heightened role of abstraction in Patrick McGoohan’s mind bending and untimely 60’s TV series
In terms of its narrative across the 17 episode run first transmitted in 1967, The Prisoner pitches us immediately into one scenario; containment in the mysterious and treacherous Village. A secret and unknown prison of location where the inmates are interred and de-stabilised amid the apparently placid but malevolant reality of control, where anyone may turn out to be a prisoner or a guard and where Patrick McGoohan’s character No.6 is to be interrogated and experimented on as an object of resistance to a powerful (State) force that secretly runs The Village.
In terms of its individual episodes, The Prisoner utilises stories of drug generated virtual reality, dream control, mind swapping and what remains a radical twist on a story of a physical double sent to replace him (‘Schizoid Man’).
Following up on his extremely successful run starring in the series Danger Man (also known as ‘Secret Agent’) in the early 1960’s, McGoohan – a fierce conveyor of intensity on screen, was given near enough free reign from ITV mogul Lou Grade as to his next project… The Prisoner, co-created with George Markstein (with David Tomlin co-producing) but in which McGoohan would star as well as writing and even directing episodes. In fact by the end of production, Markstein had gone and McGoohan would be shepherding the story, its writing, performances and editing, its overall execution amid a tumult of pressure towards its denoument (he was still writing the final episode ‘Fall out’ three weeks before its screening deadline).
The Prisoner utilises ideas and concepts then at the forefront of science fiction writing’s emergent schizotic edge and for television, has been and remains unquestionably seminal. In many respects a kind of template pre-cursor for even today’s most ambitious screen stories, its conceptual leaps and overall ambition continuing to inspire writers at the forefront of production.
Many norms of referentiality in story are removed, we are beyond customary markers of identity and never learn the Prisoner’s name, we never learn which power is behind the Village (generalising proceedings among the individual stories of State to the State itself), there is never a romantic story as such involving No.6. As much as the story is about each of its adventures and contests, for its finale, it makes definitive that which in earlier episodes had been episodic (and thus from that to the re-settable). A leap of abstraction towards orienting The Prisoner as an ontological mystery and yet whose central conceit revealed is clear in expression.
Wikipedia describes The Prisoner as allegorical, but this gives nothing in respect of the radicality that’s at work (and in some way takes the story’s intensity outside itself at the same time), the radicality of its mutant grammar, leaving the formalistic conventions of TV drama behind while at the height of mainstream success. If anything, I would argue that for human beings, the story is primarily existential in nature. Allegory alone would not allow for a transcendentalising of any of The Prisoner’s conditionalities, and yet this is what I feel is there to be drawn from the abstract in conclusion by the time ‘Fall Out’ has ended (more of which in Part 2).
Of the show’s initial driving forces, Story Editor Markstein was known to bring influence toward the ‘realism’ of those stories focussing on the overtly State-political, elaborating the murkier of its oppressive and controling machinations. McGoohan pushed for more outré stories, perhaps in keeping with the exploratory impetus of 60’s counter culture (by then partly blown open by the availability of LSD and its impact on art and culture).
Markstein and others might have been concerned with the radicality of critique against democracy and the Western State, equivalising it with the repressive regimes of the cold war. McGoohan it seems though was aware that only opposing the convention of what people were accustomed to seeing and understanding (their expectations and formalisms in reality), could achieve the impact of real subversion, and in turn the best opportunity at subverting the real. Also, the act of taking stories outside the norm in ways that resonate with that consistency of intent can be a fundamentally energising process for all who become part of playing out or experiencing that story. Expressions of the impersonal dynamics of freedom laid out in threads of abstraction through the virtuality of a story and its resonances with the virtuality and abstractions of our lives.
In the episode ‘The General’ No. 6 uses metaphysics to destroy the all powerful computer behind the subliminal education programme ‘speed learn’ which is being tested on the Village’s inhabitants. And in many ways, this approach is what becomes echoed and exemplified as to how McGoohan resolves the series itself.
Almost immediately out of the gate, the Prisoner was demonstrating as adroit a grasp on the power of inflecting virtualities and layerings of the real/’unreal’ as Black Mirror or any Christopher Nolan project. In the third episode ‘A, B and C’ the story plays out through a sequence of three successive nights in which No.6 is drugged and forced to dream about the same event in his life, but where in each of the dreams on successive nights, a different suspect in The Village’s investigations of No. 6 are inserted. Each night No.2 and the research scientist watch on a giant screen as No. 6’s incepted dream plays out, while he is required to navigate unaware that he is dreaming and that his dreams are being manipulated.
The story is ingeniously resolved on the third night, when No. 6 visually confounds the virtual dreaming of the space and its projection with its actualisation. Turning the tables by demonstrating a capacity to use the layering of the virtual to confound his interrogators (comfortable behind their assumed control) although it is a momentary blow – expressive that the abstraction is weaponisable, against a lack of knowledge or preparation towards its multiciplicitous possibilities. Showing us that while tinkering with control versions of the walls of the dreaming mind, The Village’s controllers are largely unaware of the capacity for that space to unknowingly inhabit their perceptions of their own spaces. No. 6 displays a similar grasp of affect when in the episode ‘Hammer into anvil’ he tricks a No. 2 with particularly violent inclinations into believing he (no. 6) is a plant by allowing coded apparent messages to be intercepted. These codes are entirely fabricated by No. 6 but allow him to manipulate No. 2’s inherent paranoia until he crumbles and reports himself.
This isn’t to say that all of the more abstract occurences in The Prisoner are as successful and stimulating, but they do lead the way to the explicit role that this attunement to potential realisations plays in the series overall affective space. A story that becomes as something with a wild streak that bucks intensely against the contraints of normativity and transforms itself and its consistency in order to give expression to different kinds of idea, different kinds of story within stories.
As production progressed, the escalating tension between Markstein and McGoohan prompted that the former exited, leaving McGoohan as what would nowadays be the ‘Showrunner’ and ensuring the story would follow his lead more or less completely. Episodes became more dissonant to the series’ continuity and earlier story conventions, certain unskakeables may have remained; No. 6 in The Village, resisting – the presence of his interchangeable opponent/nemesis No. 2 (and his faithful butler played by Angelo Muscat), but what could happen in between became almost completely open.
In a way that prefigures Post Modernism but does not fall into its traps, The Prisoner utilises this open approach to TV story grammar and the medium, to create different directions and spaces in story, each in some way relating to the incarceration and opposing it, its mysterious unknown formations and consistent yet operationally oblique aims. This within the disguised ordinary of ‘The Village’ – a normative actually deterritorialised and nominal when one considers the Village’s location as an outlying compound cut off in a far off unkown wilderness (and potentially an island or peninsula). While from the outset, Number 6’s hostility towards the forces behind the Village and his disdain for the charade of their prison, certain core mysteries remain, like the inescapable numerative question that featured in each episode’s introduction ‘Who is Number 1?’
In scenario terms, final episode ‘Fall Out’ takes No. 6 to the centre of the disguised power nexus only to discover that its controller is apparently himself (only masked and even when unmasked behaviourally unrecognisable). It is the ending which the ousted Markstein descibed as ‘an absurd pantomime’ and ‘gross self indulgence’ and yet it is travelling beyond the ingrained formalism of Markstein’s hard-nosed ‘realism’ that gives the Prisoner its ultimate bite. That it dares to reach out through abstraction, to the resonance of logic that does not obey its convention and gives us the gift instead of a transformed tableau of occurence. In a way, one of the courageous things about ‘Fall Out’ as an ending, is that it commits so vehemently to its course (like McGoohan’s character No. 6) that it foregoes conventions, and in the context of what it generates to get to the moment of McGoohan meeting Number 1 it is not at that point an entirely intellectual exercise. It has been made visceral, an affective manoeuvre that pairs with thinking, but comes through in a way dislocated by the strange and ritualised exhibitions that have led up to it.
The ending that famously forced McGoohan to leave the country (and saw him threatened in the street). A story in which if there is to be any escape from ‘The Village’, it is through a more mobilised form of engagement with and through abstraction as an affective force and deterritorialisations of everyday conceptual underpinnings.
‘Fall out’ and its controversial ending in Part 2 of this piece.