1960s espionage fiction was definitive for spy culture. Developing its own unique aesthetic, from Bond to The Saint to Harry Palmer, the vivid, flamboyant style of both the spies and their cinema incarnations created an iconic pop-phenomenon that survives to this day (as 007 is still going strong). Everyone knows 007, but few are aware of the more philosophical, science-fiction based British cult show, The Prisoner, starring Patrick McGoohan.
McGoohan not only starred in the show, but was also the series’ co-creator, following his successful Danger Man series, and reportedly passed over the role of Bond in Dr. No and The Saint due to moral qualms with 007’s ethics (McGoohan was a professing Roman Catholic). Regardless, The Prisoner remains one of the most fascinating presentations of the dark side of international espionage, combining the esoteric, philosophical, and geopolitical with elements of the fantastical, as well as functioning as a critique of the foundational assumptions of modern, “progressive” man. And for all that, it most certainly warrants an analysis.
Mysteriously resigning from the British Secret Intelligence Service, “No. 6″ finds himself drugged and kidnapped before he is even able to pack his bags and skip town. Waking in a mock version of his own London apartment, 6 discovers himself transplanted to an idyllic self-contained, prison-like Disney-style village, where former spies and agents are “retired.” Unaware of his location, The Village in real life is actually Portmeirion, North Wales, which is a curiously out-of-place Italian-style hamlet rumored to be visited by the Royal Family, as it is now owned by the Clough-Williams Ellis Trust, which is connected with the Crown.
This is worth noting, because meta-narrative aspects emerge with the Crown (the head of the SIS) being associated with Portmeirion, and SIS in the film secretes 6 away to the Village for his golden-cage imprisonment. This connection is further emphasized by the fact that the series based its story on an actual “retirement home” for British Spies, the Invair Lodge “cooler” according to George Markstein’s book, which claims such notions were so infinitely “deep state” they could only be told in fiction. Markstein was also the script editor for The Prisoner, and his close connections to the security establishment suggest the same type of intelligence-scripting I have highlighted elsewhere.
Back to the story. No. 6 quickly discovers the Village is a strictly communal, statist system where unknown “wardens” are concealed amongst a docile, passive population under the complete control of No. 2, the antagonistic would-be handler of 6. Number 2’s that fail to psychologically break 6 are inevitably replaced, and new forms of psychological manipulation, mind control and MK ULTRA-style de-programming and re-programming strategies are continually applied. Each episode features some conspiracy on the part of the shadow establishment, ruling from atop the Village in their Panopticon surveillance dome over the phony, managed social order. As in 1984, all actions are video-taped and recorded for review by No. 2 and his technocrats to determine 6’s reason for resignation. Did he defect? Was he brainwashed? Was he involved in something illegal?
In the first few episodes, 6 is tempted with standard fare in the espionage world – honeypots, swallows, emotional manipulation, and mind control, none of which take effect. Seeking a way out, 6 continually eludes the manipulative strategies of the various 2’s, yet every escape attempt from the island is frustrated. Supernaturally apprehended by the eerily cheesy “rovers,” the lava lamp spherical orbs that emerge from the abyss to ever-foil 6’s escape, he is returned to his mimicked apartment the next morning. “What do you want?” 6 demands. “Information!” 2 replies with a hearty cackle, never divulging Number 1’s identity. 6’s resilience appears at first to be a noble image of the individualistic rebel, the lone wolf who stands for his own identity against the dastardly designs of the statist collective. However, we will see that by the end of the series and from McGoohan’s rare interview that the critique runs much deeper.
Worth mentioning in the early episodes is the presence of numerous technologies of social control and manipulation far ahead of their time. Prescient, as most science fiction tends to be, references to fMRI machines that can read brainwaves; mind-wiping technologies and drugs reported to be possessed by DARPA in our time; techniques for the manipulation of archetypes through psychoanalysis; and global brain style super computers that tabulate predictive algorithms to manipulate and control 6 – all are rife in the series. Ultimately, the Village represents the modern world en toto, and McGoohan has identified the series’ famous bicycle logo as symbolic of man’s illusory belief in “technological progress,” which actually leads to his increasing enslavement.
The Village is the world under the control of a scientific dictatorship wielding NSA-meets-Brave New World total surveillance, creating a virtual prison planet as predicted in Bentham’s Panopticon. Indeed, in conversations between 6 and 2, 2 identifies the Village as the Global Village, subject to a false dialectic in which the “two sides” of the Cold War coin are a manipulated dialectic. This is elucidated symbolically when 6 is hauled before a kangaroo court under No. 2, himself sitting beneath an All-Seeing Eye. In this context, the eye signifies both surveillance and perhaps the control of the farcical legal system by secret societies. Unaware of his violations, the Kafkaesque trials throughout the series result in “guilty” verdicts based on “democracy” and “public opinion,” laughably determined for the community by the technocratic oligarchy that controls the Village.
In Episode 3, “Free for All,” Cold War dialectics are evident in 6’s plot to spark a democratic revolution. As can be expected, the “666!” revolution was entirely the plan of 2 all along. In this context, chants of “666!” are not accidental – the beast of humanistic statism mentioned in John’s Apocalypse has “666” standing for the “number of a man,” an antichrist, or a numerological image of Babel style world state, where a shadow elite sways a complete collective as the head steers a body (the body of the Hobbesian Leviathan). Always, despite his exemplary fire to spark a revolution in the minds of men, 6 discovers his “free individual” plan to be co-opted by the establishment. Since the collective and democratic revolutions proved fraudulent, perhaps the new revolution could be that of the great man, the true individual – or is this also a ruse?
“The whole earth as the village.”
The next several episodes feature 6 as subject to altered personalities in the vein of Dr. Estabrooks’ MKULTRA work, hypnosis, and mass Village mind control through television signals. Again, revelation of the method emerges in 1967, showcasing the means by which highly sophisticated mind control occurs in our day through television flicker rates which lull brainwaves into an alpha state, the lowest, most suggestible arena of brain activity. The “General” behind this manipulation, as I mentioned, is actually an A.I. supercomputer of sorts, ultimately outsmarted by 6’s cunning question, “Why?” which a programmed computer can never process. “Why?” will become the great secret to the series, where in the finale episode, ascending his throne as the new king, the great individual, 6 begins to question his former interlocutors, “Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?” to which they can never give an adequate response.
Death haunts the series. Is 6 dead, and is the Village a form of afterlife where 6 must suffer a kind of purgatory or final judgment? In my estimation the answer is both – 6 is dead, and not only is his death the secret of the series. As the image of modern man, and man as the great, libertarian individual, he is “dead.” In Buddhism, the broken cup signifies death (the cup is already broken) and numerous times in the series, cups are broken, often by 6. That 6 is dead is also shown by the supernatural elements of the Village which emerge in rare intervals, such as the rovers, “dem bones,” the emergence of long-deceased historical figures like Napoleon, time freezing, and the memorable Episode 7, dance of the dead, where 2 reveals to 6 the body in the morgue is “You.” As the mob seeks to murder 6, 2 informs him, “They don’t know you’re already dead.” Long speculated, the meaning is twofold. 6 is dead, and so is revolutionary modern man, who since the time of the French Revolution has believed himself to be “free from oppression” under liberte, egalite, and fraternite!
The Prinsoner’s death thesis is demonstrated in the allegorical episode “The Girl Who Was Death,” where 6 traverses Europe seeking a mysterious German femme fatale who provokes war based around political assassinations. In the end, Death is a daughter of the Frankish-Napoleonic power, which has dominated Albion since the Norman invasion. Could the series be hinting at the very thesis my friend and historian James Kelley has proposed, following the work of Fr. John Romanides, that the subjugation and decline of Europe is the result of the Frankish model of enslavement? It is possible, as the Merovingian line seems to have gained a large amount of power over the last millennium. The episode is oddly presented as a “fairy tale” that 6 tells to a bunch of children, as only children should believe the thesis that London’s enemies are going to create the ultimate terror threat. Is 6 saying only foolish children buy into such childish, contrived global crises?
The “false flag” thesis is supported by Episode 10, “It’s Your Funeral” (also supporting the death thesis), where 6 is set up to be framed for the assassination of 2. Ultimately a plot of 2 himself against a new No. 2, the conspiracy is entirely contrived. As in all the episodes, 6 is able to out Psy-Op the Psy-Op masters themselves, which early on give the viewers hints as the real identity of the elusive, unknown No. 1 to whom all the Village is subject. As the series comes to an astonishing close, 6 is brought underground into his deepest subconscious where he regresses to a childlike state under the original No. 2’s mind control psychoanalysis. Like the SIS-connected Tavistock Institute, the Village functions as the scientistic mechanism for converting the world into a gigantic test tube for the manipulation of the latest behavioral conditioning perfected through psychological operations that originated in the world of espionage and warfare.
Regressing 6 to his earliest years, 2 remains unable to extract the ultimate reason for 6’s resignation. The complicated finale depicts a 6 victorious over No. 2, now the greatest “individual” and the first successful “revolutionary.” As 6 is enthroned, he sits in judgment on the rest of the Village, including all dualities and binary oppositions – judging the anarchists and the pacifists, the radicals and the conservatives. The big reveal is that No. 1 is No. 6, a truth foretold in the opening of each episode, where 2’s response to 6’s question as to the identity of No. 1 is always met with an ambiguous reply that could be read in two ways – “You are number 6,” or “You are, number 6.” Colin Cleary accurately explains the series’ anti-modern, anti-individualist stance as follows in his essay:
In short, The Prisoner attacks modernity on the following grounds:
- Modernity rests upon a materialistic metaphysics (all is matter), and champions materialism as a way of life (the focus on material comfort and satisfaction).
- Modernity is spiritually empty (again, no church in the Village); it must deny or destroy what is higher in man.
- Modernity destroys culture, tradition, and ethnic and national identity in the name of “progress” (called “multiculturalism” and “globalization” today). It is significant that we do not know where the Village is, for modern people are really “nowhere.” As Nietzsche’s “Madman” said, “Where are we headed? Are we not endlessly plunging—backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions? Is there an up and a down anymore? Do we not wander as if through an endless nothingness? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Hasn’t it grown colder?” (The Gay Science).
- Modernity promises only trivial freedoms (e.g., the freedom to shop) while suppressing freedom of thought, freedom of religion, freedom of association.
- Modernity involves the belief that nature (including human nature) is infinitely malleable, open to the endless manipulation and “improvement” of science. In a 1977 interview with Canadian journalist Warner Troyer, McGoohan said, “I think we’re progressing too fast. I think that we should pull back and consolidate the things that we’ve discovered.”
- Modernity systematically suppresses ideals that rise above material concerns: ideals like honor, and dignity, and loyalty (the Village is filled with traitors).
- Modernity preaches a contradictory ethos of collectivism, and “looking out for No. 1.”
- Modernity banishes the sacred, and profanes all through oppressive levity, irony, and irreverence (masking cynicism).
- Modernity places physical security and comfort above the freedom to be self-determining, to be let alone, and to take risks.
- Modernity fills the emptiness in people’s lives with noise (the TV and radio you can’t turn off). Silence might start people thinking, which could make them unhappy.
In addition to the hostility to religion, the Village also seems to be hostile to marriage, sex, and procreation. It is not clear whether there are any married couples in the Village. Sex is probably forbidden. No children are seen until “The Girl Who Was Death,” and those children are depicted as living in a kind of barracks. There is a touch of Plato’s Republic in The Prisoner.
The Prisoner’s essential narrative tells of modern man as a dead man. In his final revolution, the revolution of the solitary, atomized individual unit, there is no “Why?” for this man to be the free individual he imagines himself to be. He is just as much a prisoner of the dialectic as the collective he opposes, as he has no other higher aims than himself. When he is enthroned as king, his final revolution results in a chaotic rebellion that destroys The Village and launches an ICBM that will presumably annihilate London. Having overcome all his inner demons and the prison of his conscience (that is, the Village and its rovers are 6 grappling with his conscience in the afterlife), and realizing his worst enemy is not the system, the people, or the world, but himself, 6 returns to his old life as No. 1.
In fact, the address to 6’s apartment was always “No. 1.” In like manner, modernity’s “revolution” in the global village is the revolution of a meaningless numerological quantification where being “No. 1″ means nothing more than being No. 2 or No. 86 in a world divested of any meaning beyond the individual’s competing egotistical desires. While The Prisoner is a treatise against the collective, it is also a warning to unfettered, meaningless individualism. McGoohan foresaw the coming age of dystopian control where all of us would be tracked by a numerological cipher, under the “wandering stars” of the stellar luminaries that emblazon the heavens of the surveillance dome of the Village. In biblical symbology, the celestial bodies are guided by angelic intelligences, or Watchers, that correspond to earthly potentates. In the Village, the control grid of the Watchers is primarily technological and scientific, where man has been converted into a generic number, as if he were himself a cipher to be decoded and programmed.
“Numerology…we’re all becoming ciphers.” -Patrick McGoohan
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