Critics often like to (over?)praise obscure works to get people to take a look at them, or misunderstood works so that people reevaluate them. When I and others say The Prisoner is the most important if not best TV series to ever air I'm saying both and neither, and sound like I'm mincing words like the current #2. Either way it stands on its own merits. And like most obscure works you've seen the influences and parodies of it and probably never known what it was.
The Prisoner first aired in the US 40 years ago today, over a year after its initial UK run, a summer replacement for the Jackie Gleason show. No one could have possibly seen such a show coming, especially to fill in for a show so utterly different.
In the 40 years since its become a cult phenomenon, with conventions on the shows filming location featuring costume clad participants, inspiring role-playing and video games, numerous books, articles, academic papers, musical works and rock bands, and a film version has been stuck in development hell for almost over 2 decades;a recent attempt to remake the show was thankfully dropped.
Quite incredible for a show that, to this day, no one knows for certain what it was about, what went on, or even what the correct order of the episodes were. And this is what was so revolutionary about The Prisoner. Called by many the first work of art in Television, The Prisoner was an allegorical show which may or may not have spun-off from Patrick McGoohan's other show Danger Man, a sort of James Bond with TV resources. McGoohan was the brainchaild behind The Prisoner about a man who resigns from a job only to wake up on a mysterious island with strange inhabitants and technologies and being repeatedly prodded for information. That's about all that's for certain. The protagonist, known only as #6,would always get close, or so he thought to, but get no closer to escaping from his Island Prison. Often stopped by The Rover, the white balloon-like ball you've probably seen before. In fact, the Simpsons, having referenced the show a number of times previous to doing so, actually devoted a full episode "The Computer Wore Menace Shows," to parodying The Prisoner.
If its premise was Kafkaesque, its plot and its dialogue was Beckett or perhaps more fitting Ionesco. No one got anywhere, nothing was accomplished, and all sorts of incredible methods were applied for things to get that way.
- "Where am I?"
- "In the Village."
- "What do you want?"
- "Whose side are you on?"
- "That would be telling…. We want information. Information! INFORMATION!"
- "You won't get it."
- "By hook or by crook, we will."
- "Who are you?"
- "The new Number Two." (This occasionally varies — see below.)
- "Who is Number One?"
- "You are Number Six."
- "I am not a number — I am a free man!"
For those with the patience to watch a show where they don't know whats going on there's never been a show with the possibilities to engage the limits of ones imagination as The Prisoner. In only 17 episodes it broke all conventions of television at the time, allowed for artistic, ambiguous and intelligent shows, and paved the way for shows which have followed it, such as Lost, which is heavily indebted to the show. Those frustrated with Lost probably wouldn't last too long with The Prisoner. And as far as abstraction, outside of Twin Peaks you'd be hard-pressed to find a stranger or more elusive hour of television than Fall-Out, the final episode of the show, and perhaps the peak of its defiance to yield to conventions or even audience. A countrapuntal, but at the same time interpretive scene featuring the (at that time recently released) All You Need is Love by the Beatles is one of the defining moments of 1960's art.
My impressions of the show have changed each time I look at it, as do my theories. But one thing has not changed and its my awe of this strange little show which has survived, against all odds, for nearly a half-century. And I hope to have many happy returns to the Village in the future.
Be seeing you.