The Radical Politics of The Prisoner
The 1960s British produced television series The Prisoner was a radical subversion of the spy genre. It’s hero, No. 6, trumpets radical individualism rather than loyalty to the State. “The Village”, in which the show is set, critiques social institutions as being about a sick desire for power, and the suppression of the individual.
First, some background. Beginning in 1967 and running through 1968, the 17 episode show was designed for a limited run. Originally Patrick McGoohan, the show’s star and producer, had wanted to produce only 7 episodes. Following the standards of the time, CBS asked for 36 episodes. McGoohan only agreed to go as high as 17.
McGoohan had previously appeared in a spy show called Danger Man. Starting in 1960 and ending in 1968, the show was an international success, making McGoohan famous. However, McGoohan announced to his producers that he was quitting Danger Man- and pitched them the idea of The Prisoner.
The Prisoner opens with a montage of McGoohan resigning from his spy agency. When he returns home, his flat fills with a mysterious colorless gas and he falls to the ground unconscious. He awakes in an exact replica of his old apartment, but instead of London outside of his window, there is a bizarre town called The Village (the show was shot in Portmeirion, a Welsh tourist village).
After showing the title, it then cuts to another sequence. Dialogue between No. 6 and No. 2, the head of The Village, plays over McGoohan running through the surreal landscape of The Village, attempting to escape. As he flees, he’s pursued by Rover, a hovering white ball, the control of which is overseen from No. 2’s command center. The words are as follows:
Number 6: Where am I?
Number 2: In the Village.
Number 6: What do you want?
Number 2: We want information.
Number 6: Whose side are you on?
Number 2: That would be telling. We want information… information… information.
Number 6: You won’t get it.
Number 2: By hook or by crook, we will.
Number 6: Who are you?
Number 2: The new Number 2.
Number 6: Who is Number 1?
Number 2: You are Number 6.
Number 6: I am not a number, I am a free man.
(Mocking Laughter From Number 2)
Thusly, The Prisoner establishes it’s story: No. 6 must keep his secret while attempting to escape.
In The Prisoner, The Village is an allegory for modern society. The most important quality of The Village is that it is inescapable: located on an island, attempts at escape are always halted by Rover, who descends on No. 6 multiple times throughout the show, dragging him back to his confinement.
In each episode, we are introduced to various institutions and traditions of The Village. The Village is, in theory, a democracy- No. 2 is elected once every year by all citizens of The Village. It has a “Labor Service” to help people find productive work in the community. There are also many community activities such as artistic craft fairs. There’s a newspaper, television programs, and a public address system that booms in to every corner of the village, mostly with inane, cheerfully delivered weather reports.
In the second episode of the show, Free For All, we’re introduced to the “democratic” political system of The Village. No. 6 awakes in the morning to a visit from No. 2, who pitches him the idea of running for office against him. Looking out from a balcony at an adoring crowd chanting No. 2’s name and carrying massive No. 2 campaign signs, No. 6 mocks this “democratic” process:
No. 6: Looks like a unanimuous majority.
No. 2: That’s what worries me! It’ll be bad for morale. Some of these people don’t seem to value free elections.
Hoping to learn more about The Village and perhaps organize a revolution, No. 6 agrees to run for office. What follows is an absurd, rapid fire sequence of No. 6 embarking on his “campaign”. Almost instantly, half the crowd produces No. 6 signs and begins chanting his name. Ambushed by a crowd of adoring citizens who love him as much as they loved No. 2 moments earlier, he barely escapes. Later, he’s hunted down by a couple of reporters, who ask him a series of questions, and repeat back his answers as something completely different, writing them down. Moments later, No. 6 sees an issue of the local newspaper with a long article on his campaign that has clearly been written beforehand.
In the newspaper, No. 6 is cast as the rebel, his answer of “No Comment” is ignored in favor of a line about “Fighting for freedom”. As he later delivers a defiant speech, No. 2, standing beside him, deadpans encouragement of his rebellious message. His defiance has been anticipated and accounted for: it will serve the purpose of creating a false opposition to No. 2’s authority, in order to reinforce it. Later, he is brainwashed to love The Village and wins the election. Shaking off the brainwashing he attempts to lead an escape, but is violently beaten and removed from office.
While the “democracy” of The Village is obviously a farce, it implies that our democracies may be a farce as well. The Village’s political system is preordained to produce a result that will mantain the status quo. Political opposition is tolerated to lend legitimacy to the regime, but if it becomes dangerous, it must be discredited. If that also fails, the system turns to violence to mantain its authority.
A year before the airing of The Prisoner, Martin Luther King had been assassinated. A wave of anti-war sentiment on college campuses and in the streets had been ignored by the authorities, who often responded violently to demonstrations. The Prisoner brilliantly expresses the growing idea of the time that the political system was essentially broken and undemocratic.
The Village isn’t just a critique of the Free World, however. Communist regimes claimed to be democratic, and the totalitarian methods of those running The Village often evoke Stalin and Mao more than anything else. In the episode “A Change Of Mind”, No. 6 is subjected to “rehabilitation” and a process of self criticism: meant by the writers to evoke tactics employed by Stalin and Mao to deal with political dissidents in addition to McCarthyism (White). The newspaper, printed well beforehand carrying the official truth seems much more like Pravda than The New York Times. No. 6 himself is certainly no friend of communists, having presumably fought them all his life.
In the finale, several rebels are put on trial, including No. 6. A robed, masked committee oversees the trial. Each committee member has a different labeled placard sitting in front of them, such as: Education, Recreation, Young People, Activists, Anarchists, Entertainment, Identification. Every possible element of society is presumably covered by one masked figure or another. The “committee” accounts for the whole of society, not just what may be obvious government functions. One the one hand, this could be a critique of totalitarian societies like the USSR, where everything is managed by the Communist Party. On the other hand, perhaps “Entertainment” and “Recreation” are also methods of social control in the West. Even Activists and Anarchists are listed: are they a true opposition, or are they as orchestrated and ordained to fail as No. 6’s political campaign? The Prisoner doesn’t give us any easy answers.
Throughout the show, No. 6 repeatedly asks who runs The Village. No. 2 confides in him that he doesn’t actually know, and that in his view it doesn’t matter: the purpose of The Village is to collect information, and where it goes from there is irrelevant to him. I think it’s irrelevant to the writers as well. Though many viewers probably thought a major mystery of the show was whether The Village is being run by the West or the East, they missed the shows subversive point: that the purpose of the State is always the same: control. There is only a difference in methods.
Fighting against The Village is No. 6, who is described by No. 2 as, “…particularly militant, and individualistic.” While James Bond gladly embraced the designation 007, No. 6 declares in a notable rant:
I will not make any deals with you. I’ve resigned. I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own. I resign.
Just like the masters of The Village, we never learn the reasons for his resignation: but it’s clearly a matter of principle. In the context of a realistic spy narrative, it wouldn’t seem particularly important why a man resigned, unless he had some critical knowledge. But on this show, it’s all about the principle of the thing. The resignation loses any moorings in reality and becomes a symbol of his desire to be independent from society.
The 14th episode of the series, Living In Harmony, was considered too controversial to air in the United States during the shows initial run. There is some dispute as to why- ranging from the episode being perceived as too anti-war, drug use, or the violence of the shootout, which apparently violated US TV censorship instituted after the assassination of Kennedy and MLK (Fairclough). Whatever the case, it neatly encapsulated the shows individualistic politics.
The episode is an allegory for the rest of the series. Set in the Old West, No. 6 is a sheriff who turns in his badge in a sequence that imitates the usual opening montage of the show. He ends up in a town called Harmony, and ends up stirring up a mob of intolerant villagers. The Judge, who runs the town, allows the mob to kill an innocent man rather than No. 6 to satisfy their blood lust. Later threatening another innocent life, he tries to coerce No. 6 to work for him, as he’s obviously a skilled gunfighter. He refuses, going down fighting. It’s then revealed that the entire thing was faked, and that Harmony is a set built on the same island as The Village.
The message is simple: the only valid response to an unjust system is to first try and avoid it, and if that’s impossible, to fight against it. Violence is a last resort and only justified to protect yourself or innocent life, and blindly obeying authority is always too high of a price to pay.
In conclusion, amid the chaos of the 1960s, The Prisoner broadcasted a radical message: be a conscientious individual, don’t trust authority, and mantain your independence at all costs. The Village, representing society and government, is depicted as relentlessly oppressive and destructive. But if you stick to your principles and keep your wits about you, you might score a victory just as No. 6 and his fellow rebels do in the final episode. When the Village’s No. 1 is finally revealed, it turns out to look just like No. 6. Was No. 6 running the village all along? Perhaps in the struggle to be free individuals, our greatest enemies are ourselves.
Markstein, George. “The Prisoner.” The Prisoner. Prod. Patrick McGoohan. 1967-1968. Television.
White, Matthew; Jaffer Ali (1988). The Official Prisoner Companion. London: Sidgwick & Jackson. (pg. 90, 91)
Fairclough, Robert, ed. The Prisoner: The Original Scripts. vol. 2. foreword by Roger Parkes. Reynolds & Hearn.