Saturday 22nd July 2017,
Televisual

“The Prisoner:” Then (1967, McGoohan) and Now, (2009, AMC)

Prisoner Carton.indd

Number Two: “Let’s make a deal. You cooperate, tell us what we want to know, and this could be a very nice place. You may even be given a position of authority.”

Patrick McGoohan (Number Six): “I will not make any deals with you. I’ve resigned. I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered! My life is my own.”

Number Two: “Is it?”

Patrick McGoohan (Number Six): “Yes. You won’t hold me.”

From The Prisoner (1967), to watch the full series online for free, visit AMC.com

This exchange hails from the original British series, The Prisoner (1967), in which Patrick McGoohan, playing a character named Number Six, finds himself imprisoned in an old-style village. The opening sequence of the series has him driving around London in a fast car, driving up to his employer’s desk and slapping down a letter of resignation. He has been brought to this presumably secluded village because he has valuable information — what this information is, we don’t know. We also don’t know McGoohan’s occupation. All we know is that he’s trapped because he’s left his job, and he wants to leave.

(When the original series premiered, many viewers assumed, and perhaps were meant to assume, that McGoohan’s character was John Drake, whom he played in another British import, Danger Man (Secret Agent). This, however, was left ambiguous in The Prisoner, though American media magazines like Time and TV Guide stated the two were one in the same.)

Who is the prisoner? Who are his captors? What information does he hold? Will he ever be free? Now that AMC is remaking The Prisoner, viewers will have another chance to find out. Though, of course, they won’t. Nevertheless, in the age of Lost and Flash Forward, the remake of The Prisoner may be right on time, instead of light years ahead of it, as it was in 1967.

Number Six:

“I am not a number. I am a person.”

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The original series, best remembered for its ambiguity, cinematic techniques, and thought-provoking final episode, plays heavily on the fears of its time. It’s steeped in the rhetoric of the Cold War. The village is the commune, or the communist society, where names don’t matter and everyone pretends to be happy in public but is miserable in secret. Though all of their needs are provided for, there is no joy, and the only hope of climbing the social ladder is to be given a position by authorities. The philosophical and psychological drama of the show is whether McGoohan is in fact a free, autonomous individual — “my life is my own” — or whether he in fact is “a number” (communist!) not a “person.”

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Thus The Prisoner (1967) played upon fears of communism and its homogenizing, anti-freedom forces, at least in the beginning of the series. Of course, giving the ambiguity in the show, the village could in fact be in a capitalist country, and McGoohan in fact living in a hell supported by capital not socialism. But I doubt many viewers saw it this way, at least at first. Number Six becomes more of a hero as the series progresses, allowing other people in the village to escape, but not escaping himself. Network executives wanted the audience to have someone to identify with. Americans must have identified with McGoohan as the free-thinking capitalist crusading against the monolith of communism.

Jeffrey S. Miller, in his book on British television imports in America, Something Completely Different, says The Prisoner is open to interpretation, and appealed both to conservative middle class people and young leftists attracted to the idea of revolting against the system. Indeed, embedded within the critique of communism is a critique of consumerism and technocracy — all the village’s denizens are colorfully dressed and lived in well-decorated homes. The series concludes on an ambiguous, Rorschach-like note; depending on your political proclivities, Number Six has either become free or remains imprisoned (my money’s on the countercultural reading)

jim-cavaziel-rover-the-prisoner

Now AMC has remade The Prisoner with Ian McKellen and Jim Caviezel; the series debuts November 15.

Judging by the promos, it seems AMC is keeping the original theme of the show, freedom and individuality vs. collectivity and imprisonment. It appears they’re leaning toward “not free:” “You only think you’re free.”

How is this going to play in a post-Cold War era? I’m not sure. Certainly the Mad Men-watching aesthetes might be interested, if only intellectually.

prisoner-hooded
Abu Ghraib?
The original Prisoner village.
The original Prisoner village.
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AMC’s Prisoner village.

The question of freedom is always relevant, but who is the enemy? The internet, which gives the promise of complete freedom but is still dominated by big corporations? That’s not very interesting. Maybe it’s the U.S. government, who, even in the Obama age, is still keeping state secrets and negotiating with Wall Street? That doesn’t feel as resonant as in the Bush era. Certainly there is the issue of terrorism and the fundamentalism, which AMC may not shy away from.

For my part, it looks to me that the village in AMC’s The Prisoner will recall much more viscerally the suburbs of Levittown, making the prison not a foreign land, but the homes of the show’s viewers (although, as said before, the original did this as well). Is America free? Having an American actor as Number Six (instead of the British McGoohan) goes a long way in driving this point home.

Quite frankly, I’m rather excited about the remake. The Prisoner (1967) is an important show in television history. It deserves credit for foregrounding contemporary cerebral mysteries like Lost and Flash Forward. It’s a real challenge to the narrative that television today is more engaging and intellectual than it has ever been (a narrative I’ve used myself). For the sixties, it was an incredibly avant-garde show.

As I mentioned before, AMC is releasing the entire original series online and on OnDemand.

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

6 Comments

  1. Clay Wilder November 19, 2009 at 5:57 pm

    This remake of the Prisoner was a waste of time, money and talent
    It didn’t follow the original premise of the original series. The original
    series was more interesting and much more thought provoking then
    the remake… Always said that you can’t compete with the original.

  2. Aymar Jean Christian November 19, 2009 at 11:03 pm

    Remakes are really hard. You have to get them out on the right time. Thanks for your input!

  3. Tracee Hegre November 22, 2009 at 2:38 am

    I don’t usually post on blogs but had to on yours. You have a very easy to read writing style. I don’t have time to read it all right now, I found this site when looking for something else on Yahoo, but I’ve bookmarked your homepage and will visit again soon to see the latest articles. I have started a website with a few clips from both the original series and some previews of the remake. Please take a look at my site – it is at http://www.NoManIsJustANumber.com – and let me know what you would like to see more of there. Be seeing you.

  4. Aymar Jean Christian March 23, 2010 at 5:16 pm

    Thanks for the link!

  5. Brian August 27, 2010 at 6:33 am

    Hello – as someone who was around and loved the original series (and won’t be watching the remake – ugh!) – I just wanted to say that in the UK, I don’t remember anyone making the point that he was in a “communist hell” – it was most certainly a capitalist one. I expect Americans see – would have seen – it differently. It is now being repeated on the wonderful ARTE channel – the Franco-German cultural channel – optionally in English, and it’s clear to me that he was personifying a counter-cultural attitude. But the ambiguity surely comes from ITV’s desire to sell the series to America: they had make it palatable for the more rabid anti-communist and pro-system feelings there (even at that time of hippiedom etc.)
    cf The Avengers.

  6. Aymar Jean Christian August 27, 2010 at 10:32 am

    Thanks for your comment! What you say makes sense, that there’d be different readings across the Atlantic, though I think the ambiguity made the original quite strong.

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