World Cinema begins its three-week retrospective of the classic 1960s British TV series The Prisoner (1967) with two episodes, “Arrival” and “Free for All.” Even if you don’t know this 17-episode TV series, you’ve almost certainly been touched by it in some way. When it first appeared, it captured the imagination of a generation—even the Beatles were influenced by it—and its influence can still be felt today. On its most basic level, the series told the story of a high-ranking government official who resigns his post (what it is we never know) and is subsequently gassed in his flat. He awakes in a copy of that flat, but in a different location altogether—a place called only “the Village” (in reality, it’s set in Portmeirion, the Italianette village built by Clough Williams-Ellis in Wales). It’s an almost surreal world where everyone has a number rather than a name. Our protagonist is Number Six (Patrick McGoohan), and his captors—headed up by a changing array of Number Twos—are determined to learn why he resigned.
That’s the essence, but in execution, it’s so much more. It is, in fact, probably the best, most intelligent and most intellectually challenging TV series ever made. The first episode, “Arrival,” sets the tone and the basic premise—and is essential in presenting an extended, more detailed opening of Number Six’s resignation. The other episode being shown, “Free for All,” is one of the series’ most complex and daring entries. Written and directed by McGoohan, it gets down to the inherent paranoia of the era in a way that indicates just how far afield from traditional narrative television the series ultimately goes. The very idea that Number Six would attempt to effect change from within by running for the office of Number Two and the outcome of that attempt is very much a part of the time in which it was made—and its relevance hasn’t dimmed very much. If you want to know more about The Prisoner, check out this Friday’s Screening Room for a more detailed examination.