John Evans' Blog

Patrick McGoohan, age 80

by on Jan.15, 2009, under Uncategorized

As you may or may not have heard, Patrick McGoohan died at age 80. Thinking about this, I realized that I admired this man and his work. So I figured I should write about it…

Patrick McGoohan’s magnum opus was, of course, The Prisoner. (That’s a link to Six of One, the Prisoner appreciation society. Also, if you’re interested, you can watch the original Prisoner episodes online, legally!)

But first a bit of backstory. In the 1960s PMcG starred in “Danger Man“, a television series about secret agent John Drake. (It was rebroadcast in the US as “Secret Agent”–yes, with the catchy theme song “Secret Agent Man” eventually covered by DEVO.) John Drake was an intelligent and resourceful agent, using quick thinking and charm to solve crimes and cases with an impact on national and global security. He was rarely armed and used realistic, often off-the-shelf tools, not super-gadgets. (Comparison and contrast with James Bond is left as an exercise to the reader.)

Then in 1967/1968 came The Prisoner. PMcG conceived the show, wrote several of the episodes and starred as “Number 6”.–a secret agent who resigns from his job. But why did he resign? It’s suspicious; so suspicious that someone kidnaps him and brings him to The Village…a quiet resort where “retired” agents are kept, studied for their secrets and stored away where they can’t be dangerous. The Village is a paranoid, totalitarian nightmare, but Number 6 cannot be broken. He resists every attempt to deduce his secrets and he ultimately reverses his fortunes and beats his captors at their own game. (Or does he? In small ways he does for certain, but the ultimate ending of the story is both confusing and probably metaphorical, so debate is always possible…)

So, why do I admire Patrick McGoohan and The Prisoner?

First, for the evocation of struggle. As Number 6, PMcG is like an incarnation of determination, a man carved from stone. He gives a number of riveting performances throughout the series.

And yet those performances wouldn’t be possible without The Village, the nightmarish opposition. PMcG created this whole environment, in some ways an incredibly cruel one, to oppose Number 6. To be able to conceive of extreme heroes and villains…Well, I know authors do that all the time, but it still impresses me.

The writing of the series also evokes such strong emotions. Control, paranoia, revenge…”Hammer Into Anvil” is a disturbing masterpiece of revenge (and such a wonderful choice to weave Bizet’s L’arlesienne #1 prelude into the story!).

With The Prisoner, PMcG took on a number of weighty issues with fearless confidence. Man vs. society, the ethics of spying, man’s struggle to create his own identity…all played out on this psychotic little stage of The Village. One could argue the efficacy of what he was trying to do…certainly there is one (in)famous instance of shoddy camera work interfering with a very important shot. Not to mention all the production troubles; “Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling” was filmed without PMcG as the star (he was doing Ice Station Zebra), “Living in Harmony” and “The Girl Who Was Death” were filmed without the set of The Village! But the point is, he went forward, followed his vision and got it all done. The confidence he must have had amazes me.

And last but not least…This is a bit hard to explain, but the writing of The Prisoner displays a trickster-ish sensibility. The plots twist and turn, giving us not what we expect, but perhaps what we need. They challenge us to expand our minds to take in what we see. And there’s always humor, some of it quite funny indeed. My favorite exchange is from “Free For All”, where Number 2 tells Number 6 about an election in The Village:

2: You going to run?
6: Like blazes, first chance I get.

So, all of these things have inspired me–and I’m not the only one. Obvious references can be found in Babylon 5, The Invisibles, Battlestar Galactica…but I’d venture to say that PMcG’s legacy is not just a handful of catchphrases and a font called Albertus, but the exploration of paranoia and determination, the will of the individual versus the weight of society. I’m sure you can find examples yourself–once you see The Prisoner, it becomes obvious how its themes show up in today’s media. Just keep an eye out, I guarantee the Village will…be seeing you.

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