The Prisoner. Who is Number One?

An Introduction to Patrick McGoohan's Science Fiction TV series

By Francis Farrell

The enigmatic and controversial television series The Prisoner was first broadcast in 1967, and yet it is still remembered and discussed today. Originally the conception of the TV scriptwriter George Markstein, it was quickly 'adopted' by Patrick McGoohan, whose own philosophy and artistic talent dominated the evolution of the series. The result was a series which, to its many fans, remains as controversial and relevant as it was at its original screening.

Any discussion of the series leads, almost inevitably, to comparisons with George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. The series wholeheartedly supports Orwell's fears for the future of democracy. We live in a world of ever-larger units, where governments demand, and have the power to obtain, uniformity from their citizens. The Prisoner champions the individual's right to be an individual, and his right to freedom. McGoohan's credo is repeated several times during the series:

I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, de-briefed, or numbered. My life is my own.

In the series McGoohan resigns from the secret service, where he was a top secret agent, over 'a matter of conscience'. When he returns to his flat he is knocked out and abducted. When he wakes he is no longer in London, but in an exact replica of his flat in 'The Village'.

The Village is a prison for secret agents who know too much. Unlike most prisons every comfort is provided for the prisoners. It is, significantly, an exact replica of our own society, except that there is no work for the population to do. There are houses, a credit system, a newspaper, shops, a cinema, television, brass bands, a library, sports facilities, and even a democratically elected village council. The inhabitants are offered a peaceful life, with no stress or worry. Most prisoners accept, because it is the easy and most tempting course to take, but the price is their freedom and sense of individuality. The warning is, I think, quite clear to us all.

The sheer banality of their everyday lives reflects just how pathetic and empty their existence is. The whole village will march quite gaily in colourful carnival parades. Those running The Village have reduced the world’s top spies to a level of total harmlessness. Most don’t even remember the outside world. They are treated patronisingly by their captors and they respond with respect and child-like obedience. There is no contact with, or mention of, the outside world. They don’t even retain their names, because in The Village there are no names, only numbers.

The guardians of The Village have awesome power at their disposal. They have an advanced electronic surveillance system, capable of monitoring every movement of the prisoners. They even have computers sophisticated enough to forecast movements of any particular prisoner on any particular day.

McGoohan – Number Six – remains in open defiance while he is in The Village. He refuses to wear his number or join in with the village activities. He repeatedly tries to escape, and to organise insurrection, and generally tries to foul up the system. He expresses his attitude succinctly in a discussion about elections for the village council. "Are you going to run?" he is asked. "Like blazes, the first chance I get", he replies.

His captors have two aims. They want him to accept his new life, and they want him to tell them why he resigned. They are constrained in their efforts by orders they have not to 'damage the material', (presumably of his mind).

Although Number Six retains his sense of individuality, and never falls for the traps they set, he is nevertheless still a prisoner. At the end of many episodes we see him frustrated in his attempts to escape, but still defiant. His position is shown quite graphically at the beginning of each episode. To a film of his first encounter with the man running The Village we hear:

Where am I?
In The Village.
What do you want?
Information.
Whose side are you on?
That would be telling. We want information.
You won’t get it.
By hook or by crook we will.
Who are you?
The new Number Two.
Who is Number One?
You are Number Six.

Then, to a film of Number Six on the beach, defiantly waving his fist at his invisible but ever-watchful captors:

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

This is greeted by derisive laughter from Number Two.

Number One's identity was a tightly kept secret throughout the series. Not even the film crew knew until the final episode was shot. There were no 'leaks', and so the last episode was eagerly awaited for this revelation. When it came it received a very mixed reception.

In the penultimate episode the original Number Two returns to put Number Six to the ultimate test of his endurance. He is made to re-enact his life from his childhood, in an attempt to make him reveal why he resigned. Two and Six engage in a battle of will power, which Six wins, eventually 'killing' Number Two. By doing this he has passed the ultimate test.

The final episode takes place in an underground cavern in The Village. A special meeting has been called because of a 'democratic crisis'. Various sections of society are represented: the young, the old, the activists, the pacifists, and so-on. They wear long hooded robes and gorilla masks which render them anonymous, and evil. They have been called together for two reasons: for Number Six's 'inauguration', and because of the rebellion of two members of the community.

Number Forty-Eight is brought in and charged with rebellion. He is dressed as a hippie, and in the charges against him we hear society's reaction not only to youth but also to all those who question society's attitudes and norms.

. . . youth with its enthusiasm which rebels against any accepted norm because it must, and we sympathise. It may wear flowers in its hair, bells on its toes. But when the common good is threatened then the function of society is endangered. Such revolts must cease. They are no longer productive and must be abolished . . . we must maintain the status quo . . . total defiance of the elementary laws which sustain our community. Questioning the decisions of those voted to govern us. Unhealthy aspects of speech and dress not in accord with the general practice, and a refusal to observe, wear, or respond to his number!

Refusal to accept ones number is the greatest crime because it is not only an act of defiance, but also symbolises one's belief that the right of the individual to be an individual is more important than any scheme or plan designed by a government, democratically elected or not. The Prisoner is saying that, ultimately, individual liberty is sacrosanct. In saying this it is not merely attacking modern states, but society per se. Ultimately all societies restrict the individual's liberty.

The second rebel brought to trial is the Number Two whom Number Six 'killed' in the previous episode. He is accused of 'biting the hand that feeds him'. He reveals that he was abducted from his post as a top government minister, which makes the mystery of who controls The Village even more mysterious. 'What is deplorable', he says, "is that I resisted for so short a time." Number Two, like Number Forty-Eight, remains defiant. He spits into the eye of the monitor on which Number One is viewing him. The fact that a top government minister has been abducted and brought to The Village to run it suggests that government agencies are becoming more and more remote from the governments which created them.

Number Two and Number Forty-Eight are kept in custody until after Six's inauguration. Number Six is given the choice of leaving The Village or staying and being in charge. He suspects that the offer is another trap, but takes the money he is offered so that he can leave The Village. Before leaving, he is to meet Number One. He is taken to a room where he meets a man in a robe with the number 1 on it. The man is wearing a mask and holding a crystal ball. On a television screen in the background is a film of Number Six repeating his now famous credo. Six pulls off Number One's mask, which reveals another mask, this time of a beast. He pulls this one off and comes face to face with . . . himself.

'Explanations' of this scene are plentiful. Some think it means that man's worst enemy in his struggle for freedom is himself. Others see The Prisoner as an allegory for one man's struggle to 'discover himself'. This scene represents, they say, that discovery. The general public, in 1967, were not to impressed by the ending and didn’t choose to think it meant anything.

As soon as Number One's face is revealed he runs away, pursued by Number Six. Eventually he locks himself inside a rocket in the labyrinth under The Village. Six sets the countdown in motion, and sets off to find the other two rebels. He manages to free them, aided by a midget butler who has waited on whoever happened to be Number Two during the series. They capture guns from the guards and invade the cavern where the assembly is still gathered. While they are shooting all and sundry juke-boxes play The Beatles' 'All You Need is Love'.

The midget leads them to a lorry parked in a tunnel. They follow the tunnel and break through some gates, and find themselves on the main road to London. For all its remote island appearance, The Village is in Wales.

So Number Six (and we never know him by any other name) finally does get home.

As Six roars off in his sports car the butler approaches the door of Six's flat, which automatically opens for him, just as the doors in The Village used to. This action symbolises that everything which is true of The Village is also true of the everyday world. Number Six hasn’t really escaped, he is just in a bigger prison. We realise that he, the anonymous 'Everyman', will never escape.

The final scene is of his determined look as he drives his open-topped car into a breaking storm, and we know that he will keep on trying.

Recommended Link

The Prisoner Appreciation Society

© Francis Farrell, April 2008
Francis Farrell is an Advanced Skills Teacher of English. His blog on teaching can be seen at Kaizen Teaching. His blog on GCSE English can be seen at GCSE English Toolkit

See also: The Prisoner DVDs >

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