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How I was Politically Educated by 'The Prisoner'

By looking at this history of how I constructed political meaning from a commercial television show, I will be able to comment on how it works for a commercially produced text to operate as a tool for political education.
Megan Shaw Prelinger

Issue #57, October 2001


"I am not a number, I am a free man!" shouts the protagonist as he punches the sky with his raised fist. With a rockin' sixties instrumental beat and a kaleidoscope of action, every episode of The Prisoner opens a new chapter in our hero's fight for his humanity and his freedom against an unseen enemy. "I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered!!" he cries out against his keepers; a rallying call against the over-determined life.

In 1967 and 1968, 17 episodes of The Prisoner were produced in Great Britain. In the 1970s and '80s, the series was occasionally aired in entirety here in the United States. I first recall seeing episodes of it in the mid-'70s, when I was about eight. I saw more episodes in 1978 when I was eleven, and again when I was fifteen. By the time it was available on video here in the mid '90s, I had seen each episode at least once, and some of them two or three times.

The Prisoner is one of the most appreciated and analyzed television shows ever. There is no shortage of consensus among its legions of fans that the show is richly allegorical, yet there is no grand consensus about what the show means. The Prisoner is so allegorically dense, and appeals across such a broad spectrum of interest, that people of divergent value systems find meaning in it. And it presents a "scalable" narrative; accessible to young people, on the one hand; important to scholars, on the other. This scalability allowed The Prisoner to be a point of continuity as I watched it and responded to it at different stages in my early intellectual development.

In this essay I will trace how my viewings of the show at different ages scaffolded the development of some of my critical faculties. I will look at how I identified with The Prisoner, how the show helped educate me in the politics of everyday life, and how it intertwined with my nostalgia for ideas. I paid close attention to the world of The Prisoner, a world that was as staged and predictable as any other show, but that also engaged a theoretical realm which I was extremely curious about and eager to enter. It therefore worked as a transitional object in my intellectual development. Specifically, The Prisoner was a primary tool that I used to resolve contradictions between the politically "left" and "right" viewpoints that I was surrounded by growing up in the 1970s and '80s. And by looking at this history of how I constructed political meaning from a commercial television show, I will be able to comment on how it works for a commercially produced text to operate as a tool for political education.

A Hero I Could Identify With

The scenario of the show can be summarized as this: An intelligence worker resigns abruptly from the British Foreign Service, and before he can jet off to his island retirement, he is kidnapped. He is held in a nameless seaside resort village where everyone goes by number rather than by name, and where a semblance of ordinary life is acted out with great orchestration. He is confined within a simulacrum of personal freedom from which there is no escape. An administrator called Number Two, who answers to an unseen higher power, and who is played by a different actor in every episode, governs the village. The protagonist, Number Six, does not know who his real captors are, ("them"? or "us"?) or why the other "citizens" are being held. His captors repeatedly use methods of psychological warfare to entice him to confess the "secret" they insist he holds: the reason for his resignation.

Every episode presents a new Number Two and a new cat-and-mouse game where Number Six and his captors try to outwit one another and gain access to each others' secrets. I was attracted as a young TV viewer to the merry-go-round costume colors, the fixed set, the clean "TV-land" look, and the simple dialogue of The Prisoner, which all reminded me of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. The flat lighting and cartoon-like violence placed The Prisoner in the context of such other contemporary favorite shows of mine as Batman, Star Trek, and Mission: Impossible! With rapt fascination I watched the ritualized escape attempt and re-entrapment of the hero every week.

The Prisoner is commonly read as a metaphor for the struggle of individuals to protect their privacy and their liberty against social regulation. Due to its repeated motifs of self-reliance and anti-authoritarianism, civil rights advocates like myself appreciate it as a political text. Episode after episode, Number Six confronts the contradiction between his stated faith in human beings (over institutions or machines) and his experience of constantly being betrayed by people who pose as his allies. This contradiction encompasses two main theoretical points contained within a libertarian kind of thinking: that individuals are the only potentially reliable units in any system, but that each individual must be self-reliant due to the element of doubt that is entailed in making any alliance.

As a young viewer, I grabbed on to these theoretical handles in two ways. First, they gave me some ground to understand my stepfather whose personality and convictions dominated several years of my childhood. Watching the show with him at our home in rural Wisconsin was always an event. He was an avid hunter, and an extreme social isolationist. I experienced many years of my childhood being bounced between him and my father — a deeply passive, socially progressive Buddhist — as a swirl of intense counterforces pulling against each other in stupefying complexity. But when we watched The Prisoner, my stepfather would articulate clearly, at length and volume, his opinions about the oppression of the individual, and his beliefs about the bankruptcy inherent in social organizations. Watching the show together helped me imagine that perhaps his fears and opinions had some real world referents, and helped me identify with my stepfather a little bit, and to see him as more of a deeply distressed person than as a senseless tyrant.

Second, the theme of individualism pulled me into deep identification with the main character on my own behalf. Although the doctrine of the individual is traditionally read as politically conservative, for me as an eight-or eleven-year-old TV watcher it was simply a corollary for my own life experience as an only child of divorced parents. I doubt that a political text about people banding together to overcome oppression, such as the film Salt of the Earth, would have been resonant or accessible to me during my childhood. I identified with Number Six's experience of being caught in a simulacrum of normalcy between two opposing sides in a silent war. The theme of self-reliance didn't have any greater political meaning for me as a kid than simply to resonate with my emotional self-containment in the face of familial upheaval. My ability to experience group alliance with people outside myself took a long time to evolve. It didn't really happen until my teenage years when I bonded, para-familially, with peers who were close to me.

Instruction in a Critique of Everyday Life

At the same time that I listened carefully to my stepfather's polemics, I also came to realize that there was a lot more to The Prisoner than a simple allegory for libertarian individualism. Number Six moves through the 17 episodes as a character determined to use every interpretive skill at his disposal to deduce the motives of his captors and escape his imprisonment. At the same time, every facet of his environment is an element of that imprisonment, and his captors employ every banal scenario to disguise their identity and their motives. I can't claim to have been consciously aware, at ages eight or eleven, of all the nuances that became clear to me on subsequent viewings at age 15, not to mention in preparation for this article. However the intensity with which I examined the show at those ages definitely prefigured my receptivity to some complex political concepts, and sensitized me to the politics of everyday life. At the same time it helped inoculate me against a reactive desire for an ordered life.

Most broadly, the message I received from The Prisoner was that received images of "normalcy" and desirable living could not be taken at face value. The Village is carefully constructed to present an image of seamless and desirable seashore resort life. But every detail of that carefully laid-out life, from the radio in Number Six's cottage, to a community art exhibition, to the uncluttered environment, is eventually revealed to be weighted with significance in the ongoing battle between Number Six and his captors.

For example, Number Six has a radio in his cottage that plays music. But Number Six has control neither of when the radio goes on or off, nor of what music it plays. In The Village, music is an omnipresent nuisance, and therefore is robbed of its capacity to either stimulate or entertain. I remember having a moment of realization around age thirteen when it became clear to me that, like The Prisoner, I really had no control over what music came out of my radio. I could choose between a selection of a handful of channels, (classical, jazz, hard rock, or pop?) but what kind of choice is that, really? I discovered that Payola made many of the determinations that were presented to me as "free choice" in the market system. That moment of clarity was one bridge I needed to build between my ambivalence towards my parents' anti-authoritarianism and my own developing interests. I was ready for punk rock.

I'm not sure whether the writers of The Prisoner were scheming to sensitize young viewers to a future appreciation of punk, Situationism, or Dada, but that's what happened to me. In one episode that I found particularly haunting, Number Six is invited to participate in The Village art exhibition. He uses it as an opportunity to carve a boat as a means of escape, disguising the vessel as a piece of sculpture to be entered into the exhibition. When the exhibit opens, every single piece on display (except Number Six's sculpture) is revealed to represent the image of Number Two. As Number Six realizes with stunned amazement, all the other citizens are either conspiring with their captors, or they have internalized their repression and are expressing themselves "artistically" and "individually" by re-creating the image of the instrument of their oppression. Until adulthood, I didn't have this kind of language to describe the horror I remember experiencing when all the paintings were revealed to be portraits of Number Two. But now I can see that this episode helped me develop a state of mind where punk rock's critique of prescribed artistic expression made a lot of sense, and in general sensitized me to the relation between art and politics.

The Village is decorated with an understated uniformity of design that is disorienting. The beautifully peaceful environment is carefully disguised so that Number Six cannot distinguish even what country The Village is located in. It took me a while to figure out what made The Village look so "weird" and "spooky" (as I thought of it as a kid). It's that every bit of print and signage is uniform in typeface and design. This uniformity of design carries into every corner of Village life, both "public" and "private," signaling that there is no boundary between the two. The Village can be seen as either brand-less, or mono-branded, depending on how you look at it. As brand-less space, it was likely intended to evoke fears of communist suppression in a 1960s audience. Certainly Number Six imagines he might be in a fancy Soviet prison. But The Village's TV-land look is far too prosperous to convince me that it was supposed to take place in a communist or socialist country. The crisp British accents and tailored clothes speak clearly to a first-world context. In this reading, the constructed ambience of brandlessness is more like the mono-branded monotony of the American marketplace. The market hegemony of McDonald's, Blockbuster, and Starbucks, etc. plasters a horrid uniformity across the face of North America, and erases geographic distinctions wherever it appears. My interpretation of the generic landscape of The Village related it to just this kind of spatially disorienting capitalist phenomenon.

It was very important for my intellectual development that I was exposed at an early age to this deep a critique of normalcy. I just gave three examples of how the externally peaceful world of The Village was totally suspect, and I could go on indefinitely. The critique of the constructed life that was expressed in The Prisoner played a key role in my task of navigating between the chaos of my childhood and my reactive childhood desire for order. As a child whose multiple, and shifting, parental role models occupied diverse spots on the 1970s cultural fringe, I experienced a deep pull towards an invented abstraction of normalcy. I associated this vision of normalcy with safety from poverty and chaos, and at an early age I coveted an image of my adult self living in a freshly painted house with a carefully manicured lawn and plenty of money. But luckily I never gave in to an unexamined idealization of picket-fence happiness. The Prisoner was one of many influences, both textual and experiential, that helped me overcome my ambivalence towards my parents' then-unstable lifestyles and informed my confidence to develop toward a life that is neither unstable nor conventional.

A Point of Continuity

By prefiguring my receptivity to some important political concepts and nuances, The Prisoner affected the development of my own relationship to ideas. My repeated return to the show, in memory and in re-viewing, formed a continuity of experience that was too rare in my young life. This is true in general of the television shows and movies that I watched repeatedly, and the books that I read time and time again. But with the possible exception of Star Trek, no other TV program had the same kind of theoretical content that held me glued to The Prisoner.

This experience of continuity operates on nostalgia for ideas. For example, when encountering a thought in adolescence that resonated with a motif from The Prisoner, I got a twang of nostalgia for my first acquaintance with that stream of thought. The experience of nostalgia created an appetite for re-experience, and exploration on the adult level then provided that re-experience. The show therefore was part of a dialectic of memory, wish, and fulfillment in the structure of my developing relationship to concepts such as the politics of art and music.

In addition to those political aesthetics, I related situations in The Prisoner to world events. For instance, when I studied the Vietnam War in my contemporary history class in eighth grade, I felt nostalgia for The Prisoner without exactly knowing why. Then when I re-viewed the show at age 15, I realized why studying Vietnam made me think of the show. That is because Number Six is imprisoned in a world of rotating deception, where he cannot distinguish friend from foe and where the "enemy" may even be an old woman. At the same time, he identifies his fellow villagers also as being fellow prisoners, and recognizes that they are all entrapped in the same web. At that point my concept of The Prisoner expanded toward understanding it as a Vietnam-era document. As an adult, I can see now that The Prisoner was probably more directly related to the British/Irish conflict than to Vietnam. The creator and star of the show, Patrick McGoohan, was an Irishman playing an anti-James Bond, an inversion of a classic British archetype. But the allegory to the British/Irish conflict was played out in The Prisoner with such generality that it spoke to me in an entirely different way. Associating The Prisoner with Vietnam-era politics made me think through some possibilities of gaps in the contradictions between "left" and "right" politics.

Left and Right and the Space In Between

The action of The Prisoner is situated entirely within a landscape of privilege. Number Six and all his fellow prisoners are imprisoned because of the knowledge and beliefs they hold. They are knowledge-work professionals of the Cold War era: spies, scientists, and politicians. This class marker of knowledge work (to borrow a phrase from Peter Drucker) restricts the action to a single upper stratum of post-war society. In The Village, even the housekeeping maids are fellow prisoners — presumably former intelligence workers who have been drugged or tortured into submission. Look again at Number Six's rallying cry: "I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered!!" This is not the cry of a slave, or a victim of torture or invasion. It is the entitled complaint of someone imprisoned solely by bureaucracy. A white-collar prisoner. As the show limits its discourse of imprisonment in this way, it is predictably indifferent to any discourse about class, much less race. It goes without saying that the intelligence workers in this planned community of the 1960s are all European. This omission of commentary on class or race, combined with the ideological emphasis on the individual and the total absence of the value of advocacy, place the political discourse of The Prisoner firmly within social territory held by the conservative "right."

However, by inhabiting a narrative realm entirely within the bounds of bourgeois society, The Prisoner has limitless opportunities to explore the mass political deceptions that can be promulgated by that society. And the writers of the show exploited those opportunities fully. The points I made earlier regarding the politics of music, art, and the minutiae of everyday life are just the beginning: in The Prisoner such core bourgeois concepts as science, convenience, and democracy are regarded with deep suspicion.

The suspicion of the medical world strongly anticipates the medical horror films of David Cronenberg: The scientists and medical staff in The Village operate a cabinet of horrors where someone is always being brainwashed or treated for mental "illness" through shock or torture. Number Six comments, "the trouble with science is that it can be perverted." I doubt there is any coincidence in the fact that Patrick McGoohan's most prominent big screen role was as a demented scientist in Cronenberg's Scanners. For me, the critique of science in The Prisoner definitely prefigured my understanding of Horkheimer and Adorno's critique of scientific rationality in the Dialectic of Enlightenment.

And the suspicion of convenience is manifest in the total enforced luxury resort environment of The Village. In particular, The Village is absent of cars but filled with go-cart taxis whose drivers putter in pursuit after Number Six, always offering him rides. When he questions one driver: "Why do you take those taxis? They're slow." He is told, "In an emergency, we walk." In The Prisoner, Number Six's journal memories are written out for him, his meal preferences are anticipated. He is constantly fighting to make his own decisions even on the smallest scale. This critique of the culture of convenience is resonant with Jello Biafra's stern warning of what is to be truly feared in our world: "The convenience you have requested is now mandatory!"

And in one episode, The Village holds a "free" election. Number Six unwittingly finds himself a candidate, and takes the opportunity to directly enquire of Number Two who — that is, which side in the Cold War — runs The Village. Number Two replies: "It doesn't matter which side runs The Village." Number Six comments: "It has to be run by one side or the other." Number Two rejoins: "Oh certainly. But both sides are becoming identical. What in fact has been created is an international community. A perfect blueprint for world order. When the sides facing each other suddenly realize that they are looking into a mirror, they will see that this is the pattern of the future." Later in the episode, when Number Six loses the "election" to Number Two, he observes: "Everyone votes for a dictator."

This extreme prejudice against the common distinctions between democratic and totalitarian societies distances the ideology of The Prisoner from the conservatism of conventional right-wingers, particularly its repetitive boosterism of the doctrines of democracy and "freedom." By presenting viewpoints that both upholded conservative thinking and critiqued the accompanying bourgeois culture, The Prisoner helped me develop a space for thinking beyond traditional distinctions between Left and Right. I was compelled to start developing this skill at an early age in order to reconcile the conflicting political messages that I received as a child from my father and stepfather, respectively (see my essay Two Fathers in Bad Subjects #34). Luckily there was enough depth to the political allegory in The Prisoner that it held my attention over time, and assisted my transition from the world of bright colors to that of sharp theories.

What I Make of The Prisoner as a Grown-up

About four years ago I purchased a set of videotapes of The Prisoner, with the idea that at some point I would watch the series over again, and maybe write about it. I've finally been doing that over the past several weeks while preparing to write this essay. It was definitely nostalgic for me to re-view the show this summer, as a 33-year-old for whom the developmental stages of childhood often seem far away, yet are never unimportant. But my experience was not limited to nostalgia. As ever, I saw a conceptual thread in The Prisoner that built on what I learned from it in the past, but was also a new idea.

Nostalgia again. When I started watching episodes of The Prisoner earlier this summer, I started thinking back on my collegiate studies of political philosophy. Again, I had a moment of realization while watching the show. Specifically, I asked myself what irreducible element in The Prisoner makes it a politically allegorical television show?

The Prisoner is not internally consistent in its ideology. It makes no direct reference to external political realities, even the Cold War that is so obviously its primary reference point. It can easily be argued that the political "meaning" of the allegory is so diffuse as to be irrelevant. That I was able to grab on to threads in the narrative and pull them into my own developmental process may have been a credit to my own imagination and need for input. But when I thought about The Prisoner in connection with some aspects of Jurgen Habermas' theory of communicative action, I noticed a continuity with the relentlessly critical attitude of The Prisoner.

To quote Paul Ricoeur in his discussion of Habermas' thought: "The task of the critical social sciences is to discern, beneath the regularities observed by the empirical social sciences, those 'ideologically frozen' relations of dependence which can be transformed only through critique. Thus the critical approach is governed by the interest in emancipation" (emphasis added). In plain language, Habermas argues for a theory of interpretation in which "critical moments" break through repressive ideologies embedded in tradition. In this critically liberatory thought, Habermas is opposed to the much more conservative interpretive theory of traditionalist philosophers such as Hans-Georg Gadamer, who refuses to privilege any critical moments over authority or tradition and therefore de-privileges the emancipatory impulse.

The unifying motif of The Prisoner is relentless criticism of traditions and institutions. Psychiatry is torn apart in one episode, formal education in another; and on and on for seventeen episodes in an almost senseless fashion. But in the context of the conflicting philosophies of Gadamer and Habermas, the show is not senseless. It is firmly on the side of Habermas's emancipatory hermeneutics of the critical social sciences. In virtually every episode the show portrays a "critical moment" that reveals power structures embedded in one social tradition or another. And the implication of revealing hidden power structures is that they can be targeted and overcome. I therefore find that the constant critique of all institutions and systems of power is what comprises the irreducible element of political discourse present in every episode of The Prisoner.

Be Seeing You!

It is no coincidence that I quote from Paul Ricoeur in my discussion of the critical social theory in The Prisoner.The Prisoner is a "cult" TV show, and Ricoeur is a philosopher of religion. I went looking to Ricoeur because he is an authority on what he terms "revelatory texts." These are texts that reveal new meaning with each new interpretation. The Bible is the core "revelatory" text that is the object of Christian philosophers like Ricoeur. But any allegorically dense text can be "revelatory," for many people. The Prisoner is just such a text, one that is so dense with possible interpretations that it inspires people to deeply associate their lives with the meaning that they find there.

The fan base for The Prisoner is substantial. The official Prisoner appreciation society, Six of One, claims to have had over 50,000 members over its 25-year lifespan. Books have been written about the show, as have doctoral dissertations. And a Hollywood movie directed by the man who brought us such tripe as "Con Air" and "The General's Daughter" is set to be filmed this fall. The Prisoner is a "cult" TV show in the sense that it has become an organizing force in peoples' lives. Fans travel to Wales for conventions that celebrate it, dress in the style of it, write new narratives that are based on it, and meet other fans in ritual gatherings.

The Prisoner was an auteur-driven television show, so it is worth asking how authorial intent relates to the meaning that has been gained by so many viewers. This question again furthers our understanding of how The Prisoner operates as a political text. It is noteworthy that Patrick McGoohan, when asked by interviewer Warner Troyer in 1977 to describe the intention behind The Prisoner responded: "I wanted to have controversy, argument, fights, discussions, people in anger waving fists in my face saying, 'How dare you? Why don't you do more [shows] that we can understand?' I was delighted with that reaction. I think it's a very good one; that was the intention of the exercise." In other words, the meaning of the show was intentionally oblique; an open text.

I relate this obliqueness to Brecht's theory of the "purchase of brass." Brecht employs this metaphor of buying a brass pan for the brass it contains, rather than for its functionality as a pan, to describe theater that is more valuable as a raw stimulus than for its immediate narrative. In the case of The Prisoner, Brecht's theory of the "purchase of brass" helps answer this important question about the political redeemability of commercially produced texts. In envisioning the show, McGoohan was creating "brass" for debate, in Brecht's sense of raw material for future development.

So what will we find at the movies next year? Perhaps it was possible for The Prisoner television show to operate as a political text in spite of having been commercially produced. But that was the BBC, in the 1960s, not Hollywood in the 'oughts. I will keep my mind open as I head to the cinema next summer; I will be driven by nostalgia for those merry-go-round colors and that clean, "TV-land" look. I will wonder what new insights I might gain from The Prisoner in the middle portion of my life. And I will see you there. Be Seeing You!

Megan Shaw Prelinger is a member of the Bad Subjects collective. Her projects are online at her web page.

Copyright © 2001 by Megan Shaw Prelinger. All rights reserved.