The Prisoner is a British surrealist spy drama from 1968. It’s also a surprisingly accurate picture of what it feels like to live in America in the twenty-first century.
Patrick McGoohan (star and co-creator) portrays a former secret agent (name not given) from a British intelligence agency (agency not given) who abruptly resigned (for reasons not given) and is promptly abducted and transported to a mysterious and quaint place called The Village (location not given, until the ending, at least). Here, his captors will employ all manner of increasingly bizarre and surreal mind games and psychological warfare to try to make him explain why he resigned.
It’s the sort of thing you’d expect to be shot as a tense psychological thriller, or played up with melodrama. For the most part, The Prisoner eschews these approaches, and opts instead for a fairly lighthearted tone. And this is where the show starts to evoke familiar sensations to someone living in the age of internet.
“I Am Not A Number!”
Stripped of his name, in the confines of the Village, the Prisoner is known only as “Number 6”, treated as just another source of data to be mined. You can see in his interrogators a sort of spiritual forerunner to the internet algorithms that analyze us and turn us into patterns of clicks, search results, ad views, and purchase histories. Like many of us, he balks at being treated thus, telling his captors, “I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered. My life is my own.” Also like many of us, he cannot really escape the machinations that have ensnared him.
“Be Seeing You.”
Every inch of the Village is under surveillance at all times. There are cameras in the lamps, the radios, the statues, everything. And they’re not all that secret, either. The cameras are obvious enough to serve as a reminder that they are always watching, but obscured enough to let you ignore them if you don’t feel like thinking about them.
It’s like the constant surveillance that we’re all under by our search engines, our shopping sites, and our social media apps. We know that they’re gathering and storing and selling and using the information we enter on these sites, and they know that we know, but there’s a tacit agreement that they’ll try not to be too obvious about abusing the information, and we won’t fight them too hard on obtaining it.
Number 6 takes the constant observation with a wry sense of humor, informing his watchers that he won’t fall for their latest trick, or saluting the cameras with the Village’s signature farewell: the all-too-appropriate “Be seeing you.” It reminds me of the mostly-joking way friends and I will add disclaimers and messages for the supposed NSA or FBI agents reading through our chat logs.
“By Hook Or By Crook…”
What the show gets right is the sort of attitude that arises in this particular sort of surveillance state: one of banal paranoia. Number 6 doesn’t trust anything or anybody, because nothing and nobody is to be trusted. Every potential friend is a plant, every conversation a gambit, every opportunity for escape just another ploy in the increasingly complicated plans of his interrogators.
Watching the show in the digital era, it’s hard not to see this as a reflection of the modern-day explosion of conspiracy theories. Like Number 6, we’ve all been exposed to misinformation and deception on a daily basis for years now through the internet, and been exposed to scandals and ulterior motives of people in power. It’s only natural that we’ve learned to disbelieve anything but the preposterous.
Despite his distrust, Number 6 doesn’t entirely disconnect from life in the Village. He still gets pulled into conversations and situations that he knows are traps, because…well, what else are you going to do? He’s living in captivity, but he’s still living. He takes part, simultaneously allowing himself to hope while never fully letting his guard down.
It’s like the way many of us interact with the internet. We know that our browsing habits are used to tailor advertising to us, that our social media sites are politically polarizing us, that most of the things we retweet and share are not 100% accurate. But we keep doing these things because it’s easier to accept the loss of privacy than the loss of convenience. None of us is a digital island anymore.
“The New Number 2.”
Identity is fluid in the Village. Number 6 is one of the few constants in the show. All the other residents seem to change freely from episode to episode, and numbers are freely reused and reassigned with no apparent underlying meaning.
His chief inquisitor is always “Number 2”, but Number 2 is rarely the same person twice. His or her identity changes every week, the change acknowledged in the dialogue played over the opening credit sequence. This change is seldom reacted to or noted by the residents of the Village. It’s simply accepted as part of the weirdness of this microcosm.
In the context of the era the show came out, this contributes to a surreal, dreamlike quality. Watching it in 2020, I see unwitting parallels to identity in the digital age, where one person can log in to and log out of a hundred different identities in a day, where the entity you are chatting with can change from a chatbot to a human being between messages, where individuals can create the illusion of crowds, where anonymity is assumed and identity theft is just the cost of doing business.
“We Want Information…Information…Information!”
Identity theft happens in the Village too, though it can be even more complicated than its contemporary counterparts. In one episode, they bring in a doppelganger for Number 6, while also brainwashing him (even to the point of changing him from right to left-handed) into believing that he is the doppelganger, trying to trick a confession out of the Number 6 he is impersonating. It’s confusing as hell, and unclear as to how this is actually supposed to work as an interrogation technique.
But that’s kind of the point of the show. The psychological warfare is as much about confusing and breaking down Number 6’s faith in reality as it is about obtaining the information. The plans of the Village are not brilliant schemes so much as they are desperate experiments. The show itself is a sort of desperate experiment, a first wave of television shows pushing the bounds of what can and can’t be done in the medium. Not every experiment works, but it’s always interesting to see them try.
I streamed the show on Amazon Prime, and couldn’t ignore the irony of this fact. As the finale closed, and the service suggested “other movies and TV shows you might like”, I imagined a Number 2, watching my internet habits and compiling information on me, devising new ways to test and manipulate me for their own ends. Like Number 6, I found myself wanting to declare, “I am not a number…I am a free man!”
But also like Number 6, I don’t know if that statement is true anymore.