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.
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.
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 Tor.com!), 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 AMCtv.com. Image of “The Prisoner” by Jack Kirby. Thanks to GalleyCat for the heads-up.]