How good is The Prisoner for a TV show from the 60s? Surprisingly good. How good is The Prisoner compared with all the later series made for almost 50 years? An immediate cult classic. We, and many other authors, have discussed some recurring issues that contemporary serial fiction seem to emphasize, such as identity, social paranoia, conspiracies, fragmentation or otherness. The Prisoner is basically composed by all of these ingredients and it takes them as far, or even further, than any other fiction has since then.
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Number 6 and Number 2
The Prisoner (ITV, 1967-1968) was a 17 episode British narrative experience that begins with one man. We don’t know his name and we never will. He apparently works in a high level Government position. One day, he is drugged and taken to The Village, a quaint and uncanny town where every citizen has been also kidnapped due to what they do or don’t know. Oh, and they have no names, they are numbers. Among them there’s a Number 2, the leader, the major, the general, the boss, the man behind the curtain, the one who is in charge of subtracting the information from the people of The Village. This may sound as the plot for the pilot episode but it is, in fact, the story condensed in the opening credits.
– “Who are you?”
-“The new Number 2.”
– “Who is Number 1?”
– “You are Number 6.” (Or…”You are, Number 6″)
– “I’m not a Number. I’m a man!”
This is the famous exchange every episode begins with. Yes, every episode features a new Number 2 (played by a different actor), in fact, every episode features a mostly new set of characters giving us the awkward feeling that he is being drugged and kidnapped at the beginning of each instance and every day in The Village is a first day in The Village. Every ploy, conspiracy, strategy against Number 6 is always a first one, a unique one. Memory and amnesia are his weapons and weaknesses, surveillance (there is a camera in every corner, room, statue, home… of the Village and then, of course, we have Rover) and mind-games theirs.
Number 6 and Rover
Take the fifth episode, The Schizoid Man (schizophrenia, such a contemporary disease). Number 6 is kidnapped within The Village for months, completely sedated the whole time, they induce him to believe he is now Number 12 a left-handed -he’s right-handed- agent sent to The Village to pretend to be Number 6 in order to break the supposedly original Number 6 who is actually the agent sent to break our Number 6. And we thought The Americans, Fringe or Orphan Black offered complex identity issues. The best part is that, at the end of the day, they are not even trying supplant another person but… another number. Mesmerizing.
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And then there’s Rover, the white balloon that hunts the villagers when they try to escape or do not behave “properly”; a “security system”, the same words that Rousseau used in Lost to describe the black smoke and that had the same function as Rover: an alien element impossible to categorize, a supernatural deus ex machina, doing and undoing as it pleased, a “mechanical God”, the ultimate metaphorical Other, nothingness. Is it… Number One?
Questions and answers -and not in that particular order-, the individual against the power, Big Brother and no escape neither physical nor psychological. But we don’t really want to escape The Prisoner.