You are not a number; you are a free person. Some critic called it television’s first masterpiece. I think it’s the most inventive use of the serial episodic television format yet devised; people always want to re-make it as a movie, but no one ever will: it can only be a great episodic serial. …
" /> Jason Holborn | Cybercarnet/Weblog - THE PRISONER



You are not a number; you are a free person.

Some critic called it television’s first masterpiece. I think it’s the most inventive use of the serial episodic television format yet devised; people always want to re-make it as a movie, but no one ever will: it can only be a great episodic serial.

You Are Not A Number

I read online that at the time, Patrick McGoohan was as big on TV as Sean Connery was in film, known (especially in the UK) as secret agent John Drake on DANGER MAN. He’s TV’s James Bond or Jack Bauer or Jason Bourne. On vacation from shooting (at the actual resort where he ultimately filmed THE PRISONER at!), Patrick McGoohan is inspired to invent this series. He is later able to convince the producer of DANGER MAN to actually cancel that hit series and invest in THE PRISONER instead, which (commercially) failed. McGoohan envisions a limited series, 8-10 episodes, but eventually he will consent to an ongoing series commitment.

Shooting The Prisoner

The (silent) opening credits to Episode 1, ARRIVAL, tell you the set-up of the show: A SPY races back to London, into the secret HQ of Her Majesty’s Secret Service, where he furiously, with great indignation, resigns and stomps out. But, packing his bags at home in his (awesome) bachelor’s pad, he’s poison-gassed – and falls unconscious. He awakens in his apartment, re-created almost perfectly inside a cottage in a mysterious seaside locale known as The Village, run by the international intelligence community: everyone here knows too much to be allowed free roam of the world – though no one actually knows where on the planet they are. He will be known as Number 6; the Village is run by Number 2. No one knows who or where Number 1 is. “They” want to know: Why did Number 6 resign? But, a) outraged at the violation of his individual rights by big government, and b) uncertain “They” are really even actually British, he won’t (and can’t) talk. Each episode features a new Number 2, as they’re constantly replaced, and each has a new idea to ‘persuade’ Number 6 to give up his silence (so there’s a drug episode, a torture episode, etc). Number 6 is absolutely undefeatable; but with futuristic spy-tech technology the outside world can’t imagine, and a security system Number 6 cannot overcome, so is the power of The Village. You could call it, “Jason Bourne trapped in Alice In Wonderland battling 1984’s Big Brother”. At the dawn of the computer age (and before the Tea Party turned paranoia of Big Government into a shrill cartoon), THE PRISONER asks: How much should “They” be allowed to know about people? I like it more than BRAVE NEW WORLD and BRAZIL.

The fairy tale-esque location is real, and you can still check in for a resort stay today. The layout and architecture were all designed by one person.

The Prisoner invented its own font for its titles, and all Village signs and lettering are in that font.

It also “invented” the cordless telephone.

There’s 17 episodes. Some are mediocre; here’s what I think one should see. The absolute Must-Sees (imho) are noted in orange-highlighter, and guess what: they mirror the number of episodes McGoohan originally envisioned. It’s designed to be seen in any order, but I personally recommend the following order.

ARRIVAL At least watch the Full Opening credits. Number 6 discovers and learns about the Village from the New Number Two; its position between mountains and ocean, its hierarchy and technology, and its absolutely unbeatable mobile A.I. defense system. Number 6 states the foundational theme of the series: “I am not a number, I am a person. I will not be pushed, stamped, filed, briefed, or debriefed. My life is my own.” (Min 13:00-15:45)

FREE FOR ALL – The New Number 2 encourages Number 6 to see the freedom and democracy available to all Village residents by running in the Village elections. Surprise, the elections are of course a fraud. But there’s an even chillier surprise yet still in store for Number 6…

CHECKMATE – Number 6 has a problem: the Village’s guards live among the population as spies. Number 6 finds an ingenious solution to differentiate between guards and real inmates… and devises a desperate plan to send an SOS to the outside world…

A, B AND C – The New Number 2 sedates and brain-scans Number 6’s memories, fucking with them to figure out which of three associates of 6’s may have induced him to resign. But Number 6 has an indomitable will… (The science-fiction aspect may be too dated for some, otherwise I’d highlight-bold this one. Great ending, fun background to “before the series began”)

THE CHIMES OF BIG BEN – Number 6 and a beautiful new Village resident team up to escape the Village for London to warn British Intelligence of the Village’s existence.

A CHANGE OF MIND – The New Number 2 drugs and persuades Number 6 that he has had a lobotomy. It’s not great, but it’s interesting.

THE SCHIZOID MAN – Yes, this is the title of a Next Generation episode; a lot of TV writers love THE PRISONER. You may think you’ve seen all the Doppelganger stories before, but the New Number 2 has a new twist to show you…

MANY HAPPY RETURNS – Number 6 awakens to find the Village deserted of all life, except for a stray cat…

HAMMER INTO ANVIL – The greatest episode of all in my opinion; yet it can’t be really appreciated unless you’re already familiar with the nature of the series. That’s why I order it here; and also, Number 6 makes serious waves in The Village here, upping the stakes for what “They” will try next…

LIVING IN HARMONY –Number 6 is a Sheriff in an Old West town on the American frontier, who resigns in great indignation and rides off… only to find himself trapped in ab isolated village, held captive until he reveals… why he resigned. I SAY TRY IT, AT LEAST THE FIRST 9 MINUTES; IF AT ANY POINT YOU GET BORED, SKIP AHEAD TO MINUTE 42.

One day, Patrick McGoohan is told the series is cancelled. He has 3 days to write an ending; he’s already got Once Upon A Time shot, and decides to spin it into a 2-parter Finale.

It’s not a great ending. I’ve read the the UK telephone system partially collapsed the night the final installment aired, due to floods of angry calls. If you’re really curious and want to know how it ends, it’s a 2-parter:

ONCE UPON A TIME – The greatest Number 2 returns to the Village, with Final Orders to break Number 6 at all costs – even his own life. Number 6 and Number 2 are locked into a subterranean playground, with Number 2’s Butler. Primal Regression Therapy ensues.

FALLOUT – Number 6 has survived all that The Village has to throw at him; the Village submits and welcomes him as one of its ruling class. You may be disappointed; it’s a very roughly thrown together conclusion. But if you like Fringe Festival type of stuff, you may like the 2-part Finale.

I choose to believe that the Butler is the real, true Number One!

THE PRISONER: Because no one is just a number.