Patrick McGoohan is dead. The Prisoner is gone.
Arguably, in the pre-HBO era, The Prisoner was one of the most ambitious, and perplexing shows ever created for television. Perplexing only, however, those who like their answers spoon fed to them in easy-to-handle doses of prepackaged blandness. McGoohan laid all his themes out there for everyone to see, even wrapped in the thin blanket of genre fiction: the effect of modern society on the individual, the loss of freedom, the oppressiveness of government, authority figures, schooling, modern psychology, the role of the individual in society. They’re all there. And as for answers, you’ll get about as many as people you ask.
The whole point was to get people asking questions, to make them think, and they could provide some extremely fascinating stories along the way. Is there a better shock than watching the dream No. 6 walk back to his body on the television monitor (an early flat screen) in A, B & C? Or his complete psychological destruction of the No. 2 in Hammer into Anvil? Perhaps complete helplessness of the protagonist himself in Free For All, a brutal condemnation of the modern electorate and electoral process?
The Prisoner was a beautiful, fascinating, infuriating idea that McGoohan droll says, “spun out of boredom”, which is his way of perhaps making light of the near nervous breakdown that he suffered trying to over-control all the different aspects of the production. The idea was brilliant. Sheer brilliance.
The show itself was of its time, and has been analyzed and dissected and picked apart from just about every single angle, but it hasn’t been assimilated. Its too open ended for that. You can dismiss it, criticize its effects or costumes or hairstyles, but the very nature of the story is that if you start to think about the questions it raises, you can’t ignore it. It has had a way of staying with a lot of people for a long time.
McGoohan himself was powerful actor who often would use elegant timing and sheer force of character to play equally memorable heroes (John Drake and No. 6) and villains ("Escape from
I discovered the series back in the 1980’s on public television here in the Bay Area, concluding each episode with a “Prisoner Wrap Session” with a number of local writers who loved the series. Most of what I got out those wrap sessions in the heady pre-internet days, was that other had already scratched below the surface of the series that I was becoming sucked into, and all they found for all their digging was more questions. I was the beginning of the belief as a creator that not all questions needed answering, not everything needed to be shown, and that psychological understanding of people was more important than anything else. If you understood people you knew how to use them for good or for bad. McGoohan made a believer out of me; a believer in questions, questioning easy answers.
A brilliant man has died, one who could never escape the inevitable questions about The Prisoner for years after, so much so they must have seemed like Angelo Muscat’s butler following him back into the London flat at the end of Once Upon a Time. The irony is inescapable. Later in his life he commented, “I guess I’ll always be a number.” Which is, of course, a wry statement on the last line of the opening, “I’m not a number, I’m a free man!”
To me, you’ll always be a free man.