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November 05, 2009

Prisoner Returns: Be Seeing You

If I had to pick one TV series that was least likely to be remade, it would be Patrick McGoohan's "The Prisoner", yet AMC has the guts to try: The Prisoner will run on AMC for three nights starting Nov. 15th. A video sneak preview is embedded at the bottom of this post. 

Imagine a TV show where:
  • The characters have no names, only numbers.
  • The prime antagonist keeps changing but has the same number. 
  • The most-arresting visual image is that of an aggressive beach ball that symbolizes Freud's concept of the id
  • The hero (spoiler alert) is also the villain, he just doesn't know it. 
  • But, most daunting of all, you have to replace Patrick McGoohan and Leo McKern.
Here is a clip of McGoohan stating the show's theme of individuality:

And the original opening: 

Understanding The Prisoner requires some back-story. Patrick McGoohan was the highest paid actor in Britain following his success in 1960 with Secret Agent, the U.S. name for Danger Man (yes, the Brits actually named that spy show Danger Man). 

Long before Sean Connery ever said, "Bond, James Bond", McGoohan started the first episode of Secret Agent with, "Drake, John Drake." Before Bond drove an Aston Martin, John Drake drove a Mini Cooper, the original Mini Cooper.

After that, McGoohan was reportedly the first choice to play 007, but turned the role down over objections to the Bond character's morality (seems quaint now, doesn't it?). Instead, he created his own anti-spy saga built around the proclamation: "I am not a number. I am a free man.". McGoohan crafted the concept, directed the shows, starred in them, wrote many of them, and set them in Wales. 

About the original The Prisoner from Wikipedia: 

The opening and closing sequences of The Prisoner have become significantly iconic. Cited as "one of the great set-ups of genre drama",[11] the opening sequence establishes the Orwellian and postmodern themes of the series;[12] its high production values have led the opening sequence to be described as more like film than television.[13]  ... 

The series follows an unnamed British agent who abruptly resigns his job, and then finds himself held captive in a mysterious seaside "village" that is isolated from the mainland by mountains and sea. The Village is further secured by numerous monitoring systems and security forces, including a mysterious device called Rover that captures those that attempt escape. The agent encounters the Village's population, hundreds of people from all walks of life and cultures, all seeming to be tranquilly living out their lives. As they do not use names, they have each been assigned a number, related to their importance in the Village's power structure. The agent is told by the Village authority he is "Number Six", and they are seeking "information" as to why he resigned; the task of doing this is carried by the ever-changing "Number Two", acting as the Village's chief administrator and proxy to the unseen "Number One". Number Six, distrusting of anyone involved with the Village, refuses to give such answers while at the same time trying to learn for which side the Village works, remaining defiant to authority while concocting his own plans to escape or learn more about the Village. Some of his schemes, while not resulting in an escape, do lead to the dismissal of an incumbent Number Two on two occasions. At the end of the series, the administration becomes desperate for Number Six's information, and more drastic measures follow that threaten the lives of Number Six, Number Two, and the rest of the Village.

The series features striking and often surreal storylines, and themes include hypnosishallucinogenic drug experiences, identity theftmind control,dream manipulation, and various forms of social indoctrination. A major theme is individualism versus collectivism.

And the show's enduring impact from his bio on WIkipedia: 

The cult of The Prisoner spawned many books, college courses, a quarterly magazine and documentaries. There were several fan clubs - most notably "Six of One," which honours the show annually with a convention in PortmeirionWales, where the show's exteriors were shot. McGoohan was the honorary president. In the May 30, 2004 edition of TV Guide, The Prisoner was ranked seventh in a list of the "25 Top Rated Cult Shows Ever!" McGoohan's show outranked the likes of The Twilight Zone (#8) and Doctor Who (#18). TV Guide wrote, "Fans still puzzle over this weird, enigmatic drama, a Kafkaesque allegory about the individual's struggle in the modern age."

You can see episodes of the original on AMC via Hulu.

Here's hoping AMCs remake captures a fraction of the original's enigmatic energy. 

Reader Comments

I was in eighth grade and living in London when this show first came on. It was must-see TV for me and my friends, and I remember discussing many of the episodes at length, on the morning after they were broadcast, while jogging around Regent's Park for gym class. The final, surreal episode was especially amazing to us at the time. I certainly never expected the show to have such lasting impact, let alone (as you say) be remade. I also think the opening sequence still holds up as a model setup for the show.

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