The Prisoner is easily the best Science Fiction series in television history. When it came out in 1968 I was one year old. When I was ten or eleven, PBS re-ran the series, and I became an avid fan. I even taped 'em on our Betamax, and annoyed my friends by incessantly whistling the theme over and over and over again. When PBS abruptly stopped re-running the show, I happened to have a tape of the bizarre final episode, Fallout, and I watched it repeatedly every couple of months until our Betamax finally went to that big Thrift Shop in the Sky circa 1982. For those wondering exactly what manner of dork I am, it's worth noting that I first heard the Beatles "All You Need Is Love" when it was played ironically over the closing gunfight, and I mistakenly thought it was a Monkees song. To this day, I can't hear that song without thinking of a smiling Patrick MacGoohan and Leo McKern gleefully gunning people down.
(The good stuff starts around 1:45)
Circa 1991, ABC re-ran the series in their late night slot, presumably because they were having production problems with their 'Crimetime' lineup. It might have had something to do with the ongoing Writers Strike, or perhaps there was just a lingerie shortage that cut into their ability to film new episodes of Vendetta and Silk Stalkings. Who knows? Anyway, I was re-introduced to the show by my then-roommate, Miguel Cielo, who asked me if I'd ever heard of it. I had only vague, but positive memories of the machine gun thing, the general weirdness of the series, and of playing the not-very-good Prisoner computer game put out by Eduware in the early 80s, so we rented a few. Then a few more. Then a few more. It was like falling in love with an old girlfriend again after an absence of many years.
For those not acquainted with it, The Prisoner tells the story of British Secret Agent John Drake (Patrick MacGoohan), the star of the earlier Danger Man and Secret Agent TV series, though he's never actually called by the name 'Drake' in this final series, there's any number of internal clues that he's the same character. In the opening credits of the first show, Drake angrily storms into his superior's office, slams down a resignation letter, and then goes home and starts packing for a long trip. A mysterious smoke comes in the keyhole, and Drake passes out. When he awakes, he's in "The Village," a strange self-contained little world. In actuality, it's a prison for people who 'know too much,' such as scientists, bureaucratic file clerks who happen to see the wrong information, and, of course, ex-spies like Drake.
Drake is always referred to as "Number 6"; sort of like the theme song from Secret Agent, "They've given you a number and taken away your name." The Village is run by the autocratic Number 2. Behind the scenes, pulling the strings, is the never-seen, semi-all-powerful "Number 1." No one else's numbers seem to have any significance. In Seventeen episodes, there are thirteen or fourteen number twos. (Some episodes have a couple. One guy was in two episodes, and Leo McKern was in three.) Number 1 and all the number twos want to know one thing of Number Six: "Why did you resign?" He won't tell them. Initially he thinks he's been kidnapped by "the other side" to pump him for information, but as the series progresses, we begin to feel like perhaps the Village is maintained by British Intelligence. We're never quite sure, and by the end of the series there are disturbing clues suggesting that the place is actually being run by both sides in co-operation, and that the world of the future is merely the Village writ large.
To break Number 6, the various numbers 2 embark on increasingly baroque mind games. 6 manages to escape a few times, but is always brought back. He's betrayed, beaten, drugged, cloned, possibly killed and resurrected (The Village has conspicuously higher technology than the outside world) tortured, hypnotized, and, more than a couple of times, soundly defeated. What makes this litany of awfulness redeeming, however, is that even when he's completely beaten, he never entirely loses himself. And what makes this something other than the old cliché of 'young man defeats the Roman empire single handedly' is that virtually every episode works on multiple levels: Dramatic and Allegorical. In fact, the final episode has been said by some to