1. World in Microcosm
“Where am I?”
“In the Village.”
“What do you want?”
“Whose side are you on?”
“That would be telling. We want information… information… information…”
“You won’t get it.”
“By hook or by crook we will.”
“Who are you?”
“I am the new Number Two.”
“Who is Number One?”
“You are Number Six.”
“I am not a number, I am a free man!”
(Sound of maniacal laughter.)
Anyone familiar with the classic ‘cult’ TV series The Prisoner can recite by heart this voiceover that introduces each episode. In one of the most skillful examples of storytelling within a two-minute sequence in television history (and fine testimony to the film editor’s art), the setup for the series is played out: the Prisoner is abducted and transported to the remote location of ‘The Village.’ Prior to that he had established himself as a free individual by resigning from his post as an intelligence operative. This becomes the motivation for his kidnapping by a bureaucratic organization whose origins and alliances are left deliberately vague. At times there seems to be men and women from both sides of the Cold War divide working for it.
The Prisoner’s act of will thus becomes highly ironic: by resigning, he has set himself free from actions he may find morally repugnant, and at the same time provided the excuse for his captivity. “I will not be stamped, filed, briefed, de-briefed, indexed or numbered. I am not a number, I am a person.” Yet the paranoid nature of the organization that runs the Village cannot conceive of the possibility that the Prisoner has nothing to hide, no secrets to sell. The Village is run by a senior official known only as ‘Number Two.’ We are never told who ‘Number One’ is, at least, not until the final episode, Fall Out. And even then it’s left gloriously ambiguous: as series actor/director/screenwriter McGoohan explained in a later interview, The Prisoner is, after all, an allegory.
Almost from the first episode, Arrival, it becomes obvious that the Village is a microcosm of society at large. (I wanted to write ‘civil society’ but then society’s ‘civility’ varies hugely depending on where you are.) While most of us are born free, we gradually realize we are prisoners, like Number Six. As McGoohan suggested in an interview with Alain Carrazé, at the most basic level we are prisoners of our bodies—of the need to eat and sleep. Then it dawns on us that our society, as a means of keeping ‘order,’ has imposed upon us a wide-ranging set of restrictions. No one would argue that unrestrained individual freedom (anarchy) is workable within a community. However, the so-called elite has a tendency to devolve toward totalitarianism. As an activist friend of mine says, “The rich only want one thing: everything.”
Case in point: in the second episode, The Chimes of Big Ben, when the Prisoner meets the Village’s current Number Two (played by the inimitable Leo McKern), he gets him to admit: “…both sides are becoming identical. A perfect blueprint for World Order. When the sides facing each other suddenly realize they are looking into a mirror, they’ll see that this is the pattern for the future.” Number Two’s vision? “The whole Earth as the Village.”
In The Prisoner, McGoohan created that rarest of entities within the popular medium of television: a literary masterpiece. A totalitarian allegory. Naturally it falls into the tradition of dystopian literature so deftly outlined by Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984. As novels, they are two sides of the same coin: Huxley wrote from the perspective of a Western commercial-scientific autocracy while Orwell was depicting the more harsh authoritarian regimes that played out in Soviet Russia and the Eastern bloc countries in the Cold War. The two books should be read together. On screen, I would choose Michael Radford’s film adaptation of 1984 and Terry Gilliam’s classic dystopian fantasy Brazil, with its totalitarian consumer society wracked by terrorism. And of course, McGoohan’s brilliant creation, The Prisoner.
McGoohan, in creating The Village, realized the Orwellian nightmare on the small screen two decades in advance. And now in 2012 perilously close to reality. By showing how it works on a small scale, a village of only a few hundred residents, The Prisoner becomes a microscope through which to view the ‘global village,’ modelled of course on ‘democratic’ Western capitalism. For example, on his tour of The Village by the current Number Two in the first episode, the Prisoner learns that there is an elected village council. In episode four, Free For All, he is press ganged into running for the ‘elected’ position of Number Two. There is a classic scene in which he is interviewed by the Village newspaper. Recognizing the farce of the ‘election,’ the Prisoner refuses to answer any of the questions put to him by the reporter:
“How are you going to handle your campaign?”
“Intends to fight for freedom at all costs. How about internal policy?”
“Will tighten up village security.”
And so on. In a single deft scene McGoohan satirizes the pointlessness of rigged Western ‘democracies.’ Still, the Prisoner is a man of great intellectual resources—he does his best to turn the farce to some useful end. In his campaign speeches he tries to shock the stupefied Village residents awake. “Unlike me, many of you have accepted the situation of your imprisonment and will die here like rotten cabbages. …I aim to discover who are the prisoners and who are the warders…”
When he is interrogated by the council that pretends to run The Village, his outburst has the rhetorical eloquence of a Gettysburg Address: “This farce… This twentieth century Bastille that pretends to be a pocket democracy… Why don’t you put us all into solitary confinement until you get what you’re after and have done with it? Look at them. Brainwashed imbeciles. Can you laugh? Can you cry? Can you think? Is this what they did to you? Is this how they tried to break you ’til they got what they were after? In your heads there must still be the remnant of a brain. In your hearts there must still be the desire to be a human being again.”
But it’s no use. The majority of the villagers have grown to love their chains. Like “rotten cabbages,” they will condemn the Prisoner again and again for his determined, free-thinking individuality. These are ‘voters’ who support politicians working against their interests (Canada’s Conservative Party, the American Tea Party) as long as the right creature comforts are supplied: the big screen TVs, the football games, Facebook… Unsurprisingly, much of the ‘soma’ being supplied to feed the ennui is toxic. Witness the current generation of sloppy, dangerous and mostly unregulated wireless technologies. But how many people these days want to be without a cell phone? A device the authorities can use to track you at any time—just as they do in The Village. Check, mate.
Or if you have enough money, you can build yourself a Faraday cage and cancel out the radiation and the surveillance. But it’s still a cage. Checkmate.
Next: Part Two: The Violence of Order