Wednesday, February 6, 2013

From the Village: The Prisoner

On a more personal note, my fiancé has been doing a lot sales traveling lately. And while I do miss her, the upside is that I get to watch my TV shows for a change. One of my favorites that I have been re-watching is the old “Prisoner” series. Patrick McGoohan’s defining work (he not only starred, but conceived, produced, and head-wrote) takes off right where his old show “Danger Man” (Also known as ”Secret Agent” here in the US) abruptly left off. Wether “The Prisoner” is a sequel to “Danger Man” is never truly resolved.

Like the more modern show “Lost,” “The Prisoner” is set on a surreal island. McGoohan has no idea how he got there and all his attempts at escape are thwarted. Unlike “Lost,” “The Prisoner” uses hip, mod stylings to send up a very libertarian message about the relationship of the individual to civil society. Just what are the limits to liberty and how are they reconciled with the needs of the institution? All the visual cues for a modern social(ist) utopia permeate the show but they don’t fit McGoohan’s sensibilities as a free man.

In true collectivist fashion, McGoohan’s character is only ever referred to as “Number 6.” We never really learn his true identity. Is he really still Agent Drake from “Danger Man?” One series followed right where the other left off. As Johnny Rivers sang in the opening have they finally “given him a number and taken ‘way his name?” The mystery of personal identity and what it means is a theme that flows through each episode.

The show always starts with a montage of McGoohan quitting his government agent job in a heated dispute. His resignation is processed by a Kafka-esque bureaucracy. McGoohan’s new independence threatens an un-named institution. (Possibly his old employer? Maybe Danger Man’s enemies?) They gas and kidnap him, depositing him in The Village on an unusual island. In each episode he wakes to be questioned by a shadowy figure.
#6: “Where am I?”
Voice: “In the Village.”
#6: “What do you want?”
Voice: “In-for-mation.” ... “We want in-for-mation.”...
#6: “Who are you?”
Voice: “The new number two.”
#6: “Who is number one?”
Voice: “You are (slight pause) number 6.”
#6: “I AM NOT A NUMBER! I AM A FREE MAN!”

Does Number Two want Six to give up state secrets or valuable data? Is Number Two really looking for information? Or is Number Two so wired into the collective, is his individuality so far lost, that he only wants what the others want? Are his desires in unity with the others: do they all want in formation? Is the real goal here to get Number Six to conform with the collective and think properly? When Number Two pauses in his answer about Number One, is he being evasive or did he insert a comma? Think about how that changes the meaning of the response. Who is really responsible for, or in charge of, Number Six?

The episodes then continue with Six’s newest escape plan. He struggles with his own identity against the pressures of near absurd conformity. A battle of wills invitably leads to a mental defeat of Two. But even with Two defeated, Six’s control over his own escape proves ever illusory and he remains trapped on the island.

My favorite episode would be “The General.” Curiously, it is episode number 6 in the series. There is enough going on in that one episode to fill another blog post. So I think we will leave that for a future time.

In its heyday I could never really get into “Lost,” probably because I’ve seen “The Prisoner.” I know how good that format can be and how the show can really be about something. If you’re not familiar with the series, do yourself a favor and rent a few episodes. They are definitely worth your time.

Be seeing you.

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