three full seasons (the first of which consisting of 30-minute episodes), and had started a fourth season (and the first in color) when McGoohan announced that he was leaving the series to begin The Prisoner.

The Prisoner can be said to pick up where Danger Man leaves off; the opening credits tell the story of a nameless man, a secret agent now retired, who while preparing to go on vacation is kidnapped and taken to a mysterious village (or, since it's a proper noun, The Village) where everyone’s name has been replaced by a number. Some of them are prisoners, some are agents of The Village. Who knows which is which?

The Village is run by—well, that's just one of the mysteries. It could be an Eastern bloc country—East Germany, perhaps, the loyal lackeys of the Soviets; or, per The Manchurian Candidate, Red China. It could be a nation outside of the major powers—a rogue country, we'd call it today; or even an individual; think Doctor No, or George Soros. Or it could be the West, organized by the Dulles-era CIA, suspicious of anyone trying to assert their independence; or the Brits, still stung by the betrayals of Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess, and obsessed with suspecting their own. In this world, nothing and no one is above suspicion. We know only that the supreme leader of chimera-like city-state, the Big Brother of The Village, is the unseen, unheard, Number 1. 

Number 1’s major domo, the prime minister, as it were, is aptly called Number 2, and as an individual is completely interchangeable; we see a different Number 2 virtually every week. And while Number 2's responsibilities envelop the whole of The Village, he appears to have one overriding question of this new prisoner, whom he has dubbed Number 6: Why did you resign? It is a question which Number 6 stubbornly refuses to answer: My reasons, he says, are my own. 

Subequent episodes feature the struggle of the Village overlords, under the direction of Number 2, to obtain the answer to their question "by hook or by crook," while Number 6 fights his twin battles: to escape from The Village, and to resist their questioning. All the while, one overriding question hangs over the series: who is Number 1?

As for The Village itself—well, that's perhaps the most perplexing of all. Unlike the other interrogation centers we've seen, The Village is not a grim underbelly, a vista dominated by Brutalist architecture swathed in a uniform grayness. It is, in fact, beautiful: the small flats in which Number 6 and his fellow inmates reside are neat and tidy—all the comforts of home, really. The architecture of the civic and social buildings is playful and imaginative, the grounds manicured and colorful. You might find it so pleasant that you would choose to stay there forever.

Which raises the question: is there such a thing as dystopia in paradise?

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"The General" was the sixth episode of The Prisoner, airing in the UK on November 3, 1967. In the United States, where The Prisoner was the summer replacement for The Jackie Gleason Show on CBS (the same network on which Danger Man/Secret Agent was shown), it aired on July 13, 1968. Not that the broadcast order necessarily matters; like so much about The Prisoner, it's somewhat enigmatic.

The story opens with another typically bucolic scene in The Village, where it seems as if everyone is taking part in the latest offering for the betterment of residents: a three-part home course on history, presented by The Professor. Today's 15-second course is called "Europe Since Napoleon," which will be broadcast over The Village’s single television station. Number 6 reads a poster for the class, featuring a picture of "The Professor," the class instructor and proponent of "Speed Learn," the method used to teach the course. "It can be done," The Professor says encouragingly on the poster. "Trust me." There is also a quote from "The General," promising "One hundred per cent entry, one hundred per cent pass." 

Number 6 becomes more curious after Number 12, another resident, suggests to him that he enroll. “You’ll find The Professor most interesting.” When Number 6 asks who he is, Number 12 replies “A cog. . . in the machine.” 

On the way back to his cottage, Number 6 notices a crowd on the beach chasing someone apparently trying to escape; Number 6 is surprised to find out the man being chased is The Professor. While hurrying down to the beach himself, Number 6 stumbles over a tape recorder buried in the sand. On the tape he can hear The Professor’s voice: "This is The Professor speaking. I have an urgent message for you." Before he can listen further, he’s interrupted by men in an emergency buggy. Number 6 quickly hides the recorder as the men pull up in front of him and urge him to return home for the start of the class. "Hundred per cent entry, hundred per cent pass," one tells him. "You know what The General said." In his voice, it is more of a command than a suggestion.

Number 6 decides to watch the course; The Professor, who has been captured and returned, appears on-screen to introduce today’s lesson. As hypnotic music plays, the camera focuses on a picture of The Professor, zooming in on his left eye. After 15 seconds, everything returns to normal. Following the class, Number 2 and one of his assistants enters Number 6’s cottage, looking for the recorder, and suggesting that he might be open to a deal: the recorder in return for Number 6’s freedom. Number 6 evades his comments. Number 2 then begins quizzing Number 6 about the class, and Number 6 is surprised to discover that he knows by rote facts about European history, ranging from the date of the Treaty of Adrianople to when Greek independence occurred to who Bismarck's ally was in the Second Schleswig War vs. Denmark. Furthermore, everyone he talks to is able to recite the same facts, word for word.

Later, returning to the beach, Number 6 finds Number 12 in possession of the recorder, which he gives to Number 6. Turning to leave, he asks Number 6 "What was the Treaty of Adrianople?" When Number 6 replies, "September, 1829," Number 12 tells him he asked "what," not "when" and adds,"You need some special coaching." Listening to the tape, Number 6 hears The Professor’s voice again, picking up where he left off: ". . . I have an urgent message for you. 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. Learn this and learn it well: the General must be destroyed!"

We next see Number 6 attending an art class—another of The Village's "voluntary" activities—which happens to be taught by The Professor’s wife. (A particularly instructive moment occurs when Number 6 witnesses a man tearing pages out of a book and asks The Professor's wife what he's doing: "He's creating a fresh concept. Construction arises out of the ashes of destruction.") Number 2 shows her a drawing he's done of her dressed as a general, which seems to irritate her; later, searching their home, Number 6 comes across busts she's sculpted, including both Number 2 and Number 6. When she finds him and demands that he leave, he asks her if she's done a bust of The General as well.

In talking with her, Number 6 comes to understand that while The Professor and his wife came to The Village voluntary (or so she claims) and have been treated as VIPs with certain privileges, The Professor is now trying to break away, and his wife, out of concern for him (or is it just ambition on own part?) is trying to pretend as if nothing is wrong. In the meantime, The Professor is being tended to by a doctor, ostensibly due to exhaustion from preparing all the lessons for his classes; in all likelihood, the treatments are designed to keep him from rebelling—to keep him functioning as a tool of The Village. The Professor’s wife confides to Number 2 that Number 6 seems obsessed with The General. Number 2 tells her not to worry; "I have an obsession about him."   

The next day Number 12 arrives at Number 6’s cottage on the pretense of supervising repair work on an electrical short. He asks Number 6 if he’d like to see The Professor’s words on the tape recorder go out in place of the next class. Number 6, concerned that Speed Learn is a tool of mind control or indoctrination, agrees, whereupon Number 12 gives him a security pass disc that will get Number 6 into the Administration building, and tells him to be there the following morning.

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Isn't Speed Learn an interesting concept? "A three-year course indelibly impressed upon the mind in three minutes." Imprinted—downloaded, if you will—right onto your brain while you're hypnotized by what's on screen; I wonder if that's what the Chinese used in The Manchurian Candidate? And the machine that facilitates it is called the Sublimator—a nice touch. You remember how subliminal images of food and drink used to be inserted into movies to make people in the theater hungry and get them to buy popcorn and soda, all without them being aware? We didn’t like it then, so why should we tolerate it anywhere else? Even the word sublimator has a sinister connotation, as if you’re trying to get away with something you shouldn’t be doing. It's a very effective tool for indoctrination.

Indoctrination, of course, isn’t limited to education (or movie makers); in fact, there are many educators who would steadfastly denounce it. But there’s more than one way to “educate” people. Take, for instance, the media. It doesn’t matter what kind of media we’re talking about; it all has to do with presenting the news in such a way as to mold your reaction to it—to ensure that your opinion conforms. They control access to the facts they choose to present, the video they choose to show, the people who face their cameras and write on their pages; you could say that they control access to the access. 

You notice how, after taking the course, everyone answers the questions by rote, right down to the use of the same words? Their answers don't vary, even by a comma. Haven’t you ever gotten curious when newscasters do the same thing, report a story right down to using virtually the same words, the same phrases, on every network? Almost as if they’re all working from the same script, isn’t it?

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In the end, Number 6's plan to substitute The Professor's warning in place of the regular lecture fails, as it must. He is recognized by Number 2 and brought into the boardroom, where he is interrogated by Number 2 and Number 12 (who must maintain his cover). Once again, they demand answers from Number 6; instead of "Why did you resign?" however, this time the question is "Who’s the head of the organization" behind the 'conspiracy.'

Number 2 ridicules Number 6 over his insignificant attempts to replace The Professor’s lecture with "This reactionary drivel that you were on the point of sending out to our conscientious students: 'the freedom to learn,' 'the liberty to make mistakes,' old-fashioned slogans. You are an odd fellow, Number 6, full of surprises." He goes on to explain why the conspiracy must be crushed: "I'm sure that a man of your caliber will appreciate that rebels... that rebels must be kept under the closest possible surveillance with a view to their extinction if the rebellion is absolute."

Realizing that Number 6 will not break, Number 2 changes tactics and, with Number 12, takes him down a series of corridors to a large room where The Professor is typing out his latest lecture. "Allow me to introduce—'The General.' " He pulls back a pair of curtains to reveal—surprise—a room-size supercomputer, The Professor’s invention. "He gave birth to it and loves it with a passionate love; probably hates it even more." "That mass of circuits," Number 2 continues, "is as revolutionary as nuclear fission. No more wastage in schools, no more tedious learning by rote: a brilliantly devised course, delivered by a leading teacher, subliminally learned, checked and corrected by an infallible authority." When Number 2 observes that the result will be "a row of cabbages," Number 2 corrects him: "Knowledgeable cabbages."

Having failed to extract the information from Number 6, Number 2 has decided he will simply feed the information into The General, which will deliver its infallible answer. Motioning to The Professor, he begins to dictate the salient points: a traitor in The Village, Number 6 in possession of a security pass disc, distribution of which comes only through Administration—Number 12’s department. But before the information can be fed into The General, Number 6 bates Number 2 by issuing a challenge of his own: ask The General a question that cannot be answered.

Unwilling to back down in the face of Number 6’s dare, Number 2 allows him to ask the question. Number 6 walks to the terminal, presses four keys, takes the tape generated by the terminal, and feeds it into The General. Immediately, dials begin fluctuating wildly, and the machine starts to smoke and spark while The Professor frantically tries to turn it off. As Number 12 rushes to assist, the computer explodes, killing both The Professor and Number 12. 

"What was the question?" the stunned and broken Number 2 asks. "It's insoluble, for man or machine," Number 6 replies. Number 2 asks again, and Number 6 tells him: "W. H. Y. Question mark." "Why?" Number 2 repeats. "Why?" Number 6 says. Number 2 is left repeating, " ... Why?" as Number 6 leaves the room.

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It’s interesting that presents both instruction and training as synonyms for indoctrination, as if it could somehow infuse the word with a kind of value-free meaning. Indoctrination deservedly carries with it a negative connotation, because it’s not education so much as it is reeducation, a way of presenting information to ensure conformity—Groupthink—as a natural way of thinking. Or, to be more precise, to eliminate the need for thinking altogether, for Groupthink encourages infantilism: Here, let me do that for you, you don’t want to hurt yourself by thinking too hard.

We encountered the danger of rote learning back in “The Children’s Story,” when James Clavell used his daughter’s inability to explain what the Pledge of Allegiance actually meant as the basis for his subversive take on education. There are facts that are important to know, but one also has to have the ability to understand, to put things in context and thereby draw conclusions from them, and teaching this type of critical thinking is often absent.

This is nowhere more apparent than in the discovery of the secret behind The General. Even in 1967, the idea of a computer pulling all the strings was becoming something of a cliché; science fiction programs like Doctor Who and Star Trek had dealt with it many times. However, even though the visual concept of a giant supercomputer dates the series, the logic behind it remains sound. And what does it mean that these electronic brains, seen by the writers as threats to our freedom, have evolved into items of convenience for modern living? One would have to be a fool to deny how willingly we’ve allowed these programmed algorithms and artificial intelligence bots to make our decisions for us; in doing so, we seem to be getting ever farther away from thinking for ourselves. 

When Number 6 challenges the computer, he does so not as Captain Kirk might, by using its own logical against it, but by posting the most human of questions: Why? And think about it: why is one of the first questions that we learn as infants. We’re always asking our parents why this and why that, and the answer we get is always the same: Because. There’s no need to go any further, to justify the answer, because they’re adults and we’re not; they know more than we do. And that’s fine when one is five years old; it’s another thing when it happens to adults. Let me repeat: Groupthink encourages infantilism.

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The Prisoner is a series comprised of questions, and "The General" is no exception: Who is Number 1? Why did you resign? Who is The General? Who is the head of the conspiracy? It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the most devastating moment of the episode is also sparked by a question: "Why?"

It’s precisely that type of questions that The General proposes to render irrelevant. If you simply give people everything you want them to know, then there’ll be no reason for questions. Whereas The General implies knowledge, questions suggest a lack of knowledge, and if you don’t know what you don’t know—well, then, there’s nothing to ask, is there?

Anyone even slightly familiar with The Prisoner probably knows the great reveal of the series’ final episode, that [SPOILER ALERT] Number 6 turns out to be Number 1. While there’s a school of thought that takes this to be literal—that Number 6, as Number 1, allowed himself to be embedded in The Village as a fellow prisoner, presumably to root out security threats—the consensus remains that that the ending—indeed, the entire series—is allegorical, that McGoohan seeks to suggest that we are all our own jailers, imprisoned in the cells we create for ourselves. The Professor is as much of a prisoner as everyone else in The Village. His greatest creation, The General, is also is warder; Number 2 shows a great deal of perception in identifying the computer as both The Professor’s greatest love and his greatest hate. 

Each episode of The Prisoner concludes with an image of prison bars superimposed over Number 6's face. There are many kinds of prisons, however; fear, as we’ve seen in past installments of this series, is one of them. FDR said as much when he called fear the only thing to be afraid of. And if those in power seek to keep everyone else imprisoned, whether literally or through such things as ignorance, it is because they are imprisoned by their own fear—the loss of power. Number 2, the all-powerful figure of The Village, is a prisoner himself, subject to the whims of Number 1. The fact that there is a new Number 2 each week only emphasizes how Number 2 really deals not from power, but from fear.

In order to hold on to their power, the powerful become the architects of fear. Not that they’ll show it to your face; as Number 2 says of The Professor, “People love him, they'll take anything from him. It's the image, you see, that's important: the kindly image.” They’ll cite their confidence in things like science in support of what they say. And when they warn of the calamities that await unless--, they may describe cataclysmic events such as pandemics, ecological disasters, revolutions, and the dangers of knowledge. They may substitute paranoia for caution and censorship for discussion. They will give you no alternative. And, if they’re lucky, all this will happen without you even being aware of it. 

The powerful thrive on fear, which is why it must be resisted; otherwise, we wind up imprisoning ourselves. After all, it’s hardly a coincidence that the one phrase appearing in the Bible more often than any other is fear not. Just as well, the prophet Isaiah promises that Lord’s Anointed One will “proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners.” Even the most powerful are going to have a hard time defeating that. TV 


  1. Powerful, prescient, and thought-provoking, just as all the other entries in this series have been. They don't make me feel better about where we're headed, but it helps to know that there are other who recognize what road we're on.

    1. Thanks, David! It's always nice to get that kind of feedback, especially from you - I always respect your opinion!


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!