Fandom: The Prisoner
Character: Number Six
E-mail: phil_eagle @ ureach.com
Spoilers: The whole series. Not the novels, or the non-canonical and despicable graphic novel
Notes: I'd better say that I wouldn't call myself part of the active fandom, for reasons I allude to later, so this is a very personal view. Thank you to rahael and atpotch for beta-ing.
What happens: A secret agent furiously resigns from his job, to the rumbles of thunder. Within minutes of returning to his house he is sleeping-gassed and abducted, driven away in the back of a hearse like a dead man. He wakes to find himself in The Village, a mysterious prison camp that looks like an small Italian seaside resort and is run like a cross between a holiday camp, an upscale gated community, and a Kafkaesque parody of modern British life. Like all the residents, whether prisoners, collaborators or guards, he is known only by a number - Six. He has no idea whether he has been kidnapped by agents of some hostile nation, or even by his own former employers, who might fear to allow a man with his knowledge into society. The authorities of the Village, led by a succession of bureaucratic managers all known by the honorific of Number Two, use everything from intellectual argument to mind games to physical torture to make him crack, and become a servant of their unknown ends. The symbolic first act of submission that they demand, and he accepts as the signal of his defeat, is to provide the answer to one simple question. Why did he resign?</i>
What started this: For those of you who have never heard of it, The Prisoner was screened in the late 1960s by ITV, at that time Britain's only privately-owned TV network. It was made by ITC, a production company most associated with action thrillers. Number Six (that's him in my icon) was played by the series's co-creator and occasional scriptwriter Patrick McGoohan, who had a large personal fandom from his performances as John Drake, the hero of an earlier and more conventional ITC spy series, Danger Man, broadcast in the USA as Secret Agent. Some fans of both series believe that Number Six is John Drake, but that has never been officially confirmed or denied. The Prisoner's blend of action, mystery, social satire, allegory, philosophical game-playing, pop art and pure surrealism rapidly won it a strong fandom. Although its deliberately enigmatic and symbolist ending roused some original viewers to vocal disgust and disappointment, the fandom has remained active for over thirty years, and all seventeen episodes are widely available on DVD and regularly repeated on British and American television channels.
I first saw The Prisoner a good ten years ago, when the episode "The Girl Who Was Death" was repeated as part of a themed night of ITC action shows. I'd heard of the series before then, and the all-out pulpy chase story I saw over that hour was utterly not what I had expected. However, the final revelation, that the whole shaggy-dog tale had been a children's story told in a far more enigmatic venue, whetted my appetite for the main series. This was satisfied when the whole thing was repeated a few months later. And I was already intrigued by the character's sardonic delight in twitting the seeming real-world analogues of his fictional characters, that little pause in "Good night children… everywhere." Last Christmas, I spent some hard-earned cash on the whole series on DVD, and later viewings only deepened my appreciation. But there was one thing which those more leisured viewings brought me to realise. Number Six is, in many ways, an intolerable asshole.
Of course, he has plenty of excuses for it. But there's also a sense that he takes more pleasure in manipulation and destruction than is really justified, and there's a querulous edge to his voice, even and especially in his most powerful and uplifting defences of individual liberty, that brings to mind the whining prose of the Daily Mail letters page, or one of those political bloggers who spends more time coming up with new insults for his enemies than positive statements to win support for his own positions. And while I'm pretty sure this reading is heretical, it made me feel that I had an interesting hook on which to hang this essay. Because if you watch The Prisoner in this way, you notice that despite the justice of his positions, it is the parts of his personality which are, in normal circumstances, the most negative that give Number Six his ability to resist and survive. There are countless scenes which can sum up the thing I'm talking about, but there's an especially memorable one in "A Change Of Mind", politically a particularly pointed episode with its overt references to the Maoist "self-criticism sessions" that were increasingly being used as a tactic of intimidation and self-esteem reduction by radical and religious cults in the West. We take up the scene as Number Six attends a citizens' committee hearing, to which he has been called to discuss his deviant behaviour:
[Number Six begins to walk down a flight of steps into a large assembly room. A group of people in hooped jerseys and top hats sit around a large, ring-shaped table with a lone chair and a table bearing a tape recorder in the centre, applauding NUMBER SIX as he enters. Close-up on NUMBER SIXTEEN, an elderly, slightly senile-seeming man, the committee chairman. The other committee members remain silent throughout.]
NUMBER SIXTEEN: I take it that you have completed the written questionnaire of confession.
NUMBER SIX: Of course. [He smilingly tears the sheet of paper in his hands in half] Naturally. [He tears the pieces in half again, and continues to rip them as he walks down the stairs, beaming at the committee. NUMBER SIXTEEN hits a button on the tape recorder, playing what is obviously a pre-recorded formal caution. He continues to do this at intervals throughout the scene.]
NUMBER SIXTEEN'S RECORDED VOICE FROM TAPE RECORDER: Please do not be hostile to the committee. We are here to help you.
NUMBER SIXTEEN: Do please sit down, tell us about yourself.
NUMBER SIX: I take it you've checked my file. Regarding… hostility. [He tosses the now tiny fragments of the form into the air like confetti, with a raised eyebrow at NUMBER SIXTEEN, as he sits down in the central chair.]
NUMBER SIXTEEN: Your files are no concern of ours. Any information about you is with Number Two.
NUMBER SIX: Really. [A small dais rises up under the chair he is sitting on and begins to rotate slowly, allowing each of the committee to face him in turn]
NUMBER SIXTEEN: It is the duty of this committee to deal with complaints.
NUMBER SIX: Complaints?
NUMBER SIXTEEN (TAPE): Your complaint.
NUMBER SIX: Well done, I have several.
NUMBER SIXTEEN (TAPE): You realise a serious charge has been levelled against you, particularly regarding your attitude to your fellow citizens. We deplore your spirit of disharmony.
NUMBER SIX: That's a common complaint around here, isn't it.
NUMBER SIXTEEN: I would counsel discretion, Number Six.
NUMBER SIXTEEN (TAPE): You do appreciate that everything you say is being recorded.
NUMBER SIX: And may be used as evidence against me.
NUMBER SIXTEEN (TAPE): This is a strictly impartial committee.
NUMBER SIXTEEN: Number Six, you are not called before this committee to defend yourself.
NUMBER SIXTEEN (TAPE): All we ask, is for your complete confession.
NUMBER SIXTEEN: I am sure you will co-operate, Number Six. Gentlemen, it's time. I think we are all more than ready for a tea break. [NUMBER SIX applauds sardonically] The group and medical reports will be considered in full at the resumed hearing of this committee.
[All the COMMITTEE MEMBERS applaud, then get up and leave by a doorway behind the table. NUMBER SIX applauds them as they go. The dwarf BUTLER walks in as they leave. He faces NUMBER SIX and they exchange looks. NUMBER SIX leaps from the chair and advances on him threateningly. The BUTLER pulls out a section of the table to allow him to leave, and bows farewell to him as he walks up the stairs.]
What we know (sort of): He was born on 19th March 1928, making him approximately forty years old if the series was set at the time it was broadcast. If the psychodramas of "Once Upon A Time" can be considered an accurate reflection of his life (which is doubtful), he attended a traditional English school and was recruited to the security services soon after leaving. There are hints in the same episode that his relationship with his father may have been unhappy. He may also have flown bombers for the RAF during the Second World War, although if so he would have been unusually youthful at the time. He is well educated, speaking a number of languages, and is capable of unhesitatingly quoting Shakespeare speeches with perfect accuracy ("Once Upon A Time") and Goethe in the original German ("Hammer Into Anvil"). He appears to have at least some knowledge of 1960s popular culture, as shown by his use of psychedelic cliché to mock Number Two during his lucid dream in "A, B & C" and his improvisation of an Avengers-esque spy thriller in "The Girl Who Was Death". He is physically fit and adept in unarmed combat. He is an excellent fencer ("The Schizoid Man", "Once Upon A Time"). His most remarkable talent, however, is as a sailor, making long journeys across open sea with improvised, low-technology equipment in "The Chimes of Big Ben" and "Many Happy Returns". He is a powerful and experienced leader of men, which backfires on him disastrously in "Checkmate" when his over-confidence and domineeringness lead his comrades in an escape plan to suspect that he is an agent provocateur.
What we see: Why did he resign? He never provides an answer that satisfies the Village authorities, but when the question is put to him at his lowest ebb in "Once Upon A Time" his simple response is "for peace". He describes himself several times in the same episode as "a fool, not a rat", and laments that "too many people knew too much - I knew too much". In the same episode he refuses repeatedly to kill Number Two, but admits to having killed before. A number of less loaded scenes in earlier episodes all support the probability that his resignation was due to a simple failure of his ability to convince himself that the uglier and less moral aspects of his job were justified by the protection of society.
And this helps to explain why his refusal to conform to the parodic society of the Village is so furious and driven. Often he seems to take an absolute delight in pure expressions of assholishness. In "Checkmate", a psychological report describes him as showing "positive signs of abnormality, total disregard for personal safety and a negative reaction to pain". Obviously, the Village's standards of sanity are suspect, but risk-taking behaviour and paradoxical responses to pain have been considered to be signs of personality disorder by real-world psychologists. On the other hand, they are also behaviours to be applauded in a secret agent, and despite his apparent revulsion for what he has become, it is these negative aspects from which he draws his power.
Number Six is plunged into a paranoiac's nightmare, a society where an unknown, but large, proportion of the people he meets are genuinely dedicated to psychologically destroying him. Naturally, he is suspicious and guarded with almost everyone. However, we see that this is not always his natural state. He is fiercely loyal to those individuals who have previously gained his trust. Notable examples include Cobb in "Arrival", Dutton in "Dance of the Dead" and Seltzmann in "Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling". In that first episode, Cobb is revealed to us, but not Number Six, to be working for the Village, hammering home the desperation of the situation. In response to the cruelty of the Village, Number Six becomes cruel himself, ruthlessly manipulating all and sundry, regardless of whether they seem complicit or innocent victims. He is notable for his gleeful sadism to sadists, in particular in "Hammer Into Anvil", where he takes delight in reducing a particularly stupid and brutal Number Two to a state of gibbering psychosis.
This is not a series for 'shippers. Number Six is not responsive to the occasional women who try to make moves on him, especially after Nadia, to whom he develops a tentative attachment in "The Chimes of Big Ben", proves to be a Village stooge. Some fans feel that his coldness to women suggests a generalised misogyny, and there are some cases where this is justified, such as his relish in toying with Number Eighty-Six in "A Change of Mind". Of course, his attitude to everybody is fairly hostile. It may or may not be coincidental that the three episodes which feature a female Number Two all end with Number Six utterly bemused, humiliated and defeated, or that the fantastic spy story which he tells to two Village children in "The Girl Who Was Death" is notable for the intensity of its mingling of eros and thanatos in the figure of an attractive young woman. Given all this, it comes as a huge surprise to most fans when, in "Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling", we suddenly discover that he has a beloved fiancée back in London. It seems astonishing that no Number Two has ever alluded to her when baiting Number Six in any earlier episode, and the generally dire quality of "Do Not Forsake Me…" helps the fandom to dismiss it as a canon blip. Some fans take this lack of interest in women to suggest that Number Six is essentially homosexual, and the concept of the oppressive and conformist Village is definitely capable of being interpreted as an allegory of the closet. Number Six's relationship with the particularly charismatic, and eventually repentant, Number Two played by Leo McKern in "The Chimes of Big Ben" and "Once Upon A Time"/"Fall Out" has been treated in a slashy manner, and John Castle's somewhat effeminate performance as the rebellious computer programmer Number Twelve in "The General" means that his attraction to Number Six can be seen as homoerotic.
What we don't see: One thing which Number Six does not exhibit very much is character development. He is the same snarky iron-willed loner when he escapes the Village in "Fall Out" as when he is kidnapped in "Arrival". The issue is made more problematic by the open question of episode ordering. The Prisoner has been broadcast in several different orders, none of which follow the order of the episodes' production. It is clear that "Arrival" is the opening episode, and that "Once Upon A Time" and "Fall Out" form a closing two-part story, but beyond this the order is down to personal preference. The "official" order used on the DVDs and most current retrospective repeats has some serious problems of characterisation. The Number Two played by Colin Gordon appears in the early episode "A, B & C" as a desperate failure on the verge of a complete breakdown, who is implied to meet a horrible fate at the hands of his superiors at the end of the episode. However, the same character appears in "The General" as a thoroughly confident, if not overconfident, bureaucrat. "Dance of the Dead" and "Checkmate", which appear towards the middle of the "official" order, explicitly refer to Number Six as a "new" prisoner who appears to still be in the process of adjusting to his situation. Nevertheless, in both the "official" order and more popular fan orders, Number Six does gradually seem to develop a greater understanding of the Village's processes and ability to manipulate them. In certain of the later episodes, in particular "Hammer Into Anvil" and "It's Your Funeral", he seems to make the first steps to seeing himself as part of a group, taking personal risks to actively defend the other inmates of the Village from particularly abusive excesses. "It's Your Funeral" sees Number Six coming as close as he ever comes to being an agent of order, trying to prevent an scheme by a rebellious Villager to assassinate a retiring Number Two which proves to have been created by the authorities themselves, as an excuse for stronger repression.
What I think: I may seem to have taken a somewhat hostile view towards the subject of my essay here. However, I think that it helps to increase our appreciation of the series if we go beyond seeing Number Six as an Everyman and symbol of the human spirit. Recognising Number Six's more unlikable, if amusing, aspects makes the series even more thought provoking, and less simplistically reassuring. Actual survivors of totalitarian states have pointed to the manner in which, on many occasions, the less admirable expressions of human nature have proved to be key to survival, and textbook heroism a distinctly life-threatening characteristic. And this viewpoint isn't unjustified by the text. In the final two-part story, "Once Upon A Time"/"Fall Out", Number Six is enabled to destroy Number Two in a lethal battle of willpower by the recognition of his enemy as an individual rather than a mere symbol of authority, and in so doing comes to regret that killing. His escape comes after an alliance with a resurrected and repentant Number Two, and an enigmatic scene which appears to see him forced to confront his own shadow self as the dark force which actually controls and creates the Village. And if our own society threatens to become a Village, it seems to me that our own more negative aspects are more likely to be responsible than a safely external bunch of masked conspirators.
One initial caveat: The Prisoner fandom is currently violently factionalised, and this is entirely down to disputes between Big Name Fans rather than the sort of canon debates which disrupt most fandoms. One might consider it inevitable that a series with such themes would attract people with strong opinions and low tolerance of social conformity, although the level of wank that can be stumbled across is quite frightening. Prisoner fans also tend to be from a generation with more traditional regard for copyright, and so there is relatively little Prisoner fanfic on the web, and much is of a relatively low standard. However, some notable web sites related to the series are:
The Six of One Society (601) - the traditional and well-known official Prisoner fan club, now suffering from severe internal schisms.
The Unmutual - informal web clearing house for ex- and non-601 fan activity.
alt.tv.prisoner - Usenet newsgroup.
The Anorak's Guide and The Prisoner 6 - my personal favourite episode guides. Both are recommended to see what conflicting reactions the same Prisoner ep can attract, although everyone hates "Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling".
the_village - LJ Prisoner community, somewhat low trafficked at the moment.