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The Prisoner

The Prisoner was a 1960s UK television series, starring Patrick McGoohan[?]. For all its influence on intellectual life in the UK and elsewhere, it is surprising that only 17 episodes were made.

The series opened with the hero, played by McGoohan, apparently a secret agent [footnote: McGoohan starred in a previous, similar series called Secret Agent[?] (aka Danger Man[?]) and many fans regard The Prisoner as a sequel to this] working in some government intelligence building in London, having an agitated argument with his superior and resigning. Returning to his flat (the location for which was at Number One[?] Buckingham Place, London - a name perhaps deliberately chosen to suggest Buckingham Palace???), he is quickly packing his possessions, with a colorful travel brochure nearby, until knockout gas piped into the room by a tall man dressed in black formalwear renders him unconscious.

On awakening, he finds himself in a strange village of pseudo-Mediterranean architecture, filled with other English-speaking people, also ex-spies being held captive. No one has a name; they all have numbered ID badges. Our hero is Number Six: his real name is never mentioned anywhere in the series although fans like to think it is John Drake, the lead character of Secret Agent.

His resignation, drugging and awakening were shown briefly in the opening sequence of all the following episodes, against Number Two with the following exchange:

Where am I?
In The Village.
What do you want?
Whose side are you on?
That would be telling
What do you want?
We want 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!
(Laughter from Number Two)

The Village is located in an unknown country (the series was filmed at Portmeirion and Penrhyndeudraeth[?] in Wales, and at Pinewood Studios in England, using clever camera tricks to make the resort look larger than it is). The Village publishes a newspaper; its headlines and all public signs use a version of the Albertus[?] display typeface in which the lowercase letter e was altered to make it look somewhat like the Greek letter epsilon (ε), and the dot above the lower case i and j removed. The Village administrators are ruled by a formal council which meets periodically in a large chamber. Debates are held with a strange, mindless uniformity of opinion. A large control center monitors closed-circuit television cameras located throughout The Village, with regular observers continually monitoring important cameras and features a large, rotating see-saw on which a two veteran observers ride, passing scans into a variety of displays.

The Village is ruled by Number Two, whose identity changes each episode, though some Number Twos did make repeat appearances (notably Leo McKern, who featured in three episodes). Number One was never seen (except perhaps in the final episode, though even this is unclear and subject to interpretation). Throughout the series, Number Two tried to find out why Number Six resigned: A variety of interrogation, drugs and mind control techniques were used, all ultimately unsuccessful. An important aspect is that Number Six never learns the identity and loyalty of his jailers - is he being questioned by "us" or "them"? And, since he cannot determine any difference, in the final analysis is there any difference?

Distinctive qualities of Number Six included: always wearing a Village-supplied black suit with white piping and saying "be seeing you" when leaving a conversation. ("Be seeing you" may appear to an American to be part of the Prisoner mystique, but McGoohan actually uses this phrase in real life.) "I'll be seeing you" became popular expression in Britain in the 1940s, when it was jocularly pronounced "Abyssinia".

(The phrase "be seeing you" and the accompanying gesture - thumb and forefinger touched briefly against forehead then swept foreward in a kind of salute - was also used by the Psi Corps in Babylon 5 as a deliberate hommage to The Prisoner.)

Number Six's repeated escape attempts were monitored in an elaborate underground control room, and, when occurring at sea (The Village was located on the coast of an unnamed country), were often foiled by Rover, a balloon-like device that would chase, suffocate him unconscious, then drag him back to land (white and orange-red weather balloons were used for this effect). Number Six was constantly seeking ways to escape, or to find out more about The Village. In one episode he has found out so much that he is able to manipulate Village management. While many episodes, especially at the beginning of the series, have the powers behind the Village defeating Number Six's actions, other episodes end with Number Two leaving in disgrace, having been defeated most elegantly.

The series featured quite surrealistic story lines, including secret agent film parodies and simulations of hallucinogenic drug experiences.

The major philosophical theme of The Prisoner is the corruption and empoverishment of a life lived under subjugation to those who believe that rule by rigid hierarchy is best, and the right of the individual to resist such subjugation.

The series attracted considerable attention: rather like the later Twin Peaks, many viewers had no idea what was going on in the episodes, but watched it compulsively anyway. There is a Prisoner Appreciation Society devoted to the series, and a Prisoner memorabilia shop in Portmeirion.

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