It was announced yesterday that veteran actor Patrick McGoohan has passed away at the age of 80. McGoohan rose to fame as the star of TV’s Danger Man (AKA Secret Agent) and became familiar to new generations of fans as the sinister Dr. Paul Ruth in David Cronenberg’s Scanners and as Edward “Longshanks,” the venomous English monarch in 1995’s epic Braveheart. McGoohan may be best remembered, however, as the creator and star of The Prisoner, one of the most inspired, groundbreaking and influential television series of the 1960s. Tired of the formulaic demands of filming Danger Man (in spite of its enormous popularity), McGoohan developed The Prisoner as a brilliant twist on the spy thriller, weaving the basic elements of the genre into a surreal, sinister world that resembles nothing so much as a Kafka tale filtered through a Kinks song…
The iconic opening sequence which introduces each episode plays out like a bizarre existential nightmare: McGoohan’s character is seen angrily resigning from his job as a government agent, after which he is drugged and is transported to the Village, a seemingly inescapable prison colony with the unsettling appearance of a pleasant resort town, operated by nefarious, unidentified forces intent on coercing the Prisoner (now called “Number Six”) into divulging classified information. In each episode, the shadowy powers-that-be attempt to break down his resistance through a variety of complex plots and stratagems, while Number Six defiantly sabotages his would-be tormentors at every opportunity as he stubbornly seeks an escape from the Village. The show’s smart, trippy take on countercultural themes of individual freedom versus authority won it an instant cult following, and its influence continues to be felt today in shows like Lost and Battlestar Galactica, whose creators happily acknowledge the debt. Moreover, as Tor.com’s Christopher Butcher has recently pointed out, the upcoming remake of the series has inspired a new wave of interest in the original and its many pop-cultural offshoots of late.
The Prisoner is an absolutely brilliant show, but it’s impossible to separate an appreciation for the series from McGoohan himself, who wrote and directed episodes as well as serving as producer and star. Famous for turning down the roles of both James Bond and Simon Templar, supposedly because they didn’t mesh with his notoriously high moral standards (which included a “no kissing” clause in his contracts), it is fascinating to see what McGoohan was able to accomplish when given the freedom to create a hero according to his own somewhat idiosyncratic ideals. In spite of his secret agent/spy thriller pedigree, Number Six is like nothing we’ve ever encountered before; imagine Cary Grant crossed with Steve McQueen, then driven to the furthest outskirts of sanity (and maybe a little beyond). He oscillates between a bemused, gentlemanly disdain for his captors and a kind of smoldering rage—quiet, but self-contained. Yet he never completely loses his cool, always remaining aloof and a trifle smug toward the other inhabitants of the Village, doggedly confronting the sunny, smiling absurdity of his daily existence without surrendering his supercilious, mocking charm.
Number Six’s trademark smirk is in fact a kind of weapon; his refusal to take his interrogators seriously and his unassailable sense of superiority are somehow a thousand times more impressive than any choreographed fight scene or spectacular action sequence that I can think of. Given the choice between Patrick McGoohan’s sarcastically raised eyebrow and a brand new shiny Batarang, I think I’d go with the eyebrow, honestly—it is, without a doubt, the coolest, most efficient method of cutting people dead in their tracks that I’ve ever witnessed. The man’s ability to convey scorn was a superpower in its own right.
Much as I love a good, campy, over-the-top round of shameless scene-chewing of the “Damned dirty ape!” or “Soylent Green is PEOPLE!” variety, Patrick McGoohan’s powerful, understated blend of suavity and stubborness suggests that the proper attitude toward unacceptable authority is not fear or violence, but intelligent disdain and even humor. In the world of The Prisoner, where conformity and complacency reign and individual identities have been nullified and reduced to arbitrarily assigned numbers, Number Six’s greatest defense is to remain true to his own peculiar, eccentric worldview and sense of the absurd. Like Hitchcock before him and David Lynch and many others since, McGoohan understood that the sunlit, the suburban, and the bucolic can be as sinister as the shadows of any underworld; even more importantly, he recognized that in some cases, a sneer can be more powerful than a stiff upper lip. His legacy lives on, and he will be greatly missed.