‘The Prisoner’: How the ’60s Imagined the Surveillance State

Not every initial reaction to fantastic fiction survives the first brush with realization.

When the communicators from Star Trek met the first flip phones in the 1980s, people smiled in recognition as they jokingly demanded that their teleporters beam them up to deal with traffic, because if we got those now, we were probably going to be beamed up long before we finally got our Jetsons-inspired flying cars online. On the other hand, people expecting Rosie the Robot Maid from the cartoon seemed less jovial in comparison when the Roomba came to market.

Which brings us to The Prisoner. This series that explored an individual’s efforts to maintain his freedom in the face of an all-pervasive state insisting on knowing every single detail about him was hailed when it first aired in 1966 as a dark dystopian nightmare warning us about the dangers of a state out of control. Yet looking at it today, what seemed evil to viewers back then may seem less urgent after our recent experiences.

For those who may not remember or somehow missed the show, The Prisoner was a series that first aired on ITV in the UK in 1967, and first broadcast as a summer series on CBS in 1968. Over the course of 17 episodes, a master spy (Patrick McGoohan), whose name is not revealed, resigns from his position with the British spy services (also not named). As he packs to go on holiday, he is kidnapped from his apartment, then whisked away to a place simply called “the Village,” where he is “debriefed” by his captors, who want to know everything about his resignation. We never know where the Village is located; it’s given two separate locations during the series, but the architecture evident in Portmeirion, Wales, where the show was filmed, gave it an otherworldly quality, that can still be enjoyed by visitors today.

We also never know who exactly is in charge of the Village, whether it’s his former masters or his enemies; all we get is a revolving cast of leaders of the Village (some played by Leo McKern and Patrick Cargill) under the title “Number Two.” Among the mysteries the Prisoner must deal with are who captured him, who Number One is, and, most importantly, how to escape.

Throughout the series, there’s an ongoing chess game between the two opponents. On the one hand, there was the Prisoner, who supposedly was a very good spy before he resigned (and may have been John Drake, a character played by McGoohan on the series Danger Man, known as Secret Agent Man in the US, although acknowledging that would force producer McGoohan to hand over control of his series to Lew Grade, who owned those rights), and had plenty of opportunities to use his wits and fists to resist. On the other, there were the masters of the Village, who, just as the Prisoner seemed ready to escape, would pull one last twist to show who really was in power. Sometimes the Villagers would be saved by the Prisoner, sometimes they would be part of a final betrayal to get him to break — which the Prisoner never did.

During his time in the Village, the Prisoner was subjected to all sorts of plots and plans to make him conform and give them what they wanted. Among their plans were outright torture, brainwashing, ostracism, an elaborate ruse involving a mock election, laying on his sympathies as other Villagers got tortured, and two escapes that proved to be illusionary (three if you count the time his mind was placed in another man’s body; production issues made that a necessary plot line).

Does he escape? Even people who watched the last two episodes of the series numerous times are never entirely sure; there are more possible interpretations one can give to those programs than can be applied to 2001: A Space Odyssey. There are theories supporting both whether he had or not; the authorized graphic novel Shattered Visage from 1988 suggests something that combines both theories.

In terms of theories, no television series has ever prompted as many discussions as this. Many of the deepar arguments, and quite a few off-the-pennyfarthing-handles ones, get discussed in White and Ali’s The Official Prisoner Companion. This book from 1988 is still the most authoritative discussion of the show and an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the program, whether on a casual or cultish level.

Whatever theories you support, one thing we are supposed to be left with is the sense that an information-driven dictatorship is an evil that we cannot abide, that any state or entity that insists on knowing the details of every atom of us must be avoided.

But can such a message still resonate?  When Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA leaked in 2013, the level of alarm from people at large — the revelation that we all now lived in the Village — was rather muted. Does an organization asking you for every detail of your lives in an age when people tweet and update their Facebook statuses regularly still merit fear? Or has the Information Age unfolded in such a way that when we receive warnings about our every move being tracked, our first reaction is to remember that we hadn’t cleaned the cache of cookies in a while?

One of the salient points of The Prisoner rests in how it looks at our fear during the Cold War of destruction at the hands of forces out of our control. With the Cold War officially over, the fears we face out of the War on Terror seem to engender a different response, one characterized by Benjamin Franklin many years before either event was conceived:

Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve nether Liberty nor Safety.

The sentiment was certainly argued by McGoohan in The Prisoner as well; perhaps a re-watch of these episodes might help remind people of this.

(Cover photo: Production still via Amazon.)

About James Ryan 116 Articles
James Ryan is still out there on the loose. He’s responsible for the novels Raging Gail and Red Jenny and the Pirates of Buffalo, as well as the popular history The Pirates of New York. He has also been spotted associating with the publications Pyramid Online, Dragon, The Urbanite, The Dream Zone, Rational Magic, and Rooftop Sessions. He has been spotted too often in the vicinity of Kinja. Should you meet him, proceed with caution. He is to be considered disarming and slightly dangerous…