The ‘spy thriller’ is inseparable from the British international identity. While most only remember the suave archetype of James Bond, there was once far more media being exported, all of the same espionage genre. However, one standout entry into the story format came with The Prisoner, which ran for only a single season from 1967-1968, which utilized the color television format to the fullest, and deconstructed a genre that had seen years of retreading.
By the late 1960s, the world had been exposed to the craze. Similar to the export of British music during the British Invasion, visual media entered the repertoire of various national broadcasters. The first major motion picture James Bond film, Dr. No (1962), was released to popular reception, and not soon after, multiple films spawned one of the highest grossing movie series ever produced. Just during the 1960s alone, Roger Moore portrayed the devilish Simon Templar in The Saint (1962-1969) while The Avengers (1961-1969) captivated audiences with a mixture of spies and science fiction. Internationally, the Cold War stock of suave spies spawned various reinterpretations. In the United States, The Man From U.N.C.L.E (1962-1968) gave the mainstream espionage genre a distinctly American interpretation, while Get Smart (1965-1970) was produced as a mixture of comedy and espionage, deconstructing specific elements of the spy genre such as the numbered code names and wacky gadgetry.
The Prisoner followed the successes of actor Patrick McGoohan after his portrayal as the fictional secret agent John Drake. This series, originally broadcast in Britain as Danger Man (1960-1968), became an international hit and rebroadcast internationally. It reached such a success that its American rebroadcast, under the title Secret Agent, had its title theme “Secret Agent Man” transcend to popular culture, to such an extent that it was even covered by DEVO. For McGoohan and the writing staff, the request for another espionage hit was easily sidestepped with a genre deconstruction in the form of The Prisoner. Made with international audiences in mind, the show was produced with a color formatting mind, which is shown in the swaths of color present in every scene.
At a time when the surveillance state was beginning to encompass the entire world, the claustrophobic technicolor village was a dystopia that could only have been shown at the height of counter-cultural sentiments. Lasting only a single season, The Prisoner is a break from cut-and-dry espionage, and instead challenges the viewer at every turn. There are no explanations, no gadgetry, and no romance. The central theme, a secret agent put into a demoralizing and farcical village and tormented by an unseen outside power, is distinctly Orwellian. Those in power rule as singular individuals on behalf of the mysterious organization, and these Number 2’s change every episode, often with no explanation. The revolving door of nameless bureaucrats act as a nice plot device, introducing a new host of villains of the week, while giving a critique of faceless, nameless bureaucracies where heads of state come and go without warning. These miscellaneous overseers are equipped with their own distinct personalities and quirks, allowing the sinister notions of evil to be presented to the audience in a diverse cast, proving that evil lurks in every shadow.
Without spoiling too much, The Prisoner is espionage turned art. McGoohan and company’s fanciful wordplay and fistfights gives the audience the action, while stylistic elements and themes challenged the medium of broadcast itself, asking the viewer to ask lofty questions under the guise of yet another genre hit. Would our hero be reduced to yet another number, will he find his freedom, or will they finally get the information they desperately desire?
This week, enjoy a non-alcoholic vodka with us as we enjoy what The Village has to offer. We’ll be seeing you.
The Prisoner Drinking Game Rules
Take a drink…
- Whenever a penny-farthing is seen
- When someone says “Number”
- Whenever “Be seeing you” is said, or the hand gesture is used
- Toast a new Number 2 when they are introduced
- Finish your drink if Number 2 fails in scheming
Take this list as a suggestion, and drink responsibly. As always, enjoy the show.