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I am not a number, I am a free man!

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My wife and I sometimes jokingly complain that we haven’t yet found the obsessive subculture that is right for us. I think guns are okay, but she won’t let me near ’em. She might well become a cat person, but I’m allergic. Neither of us is in any danger of becoming a Trekkie, or joining the Society for Creative Anachronism.

We may have met our match since Christmas, when my parents gave us the DVD boxed set of “The Prisoner”. My wife, at least, who had never seen the show before a few weeks ago, has succumbed to its cult, and enthusiastically fowards me URLs for fan sites. She has even suggested, less than half-ironically, that we “drop by” one of the Six of One conventions held annually at the Welsh resort, Portmeirion, where the series was filmed.

For those who, like my wife until this month, knew “The Prisoner” only from the obscure “Simpsons” references that cracked up your weird college buddy, this fan site introduces the plot and history of the series quite well. It aired in Britain in 1967, and then here on CBS, and has been shown several times since on public television. That’s where I caught it, as a kid — my parents’ approval for “The Prisoner,” and their ever-so-subtle contempt for “Star Trek,” are among the many things for which I owe them gratitude — and I was hooked from the start.

The story is simple: a British secret agent, played by the show’s creator Patrick McGoohan, resigns from the service, but is immediately kidnapped and transported to the mysterious Village. All his needs are attended to, but his every move is watched, and week after week The Village’s head honcho, Number 2, tries to break his spirit. No one has a name in The Village — McGoohan’s character is dubbed Number 6, and although he insists that he is not a number, we never learn his name. Needless to say, he refuses to give up his secrets, and week after week Number 2 leaves in disgrace, his or her schemes in tatters, and is replaced the next week by “the new Number 2.”

Thematically, and in some ways visually, “The Prisoner” anticipates “The Matrix”, “The Truman Show”, and yes, even “Austin Powers”. Although it was a contemporary of the James Bond films, and of other espionage shows like “Mission: Impossible,” “The Prisoner” retains freshness because it is about so much more than spy games, and is infused with wry, self-mocking wit.

McGoohan had actually been offered the role of James Bond, but turned it down because of his moral objections to the sex and violence entailed by the role. To watch McGoohan talk and think his way through each episode (with occasional fisticuffs — but no gunplay) is to see an alternate version of late twentieth-century man play out, and you could argue that we are the worse off that his wasn’t the model to prevail. McGoohan blazes on the screen: whether radiating arrogance, cool wit, or frank lunacy, his face invites empathy, while his voice commands.

The wit of the screenplays are matched by an extraordinarily lively and variable soundtrack, ranging from typical spy-movie string arrangements to be-bop jazz and cutting electric guitars. The look of the show is similarly sharp: the other inhabitants of The Village are dressed in vibrant primary colors that match the perpetually sunny weather (“Rise and shine, it’s another lovely day” proclaim the loudspeakers each morning), but what secrets do they hide beneath their bright exteriors? (One nice touch, in the episode “Free For All”: a loud, excited-sounding crowd scene, when shown in close-ups, reveals the Villagers’ faces to be somber and silent: the crowd’s noise is piped-in.)

I haven’t even talked about the malevolent white balloons that enforce lethal order, lest the mask of levity slip — there’s no way I can convey in words how scary a villain the show makes out of a growling weather balloon. Nor have I mentioned the DVDs’ numerous special features — interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, trivia games, etc. — mainly because I’ve barely delved into them myself. My wife and I have made it through five episodes so far, with twelve more to go, and she’s been pulled in as deeply as I ever was. Pick up an episode at your local video store, and when you feel yourself succumbing to “The Prisoner”‘s charms, pick up the whole boxed set. One of us, one of us…

Be seeing you — perhaps at next year’s Portmeiricon.

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About Charles Murtaugh

  • oj

    Your love of such things redeems you. 🙂