"I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered!My life is my own!" From "The Prisoner" (1967)
My wife has been obsessed with the show since childhood. We watched the whole thing over that winter. It was a bit dated, but most of it held up. Unlike many series, it actually had a conclusion with a final episode where everything was sort of resolved. It was not set in the future, but was vaguely futuristic, and quite prescient in pointing to some trends in information and control that outlasted the Cold War era.
The themes of identity, torture and mind control echo to this day, in the news and in cultural artifacts like Terry Gilliam's "Brazil" and the Fox series "24." "Where am I?' "In the village." "What do you want?" "Information." "Whose side are you on?" "That would be telling..." "We want information... Information... Information." "You won't get it." "By hook or by crook, we will." "Who are you?" "The new Number Two." "Who is Number One?" "You are Number Six." "I am not a number. I am a free man!" (Mocking laughter) --Weekly Opening to "The Prisoner"
He plays a secret agent who tries to resign. He famously types the letter in the opening credits, and we see a Rube Goldberg contraption drop it into a file cabinet. He is kidnapped -- perhaps by his own side, perhaps by the other side -- to a mysterious place called the Village, where he is addressed only as Number Six. We never learn his name. Perhaps he is Drake, perhaps not. The Village is run by a series of bureaucrats named Number Two, who are each given the job to break Number Six's spirit. This typically fails after one cockamamie scheme or another. In the next episode, there is usually a new Number Two.
Number Six never cracks. Along the way, he tries to help various others in the Village, who often end up betraying him.
"Danger Man" was later broadcast in the United States as "Secret Agent," with a new theme song by Johnny Rivers that reached No. 5 on the pop music charts.
You probably know the tune. It has been covered by Blues Traveler and others.
The original British version of "Danger Man" had some theme music that was vaguely jazzy and staccato, without vocals. McGoohan reportedly hated the new rock and roll theme, although the lyrics foreshadowed the premise of "The Prisoner."
There's a man who lives a life of danger To everyone he meets, he stays a stranger With every move he makes Another chance he takes Odds are he won't live to see tomorrow
Secret agent man, secret agent man They've given you a number And taken away your name
After we worked through "The Prisoner" boxed set, I tracked down A&E's DVD sets of "Secret Agent Man/Danger Man" and knew I had another surefire gift for my wife. I had already set up the TiVo to capture anything with McGoohan in it. There's not much worth watching after these two series. His most memorable roles were as King Edward Longshanks in the overrated "Braveheart" and as a British secret agent in the interminable "Ice Station Zebra" with Rock Hudson.
He also popped up in episodes of "Columbo" and "Murder, She Wrote."
"Danger Man" is pretty good spy stuff for the time. There was demand for a James Bond TV show, and Ian Fleming reportedly helped McGoohan with some ideas, but he had already sold the Bond name to someone else. It is rumored on fan sites that McGoohan had passed on a chance to play Bond on the big screen. Other TV offerings from that era included "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.," "The Saint," "Wild Wild West," and "The Avengers." I remember watching them all. I remember "The Prisoner" but not "Danger Man."
In the show, John Drake was called in to do the dirty jobs, first for an arm of NATO and later for what would seem to be British intelligence. The shows are low budget, and the same sets pop up with some frequency, but the episodes make the most of their suspenseful plots. The English countryside is cleverly transformed into exotic locales around the globe.
"The Prisoner" is something else again, a rejection of the whole spy game. A man who seems a lot like Drake turns in his resignation, then gets kidnapped to a village, where all manner of mental and physical torture is used to get him to explain why he resigned. It was filmed at Portmeiron, a peculiar resort in England, where Prisoner fans gather for annual conventions.
AMC put out a disappointing remake in 2009.
There are many Web sites devoted to the show. (I sometimes think my head is crammed full of useless stuff. And the useless stuff that I don't have room for, someone else has put on the Internet. We are part of a vast beehive of information, most of it useless. Information.)
After you watch The Prisoner, phrases and images will echo in your head. The creepy big-brother greeting of the Village: "Be seeing you." The penny-farthing bicycle that is its symbol. The old saying "six of one."
"Once he begins to doubt his own identity, he'll crack." --Number Two
The fears echo through the years. Do I worry every time I am asked for my Social Security number in a context that has nothing to do with the government retirement program? Yes. I know from my reporting days that some of those digits can tell you exactly when and where the person was born. The first, best step in complete identity theft is to get that number. In some sense, the number is more real than we are.
Some day I suppose, our DNA profiles will serve that purpose more precisely. It won't be as terrifying as that movie "Gattaca," but it will be disturbing nonetheless.
In the scary future, it's pretty clear that we will not speak on giant telephones and be chased on the beach by giant white blobs like the now-laughable rover in "The Prisoner," but life will be strange in other ways. (I also don't think that Kosho, the weird game McGoohan invented, will catch on, either. It involves masked combat on trampolines surrounded by water. Maybe we can get an app version.)
Technology that "The Prisoner" failed to foresee: cellphones, laptops, the Internet, Twitter, Facebook. But it had a pretty good handle on hidden cameras, wiretapping and torture.
Swinging on the Riviera one day Lying in a Bombay alley next day Be careful what you say Or you'll give yourself away Odds are you won't live to see tomorrow
The recent post-9/11 era of heightened security and paranoia is a lot like the cold war era of my childhood, when James Bond and John Drake ruled our screens.
But Number Six was different, a rebel, and for that reason, appealing. I think I understand why "The Prisoner" resigns, why he chooses not to be a part of the empire anymore, crushing and controlling other nations. He just wants to be left alone but he won't give up his honor. He never gives up trying to get out of the Village. He never gives in. He never stops fighting. He is uncompromising, ego personified.
And he drives a cool car.
Number Two: "Are you going to run?" Number Six: "Like blazes. The first chance I get." Number Two: "Why did you resign?" Number Six: "For peace.."
I remember watching those other old spy shows in black and white reruns on my grandmother's old TV set when we were visiting. That past of the 50s and 60s looks so attractive, with its logical villains -- just your typical corrupt power brokers or madmen out for world domination.
Our villains these days are more like irrational monsters, bent on suicide and inflicting pain, on us, on themselves. A few years ago, a burglar came in through the bathroom window of a Manhattan apartment. Shot a man in his sleep. Drank his whiskey, watched his porn. Then he went downstairs and killed a couple in their 80s, stuffed blank checks in the man's mouth, sexually molested the woman. I'll take a super-villain with a plot to rule the world over that any day.
"A still tongue makes a happy life." --A saying in the Village, from "The Prisoner"
As art, "The Prisoner" is a mess, a cult item treasured for its oddity. As a study of conformity and social control, it is magnificent. With its mock elections, bogus newspapers, loudspeakers and totalitarian-style speechifying, it is a commentary, a sad one, on the modern world. McGoohan has been quoted as saying that "freedom is a myth," but I can't square that with what he said in "The Prisoner."
"Nobody has a name, everyone wears a number," he said. "It's a reflection of the pressure on all of us today to be numbered, to give up our individualism. This is a contemporary subject, not science fiction. I hope these things will be recognized by the audience. It's not meant to be subtle. It's meant to say: This little village is our world."
I don't believe freedom is a myth, can't believe it. We decide what kind of society we live in, whether to throw garbage in the street or a bucket, whether to smile or scowl at a stranger, whether to allow wiretaps and torture, when to go to war. We can be honest, or we can cheat. We can gather facts or trade in gossip and rumors. We can be good and decent and kind, or not. We can go through this life as if we are prisoners, or we can choose something better. Deep down, we usually know the better choice, if we look hard enough.
As they say in the village, be seeing you, Patrick McGoohan.
"I understand he survived the ultimate test. Then he must no longer be referred to as Number Six or a number of any kind."
[Original post, 2005; revised in 2009 and 2012]