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THE PRISONER

Available on DVD

Prisoner DVD



Season Overview
  1. Arrival
  2. The Chimes of Big Ben
  3. A,B & C
  4. Free For All
  5. The Schizoid Man
  6. The General
  7. Many Happy Returns
  8. Dance of the Dead
  9. Checkmate
  10. Hammer into Anvil
  11. It's Your Funeral
  12. A Change of Mind
  13. Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling
  14. Living in Harmony
  15. The Girl Who Was Death
  16. Once Upon a Time
  17. Fall Out



Number 6 -
Patrick McGoohan

Butler -
Angelo Muscat


OTHER SUPER SPY SHOWS
The Champions
Bionic Woman
Chuck
The New Avengers





Series Overview

Rarely has a show, science fiction or otherwise, built up a loyal and lasting cult following as strong as THE PRISONER. What is even more remarkable is that (unlike, say, STAR TREK in all its incarnations) it achieved this with only 17 episodes. Usually, shows that last only that long are consigned to the dustbin of TV history.

As much has been written about THE PRISONER and its meanings as any other show. Anyone who has any interest in television science fiction will have heard of it and should have sought it out. The reasons for this fame (or infamy) are legion, but they all boil down to one thing - there has never been show like THE PRISONER and it is unlikely that there ever will be again (including the proposed remake/reinvention).

The simple story is that of a spy who is fighting to escape his new prison and trying to undermine the rule of those who have imprisoned him. There are so many layers of meaning beneath that it is pointless to try and summarise them all. The struggle of the individual against the system is the most obvious and oft-quoted, but drug treatments, education, conformity, violence, the electoral process, freedom of the press and the increasing subservience to the all-powerful computer are all referenced

Arrival is a fittingly surreal opening, Living in Harmony is a delightful western pastiche, The Girl Who Was Death is just bonkers fun whilst Once Upon a Time is devastatingly good on every level.

To appreciate THE PRISONER you will have to think more than with most sci-fi and that is part of its enduring appeal.

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Arrival

An agent retires from his job and is gassed. He wakes up in a strange village where nothing is quite as it appears. There is no way of escape and the borders are patrolled by a giant balloon-like guardian. He meets with a man called Number Two who explains that he will remain there forever unless he tells them why he resigned. Not knowing who to trust, he refuses. He meets another man who has rebelled, but then kills himself. The dead man's girlfriend gives the new Number 6 information on how to escape.

A remarkable first episode that introduces us to our nameless hero and his new surroundings. Everything is as strange to us as it is to him. The location is bizarre and the people equally off-kilter. Number 6 is less likeable than his enemy counterpart Number Two, which puts an interesting slant on the characters. Even the weather balloon masquerading as a guardian manages to look quite impressive.

If you can get through the general strangeness of Arrival chances are that the rest of the show will capture your interest.

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The Chimes of Big Ben

There is a new Number Two and a new plan to get information out of Number 6. The rebel, though has a plan all of his own, one that concerns his taking part in the arts and crafts comptetition. Then a lovely Estonian woman is brought into the village and begs to be taken with him.

THE PRISONER pulls out a major weapon early on with the introduction of Leo McKern as the new Number Two. McKern can do no wrong and makes for a delightful new nemesis, whilst the story contains originality, wit and sneaky twists. The ending is neat and also a little depressing.

It is interesting that this scheme almost works and that Number 6 actually states that he only returned to London because he thought that it was different. It turns out that it isn't different at all.

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A,B & C

A new Number Two, but this one is under pressure to get the answers that are wanted by Number One. Drugged at bedtime, Number 6 is given a special drug and hooked up to a machine that can display his dreams. Into the virtual reality that the doctor has fed his subconcious mind, she injects three characters suspected of causing him to retire. Number 6 discovers the plot, sneaks into the lab and waters down the drug, allowing him to control the dream himself and thwart the plan.

The first out and out science fiction theme is presented as dream control is managed by a fusion of drugs and computers. We may have come a long way from the days when this was made, but the seeds of THE MATRIX can be seen in the set up here.

Number 6 is still in control of himself and all defiance and barely controlled violence, but he has settled down into the ways of the village and is targeting Number Two and his minions. It is interesting to see that he is willing to divulge the fact that he definitely wasn't selling out at the end.

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Free For All

It's election time and Number 6 decides to stand against the current Number 2 for his job. This involves a couple of quite bizarre ceremonies, drugged beer, brainwashing and finally winning the election, something which brings him to the seat of power beneath the Green Dome.

The first major wierdness comes to THE PRISONER in this episode. To be sure, it's been surreal since the beginning, but made some sense in a pretty straightforward way. Not so here. The dissolution of the council involves some shouting and revolving and nothing else. The test involves low level electricity and stupid questions. There's also some messing about with hypnosis and stuff and finally,it seems that being Number Two means you can press a load of buttons madly, but not achieve anything. It's all just a step in the bigger plan to weaken Number 6's resolve.

This is the weakest episode of the show so far, mainly because there is no sense to it at all.

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Schizoid Man

A double of No6 is substituted for the real thing who is programmed to think that he is Number 12 impersonating Number 6. It's all a plot of the new Number Two to destroy his sense of self-image and thus get the information that he needs.

This is an interesting episode, probably the best so far. The idea of challenging Number 6's identity and bringing him to the edge of insanity is all nicely played and, for once, a ploy by Number Two comes close to working. Only a bruised fingernail gives the game away.

Having two Patrick McGoohans could have been confusing for everyone, but the direction always assures that they are wearing slightly different clothes and the scenes in which McGoohan plays opposite himself is seamlessly woven together. It's also interesting to see Number 6's escape plan thwarted with the same level of misfortune as Number Two's plot.

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The General

Speedlearn is the newest breakthrough in education. Watch the TV for three minutes and a three year degree level course is imprinted on your mind. Of course, this could also be used for mass brainwashing. Number 6 gets involved with a renegade Number 12 and gets to meet the General, the brain behind the operation.

There are some real weaknesses in the plotting of this episode, although the basis for it is quite interesting. Education or brainwashing? That's a real science fiction dilemma and when the show was first shown, computers were not in every home, so the idea of a supercomputer was pretty much up to date. The question that Number 6 feeds into it to save Number 12 is, of course, ridiculous as any computer would simply come back with an error message saying something like 'please state precise search parameters'.

We loved the ID disc machine, though.

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Many Happy Returns

Number 6 wakes up to find the village deserted. Building a raft, he sails off and, fighting off gunrunners along the way, makes his way back to London and convinces his ex-colleagues to mount a search for the location of the village.

Someone clearly thought up the idea 'wouldn't it be great if Number 6 woke up and found that everyone had gone?' and then wrote a plot around that. To be fair, you can see why as it is the early sequences that make the impact. The plot, though, makes no sense in the real world because of the logistical problems of evacuating everyone in one night etc and precious little sense as allegory either. Almost no effort is made to find out why Number 6 resigned, so what was the point of the ploy anyway?

The story itself is reminiscent of DANGER MAN, the series that McGoohan was in before THE PRISONER, especially the section with the gunrunners. In all, a very unsatisfactory episode.

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Dance of the Dead

It's carnival time and everyone is invited to the fancy dress party afterwards. Number 6 has found a dead body on the beach with a radio in it and an old colleague who has been broken by his time in the Village. When he uses the party as a cover to snoop around in the Town Hall, he is hauled before the people to answer for his 'crimes'.

There's a very real sense in this episode that THE PRISONER is, in fact, a case of the Emperor's new clothes. Once again there is an elaborate plot involving attractive observers, equally attractive maids, dead bodies and radios and fancy dress parties, but to what end? Once again, no attempt is made to get information from Number 6 (except in the early, abortive mind control experiment), so really what was the point?

It all looks fabulous and is intriguing right up until the end when you either accept that this is just more of the ongoing process of wearing down Number 6's self-possession or that it's all a bit meaningless really.

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Checkmate

Taking part in a game of chess where people are the playing pieces, Number 6 comes into contact with two new acquaintances. The first is a woman who is brainwashed by Number 2 into falling madly in love with Number 6 so that she will betray him to the authorities rather than let him escape from her. The other is an electronics expert who agrees that the way to tell the prisoners from the guards is all a matter of attitude. Soon, a prison break is under way.

Number 6 falls foul of his own arrogant attitude in this episode. The guards won't obey him, but the prisoners will. The trouble is that he won't obey anyone either, so what does that make him? The story about the woman and her brainwashed feelings for Number 6 is actually the more interesting, and certainly more fun, part of the episode, but it just gets jettisoned two thirds of the way through when the escape gets underway.

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Hammer Into Anvil

Number Two drives a young woman inmate to commit suicide and blames Number 6's interference. He promises to 'hammer' the prisoner, but Number 6 sets out on a programme of misinformation aimed at bringing Number 2 crashing down.

One of the most effective of THE PRISONER to date, this is a wonderful game of cat and mouse that has no hidden meanings or real wierdness, just a challenge thrown down and accepted. When a society is based upon paranoia then it is paranoia that will mark its doom.

Admittedly, Patrick Cargill is a little too unstable from the very beginning for the triumph to be complete, but it certainly is fun to watch.

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It's Your Funeral

Number 6 uncovers a plot to assassinate Number 2. He tells the intended victim who doesn't believe a word of it. Then the retiring Number Two returns and it is clear that the incoming man is about to kill the outgoing because he knows too much. Number 6 is torn between his desire to do nothing to aid anyone within the authorities of the Village and his need to upset the plans of the new Number Two.

A simple enough plot is enlivened by the double, triple and quadruple-crossing that is going on and Derren Nesbitt's performance as the young incoming Number Two. His sense of having a thoroughly wonderful time playing with all the power that he holds. His final downfall is a bit too straightforward, but lovely to watch.

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A Change of Mind

Number 6's continual rebellion is declared 'unmutual' and he is ordered to suffer a brain treatment known as 'instant social conversion'. He realises quickly that he hasn't actually undergone the treatment, but has in fact been put into a drugged state that resembles it. Turning the tables on the doctor administering the drugs, Number 6 manipulates the situation into a full blown revolt against Number 2.

This is the third episode in a row where Number 6 has gotten the better of Number Two whilst making no attempt to escape. Has he given up on the idea? Furthermore, it is clear that his captivity is starting to eat away at him. He is pacing his room like a tiger and is getting more violent by the minute. This might simply be what the plot of this episode needs, but it's there. It would also have been more interesting to have followed up on how Number 6's resolve would have survived in the total isolation that followed his being marked as 'Unmutual'.

It all looks fabulous and is intriguing right up until the end when you either accept that this is just more of the ongoing process of wearing down Number 6's self-possession or that it's all a bit meaningless really.

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Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling

Number 6 seems to have some information about the whereabouts of a Professor Seltzman, inventor of a mind transfer machine. Number Two has Number 6's mind transferred to a new body and put back in London. Number 6 is unable to convince the authorities of who he is and so he must track down the Professor himself. The agents of the village are not far behind.

An episode of THE PRISONER in which the Prisoner doesn't appear? It's a cute concept and it might have worked really well except that Nigel Stock's impersonation of the character is so unlike McGoohan's that you can't imagine that this is the same man in a different body. It's a pity because the rest of the plot is pretty straightforward and even rather dull.

It all looks fabulous and is intriguing right up until the end when you either accept that this is just more of the ongoing process of wearing down Number 6's self-possession or that it's all a bit meaningless really.

Interesting facts about Number 6's past come out, such as his impending marriage to the boss's daughter, which does raise questions about who really ordered his incarceration and was it anything to do with his resignation at all. Once again, he manages to foil Number 2's plans, or at least the Professor does.

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Living in Harmony

A man storms into the marshal's office and quits as a sherriff. He walks off, but is ambushed and kidnapped to the town of Harmony where the Judge tries to get him to take up the badge again. When a woman is threatened by the strange 'kid', he agrees, but refuses to carry a gun. People start dying, but the stranger plans only to escape with the saloon girl. When she is murdered by the Kid, the stranger takes back his guns and sets about revenge.

Make sure that you see this episode from the credits, otherwise you might think that you have the wrong channel. The recreation of a Wild West town isn't bad, although the countryside around it looks much more like home counties than open praries. That aside, the whole plot unfolds in place and character. Only the odd and worldless performance of Alexis Kanner as the 'Kid' breaks the mood.

There are moments of pure oater as well. One shot of the stranger stood over a newly dug grave could have come from any Clint Eastwood western. Having the opening credits played out in the manner of a western rather than the usual ones is a stroke of genius as well.

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The Girl Who Was Death

An agent is killed playing cricket (just short of his century) and Number 6 takes his place, identifying the assassin as a beautiful girl in white. After poisoning his beer, she leads him a merry chase through the funfair and then lays traps for him in shops belonging to the butcher, baker and candlestick maker. Fooling her into thinking he is dead, he tracks her down to a lighthouse where her mad scientist father has a rocket targeted on London.

The setting of the Village is clearly too constricting for the scripters of the show as this is the third episode in a row that has abandoned it for an adventure in the wider world. Admittedly, this is the wider world as it never was, with strange camerawork to prove it. It's also very entertaining in its strangeness. Justine Lord makes for a very alluring Death and, this being THE PRISONER you just go with the flow until you realise what is going on.

That is revealed too early on, right from the first shot, in fact, when we see a book in someone's hand. It is clear that this is a story, and the reappearance of the book at each commercial break reinforces that fact. It would have been better to have kept the audience guessing right up to the end. Even so, this is just about the most fun episode the show has come up with to date.

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Once Upon a Time

Time has run out. A returning Number Two is given one week to find out why Number 6 resigned and declares 'Degree Absolute' (the original and better title), a process that will leave only one of them standing. Drugged and brainwashed into a suggestible state, Number 6 is forced to relive important moments in his life to reveal his secrets. Even so, he will resist. Can he survive and last long enough to run out the clock?

The final two episodes of THE PRISONER are the main reasons that it has the reputation for obscurity, bizareness and downright bloody-mindedness that it has. At first glance, there are whole sections of this episode that consist of two men swapping numbers, nursery rhymes and pointless quotes, but that is the first glance. what is really going on is a subtle battle of wills and two powerhouse performances from Patrick McGoohan and the inestimable Leo McKern, back as Number Two (first seen in The Chimes of Big Ben). They give this apparent gibberish a depth and conviction that is obvious even to those who aren't following it very well.

And there were a lot of those at the time. Concepts that are now commonplace in small screen science fiction were rare back when THE PRISONER first aired and it is difficult for us to comprehend now just how challenging this episode must have been for the viewers then. Today's modern viewers will pick up on the subtleties, on the interplay, on the slow stripping away of a man's secrets and his desperate, stubborn clinging on to who he is.

There are as many opinions as to what is going on here as there are people who watch it, but we find it interesting that, even though Number 6 is finally triumphant, Number Two gets his answers, but refuses to accept them, just as the society he represents and the viewers who were so confused at the time refuse them. Peace of mind, a refusal to kill, an admission that some people know too much, are not reasons that are acceptable. The truth of the series' subtexts are also laid out quite plainly (it seems in retrospect, at least) as Number Two tells his prisoner that he cannot be a lone wolf in civilisation, that he must conform.

This penultimate episode is simply the finest that the show has produced since Arrival and is even better than that. Science fiction, even on television, should make you think and as a viewer you have to work very hard indeed to get the most out of this episode, but boy is it worth it.

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Fall Out

Number 6 is taken to the presence of Number 1, who is hiding in what appears to be a rocket silo. There, a bizarre court sits judgement on two other rebels, youth and establishment, before Number 1 is revealed and Number 6 finally escapes, or does he?

Yes, THE PRISONER comes to an end and the title is appropriate because it certainly caused the British public to fall out with Patrick McGoohan. Promising to answer all their questions, it answered very few and in a fashion that they couldn't, or weren't willing, to understand. It's not surprising because there is so much visual nonsense going on that the few points left to make get submerged in a welter of deliberate obscurity.

Following on from the brilliant Once Upon a Time, Fall Out is a disappointment precisely because it is out to befuddle and annoy. The moments of profundity (Number Two is a failed Number 6 who finally conformed, when Number 6 finally gets to speak he is drowned out by a crowd not interested in what he has to say only that he says what they want to hear, Number One is really Number 6 or possibly us all, true revolution involves youth and the state and the individual and a lot of guns) are so deluged by the overlong nonsense (Dem Bones may be a song of significance - raising an army from the dry bones of indifference yadda yadda yadda - but it doesn't need to be sung half a dozen times).

At the centre of all this is Patrick McGoohan who wrote, directed and sits in a throne a lot. He is overshadowed by the returning Leo McKern as a recently revived Number Two, who gives his part again a depth that this episode doesn't deserve. Alexis Kanner (the Kid from Living in Harmony) now gets to be the spirit of youth, which apparently means singing Dem Bones a lot and Kenneth Graham (the mad scientist from The Girl Who Was Death) is a central figure as the Judge.

The sheer bloody-mindedness of Fall Out makes it interesting and perhaps the inevitable ending to this cult series, but Once Upon a Time will remain its pinnacle and would have made the better parting shot.

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