“I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered.”
A minor plague swept through Castle Blogferatu this week. Because of that, and as part of my own little effort to boycott all things inaugural, I spent all of this past Friday and part of Saturday swilling tea (occasionally in toddy form) and watching all seventeen episodes of The Prisoner.
If you’re unfamiliar, the premise is deceptively simple. A secret agent (Patrick McGoohan) resigns his post at some MI5 kind of agency. He’s then gassed, kidnapped, and wakes up in a place called The Village where they (whoever they are) keep him under constant surveillance and run continuous psy ops on him to extract information about why he resigned. If this isn’t the coolest show ever made, it’s definitely in the Top 3.
For one thing, the psy ops never work, and the secret agent, Number 6 (in The Village everyone is a number), routinely defeats each Number 2 (the interrogator), often at his or her own game.
One of my favorites is Episode 10: Hammer Into Anvil. Number 6 convinces Number 2 that he’s a plant sent to monitor Number 2’s instability. Huh. An out of control egomaniac whose raging insecurity and paranoia can be played like a harp from hell and used to destroy him. This may be required viewing, class.
Overall, Number 6’s ability to hold out against and thwart the machinations of the succession of Number 2’s is something to behold. Number 6 is witty, wry, charming more often than not, and has an almost constant sardonic smile. His interaction with the each Number 2 is wry bordering on condescending. We feel as if he knows far more than he ever lets on.
In addition, while obviously Orwellian, it’s easy to see how a few other sources also make their way into The Prisoner. Brave New World (sloganeering, hypnopedia), Player Piano (man tricks machine into destroying itself), and to an extent A Clockwork Orange (behavior modification), they’re all there. I’d argue there’s a generous amount of Wild Wild West quirkiness to be found here as well.
This is not to suggest the series is without its flaws. Like James Bond, Number 6 can be profoundly shortsighted. For example, in the opening credits, we see Number 6’s resignation. He goes home to pack and leave. This is where he is gassed and kidnapped. Does he not think these people he has worked for are, I dunno, capable of something like that? Shouldn’t he have been prepared to leave without returning home?
Then there’s Episode 3: A. B. and C. Number 6 wakes up to find a hypodermic mark on his wrist and deduces he’d been drugged the night before. That night the maid fixes him tea, and he drinks it!
Or how about Episode 7: Many Happy Returns? Number 6 escapes and makes it back to London where he returns almost immediately to the very people who not only sent him to The Village in the first place, but also sent him back to it when he escaped in Episode 2: The Chimes Of Big Ben.
This man does not have an impressive learning curve. On the other hand, watching The Prisoner as just standard secret agent fare would be like reading Frankenstein as just a mad scientist story. Both have been described as parables, allegories, even morality plays.
But how is this horror?
How is it not? Seriously. A system that provides all you will ever need in exchange for your obedience and conformity which it will seize through constant surveillance, drugging, mind control, involuntary behavior modification, social engineering/experimentation, and possibly death if you’re deemed expendable.
Fifty years ago this show first aired. How’s that for ahead of the curve?
Here’s what McGoohan had to say (which I picked up from Horrornews.net): “How free are we? The series was posing the question, has one the right to tell a man what to think, how to behave, to coerce others? I was concerned with the individual and his liberty.”
At this point, aren’t we all?