Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Prisoner: Many Happy Returns

With the recent passing of Patrick McGoohan I found myself a little nostalgic for the days when I first discovered The Prisoner on PBS a few decades ago. Younger readers might remember McGoohan better as Edward Longshanks from Braveheart or the old Mississippi judge from A Time to Kill.

McGoohan conceived The Prisoner and wrote or directed most of its seventeen episodes. Originally written as a seven episode miniseries, it was padded out to seventeen so it would have at least a chance of syndication -- particularly for CBS in the United States.

The television equivalent of James Bond in the 1960's was Secret Agent Man (aka Danger Man in the UK) where McGoohan played the title role of John Drake. The Prisoner (1967) was very much conceived as way for him to break away from the whole secret agent genre. While McGoohan never owned the rights to the John Drake character, it is widely assumed that Danger Man's "John Drake" and The Prisoner's "Number 6" are one in the same.

The premise of The Prisoner is that Patrick McGoohan's character is a disillusioned British secret agent who, after suddenly handing in his resignation, wakes up in a mysterious place known only as "The Village". It is seemingly isolated from the outside world, everyone is assigned numbers instead of names, and most of the residents are content to live out their lives there as if it's some kind of brainwashed vacation spot. The Village is governed by "Number 2" and ostensibly his (or her) primary task is to discover why Number 6 resigned -- something that "The Prisoner" steadfastly refuses to divulge. The ultimate problem for McGoohan's character, against the political backdrop of the time, is that he doesn't know which side controls The Village. Is he a prisoner of the Soviet Union, the British government, or some other power?

Most of the episodes revolve around Number 6 trying to escape from The Village or battling against Number 2 in some form or fashion. The final episode of the series left fans angry and confused and McGoohan even received death threats (remember that, Lost producers!). In the end though, The Prisoner is considered a television masterpiece and still holds up well some 40 years later. It's currently being remade as an AMC miniseries starring Jim Caviezel as Number 6 and Sir Ian McKellen as Number Two. Wow.

This is one of my favorites of the original episodes, Many Happy Returns, in its entirety.


Bonez said...

You know, there are definite similarities in the mood and style between The Prisoner and Lost. Thanks for this great post!

E said...

I remember my parents talking about this show at length when I was a lad. It wasn't until the 90's that I was able to catch it on the Sci-Fi Network. It was definitely ahead of its time. I can't say I ever "got it", but I certainly appreciated the show for the trailblazer that it was.

jim said...

HA ! You are really aging me now! You saw it on PBS ! I actually watched the series sans commercials on AFRTS (wonder if you know what that is) original broadcast period. Same for the classic Trek, it was more like watching movies or dvd's today with the blackouts....The Prisoner is perfect commentary for our times - we Americans only THINK we are citizen-free, actually we are number 6 but don't know it. Anybody inside the law is...