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The Prisoner
Reviewed by Amy H. Sturgis, ©

Format: TV
By:   Patrick McGoohan
Genre:   Mystery / Science Fiction
Review Date:  

Patrick McGoohan is not a number. He's a free man. Or is he?

McGoohan first became "The Prisoner," a.k.a. "Number Six," in 1967. At the time the highest paid actor in television with a hit series (Secret Agent/Danger Man in the United Kingdom) and high profile movie offer (McGoohan was approached to portray James Bond both before and after Sean Connery) to his credit, McGoohan chose the road less traveled and opted to produce his own series with ITC Entertainment: The Prisoner. He originally envisioned the show unfolding in seven linked episodes, but eventually seventeen were filmed. In them, The Prisoner resigns his position as a high-powered spy and then finds himself kidnapped and imprisoned in The Village, a surreal luxury prison where the victims and wardens all look the same. As the story progresses, Number Six learns that nationalistic "us" and "them" divisions are meaningless, as all sides compete to break him, uncover the information in his head, and discover why he resigned.

Mytharc episodes such as "Free For All," "Dance of the Dead," and "Checkmate" exploited the unique Italianate setting of Portmeirion, Wales, to create a storybook backdrop to the physical and psychological tortures endured by Number Six. As star, producer, and sometime writer and director, McGoohan highlighted the libertarian struggle of the individual against authority - and, ultimately, himself -- in each storyline. The final episode of the series, "Fall Out," moved the story to a new metaphorical level and, in the process, so outraged fans who wanted a clear-cut end to the mystery of The Village that McGoohan was forced to move abroad. McGoohan, it seems, believed that The Prisoner could never really escape The Village; this skepticism remains one of the hallmarks of the McGoohan milieu.

The series ended in 1968, but The Prisoner has never really died. International fan organizations such as Six of One (see, for instance, here, here, and here) maintain websites, publications, and yearly conventions. Recent films (The Matrix, High Fidelity) and television series (The Simpsons, for example, aired an homage episode this past season, complete with a guest star appearance by Patrick McGoohan himself) offer explicit tributes to the cult classic, and others (the claustrophobic Dark City, the self-critical Babylon 5, the "trust no one" The X-Files) continue to reveal the deep influence of its message. A&E Entertainment began to release the remastered series on DVD in 2001, including trailers, interviews, and trivia games along with the uncut episodes. On the heels of this rerelease, Simon West, in concert with Patrick McGoohan, is developing a new version of The Prisoner for film release.

Why does The Prisoner continue to resonate with fans? Unlike its sister series such as The Avengers and The Saint, The Prisoner transcends its Cold War origin by addressing broader issues of the human condition: human versus the machinations of authority, human versus the tyranny of conformity, human versus the imprisoning force of her own mortal nature. McGoohan's vision is a subtle one, and the artistry (both visual and verbal) with which he presents it is unrivalled in the history of television. Devoted fans and new converts alike should revisit the series not only for a classic slice of science fiction history, but also for an blueprint of how excellent television might be created in the future.

Amy H. Sturgis is a contributing writer for RevolutionSF.

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