Jan 14 2009 7:22pm

Will you be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered?

Patrick McGoohan as The Prisoner. Photo from

I’m not one for “greatest of all time” lists, but for The Prisoner, I’m willing to make an exception. Running from 1967-1968, The Prisoner starred Patrick McGoohan, and was a more complex follow-up to the star’s popular spy-themed Danger Man television series. Running only 17 episodes, The Prisoner is a symphony of paranoia. Dystopian sci-fi, philosophy, and absurdist British humour create an ode to the nature and importance of freedom and individuality in a society that values neither. It is one of the best television shows of all time, and you don’t just have to take my word for it: In anticipation of the upcoming remake of the series, AMC has made all 17 episodes of the original series available for free, streaming from their website.

Photo from The Prisoner, from

The series begins wordlessly, a montage of driving scenes set to an urgent fanfare-laden theme song. A man resigns from an unnamed secret agency, is followed, gassed in his home, captured! He awakens in a strange village, from which there is no escape. Each episode features the man, referred to only as Number 6, being interrogated with the hopes of discovering why he resigned by a series of people referred to only as Number 2. Each week featured Number 6’s attempts to leave The Village or suffers some cruel new torture at the hands of Number 2, and each week Number 6 would not break, but could not escape. It is a spy series turned inside-out, where there is no secret information to be discovered but that of the spy himself. It is difficult television, but rewarding.

The Prisoner has become a part of the fabric of popular culture, with homages to the series appearing in many different media. The most notable one is likely The Simpsons episode “The Computer Wore Menace Shoes,” in which Homer (as internet rumour-monger “Mister X”) makes a shocking discovery and is sent to “The Island.” Prisoner star Patrick McGoohan even plays a version of Number 6, whom Homer hilariously betrays in order to escape The Island. The Prisoner was also influential on one of my favourite comic book series, Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles—The series’ clarion cry of rebellion and dark agents of absolute authority owe a lot to the relationship between McGoohan and his TV captors.

Excerpt from The Prisoner comic pages by Jack Kirby

Speaking of comic books, following a revival of The Prisoner in the late 1970s, Jack Kirby was tapped to adapt the series into comic book format for Marvel Comics. While it never came to fruition, a number of pages were fully illustrated, and a little bit of Google-fu should turn them up online. For the complete story on the short life and death of the proposal for the series, check out this article at publisher Twomorrows’ Jack Kirby Collector website. A sequel to The Prisoner was also created in graphic novel form, by Mark Askwith and Dean Motter. It’s called The Prisoner: Shattered Visage and is published by DC Comics, and it should be available in better comic book stores everywhere.

Now if reading all of this has used up the time you’d budgeted to watch the series, don’t fret. In addition to streaming the complete unedited episodes from their site, AMC has also created “Prisoner-In-A-Minute,” each episode of the series boiled down to its most essential bits, clocking in at just a minute long. While I can’t think of anything better for you to do than spend the next 14+ hours watching this fantastic series (er, except perhaps browsing the fantastic archives at!), at least give the first episode a go on fast-forward, and see if it doesn’t pique your curiosity.

Be seeing you.

[Top two photos from Image of “The Prisoner” by Jack Kirby. Thanks to GalleyCat for the heads-up.]

larry shirk
1. lorenzo
"AMC has made all..." -- except not in Canada, alas.
'nother Mike
2. 'nother Mike
Nor in Japan. Apparently only in the U.S. of A.
'nother Mike
3. Chris Eagle
McGoohan died on Tuesday. BBC obit
Chris Meadows
4. Robotech_Master
Also, note that there is some argument over the proper order in which the series should be viewed. Here's a page that recommends a viewing order somewhat different than that in which the episodes are numbered on AMC's website:
Eugene Myers
5. ecmyers
The CGI series ReBoot had a surprisingly faithful parody in its third season titled "Number 7". Nominally a kids show, only hardcore fans of The Prisoner would get all of its references.

And in case anyone missed this (like I did), check out this impressive music video for "I Helped Patrick McGoohan Escape" by The Times:
'nother Mike
6. TamaB
Sad about Patrick McGoohan! I'm a Prisoner fan from the get-go and am a little crawlie about the idea of a remake. Makes me want to see the original again so maybe I'll watch the streaming.
'nother Mike
7. Chris212
Hello folks, thanks for commenting on my article. I have to admit that, being from the great white north myself, my sympathies lie with all of you that can't see the streaming episodes at the AMC website.

I wish there were a way that you could see the streaming video from where you are.

Also, this article was completed at around 2am on the morning of the 14th, before I had become aware that Patrick McGoohan had passed on. I'm genuinely sorry to see him go, I think he contributed something valuable to television, to SF, and to fiction on the whole. I'll definitely miss him.

- Christopher,
'nother Mike
8. di11ro
Such a sad time. I'm glad that AMC is planning a re-make. I always felt the original series was un-finished and hadn't really exhausted all the potential there was in the concept.

The really odd thing is that yesterday, Tuesday, I was sitting on the couch talking to my girlfriend and thinking, "Maybe I should recommend we watch an episode of The Prisoner." I dismissed the idea knowing that she doesn't like the show as much as I do.

Be seeing you, Number 6.
Chris Byler
9. cbyler
Pinky and the Brain also had a Prisoner homage 3-part episode; they used hats instead of numbers, renaming the main characters Porkpie and the Fez (the Brain was Porkpie).

The middle episode of the arc was titled "I Am Not A Hat."
'nother Mike
10. clovis
RIP Patrick McGoohan. The Prisoner remains one of the most remarkable and challenging pieces of television ever made in Britain and its messages and stories about freedom, power and responsibility still resonate strongly, perhaps more so in these paranoid times. It is apparantly true that McGoohan was offered the role of James Bond but refused as he found the character morally repugnant. (Number 6 and John Drake never/rarely used guns and was always impecably chivalrous towards women). The bald man in the opening credits is George Markstein, co-creator of the series who left after disagreements with McGoohan over the way the series was developing. Markstein wanted to keep it more conventional.
I will watch the remake and have to admit that I am nervous about it, but the recent remake of the BBC 1970s series Survivors was not too bad, and in some ways better than the original so no pre-judging.
There was a car advert on British television in the '90s (I think) which featured Port Merion and Prisoner sets which ended with Number 27 escaping in the car being advertised.
Chris Byler
11. cbyler
Too bad the streaming episodes are unwatchable except on a T3 - and only available in streaming HD. I'd like to watch them, but not in a watch one second, wait three seconds format.

I thought smart streaming protocols were supposed to autodetect when there wasn't enough bandwidth and compress the stream more aggressively (i.e. more lossily, but better than not playing at all). I guess AMC is using a dumb streaming protocol.
Chris Meadows
12. Robotech_Master
The first few minutes of the first episode aired just fine on my cablemodem, with no pauses or fits or starts. I think I have about 1 megabit downstream. (It was unwatchable on my parents' 384 kilobit downstream DSL though.)

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