I’m usually very cynical about the RIP notices that flash across social networks. Every lost life is a human tragedy to those close to the lost person, so why fetishize those who happened to gain some level of celebrity during their lives? Well, it turns out I’m a hypocrite. When I logged on to MySpace this morning a bulletin was posted regarding the passing of one Patrick Joseph McGoohan, better known to many nerdy folks like myself as Number 6. The Prisoner.
I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, de-briefed or numbered. My life is my own.
The Prisoner was a seventeen episode TV series which aired on British television during the 1960’s. It is probably TV’s most famous allegory. The plot revolves around a secret agent (some fans consider him the secret agent of McGoohan’s former show Danger Man) who is referred to exclusively as Number 6. At the very beginning of the series, the spy is kidnapped and deposited on an island known as The Village after resigning his post. Over the course of the series , struggles against an equally un-named authority represented in the personage of various antagonists each of whom is referred to as Number 2. All of the inhabitants of The Village are referred to exclusively by number, but only Number 6 refuses to accept his, declaring “I am not a number, I am a free man!”
Each episode of the series involves a given Number 2’s attempts to get Number 6 to reveal why he has resigned, despite his continued insistence that he has done so for no nefarious purpose. It seems clear that the real desire of The Village is to round off every square peg, so that the individual is absorbed into the collective just as the amorphous “Rover” absorbs any who try to flee the island. The goal is not so much information for it’s own sake, as it is the desire for conformity. In fact, those who run the village put forward the mantra:
Questions are a burden and answers a prison for one’s self.
Why do they want information, then? Why is their first attempt at cracking Six to show him that they have know almost everything about his life? Because they understand that information is power. Those who are willing to abandon their privacy are no threat to power. The individual is no threat to the powers that be if he or she no longer has the desire to ask tough questions of those in charge.
It’s never really clear who in The Village is a prisoner and who is a warden. In a way, perhaps everyone is a prisoner. The various Number 2’s try to cajole Six into abandoning his individuality through threats, offers of glory and fame, offers of power, brainwashing and various other mind-bending and nefarious techniques but to no avail. On several occasions, even the illusion of freedom itself is used to entice him. It doesn’t work. His dogged determination to escape, to maintain his sense of self as defined by his own views and to live his life the way he prefers never waivers. In fact, it gives him the strength to overcome the weaker minded minions of authority.
In my favorite episode, “Hammer Into Anvil”, he turns Goethe’s quote around. The hammer pounds and pounds, but in the end the anvil outlasts it and the hammer cracks. Those who view others as weak and untrustworthy are revealed for what they are. They doubt others, because they know that they themselves are built on unsound foundations. They seek the embrace of collectivism and total authority because they fear that those who would choose self-determination are made of sterner stuff.
I got into the series as a teenager when the episodes were broadcast on PBS in the states. I couldn’t believe that this show had been shown on mainstream television in the 60’s (albeit in England). Couldn’t the powers that be see what the show was saying? How could they have allowed it to even air? Ah, the eternal optimism of the youth who still believes that their is a chance to grow up and be a lone wolf. In real life, the village…erm, society that is…always wins. The individual is doomed to search for any scrap of true freedom that he can find.
This was rebellion that I as a true science fiction nerdling could definitely jibe with. Six is tough, a secret agent and a lady’s man, but he couldn’t be farther from the James Bond stereotypes that that description probably brings to mind. First and foremost, his most potent weapon is his wit and cleverness. He out thinks his antagonists’ every gambit and in judo-like fashion turns their strengths into his strengths. He responds to their every friendly statement or offer of acceptance with a witty retort that makes it clear that his only interest is his freedom.
On the few occasions where he is presented with a love interest, he is unflappable, gentlemanly and never loses focus on his objective. You can understand why this might have been an attractive role model for a young man hopped up on hormones and wracked with self-consciousness when confronted with anyone of the fairer sex. In the first episode he is given a maid who he rejects. She later returns and tearfully entreats Six to provide her with some tidbit of information so that she can barter it for her freedom. He coldly sends her on his way. If my teen self had been Six, the series would have been over at that point.
Even the violence in the series was treated as a necessity rather than glorified tastelessly as it usually is in stories about rebels. Patrick seemed like the least likely action hero, especially from an American viewpoint. This was no Stallone or Schwarzenegger spouting marble mouthed one liners. There was no flexing of muscles, no strutting swagger. I later learned that he’d actually been a boxer, but at the time he seemed rather..dare I say it…nerdy. No matter, it didn’t change my image of him a bit to find about his pugilistic background.
The show is as relevant today as it was when originally aired, if not more so. Our leader during these last eight years is someone who seems to have governed based on the “questions/answers” mantra I referred to earlier. During the run up to the invasion of Iraq, those who protested the war or did anything to appear to question the authority of our leaders was shunned, insulted and even vilified by our supposedly liberally biased media. I swear I almost heard the cries of “Unmutual!” We live in an age where we have voluntarily become numbers in the name of convenience. We live in an age where any non-conformity that cannot be packaged, manufactured and marketed is viewed suspiciously. We have freely surrendered our privacy in the name of security and technological advance. I have no answers to offer, I’m as much a villager as anyone else. I do know that we need to ask ourselves some of the questions that The Prisoner asks.
There’s a new Prisoner re-make in the works, but I have rather low expectations for it. I’ll watch it anyway, of course.
Be Seeing You, Patrick.
Wired Magazine Blog “The Prisoner Reboots the Panopticon for 21st Century”
Listen as the door of his apartment opens at the end of the series…I guess we all live in the village.