I started showing my daughter Patrick McGoohan’s classic surrealist spy show The Prisoner last night, and she had a lot of questions (as does everyone who watches) about the symbols and meaning.
This kind of thing is hotly debated, and has been since the original series ended its run with a cryptic ending that left everyone in a rage at McGoohan. I never really understood the confusion over the ending. It’s saying that an army of functionaries and bureaucrats and villains do the legwork to keep us in chains, but the number 1 enemy is ourselves.
The idea of freedom and slavery was only one of the themes running through The Prisoner. The other was a rage at progress, technology, endless war and its profiteers (both political and economic), and mindless consumerism.
The themes only really come into focus when you understand McGoohan’s sense of traditionalism and devout Catholicism.
Legend has it that he turned down the role of James Bond on moral grounds, disliking its excessive sex, violence, and cynicism. It’s notable that John Drake, his character in Danger Man (aka Secret Agent), does not bed women and does not carry a gun. He wins by his wits and by being a more honorable man than his enemy.
This is key since Number 6, The Prisoner, is John Drake. McGoohan denied this, but the parallels are inescapable, and the famous resignation scene which begins each episode of The Prisoner is as much McGoohan’s resignation from a crappy Danger Man contract with producer Lew Grade as it is the resignation of John Drake from the agency.
The item my daughter fixed on was the pennyfarthing bike, the main symbol of the show. It’s seen throughout the first episode, sometimes appearing in strange places that put it in the way. Number 6 passes behind it in a couple of scenes, as though trying to keep it between himself and the forces arrayed against him.
McGoohan was cut from the same cloth as Tolkien, seeing progress–particularly technological progress–as ultimately destructive of our essential humanity, and our God-given freedom. The design of The Village (a real place) is a combination of the quaintly English and strikingly Romanesque, suggesting an idyllic location meant to lull its captives into a sense of security.
But humming below the surface is a sinister, high-tech system of surveillance and control, where classical statues conceal cameras and all doors open and close by themselves. It’s all a facade for a totalitarian apparatus that seeks to dehumanize us, and ultimately bend us to its will.
In this setting, the large, awkward bicycle is at once strange, oddly beautiful, and a reminder of a simpler time. It symbolizes resistance to progress, and a desire to hold on to some piece of the past, no matter how seemingly absurd.
The forces that use it as their symbol probably just meant it to seem quaint, but they missed the power of symbols. It provides a kind of grounding in the past for Number 6. (Its shape also forms the number “6,” like the salute people give in the village.) Even the car Number 6 drives is a throwback. Although the Lotus 7 was produced starting in the 1950s, it was based on a design ideal that valued simplicity and classical style.
Thus, the bicycle and the line of classical statues of the title card remind us of roots that go deeper than the latest fads and gadgets, which can only turn against us in the end.
Don’t take my word for it. Here’s McGoohan himself, in one of the very rare interviews he ever gave (with Warner Troyer for Canadian TV in 1977) on the meaning of The Prisoner.
McGoohan: I think we’re progressing too fast. I think that we should pull back and consolidate the things that we’ve discovered.
Audience Question: Mr. McGoohan, when you began “The Prisoner,” you began it in a decade in which a lot of people were used to secret agents. You very neatly saw the next decade coming. I thing you saw Watergate; the enemy within as opposed to the enemy without. I don’t know if you can answer this, but if you were going to do the series again and you had to look aged to the 80′s and you were thinking in terms of what you see as being the real enemy, not the storybook enemy but the enemy that’s really going to hassle us. If you were going to look into the 80′s now, what would you look to?
McGoohan: I think progress is the biggest enemy on earth, apart from oneself, and that goes with oneself, a two-handed pair with oneself and progress. I think we’re gonna take good care of this planet shortly. They’re making bigger and better bombs, faster planes, and all this stuff one day, I hate to say it, there’s never been a weapon created yet on the face of the Earth that hadn’t been used and that thing is gonna be used unless…I don’t know how we’re gonna stop it, not it’s too late, I think.
Audience Question: Do you think maybe there’s going to be a strong popular reaction against “Progress” in the future?
McGoohan: No, because we’re run by the Pentagon, we’re run by Madison Avenue, we’re run by television, and as long as we accept those things and don’t revolt we’ll have to go along with the stream to the eventual avalanche.
Audience Question: We tend to view the threat, the Village there, as sort of a thing as something external like Madison Avenue, the media. How responsible are we for accepting this? Where do we become involved in being “unfree”?
McGoohan: Buying the product, to excess. As long as we go out and buy stuff, we’re at their mercy. We’re at the mercy of the advertiser and of course there are certain things that we need, but a lot of the stuff that is bought is not needed.
Audience Question: Did you regard the Village as an external thing or as something that we carry around with us all the time?
McGoohan: It was meant to be both. The external was the symbol, but it’s within us all I think, don’t you? This surrealist aspect; we all live in a little Village.
Troyer: Do we?
McGoohan: Your village may be different from other people’s villages, but we are all prisoners.
Troyer: Well, I know who the idiot is in mine.
McGoohan: Yes, Number One – same as me.
Every piece of modern technology is arrayed against Number 6 or betrays him in the end, from the surveillance equipment that records (and has been recording, for his entire life) his every move, to the high-tech watch that leads him into a trap. In the pilot episode, he tries to make an escape in a helicopter, only to have the controls wrested away by an invisible force. After struggling to regain control, he gives up, gradually realizing that he will not be able to use to tools of the enemy to escape. His only weapons are those given to him by God: his will and his intellect. (Around the 20 minute mark in the interview linked above McGoohan discusses some of the religious aspects of the show, acknowledging importance of faith to Number 6.
“Progress” is a difficult thing to rail against, because certainly some progress (antibiotics, the computer on which I’m writing this, equality under the law) can be useful and good, while other progress (the sexual revolution, advances in military technology, mass marketing) is not. The “progress” that The Prisoner rails against is progress as progress, and for the sake of progress, most succinctly captured in words by Michael Crichton: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
Progress, in The Prisoner, is a trap. It doesn’t have to be. We can serve or be served by technology. The moral of The Prisoner is that we, as people born free, should have a choice.