Directed by Don Chaffey
Written by George Markstein and David Tomblin
Original Airdate: September 28, 1967
The Prisoner influenced all television that came after, pushing the possibilities of the medium as far as it could go. Starring Patrick McGoohan as the nameless “Number Six” who will try to unravel the mysteries of “the village.” The show is dated in some ways, but more relevant than ever in other ways. The themes are timely: surveillance state, diminished individuality, complex power dynamics, existentialism, and much more. Fifty years later it’s well worth revisiting.
Each episode begins with a lengthy introduction that sets up the premise of the series. McGoohan had played a secret agent on the long running series Danger Man, and The Prisoner begins with him resigning his position in British intelligence, defiantly driving away in his Lotus Seven car, only to arrive home and getting knocked out with gas. He wakes up in the village with no idea of who or what put him there.
Dialogue from the show entered into popular discourse:
“I am not a number, I AM A FREE MAN!”
“Be seeing you.”
“I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered. My life is my own. I resign.”
Every episode is told from the point of view of Number Six so we feel his sense of frustration, fear, and determination to escape. Upon arrival the village appears to be a Utopian community with everyone dressed in bright vivid colors. They live in leisure. But the atmosphere seems out of joint. The Pink Floyd lyric “So you think you can tell heaven from hell”? comes to mind. Number Six tries to find out where he’s at, but the maps tell him nothing. Nor are the locals helpful. He suspects he might be somewhere behind the Iron Curtain, but who knows? His sense of dislocation creates a persistent paranoia.
Number Six discovers learns everyone in the village goes by an assigned number. He is called to meet Number Two for questioning, the first of several antagonists identified by that number. They want to know why he resigned, he refuses to comply, and a battle of wits ensues. That’s the initial premise. Future episodes would increasingly enter into the surreal.
“Arrival” ends, as most would, with Six making a failed escape attempt. Chess would be a recurring motif, a metaphor of his own situation. An orb known as “the rover” prevents anyone from escaping by adsorbing them into it. Meanwhile people on crane cameras monitor everything that goes on inside the village.
In addition to the psychedelic look of The Prisoner the camera work felt more cinematic than most 1960s television with the use handheld cameras, montage editing, long tracking shots, to the point where each episode feels like an art film. Airing in the heady days of the late 1960s, the pilot episode prepared audiences for an unforgettable trip to come.