Classic Sci Fi TV: Our ongoing look back at many of the classics of science fiction and fantasy television.
What Is It? In this British made series, a secret agent abruptly resigns from his position but is abducted and taken to a place known as “the Village”, which is designed to contain and get information from people who “know too much”.
When Did It Air? 1967-68. ITV (Syndicated in the U.S.), 1 Season Totaling 17 Episodes
Starring: Patrick McGoohan, Angelo Muscat, Peter Swanwick, Leo McKern
Created By: Patrick McGoohan, George Markstein
Is It Must-Watch Sci Fi TV? Absolutely. This counts as one of the best television shows of all time, regardless of genre.
The Skinny: Patrick McGoohan had become well-known to international audiences while playing the secret agent John Drake in the spy fi series Danger Man (known as Secret Agent in the U.S.) throughout much of the 1960’s. But after the aborted fourth season of that show, McGoohan wanted to move on from the character and The Prisoner provided the perfect opportunity. It was not considered a direct sequel to Danger Man (partially for rights reasons), but it did offer the perfect exit for the character and a chance for McGoohan to push the bounds of television. His unnamed secret agent character (who is branded with the number six in the show) is cast into a nightmarish, Kafkaesque gilded cage in which his captors are allegedly trying to learn why he resigned, but this just provides the framework for allegorical stories that focus on the individual vs. authority, society, collectivism, etc. Each week delivered a tale in which the ever-changing leader of the Village (known as Number 2 while Number 1 remained hidden) tries to break Number 6 and learn his secrets. But these are actually thinly-veiled deconstructions of our own world, full of symbolism and social commentary. It was pretty heady stuff and quite a departure from average Prime Time fare, but the show was only designed for a limited run that would wrap up after seventeen episodes. The Prisoner definitely delivered some ground-breaking television, and even though it feels a bit dated today (especially the technology), it still has a timeless quality about it because of its relevance and also the picture-perfect setting of Portmeirion, North Wales which stood in for the Village. And for those still grumbling about the ambiguous endings of shows like Lost, Battlestar: Galactica, etc., The Prisoner delivered one of the most WTF, mind-boggling finales of all time. That was intentional, of course, because McGoohan did not want to offer any easy resolutions to the challenging questions he raised, and the finale episode of the show still stands as one of the most boundary-pushing, bat-shit-crazy hours of television ever aired. For those who have never seen this show, it is definitely worth checking out. And for those who have not seen it in a while, it’s worth revisiting because it holds up quite well.
Cancelled Too Soon? Nope. Patrick McGoohan always wanted the show to only be one season and he originally wanted only seven episodes. ITV wanted more, so he agreed to stretch the show out to seventeen episodes. And despite claims made to the contrary, the final episode “Fallout” was not a hastily written conclusion that was thrown together due to a late cancellation announcement. McGoohan wanted the show to go out on a befuddling note, leaving many questions unanswered and much of the show open to interpretation
Revival: Starting in 1988, DC comics issued the four-part comic book series Shattered Visage that picks up with Number 6 twenty years after the final episode of the show. It is not necessarily considered part of the The Prisoner canon, but Patrick McGoohan did sign off on the scripts. In 2009, AMC did a mini-series reboot of The Prisoner starring Jim Caviezel as Number 6 and Ian McKellen as Number 2, but it was far removed from the original series and was not well received. In 2016, Big Finish Productions did several audio dramas based on the series which included reworkings of original episodes as well as new adventures.
Where Can You Watch It? Sadly, the show is not easy to watch these days as the out of print DVDs are fetching pretty high prices and it is not available for streaming that I am aware. You can buy the complete series VOD from Amazon.com, though.
Interesting Fact: McGoohan had to go into hiding from his fans for several months after the final episode aired because they were so enraged that it did not provided a nice, tidy wrap up to the series.
Further Reading: Quite a number of books have been written trying to delve into this intricate and well thought out series, but a good starting place for further reading is The Official Prisoner Companion by Matthew White and Jaffer Ali.