Let's Watch (And Discuss) The Prisoner

That sounds great. And no sign of it anywhere. Just one 13 min clip that was taken down.

I’m excited for the discussion on the first episode to commence. Coming to this with no real foreknowledge beyond references in The Simpsons, this first episode is a real treat.


So here we go, starting of course with the pilot.

An unnamed man, apparently a government agent of some kind, angrily storms into his superior’s office, slams his fist on the table a couple of times, drops off a resignation letter, and leaves. While McGoohan maintained to his dying day that this was definitely NOT John Drake, the character he played in his previous series Danger Man (Secret Agent in the US) the photo of him that gets x-ed out was a publicity shot from that show, so you be the judge.

We next see him rapidly packing. Is he going on a trip, or could he be defecting? That would be telling. A mysterious figure funnels some sort of gas into our hero’s flat and he passes out, waking up later in what appears to be his own place……….

…….except when he open the curtains he finds he’s no longer in London but in some fantasy village made up of surreal architecture and pastel colors. (The show was filmed in the real Welsh resot town of Portmerion, which I still hope to visit one day). Exploring, he discovers that not only is there no way to leave, there’s no contact with the outside world at all.

Eventually he’s summoned before the patriarch of the Village, and informed that as a secret agent he knows too much, but if he’ll just tell the powers that be the reason for his resignation, he can live out his life in comfort. No one is referred to by name, only number. No 2 is the absolute authority, and the Prisoner is to be referred to as No. 6.

Given a tour, we begin to see the Orwellian underpinning of life In the Village. Not only is everyone under constant surveillance, but there are slogans like “A Still Tongue Makes A Happy Life”.

Eventually he hooks up with a former colleague, and hatches an escape plan, but discovers that getting out or finding out the identity of No. 1 isn’t going to be so easy.

The episode does a great job of setting up the premise and the cat-and-mouse game that runs throughout the series. Several recurring characters and themes are introduced here such as No 2 always being a step ahead of The Prisoner (I’m gonna call him P), the replaceable No 2’s, the fact that no one can be trusted, the Butler, and , of course, Rover.

  • Cobb (some characters are named, but rarely) refers to “our new masters”. Given that the show came out during the height of the Cold War could he be referring to the Soviets? Maybe it’s aliens.
  • Like a lot of pilots, some elements are introduced that never reappear. Who is the tall man in the top hat at the start of the episode? What’s the deal with the maintenance men – are they clones? Robots? Who knows
  • The Butler (Angelo Muscat) is the only character to be credited and appear in every episode other than McGoohan. Conventional wisdom says that he’s to represent the common man, the little guy (in this case, literally) who keeps the gears turning and makes the machinery of society work. But notice he’s the only resident of the Village with no number.
  • Rover (the Village guardian) was originally supposed to be a vehicle with a police light on top, but it never worked right and McGoohan decided it looked stupid. Shortly afterwards he happened to spot a weather balloon, which gave him the idea for something different.
  • If you squint, you can see the first clue to the identity of No. 1.

Next week Dance of the Dead . Until then remember – we’re all pawns, my dear. Be seeing you.

I want to echo this. The beginning of the first episode is especially striking, but I thought the editing throughout was wonderful.

Thanks for the reminder! Amazon has them arranged by air date so I probably would have just continued on with The Chimes of Big Ben otherwise.

Dance of the Dead

The episode opens with the Village medical team performing a mind control experiment on P. They have some sort of hypnosis/mind control device on his head and he’s talking on the phone to another former colleague, Dutton, also in the Village and under control. Dutton is being told what to say, the goal being to get P to say why he resigned. P resists, and becomes more and more agitated, until No. 2 intervenes. P is too valuable to be treated so harshly and be subjected to possible permanent injury.

P wakes up the next morning to find an invitation to the Village carnival. No. 2 explains that this is an annual event, and includes a costume ball. The Village, will, of course, provide the appropriate costume, which turns out to be P’s own tux.

Late on he comes across a dead body that has washed ashore. P has the idea to use the corpse as a very smelly bottle, and writes a note, slips it in the body’s pocket, and makes plans to set it out later when the tide is in.

He also comes across Dutton, who has apparently been in the Village for some time. The authorities have been unable to break him, and are now about to take “final measures”. Dutton has been sent off by himself to consider his situation and have one last chance to talk.

At the ball, P spars with No. 2, who has come dressed as Peter Pan. P slips away, and, disguised as a doctor, is given a message to deliver to No. 2 – Dutton is to be terminated. He also comes across the body he had planned to send out with a message, and is discovered by No. 2 who explains that she has her own plans for the body. It will be altered to resemble P, have P’s ID in his pocket, and the world will believe P dead.

P is brought back to the ballroom, and put on “trial” for his resistance. He asks that Dutton be brought in as a character witness, but it’s too late – Dutton is wearing the mind control device P had at the start of the episode, and has possibly been lobotomized. P is sentenced to death for his efforts.

P makes a break for it, but is chased down, and not killed, but again confronted by No.2. P tells her that he can’t be broken, and No. 2’s response is chilling “How unfortunate for you, then.”

This is an episode I didn’t care for originally, because it seemed as if nothing happens. In the original running order on CBS it came in the middle, after several episodes where the Village really fucks with P, and this hour seemed anticlimactic. As the second episode, it makes more sense. P comments several times that he’s a new arrival, and No. 2 is still willing to try less drastic measures.

We also have our first woman No. 2. McGoohan supposedly had issues with women. Several actresses who worked on the series claim to have been treated shabbily, and he famously barred any romance or sex in the series. People talk about how every woman in the series betrays him, but the same can be said about the men, so I don’t know.

Next time, one of my favorites – Chimes of Big Ben. Be seeing you.

Sorry, I’m running a little late on this.

One thing that struck me as curious about this episode is how much we are shown behind the scenes. I would have expected the viewpoint to be more tightly locked to the Prisoner. But it does give us more time with the new Number 2, who is fantastic (as they have all been, so far).

Right off the bat, I felt a little disoriented at the start of this episode with the hypnosis stuff, but (whether intentional or not) I think that works in its favor.

Not knowing anything about the overall story, I’m very curious about where this will end up, and whether there is a strong central plot with a conclusion, or if it’s more purely episodic.

The show is definitely episodic, although the strong central plot is there of the Village trying to break P, and P’s attempts to remain an individual and escape.

I’m running a couple of days behind, so my thoughts on Chimes probably won’t be up for another week.

Sorry about that.

Just curious why you don’t just call him No. 6 (apart from the obvious, in-fiction view that he doesn’t like it)?

That’s pretty much why.

Regarding Dance of the Dead:

I agree that this one seems boring and, for me, doesn’t stand out as particularly memorable. Still, there’s plenty interesting to look at at the Carnival and during the “cabaret”. I like the cat (and mouse) and its interactions. Later, when No. 2 dresses as Peter Pan, No. 6 mentions it, “…and his shadow,” meaning the cat, perhaps? I really enjoy the dialogue between them during this moment, and throughout, as they verbally spar.

Some other things of note:

I like how the opening sequence/titles happen as if for the first time, where they have the new No. 2 reciting the same dialogue in response to No. 6. (which I recall happens every time, with a few exceptions?) Is there a kind of Groundhog Day situation happening?

Does anyone have any insight into what the printer machine actually is?

The interesting thing about the weekly opening is MAJOR SPOILER ALERT it reveals the identity of No.1

As to the printer, I haven’t a clue.

The Chimes of Big Ben

We open to P waking up to the chirpy village announcer. To no one’s surprise, he is also being observed by the new No. 2, who is fascinated by the challenge (“He can make even putting on his dressing gown appear an act of defiance!”). No. 2 has the idea that if he can just make P reveal the reason for his resignation, everything else will follow. The PA announces an arts & crafts competition, to be held in 6 weeks.

We next see No. 2 and P as they watch the arrival of the Village helicopter, bringing in a new prisoner. The woman – Nadia – is to be the new No. 8, the previous one having presumably perished in an escape attempt. P encounters her as she is heading for her first meeting with No. 2 and is wary of her, assuming her to be a plant of some kind. That night they meet again, and No. 8 reveals that she’s from Estonia, and is probably there because she accidentally discovered some material about the Village. P starts to warm up to her a bit.

The next morning No. 8 goes for a swim, and when it becomes apparent she isn’t swimming back, Rover is dispatched to catch up with her. Turns out Nadia was an Olympic swimmer, and was obviously trying to escape. She’s brought to the hospital for questioning and P is brought in to observe. During the interrogation she collapses and begs to be killed. P confronts No.2 and they strike a bargain. If he’s allowed to take No. 8 under his wing, he’ll make an effort to settle down and fit in. He still won’t tell them anything, but at least he’ll participate in the upcoming Craft Fair.

P gets to work on his exhibit with the help of No. 8, and they draw closer to each other. She confides that she came across a map that shows the Village to be on an island in the Baltic, 30 miles off the coast of Poland. That was the swim she had been attempting.

The day of the competition arrives. Every entry is a portrayal of No.2, with the exception of P’s, which is three pieces of “abstract” art, and is called “Escape” (subtle). Strangely, nobody seems to notice that the pieces can obviously be assembled into a boat.

Sure enough, under the cover of darkness, P and No. 8 steal the work, put it together and set sail, using a tapestry of No.2 to propel them. They make their way to the Polish coast, where they meet up with a colleague of Nadia’s He packs them in a couple of crates and ships them off to London, where they’ll be unloaded in the offices of P’s old agency. And sure enough they are.

P and Nadia are confronted by P’s former superiors, who are understandably suspicious. After all, he resigned, disappeared for several months, and now is reappearing from the other side of the Iron Curtain. The only way to regain their trust is with a full debriefing, starting with the reason for his resignation. P is about to comply when Big Ben strikes the hour, and………………

This was one of my favorite episodes when I saw the show originally in ’68 and remains so today. Who doesn’t love the late, great, Leo McKern, whether he’s chasing after “Bee-atles” in Help or stalking the halls of the Old Bailey? No one else can carry off a phrase like “my dear chap” as well as he, and the banter between him and McGoohan is some of the finest in the entire series. No wonder OMG!!! MAJOR SPOILER!!! they brought him back for the series finale. In 1967/68 to even suggest that the East and the West might be two sides of the same coin was considered almost treasonous, and I’m kind of surprised it made it past the CBS censors.

I also liked that not only was Nadia a plant, she was there to observe and report on No.2’s progress. Also, buried in the episode, is a clue to the Village’s actual location.

All of that said, the episode has some logic problems. The whole plan hinges on P using the Craft Fair as a way to create a way to escape. A safe bet, but not guaranteed. Also he decided on a boat and leaving by sea before Nadia tells him they’re on an island in the Baltic. Also, 6 weeks has passed between the start of the episode and the escape attempt. Not only is No. 2 not replaced, but he apparently isn’t making much of an effort to get P to talk. You would think that would set off his Spidey Sense a little.

Next Week, seascapes (sea escapes?). Also Free For All . Elections! Fake News! Maybe even some Russian meddling!

Be seeing you.

Now that I’ve finished Deep Space Nine, I can keep going with The Prisoner. I watched the first two a few weeks ago while overseas (and yes, I’m using the recommended viewing order posted above). My dad used to watch this religiously, I vaguely remember a couple of episodes when I was young, which had enough of an impact that I still say “INFORMATION!” in a dramatic voice occasionally. Wait, that could be from Blake’s 7. WAIT! Maybe that’s a homage. Mind blown! Anyway, I also remember my dad watching the final episode, an event of great importance as it contained all the answers!

So far it’s fantastic. I love the way Number 2 changes from episode-to-episode, haven’t seen enough to know whether this happens every single episode yet, but I approve. The editing on the first episode was a work of genius. Looking forward to seeing more, and I’m sure I’ll comment occasionally.

There are two episodes coming up back to back that feature the same No. 2, and there’s a No. 2 that appears more than once, several episodes apart.

Glad you’re enjoying it.

I guess there is no point questioning any of this stuff until I’ve seen the entire series, right? :)

Ok so I finished Chimes of Big Ben. Great episode, a lot better than Dance of the Dead. What I found curious was during Nadia and P’s “intimate” conversation, she says she can’t wait to hear the chimes of “Big Bill”. P corrects her, and it seems obvious that Nadia made a silly mistake and gave the game away. And yet there’s no further clue that P realises the ruse, perhaps because the journey in the crate was so tiring.

Yes it was weird that the “Escape” exhibit was so obviously a boat, but given that 2, 8 and presumably others were setting him up I just assumed everyone was told to go along with it. It was amusing seeing the 2 tapestry used as a sail.

Anyway, McKern was indeed great. I’m not reading your spoiler, Sonoftgb, because I’ve not seen it all before. I’ll enjoy going back at the end and reading all the clues though.

If you don’t mind a spoiler in response. Up to you.

I think we’re supposed to chalk up Nadia’s mistake as a result of growing up in the Soviet Union, and presumably not knowing much about the West.

No, I am quite happy to remain in the dark at this stage. That’s most of the fun, you are trying to figure it out along with the Prisoner.