What was the cult TV series “The Prisoner” all about?

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Dear Cecil: Years ago, British television produced a brilliant series called The Prisoner. It starred Patrick McGoohan as a recently resigned secret agent. He is kidnapped and taken to a place called “the Village” where some apparently evil-minded no-gooders try and tap the knowledge he has acquired in his years as a spy. What I want to know is, what exactly was the show all about? What exactly was The Village? Who was Number One, the Village’s top man? What were they trying to get out of McGoohan? And most of all, what the hell was going on in that crazy final episode that sees the escape of McGoohan and the demise of the Village? Tony B., Washington, D.C.


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Why people get worked up over this absurd show I’ll never know, but it’s attracted a cult following since it first aired as a summer replacement on CBS in 1968.

The purpose of the Village (in reality the Welsh resort town of Portmeirion), who operated it, and what exactly they were trying to pry out of McGoohan were kept purposely vague in order to heighten the Kafkaesque quality of the show. Apparently it was some sort of halfway house for former secret agents and other government officials who Knew Too Much, run by the mysterious, unseen Number One. (McGoohan is Number Six.)

Life in the Village is pleasant, if a bit eerie, but it’s still a prison and McGoohan is continually trying to escape. He’s thwarted by, among other things, the Big Bubbles, more commonly known as “rovers” (actually they were weather balloons), which apparently suffocate their victims. The rovers and various other bad guys are directed by a series of characters — there was a new one each week — known as Number Two. The different Number Twos go through various machinations trying to get McG to divulge “information.”

The series ran 17 episodes, and mixed James Bond-type thriller elements with a half-baked allegory on The Role of the Individual in Mass Society. The show is confusing partly because there was a struggle between McGoohan and story editor George Markstein for creative control. Markstein wanted to keep the show fairly rational, while McGoohan preferred to indulge his penchant for two-bit surrealism. Markstein finally quit and McGoohan wrote and directed the last two episodes himself, with bizarre results.

The plot of the finale defies quick summary, but the drift of it is that the Village’s head honchos are so impressed by McGoohan’s indomitable will that they want to make him boss (or something like that — nothing in this show is very clear). A long hallucinatory sequence in the Village’s underground HQ transpires in which Beatles tunes, the song “Dem Dry Bones,” and a gallery of geeks in white cloaks and face masks are prominently featured. Finally McGoohan is taken to see Number One. He pulls off Number One’s mask to reveal an ape mask, which he also pulls off, only to find that Number One is … McGoohan himself.

While McGoohan-as-Number-One escapes, McGoohan-as-Number-Six finds his way to the control room, where he triggers a missile countdown. Panic breaks out among the Villagers. McGoohan and several confederates escape in what looks like a big moving van. Just as they get past the gates a rocket blasts off out of the center of the Village containing who knows what and heading God knows where, while the Village itself is abandoned (I guess). McGoohan and friends then drive to London, where he resumes residence in the apartment from which he’d originally been kidnapped.

And that, incredibly enough, is it. No explanations, no nothing. Baffled viewers jammed the switchboards when the show was first aired and wrote irate letters to the newspapers. Critics and even people involved in the show’s production agreed that the last episode had gotten completely out of hand, although ironically the widespread bewilderment it created helped the show attain the underground status it enjoys today. People have tried to tell me the whole thing is some sort of allegory for the 60s, but you couldn’t prove it by me. The series is available in videocassette (and now on DVD) if you want to check it out for yourself.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.