The Prisoner: I am not a number, but a secret
Like most fans, I was intrigued by the show’s whimsical setting, The Village, Magrittean imagery, and fierce defense of personal freedom (“I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered! My life is my own” exclaims McGoohan’s character in the first episode, Arrival). But what has always fascinated me about The Prisoner – I’ve been a devoted fan since my local PBS station ran the series in the 1980s late on weekend nights – is secrecy.
McGoohan’s character, Number 6, not only holds deep secrets about his life as a spy, but lives in the secret, contrived world of The Village. One is always left wondering about origins in The Prisoner: is the show a commentary on the Cold War? Is Number 6 a Manchurian candidate? Why did Number 6 resign? Who is Number 1? Who is the secret society that operates The Village? Is there a conspiracy against Number 6 for his desire to leave spying? These are the big questions that come to mind as we are sucked into 6’s struggle to understand his circumstances. Until the last episode of the series, the quirky “Fall Out,” one wonders what Number 6 has done to merit the MK ULTRAesque experimentation and incarceration in The Village. It is The Prisoner’s total, unapologetic focus on secrets, secrecy, the hidden, and power that pulls us in forty or so years after the show’s first release.
If we think of secrecy as power and control over information, if we consider sociologist Georg Simmel’s incredible insight that secrecy modifies relationships, then this is The Prisoner in all its wonderfully confusing glory. Like most Prisoner junkies, I had always hoped Mr. McGoohan would resurrect the series to reveal its secrets. Sadly, this never occurred. But I remain grateful for The Prisoner not only for its commentary on our own technointrusive world, but for its uncanny (early) insights on the power of information in human relationships and its ties to oppression and personal autonomy.
Godspeed, Number 1.