January 17th, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

The Prisoner: A New Theory?

A couple of months ago, it came up in conversation that I'd never actually seen the 1967 British ITC miniseries "The Prisoner." I've been hearing about this show since it first came out, back when I was a little kid. Many, many people whose opinions I respect loved this series, and wrote about it at length. For all that I'm pretty severely un-fond of British TV, ITC did at least two other projects in that same time period that I loved, "UFO" and the short-lived "Star Cop," so that was no obstacle. No, for me the obstacle was that so many people I respect said that the only way to appreciate the show was to watch all 17 episodes of it in order, and I never had a chance to do so. And the reason that this all came up in conversation again two months ago was that phierma and cos_x happened to mention in passing that they owned the complete series on DVD and hadn't gotten around to watching it again straight through. So when they found out I'd never seen it at all, they set out to do for me with "The Prisoner" what I had done for them with "Firefly," namely watch it with me a few episodes a week until we were caught up. Tonight we finally finished, and I have to say that I really liked most of it.

Without spoiling anything, for those of you who've never seen it or never even heard of it, here's the basic premise. The title character is a secret agent who angrily resigned without giving a reason. When he got home and started packing for an overseas trip, he was gassed in his apartment and taken to a mysterious place called The Village. Ringed by mountains on one side, guarded by sea (and by giant robotic balloons called Rover) on the other, it's impossible to leave without a helicopter, and the helicopters are all too well guarded. Once he wakes up there, they take away his name, and give him the number 6. The highest ranking official in the village is number 2, and number 2 explains to him that no, they won't tell him which side has him, but what they want from him is information. Specifically, there are three things they must know, and they have to know them soon, as in there is a deadline. They need to know the real reason why he quit. If the real reason he quit was that he was planning to defect or sell out, they absolutely must know to whom and what information he offered them. Finally, they need to know every secret he ever learned in his career that he decided not to share with his superiors. And if they can't persuade or trick him into telling them in time, they'll have to resort to methods that are likely to break or kill him; that would mean losing some of the information, but when the deadline comes they'll have to take what they can get. In basically every episode, number 2 tries yet another trick; in every episode, it fails. As a result, in almost every episode there is a new number 2. This leaves the Prisoner with two dilemmas. First of all, he must escape, and do so soon. Second of all, he needs to find out by any means possible just which side has him.

What drove audiences nuts back in 1967, and still bothers some people, is that the series never actually answers that question. In fact, it answers that question in at least four places. In two separate places, the show offers consistent internal evidence that he is being held by his own side. In two other separate places, the show offers equally consistent and compelling internal evidence that he his being held by the Russians. So, what are the possibilities that are usually banded about?
  1. The Village is run by British foreign intelligence.
  2. The Village is run by the KGB.
  3. The Village is run by some other spy agency, such as maybe the CIA.
  4. The Village is run jointly by two or more of the world's spy agencies, as a place to park people who'd be dangerous to world peace if they were allowed to run around loose.
The first explanation is the simplest one, but I found it unsatisfying. By episode 12 or 13, I had my own theory. Now that I've seen the final episode, number 17, I still haven't seen anything to disprove my theory. And I'm told that Patrick McGoohan, who produced the series and wrote most episodes in addition to playing the lead role, has never said anything to answer the question, so there's no contradiction to my theory to found there. And when I explained my theory to phierma and cos_x, both of whom have been fans of the show for 30 years, they couldn't come up with either (a) any proof that I'm wrong, or (b) any evidence that anybody else has thought of my answer, either.

I don't think any side has him. Notice that the car that trails him back to his apartment in the opening credits is a hearse, and the person who gasses him through the keyhole is dressed like an undertaker. I don't think that the gas was knockout gas. I think the Prisoner is dead and in hell.

(At the risk of spoiling the ending of one of my favorite movies -- phierma, don't click that link -- if you know that's one of my favorite movies, you can see where I got the idea.)