Individualism and self-determination in landmark TV series: Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner, the 2002 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner

Here’s the Prometheus Blog Appreciation for The Prisoner,” the 2002 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner for Best Classic Fiction and the first TV series to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.


By Michael Grossberg

“I am not a number. I am a free man!”
Actor Patrick McGoohan utters those defiant words as the heroic individualist at the center of The Prisoner, one of the most unusual, enigmatic and evocative TV series ever broadcast.
Today, that emblematic catchphrase remains well-known in popular culture, and ranks high among the most familiar lines of dialogue from any TV show or movie of the 20th century.
“I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered. My life is my own,” McGoohan declared in the first episode – another among many memorable anti-authoritarian and individualist lines of dialogue that he would utter throughout the iconic series.
Such explicit affirmations of individuality, self-determination and resistance to tyranny were highly unusual on television half a century ago – and sadly remain relatively rare today.

The Prisoner, one of the best TV series of the 1960s and an unabashed work of explicit individualism that’s broadly libertarian in theme, was the first (and still only) TV series to win the Prometheus Hall of Fame for Best Classic Fiction.

It certainly deserves the recognition, not only for its fierce exploration of the freedom of the individual and the rise of the police state, but also for its imagination, wit, symbolism and propulsive energy.

Appropriately, the 2002 award was given to McGoohan, an Emmy-winning American actor, screenwriter and director who conceived, co-produced, co-wrote and starred in the innovative limited-run series– a radical departure in several ways from standard 1960s TV fare.

A surreal psychological drama with broad allegorical themes, The Prisoner revolves around a former British spy who resigns from the government but is kidnapped by mysterious forces and finds himself a pampered prisoner in The Village.

Filmed in 17 serialized episodes between 1966 and 1968 at the tourist town and holiday resort Portmeiron in North Wales, the highly distinctive series also blended elements of the spy drama, thriller, mystery, science fiction, dystopian fiction and Orwellian allegory into something unique, haunting, mesmerizing, electrifying and frankly sometimes mystifying.

The 1967 British TV series, which McGoohan co-conceived with George Markstein and co-wrote with Markstein and four other writers, loosely spins off from Secret Agent, a previous spy-drama TV series.

McGoohan played a somewhat more traditional British spy, albeit one who largely eschews violence and relies on his intellect to do his job, in Secret Agent (the US title for Danger Man a British TV series that aired in 1960-1962 and was revived from 1964 to 1968.)

In some ways, The Prisoner could be and was viewed as a informal, radical, twisty and imaginative sequel to Secret Agent. McGoohan’s spy was often at odds with his superiors, setting up the rebellious spirit and staunch individualism that would animate his role of a spy who resigns and is abducted in The Prisoner.

The regular intro sequence to each Prisoner episode sets up the series and plot with an effective visual and narrative montage with music but without words: McGoohan’s British secret agent angrily quits his government job, drives home to pack up and prepare to leave England, only to be kidnapped by shadowy forces and wake up in a bucolic coastal Village where no one has a name and everyone has a number.

Now called “Number 6” with his own apartment, the ex-spy discovers that he and other Village residents are under constant audio-visual surveillance and velvet-gloved control. Yet, the bureaucratic authority figures and other village residents refuse to explain anything about where they are, who they are and why they’re there.

McGoohan’s prisoner finds such imprisonment – however affluent the amenities in what resembles a modern retirement/resort complex – to be intolerable.
Eager to assert control over his own life and destiny as an insistently free and independent man, the Prisoner must apply his intelligence, powers of observation, dry wit and manifold skills to investigate his strange new reality, probe its secrets, and devise a strategy to escape.

Although other spy thriller dramas were popular in the late 1960s (such as The Avengers and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.), The Prisoner offered a very different take from the conventional James-Bond-inspired action portrait of the indomitable agent working for the government to beat the bad guys.
In The Prisoner, the government itself seems to be the shadowy, many-tentacled opponent – and some of the bad guys appear to work for the State itself.

McGoohan’s prisoner is as resourceful as the spies in other TV dramas, but more cerebral and individualistic – in some ways, even a romantic Randian figure.
Far more than the other James-Bond-inspired spies of the 1960s, McGoohan’s ex-spy is the skeptical intellectual, questioning authority and questioning reality itself.

He displays the skills of a chess master in one episode, with real-life people taking on the status and moves of chess pieces, manipulated on a gigantic playing board of black and white squares, set up in the Village commons as a public entertainment. Visually striking, the sequence sets up an obvious but telling metaphor of the larger chess game of wits going on throughout the series.

Above all, this confident character has had a life- and career-changing epiphany that sparked his resignation as a servant of government: For years a Man of the State, McGoohan’s Prisoner is now a Man Against the State – arrogantly condemned by one Village bureaucrat for embracing the “cult of the individual.”

That makes him dangerous – truly dangerous to the State, whose blithe minions strive to break him. Rather than torturing him, these alternately smiling or scowling authority figures understand that breaking the will and spirit of such an individual means manipulating and intimidating him so that he will tacitly consent to his own arbitrary imprisonment.

They say they want him to give them information, including an explanation for why he resigned from the government, but it becomes clear that what they really want is simply for him to give up.

The prisoner is constantly pressured and manipulated to gain more “information,” often unspecified, by his ambiguous smiling and/or sneering interlocutors/interrogators.

In “The Arrival” (the opening episode), the Prisoner, now categorized as “Number 6” in the Village, learns from Number 2 that he has been put in the Village because information stored inside his head has made him too valuable outside.

Here the TV series reveals the dark side of the information society – not the positive aspects of the spread and exchange of information being a key aspect of the growth of prosperity and cooperation through the free marketplace, but the disturbing and ominous modern rise of government surveillance and the National Security State.

The Prisoner offers a smart and sly cautionary fable about the dangers of government control of information, via surveillance and secrecy, as a means of deception and control.

Looking back at The Prisoner from the perspective of the early 21st century, in which we daily benefit from the information economy while uneasily coexisting with a government that collects vast data on everyone, we can more clearly appreciate the central conflict and struggle in the TV series as one over information: Who has it? Who controls it? How is it manipulated or withheld to distort reality, shape society and limit liberty?

Overall, in its prophetic and metaphoric vision of the modern rise of the obtrusive National Security State, The Prisoner paints a disturbing portrait of authoritarian surveillance, shadowy bureaucracy and social conformity.
Against such overwhelming virtually omnipresent forces, the Prisoner becomes a hero to admire merely by resisting – whether his repeated efforts to escape imprisonment ultimately succeed or not.

Even beyond its libertarian themes and Questioning Authority spirit, the bold TV series was path-breaking, often foreshadowing the more complex drama series of the 21st century.

The series departed from the routine episodic format of typical TV series of its era, in which every conflict or situation is resolved by the end of each episode and the next repetitive episode starts “fresh” without the need to have seen previous episodes.

Unlike many TV series, The Prisoner demands that you see every hour-long episode and in order. Although each episode is self-contained, they add up to a larger story. Even amidst its conscious ambiguity and allegory, The Prisoner charts a compelling dramatic arc that builds on previous episodes to portray a resilient central character who learns from the past, repeatedly strives to escape and regain his freedom and remains staunch in his refusal to submit to an authoritarian establishment.

Such challenging and cumulative plotting and characterization, which rewards continued attention and demands thought, foreshadowed the long narratives and complex dramatic arcs of such notable later TV series as Lost, Babylon-5, Twin Peaks, Breaking Bad, Fringe, Game of Thrones and the Battlestar Galactica remake. All, at times absorbing and at times frustrating in their unanswered questions and lingering loose ends, pushed the boundaries in dramatizing ambitious and continuous struggles or epic quests that spanned seasons or the entire series.

So does The Prisoner, which did it first, decades earlier and in so doing helped define the late 1960s as a time of Questioning Authority.

Today, the series still resonates as a battle cry against oppressive government, political correctness, cancel culture and unthinking tribalism.

Self-contained as a 17-episode saga of one man fighting for his independence and individual liberty, The Prisoner fits in well with today’s ability to binge-watch an entire season.

And yes, McGoohan’s masterpiece still holds up pretty well to repeat viewing in 2021, thanks in no small part to McGoohan’s galvanizing performance as a man of intelligence, fierce integrity and passion for liberty.

Patrick McGoohan (Creative Commons license)

Note: Patrick McGoohan (1928-2009), who received two Primetime Emmy Awards and a BAFTA during his five-decade career, performed onstage, in movies and on television.
Besides co-creating and starring in The Prisoner, McGoohan may be best known for playing movie villains (in Silver Streak and The Man in the Iron Mask).
Among his more notable other films: Braveheart, Scanners, Escape from Alcatraz, Ice Station Zebra, The Moonshine War, The Phantom, A Time to Kill, Treasure Planet and Mary, Queen of Scots. He also directed, wrote and starred in several award-nominated episodes of Columbo and onstage, was acclaimed for playing the title role in Ibsen’s play Brand.
McGoohan reprised his role as Number Six in an episode of The Simpsons, “The Computer Wore Menace Shoes.”

* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: An Appreciation of Robert Heinlein’s story “Requiem,” the 2003 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner.

* See related  introductory essay about the LFS’ 40th anniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past annual Prometheus Awards winners for Best Novel (since 1979) and Best Classic Fiction (since 1983), with an overview of the wide range of works recognized during the awards’ four-decade history.

Other Prometheus winners: For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the LFS website’s enhanced Prometheus Awards page , which now includes convenient links to all published Appreciations.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,”  a fascinating and insightful essay in the June 2020 issue of the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the modern genre.

Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join   the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit volunteer association of libertarian sf/fantasy fans and freedom-lovers.
Libertarian futurists believe cultural change is as (or more) vital as political change in achieving universal individual rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.