We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Some thoughts on The Prisoner

In case you didn’t already know The Prisoner is a TV series starring Patrick McGoohan, originally broadcast in 1967. Lots of libertarians get very excited about it. It was recently re-shown on True Entertainment. [Indeed the very first episode is being re-shown this very afternoon.]

1. The set-up is superb. The numbers, the clothing, “Be seeing you”, Portmeirion, the upbeat public address messages, the font, Number Two, Mini Mokes, Rover, the surveillance. Superficial pleasantness and concealed malice. Brilliant.

2. Many of the episodes hinge on the idea that medical science can manipulate and control the human mind. This is very Sixties but oddly enough doesn’t seem all that dated.

3. Number 6 is very grumpy. Yes, I suppose being kidnapped and imprisoned might get on anyone’s goat but does he have to be quite so testy when dealing with his fellow inmates?

4. Taken as a whole it is a mess. It can’t make up it’s mind whether it is spy drama (Arrival), microcosm (Free for All) or allegory (Living in Harmony). Some episodes e.g. Dance of the Dead seem beyond characterisation.

5. Although as a whole it is a mess, the individual episodes all stand up. Writing, acting, direction. All good. In this regard it rather put me in mind of Antonioni’s “Blow Up”. That has a succession of brilliant scenes that in my estimation don’t add up to a row of beans. It was released a year before The Prisoner. Coincidence? I think not.

6. Did I say all the episodes? It’s time to talk about Fall Out, the finale. When it was first broadcast viewers jammed the broadcaster’s switchboard with their complaints. And it is not difficult to see why. They were promised a logical, rational spy mystery in which the clues would lead to a solution and they were given a clunky allegory with lots of people behaving very oddly. If there is a moral to The Prisoner it is to know how the story is going to end before you start writing it.

7. When I first watched it my interpretation of Six being One was that we are our own jailers. McGoohan himself argued that One is the evil side of all of us that we have to keep in control. This would appear to imply that to be good you have to be grumpy. Hmm.

8. How libertarian is it? The late Chris Tame thought “very”. I am not so sure. Sure there’s a great speech at the beginning about not being “filed, indexed, numbered. I am a free man…” etc. But other than that the only episode where individualism is really present is Change of Mind. This is the episode which introduced us to the word “unmutual”. Even so Number Six only survives because he is too valuable to be lobotomised, can spot when he is being drugged and knows how to hypnotise people. It is not so much the individual against the state as the exceptional individual against the state. And by the way, Number Six does get filed, indexed and numbered.

9. I am far from the first Samizdatista/Libertarian Ally to have written on the subject. See here, here, here and here.

The masks conceal the lack of a proper resolution. From here

27 comments to Some thoughts on The Prisoner

  • bloke in spain

    You completely & utterly failed to mention the Lotus 7. The chariot of gods.

  • Paul Marks

    I like “The Prisoner” – although I agree that the last episode is a bit of a mess (actually out of style with the rest of the series).

    “The Prisoner” was never meant to be like “Dangerman” (the lead actor’s previous show) – it was always meant to be more complicated. For example which side is holding “Number Six” prisoner – or are the two sides just a cover for something broader?

    I think my favourite episode is “Schizoid Man”.

    Of course the makers of the show might not expect me to like it – after all I am crude person, I very much believe there was a good side and an evil side in the Cold War. I fundamentally disagree with clever people who want to go beyond good and evil in their examination of things.

  • Mr Ecks

    The “Six of One” episode where No6 stands for “election ” as the New No2 is an all-time classic. McGooHan’s marvellous take -off of vacuous political speeches is wonderful.

    “Apply to me and it will be easier and better”.

    Sure McG didn’t have a good overall plan but the parts transcend the whole.

  • Seth Roentgen

    The Lotus 7 was in Dangerman. I remember that, definitely. I don’t remember a Lotus 7 in The Prisoner. It’s been a long time since I watched either, and my memory has always resembled a colander.

  • Novus

    I have no memory of those earlier posts, which is strange.

    In my opinion The Prisoner’s fatal flaw, which, as you suggest by the comparison with Blow Up, it shares with quite a lot of contemporaneous cultural artifacts, is the fact that all those involved with making it were clearly so incredibly pleased with themselves about just how “innovative” and “challenging” and probably “radical” it was. Moreover, my understanding is that Patrick McGoohan felt that the story he wished to tell would only support 7 episodes; it was the demands of the American market that led to its being padded out to 17, so in addition to being wildly self-satisfied it is flabby and frequently incoherent. It is so busy being arch and suggestive and playful and coy that it forgets to avoid being hammy or twee or bombastic or portentous.

    I can’t support any thematic interpretation of it as libertarian in any coherent sense either. McGoohan gave an interview on Canadian TV some years later, which is probably available on YT, in which he spoke candidly and with no apparent irony about the motivating factors behind the writing of The Prisoner, which turn out to be the kind of guff that you can hear from any campus radical in 2017, about how we’re controlled by the Pentagon and Madison Avenue and television and how we’re at the mercy of the advertiser and the whole world is a Village – the kind of drivel that anyone who’s read the book at the top of the page would recognise instantly as a classic exemplar of the conspiracy theory of society, with its usual concomitants of conceit and self-congratulation at being one of the chosen few who have realised the “truth” and towering contempt for the lumpenproletariat who haven’t. It doesn’t strike me as likely that such an attitude leads naturally to libertarianism; rather it seems to presage our current paternalist plight.

  • Patrick Crozier

    I thought he drove a Mini in Dangerman. Definitely a Lotus 7 in The Prisoner.

  • I would say there is evidence both that McGoohan was on the side of the angels but also made the same mistake the folks from Wikileaks often make: looking at corporate intrusions into private life (‘Madison Avenue’ then, Google now) and thinking they are materially the same thing as force backed state intrusions into private life.

  • An old libertarian friend of mine once claimed that the ultimate libertarian series was “Duckman – Family Man Private Dick.”

    Not sure I agree but it was a fun series.

  • A problem ‘The Prisoner’ shares with many less interesting series is a failure to decide – before starting – on a coherent underlying explanation. Hence the weakness of the last episode, which is full of ‘symbolism’ because the creators failed post-hoc to think of an actual realistic resolution. The effect is therefore that mystery is aroused but not adequately explained and justified, thus cheating the viewers.

    One of the inspirations of the Prisoner was that someone involved (I can’t recall whether it was McGoohan or not) read about a British intelligence establishment at the end of WWII. During WWII we recruited many people (not UK nationals) to oppose Hitler. As WWII drew to an end, some of them were no longer reliable from HMG’s point of view, so a place was selected where they could be confined till they were persuaded to be, or evaluated as, trustworthy, or else till their knowledge of UK spies and tradecraft specifics had gone out-of-date.

    I always felt this offered a viable pseudo-history for the creation of The Village. As an accidental byproduct of having British writers, The Village always had clear hints that it had to be a UK-created place. If one applied the SF-style improvements in mind manipulation techniques to an analysis of how such a place would evolve in the decades after WWII, and imagined that a number of inmates would be ‘cured’ to the point of being trustworthy but not trusted not to ‘relapse’ if allowed out into the free world – and so would never be released, instead become warders – then the institution would evolve to be self-perpetuating. Over time, the ultra secret (that all its ‘graduates’ were unconsciously trained to protect above all others) would gradually become simply the very fact of The Village’s own existence. Thus, after the first or second Number One retired and died off, Number One would become the ultimate Deus Absconditus. In a variation of “we’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here …”, The Village would be “secret because it’s secret because it’s secret because it’s secret …”. As McGoohan almost escapes in one episode through tapping the unconscious arrogance of warders, so his final escape and resolution could have been enable by his realising this emptiness at the heart of the enterprise.

    However the TV people started it assuming they’d think of a resolution later. When the time to write one could no longer be delayed, I think they had forgotten what ideas prompted them to think up the series in the first place, so that particular resolution never occurred to them.

    This failure is a kind of self-indulgent sloppiness I have noted in many a series since. It’s a kind of ‘bait and switch’: lure the viewers in with a strange situation in early episodes, then fail dismally to resolve it in later ones. IIRC, the habit became much commoner – and much more deliberate and insolent – in the decades since.

  • Five Daarstens

    Could the ending in the Prisoner have been inspired by the ending in “The Man who was Thursday”?

  • Laird

    I think that’s a pretty good description of The Prisoner. (“Grumpy” is a good description of No. 6.) The series was largely incoherent as a whole, but almost every episode was interesting in its own way. (And yes, the ending was a terrible let-down.) I never thought about it as being truly libertarian as much as generically anti-authoritarian and (only vaguely) individualistic. Perhaps “proto-libertarian” would be a better term. It was very much a product of the 60s, though, and not just in the decor and all those goofy telephones.

    By the way, did anyone bother to watch the mini-series “remake” a few years ago? Ghastly.

  • Laird

    By the way, I agree with Niall’s criticism of many TV series having no pre-designed resolution. It seems to be especially a problem with science fiction – themed shows: the creators set up an interesting premise but quickly run out of ideas about how to exploit it, and then strain to keep a hit show running. Eventually it’s strayed so far from the original premise that there’s simply no way to construct a satisfactory resolution, even if one might have been possible earlier.

    The one great exception to this I can think of was Babylon 5, where the creator (Michael Straczyski) set up a coherent 4-year story arc at the very beginning and stuck to it; events in the fourth season hark back to those in year one and, even more impressively, events in early years presage those in later ones. (Of course, Straczynski was presented with an unexpected 5th season, so he had to hold back the conclusory episode for a year and add a bunch of “filler” episodes, but even then he kept the arc intact.) That was a brilliant piece of work.

  • nweismuller

    Incidentally, for Paul Marks and NickM- back on Paul Marks’ post on Warhammer 40k, there was a brief discussion of Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. The game I mentioned winning as the Morganites was run as a Let’s Play which I wrote up in narrative style, now available on a public place. Unfortunately, I didn’t proofread it thoroughly before submitting it, and there’s a fair amount of supplemental material I didn’t end up bundling with it, but it could be something for NickM to see how I pulled off the victory and Paul Marks to draw his own conclusions about the setting.

    I apologise for going off-topic, but I had wanted to share this with you two for a while, and hope it’s appreciated.

  • RAB

    I see I have waxed eloquent back in 2014 on the second link above. Nothing more to add…

  • The thing to remember about the final episode is that it was intended to be a giant “fuck you” to the audience. The Prisoner was McGoohan’s baby, and it had been rejected by confused audiences, who couldn’t figure out why 6 never “won” at the end of the episode.

    The origin that McGoohan related in interviews was that the technical consultant on Danger Man was an old OSS hand, and at the wrap party for the series, McGoohan was musing on what Drake would do, now that he was retired. The OSS guy was amused, and McGoohan asked him what was so amusing. (Paraphrasing from memory) “Men like Drake — they don’t retire. It wouldn’t be allowed. He knows too much to be allowed to retire.” And that was the inspiration for The Prisoner.

  • It was the late 60s. I always thought – later, much later – that is was intended to be viewed when the viewer was in a slightly inebriated state, and not from alcohol. I feel the same way about 1970s UFO, not even counting the purple hair.

  • Nicholas (Unlicenced Joker) Gray

    How very libertarian! Each episode a stand-alone! No ‘From the many, one’ for this show!

  • CaptDMO

    “Six only survives because he is too valuable to be lobotomised, can spot when he is being drugged and knows how to hypnotise people.”
    Who IS John Galt?

  • Novus,

    Controlled by the Pentagon and Madison Ave. ? Not quite.

    The Israelis have figured out how to quiet down Syria. Deliver natural gas to Europe by pipeline. Assad per se was never the reason.


  • Phelps,

    Old OSS guys can’t retire? Probably.

    “The Latin American drug cartels have stretched their tentacles much deeper into our lives than most people believe. It’s possible they are calling the shots at all levels of government.” – William Colby, retired CIA Director, 1995

    Not too long after making that statement he died in a boating accident.

  • “Grumpy” may be a stand in for sceptical.

  • momo

    Minor correction as a huge Babylon 5 fan, the writer had a 5-year plan, but due to budget worries (funding was always precarious for that show) shoved it into a 4-year mold. This meant that when funding for a 5th year unexpectedly came through, he had to scramble to write a 5th year story (as he’d used the original story up).

    That show did an amazing job of sticking to its original plan, especially considering all the actor changes that were forced upon it (e.g., actor mentla issues, actors leaving, etc.)

  • Laird

    Thanks, momo; I knew the 5th year was an unexpected add-on but didn’t know the rest the story. In any event, I still found (find) the 5th season unsatisfying; I thought the episodes were uneven, didn’t really fit the original story arc, and i didn’t much care for some of the new characters. I have the boxed set of DVDs, but almost never watch Year 5 (except, of course, for the very last episode).

    Do you know if Straczynski ever made anything else worth watching?

  • Paul Marks

    The real place (Portmeirion in Wales) is a good example of the contradictions in the leftist mind.

    It is a fine place – the product of good man, but a man with false political ideas.

    Although a businessman he was also a socialist – who strongly supported a “Planning” Act of Parliament that would give local officials power over building and so on (compare British towns before and after the “Town and Country Planning Act” – the results were not good).

    One day Mr Ellis (I think that was his name) was hard at work on a project in Portmeirion and official arrived and said “do you have Planning Permission for that?”

    The gentleman socialist was dumbfounded – he had never though that the Act might apply to him.

    “Capitalists” are always other people you see, even today the big Hollywood people and the internet zillionairs do not think of themselves as “capitalists” (even though that is exactly what they are), just as most Big Business types despise Big Business – hate capitalism.

    They support Big Government Social Justice.

    Death to capitalism – say the capitalists, as they rush to fund those who would nationalise their business enterprise and (indeed) murder their families.

  • My GOD it’s a small world.

    I followed the link at the bottom, “The masks conceal the lack of a proper resolution. From here” to an article by Kit Macfarlane. I went to school with Macfarlane back in Australia.

  • Richard Thomas

    Nial, I have called it “Cargo Cult writing”. The writers know what appeals and grab those plot elements and add them to their story but there is no real substance there so it all falls to bits when it comes time to round it out.

    This didn’t tend to matter so much for many TV shows where the MO is to keep pumping out stuff until people get bored and the shows get cancelled. However, in the late 90s, a few shows proved that if you gave a writer 5 years and a bunch of money, they can produce a fantastic show that draws in a lot of viewers and they can wrap everything up at the end in a nice bow and everyone’s happy and you get to have decent sales of DVD box sets. Unfortunately, some writers saw the money, bought into the idea but kept to the old formula until it came time to bring things to a close which, as they had given no thought to it, led to an unruly mess. (I am mostly thinking of the newer BSG here though I understand that Lost may have fit this mold (Never saw it and with that ending, never will).

    I think that people have learned their lesson a bit though. GRR Martin has revealed the intended ending of the Game of Thrones and even shows which ran by the old model are more often being given half a season or even just a few episodes in order to allow things to end tidily. Thank DVD sales (i.e. the market) for that.

  • Richard Thomas

    Laird, JMS made Crusade which started to look interesting but was cancelled halfway through the first season largely due to meddling (episodes out of order, changing schedules, tinkering with scripts etc).

    He apparently did a stint on “The Real Ghostbusters” and was often posting to Usenet back in the day.

    I always hoped to see more sci-fi from him but if it’s out there, it’s been fairly low-key (Sense8, apparently). He’s still out there though.