Smugglivus

50th Anniversary of The Prisoner – Paul Weimer’s Smugglivus Celebration

Welcome to Smugglivus 2017! Throughout this month, we will have guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2017, looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2018, and more.

Today’s Smugglivus guest is the lovely Paul Weimer – fellow reviewer, podcaster, photographer.

Please give a warm welcome to Paul, everybody!

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2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the release of one of the most interesting, convoluted, complex and controversial shows in television history. Filmed in 1966 and released in 1967, The Prisoner proves to still be one of the most iconic shows of genre television, and an inspiration and landmark for genre television ever since.

The Prisoner is the story of an nameless British secret service agent, played by Patrick McGoohan. McGoohan was no stranger to playing spies and secret agents. McGoohan had previously played a British secret service agent, John Drake, in Danger Man. Patrick McGoohan, based on the strength of his performance in that show, had been offered the role of James Bond in Dr. No, but had turned it down. That would have been a rather strange thing if he had accepted, because the no-nonsense John Drake is erudite, thoughtful, not much of a lady chaser and quite different than James Bond in other aspects as well. Whilst filming The Prisoner, McGoohan would also get the role of a British secret agent in the Cold War spy thriller Ice Station Zebra. He also would be asked again, and to turn down again, James Bond, for Live and Let Die.

But in between all of that was The Prisoner. The Prisoner, co-created with George Markstein, was a seventeen episode series that debuted on September 29.1967. The story, the episodes, the show was their shared creation. McGoohan originally wanted seven episodes, and was talked into an additional ten more to have a substantial series. (I suspect in this age of short seasons, his original seven plan might have been tenable).

The character’s backstory was encapsulated in the opening credits of each episode. McGoohan’s secret agent angrily resigns from his job. Upon returning to his flat in London, he is gassed, passes out and wakes up in a replica of his apartment, in a small building with a mixture of architecture and people all addressed as numbers: The Village(1). All the other villagers are former secret agents and people of interest to espionage organizations who have, like our hero, been brought to the Village against their will to have their knowledge protected and extracted.

There is no escape from the Village, and it is run by a rotating cast of people all with the designation Number Two. The Prisoner is given a number, as well, upon arrival. He is Number Six.(2)

In the episodic television of the 1960’s, there is a single storyline each week, as the Prisoner mostly tries to escape the Village at first…and of course, fails each time. There is a greater storyline of course–the overall theme, of Number Six seeking to escape. In the first episodes, his attempts are futile, weak, and Number Two always seems to be ahead of him at every turn. As the series moves toward the middle and conclusion, the overall narrative changes. Number Six becomes a force within the Village itself, rising in power to fight the forces that control the Village, and in the final two episodes, discovers the secret at the heart of it. For if everyone is a Number, and Number Two ostensibly runs the Village (sometimes at the behest of an unseen entity), then there is surely a Number One. But who IS Number One?(3)

The genius of the show is in the individual episodes and the themes and ideas that it explores. “Free for all” is a scathing look at Democracy that is poignant today as it was then. “A Change of Mind” explores group dynamics, shunning and behavior. Violence and its place in the world. The dangers of technology being used by the government to control thought. Justice, freedom and the law. Corruption and the abuses of authority, even in a totalitarian society. And much more. Entire books have been written exploring the show. The show raises many questions…and seems to delight in not giving answers, but rather providing food for thought.

The show is memorable for its weird 1960’s aesthetic and genre elements. The balloon-like Rover, who patrols the boundaries of the Village, preventing all escape. Programming of people by means of subliminal information. Precursors and foreshadowing of the panopticon society that we find ourselves living in today. Dream research and control of dreams. Mind swapping between bodies. There is even an episode that anticipates Westworld the movie by several years and the series by decades, where the Prisoner finds himself in a recreation of a Wild West town with everyone around him playing roles in a strange analogue of the Village.

And then there is the bizarre final episode that I can’t do justice to describe here. Suffice it to say that even having watched the previous 16 episodes…you will not be prepared for it. It is one of all time strangest endings to any tv series.

My favorite episode, by a hair over a couple of the others, is Hammer into Anvil. Early on, Number Two drives one of the prisoners to suicide. Number Six, horrified by this, engages in a psy ops operation against Number Two to bring him down for this crime. Number Two versus Number Six, in a chess game of wits.(4)

The Prisoner has been remade, as a 2009 series starring Ian McKellen, Jim Caviezel, Hayley Atwell and Ruth Wilson(5) and Big Finish audio is also remaking the entire series as audio dramas, putting their own twists on the original concept. But it is the original series that remains iconic, fifty years later. I do hope that you will give it a try.

Be seeing you!

(1)The Village was filmed in a beautiful tourist town in Wales called Portmeirion. There are still annual Prisoner conventions there. At one point in the series, when Number Six thinks he has escaped, one of his counterparts in British Intelligence says upon seeing photos of the Village: “I wouldn’t mind a fortnight’s leave there”
(2)Plenty of symbology with the number six. It’s the only number that is both the product and the sum of the first three numbers. God created the world in six days. There is a lot of symbology and symbols throughout the village.
(3)A possible clue: In the opening credits each episode, the exchange goes “Who is Number one?” The response from Number Two is “You are Number Six.” If you add a comma in that response, you get a possible answer. But like everything in this show…
(4)Chess is a big theme in the series, too. There are a number of chess matches and chessboards seen, including a living chess game in the episode “Checkmate”.
(5)The 2009 remake is very different, at its bottom, than the original and for me in many ways is a criminal waste of the talent assembled. I think of it as an interesting failure. It really deserves a post of its own, somewhere.
(6)YOU are Number Six

Paul Weimer is a SF writer, gamer, reviewer, and podcaster and an avid
amateur photographer.
His audio work can be found on the Skiffy and Fanty Show and SFF
audio. His reviews and columns can also
be found at Tor.com and the Barnes and Noble SF blog. He is best seen
on twitter as @princejvstin.

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