‘The Prisoner’ and the Problem of Evil

By Alex Genetti51391C83X3L._AC_UL320_SR242,320_

A repost from The Study of Everything

Last year, I was overjoyed to discover that Big Finish (the company best-known for their semi-canonical Doctor Who audio spinoffs) would soon revive the cult-classic series The Prisoner as an audio drama.

For those of you not in the know, The Prisoner was a 17-episode British television series that aired from 1966 to 1967, co-created and largely run by its star, Patrick McGoohan. The show blended the basic tropes of the spy drama with elements of science fiction, dystopia, social satire, and good old-fashioned surrealist weirdness to create something that hadn’t really been seen on television before – a series that was strange, clever, heady, and all but chomping at the bit to subvert viewers’ expectations.

It begins, as every episode’s title sequence shows, when an unnamed man resigns in a huff from his job in some top-secret organization.  Almost immediately, he’s abducted by mysterious captors and awakens in a remote costal village separated from the rest of the world by mountains and sea, populated by cheerful, cape-wearing, parasol-toting citizens who use numbers instead of names.  In this Village, people who possess valuable or sensitive information are kept in forced retirement, while the man (or sometimes woman) in charge of the place – a “duly elected” leader, different every week, designated as Number Two – uses various methods, ranging from drugs to hypnosis to social indoctrination, to render the inmates harmless and extract whatever information they possess, all while taking orders from a mysterious and never-seen Number One.

But who is Number One?  Which side runs the Village?  Who among the Villagers are merely prisoners, and how many of them are wardens in disguise?  Why did the Prisoner (now known as Number Six) resign in the first place?  What secret information does he have that the masters of the Village need so desperately?  And where in the world is he, really?  How long can he survive with his free will intact?  Can he escape?  These are the driving questions that root most of the episodes’ plots, keeping viewers simultaneously intrigued and safely in the dark.

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Big Finish’s series promises to be faithful in content and, hopefully, in spirit, to the original – but I’ve wondered whether it will be nearly as compelling as the original series.  (It’s actually been released already, though I haven’t yet had a chance to give it a listen.)  In any case, the sudden appearance of a revival struck me as an opportunity to reflect on what exactly made the original series so compelling in the first place that fifty years later, fans were clamoring for more.

I contend that The Prisoner’s enduring value comes down to two factors.  The first, and more obvious, is the appeal of the Village as a dystopian setting.

The Village: A Crystal Palace 

Though the Village in The Prisoner is certainly a dystopia, it’s a dystopia confined to a very small geographic area, unlike the world-dominating governments in, say, 1984.  Still, it has all the hallmarks of an imaginary “bad place,” with plenty of surreal little Orwellian touches: spy cameras in every home, dogmatic slogans (“Questions are a burden to others; answers are a prison for oneself,” “A still tongue makes a happy life,” etc.), a propaganda newspaper, a sort of Village Thought Police, and so on.

Moreover, as with Orwell, Patrick McGoohan’s own political and social fears show through clearly in his art.  For starters, individuality is illegal in the Village; anything resembling difference of opinion is construed as malevolence against the community, and people who seek privacy (like Number Six) are branded “unmutuals” and subjected to forced medical treatment which gives them “perfect peace of mind” so that the community can properly function.  Villagers tend to be docile and submissive, fleeing from conflict and instantly kowtowing to anyone who so much as assumes an authoritative posture (which becomes an important plot point in the episode “Checkmate,” but more on that later).  Implications of some sort of state-worship even emerge from time to time, as evidenced by an “art competition” in which every participant – except the heroic Number Six, of course – carves a little statue or weaves a tapestry depicting the beloved Village overseer, Number Two.

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Ordinarily, the Village is presented as a tool more than an actual social program – a gilded cage constructed for the specific purpose of extracting information (“Information! Information!”) from the captured spies and scientists.  However, at least one of the Number Twos (the one played by Leo McKern in the episode “The Chimes of Big Ben”) sees the Village as a possible a solution to the problem of evil.  It is, to be fair, a perfectly well-ordered society.  Villagers never harm or exploit each other, and they all seem, in an odd sort of way, entirely content.  If the viewer is willing to use some imagination, perhaps she can understand why this Number Two thinks of Number One’s cheerfully dehumanizing social structure as a “perfect blueprint for World Order” that the rest of the world will eventually come to see as a genuine social good.

Perhaps.  But all this business reminds me, more than anything else, of a striking passage in one of C.S. Lewis’s posthumously-published works – an unfinished open letter to a “Professor Haldane” in which he defends certain aspects of his own Space Trilogy from this Haldane’s criticisms.  Among the many other fine points he makes (some of which eventually migrated into his other, published writings), Lewis contrasts two opposite solutions to the problem of human selfishness: “love (which is a relationship between persons) and the abolition of persons,” and argues that love is indeed impossible in any social environment in which individual personhood does not exist:

“A society in which no one was conscious of himself as a person over against other persons… would, indeed, be free from selfishness, but not through love.  It would be ‘unselfish’ as a bucket of water is unselfish.”

To bring these matters to bear on The Prisoner, I suspect Lewis would hold that, for the Christian, at least, the chief evil of the Village is that it renders love – and, by extension, all other human virtues – impossible.  Harmony maintained through drugs, hypnosis, and even “mundane” practices such as threats of violence and forced confessions is no harmony at all; it consists not in fostering better relationships between potentially selfish persons, but in the removal of its citizens’ personhood altogether, forcing them to see themselves not as individuals with the freedom to choose to love their neighbors, but as numbers, bits of coding that keep the social mechanisms of the Village running smoothly.  An unselfish community, perhaps, but no more good or virtuous than a bucket of water – or a vast, inhuman machine.

I would even take this idea a step further and contend that the Village represents the extinction of humanity in humanist (and Christian humanist) terms.  Though it’s built on a very different philosophy, the Village bears some resemblance the imaginary “Crystal Palace,” the rationalist utopia, against which Fyodor Dostoevsky rails in Notes from Underground.  Dostoevsky believed that a perfectly harmonious, rational society could never actually be built, since man is a fickle and passionate animal driven by other forces besides reason.  The Prisoner shows us that a “Crystal Palace” of sorts perhaps could be built if we simply diminish humanity – make people less than human – by eradicating or suppressing those parts of our spirit that make us more than mere cogs in the societal machine.  The Prisoner presents us with a case of “Square Peg, Round Hole” in which the solution is to simply carve the peg down into the proper shape, losing much of its material – and, more importantly, its essential “squareness” – in the process.  A cheerful, docile, mindless Villager is what’s left of a human being after it’s been granted “perfect peace of mind” under a system which does not allow for voluntary love, kindness, and obedience.

In “The Chimes of Big Ben,” Number Six rejects this vision wholesale in a marvelous exchange:

Number Six: The whole earth as the Village?
Number Two: That is my hope. What’s yours?
Number Six:  I’d like to be the first man on the moon.

Who Is Number One?

And yet, for my money, this dystopian vision isn’t what makes The Prisoner so uniquely compelling.  Plenty of dystopian tales paint a terrifying picture of the author’s least-favorite political philosophy taken to its most extreme.  McGoohan, on the other hand, seems less interested in showing the evils of this or that political system (though he often does gleefully skewer specific phenomena, such as rote learning in “The General” and political machinery in “Free for All”) and more interested in exploring the various vices into which any human soul might be tempted.  The series suggests – implicitly at first, and more explicitly in the final episode – that even stubborn, defiant heroes like Number Six have just the same capacity for evil as the monstrous tyrants who run the Village.  Indeed, the very strength that gives Number Six the ability to resist the Village also places within his reach the temptation to commit the exact same kind of evil.

Several episodes have plots which hinge on Number Six allowing himself to slip into modes of behavior that cause him to resemble his captors.  This is an overt theme in “Checkmate,” where Number Six’s escape attempt is foiled when his allies, intimidated by the stern, authoritative stance he takes when recruiting them, mistake him for a Village warden in disguise.  In “Hammer into Anvil” (probably the best episode of the entire series), Six takes revenge against a cruel and tyrannical but emotionally insecure Number Two by exploiting the man’s paranoia and driving him almost to the brink of madness by using the same sort of mind-games that the Village plays on the Prisoner in most other episodes.   In “A Change of Mind,” perhaps the most boldfaced example of all, Number Six turns the tables on Number Two by taking the tools of Two’s own plot – drugs, hypnotism, and social indoctrination – and using them to turn one of Two’s underlings against him.

And yet, even in episodes where Number Six does nothing questionable, McGoohan still finds ways to haunt his conscience.  The most ingenious such device is another character, the Number Two played by Leo McKern – a jovial, friendly, clever, and absolutely ruthless foil to our straight-edged protagonist.  McKern’s Two appears only twice in The Prisoner – once in “The Chimes of Big Ben,” and again in the two-part series finale, “Once Upon a Time”/“Fall Out” – but he makes a striking impression, perhaps because of all the ways he resembles Six.

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Both men are sharp-witted and sharp-tongued (which, along with the two actors’ natural chemistry, makes their scenes together a delight to watch).  Both are enamored of Shakespeare, as demonstrated by their habit of quoting lengthy passages at each other in the penultimate episode.  Even their methods of conducting psychological warfare seem to overlap: in “The Chimes of Big Ben,” for instance, McKern’s Number Two concocts a scheme that takes advantage of Six’s chivalrous nature – seizing on his one weakness and exploiting it with a lie, just as Number Six did to the insecure Number Two in “Hammer into Anvil.”

A scattered handful of lines even establish that this Number Two is also a former prisoner, a man captured and brought to the Village who eventually “came around” to Number One’s way of thinking.  In his former life, he was evidently a man of great influence, having had “the ears of statesmen, kings and princes,” making him accustomed to exercising the sort of solitary authority that the job of Village overseer calls for: “Governments have been swayed, policies defined, and revolutions nipped in the bud – at a word from me.”  Now he looks on Number Six as almost a younger version of himself: a strong, intelligent, principled man who simply needs to be “saved” from his futile self-will.  At every turn, he shows us what Six could so very easily become, and is always in danger of becoming, if he always allows his own formidable intelligence to overwhelm and dominate other, weaker free wills.

When telling a dystopian story, it’s easy to place all of the villains – those who represent whatever political philosophy the author most despises – on one side of the line, and keep the heroes squarely on the side of righteous resistance to evil.  But the line dividing good from evil in The Prisoner doesn’t take the shape of some vast, obvious chasm between the hero and the villains, between Six and Two.  It’s a thin line, and it runs right down the middle of the Prisoner’s own soul.  The show’s notorious final episode, which takes a hard left turn into surrealist territory, might affirm this interpretation, albeit in an enigmatic and symbolic manner.  Suffice it to say, when the identity of the insidious Number One, the tyrannical master of the Village, is finally revealed – when the ultimate power that has kept Number Six imprisoned all this time is unmasked – it seems to me that Patrick McGoohan is making a strong statement about where the greatest danger to the human soul lies, and it’s not in any political system or social philosophy.

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Am I certain about this interpretation?  Good heavens, no.  The Prisoner’s finale is so chock-full of strange symbols and little twists and turns that one suspects McGoohan intended it to be impossible for any single, definitive interpretation to stand.  But this notion, this idea of the dystopian tale with a guilty conscience, always keeps me coming back, makes me watch and endlessly re-watch a bizarre little seventeen-episode series that aired fifty years ago, and which fans, critics, and dissenters alike still haven’t stopped arguing about.

If Big Finish can manage to create something like that, then we’re in for a real treat.