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The Prisoner: Pawns in the Village of Life

By John W. Whitehead
December 16, 2002

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared we would become a captive audience. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared that we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions." In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate would ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.–Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (Viking Penguin, 1985)

Thus goes the strain of thought in two of the great prophetic minds of literature, not so much opposed in their rationale as intertwined like the serpentine strands of DNA. The relevance of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell lies in their fears, which in recent years are being actualized at an accelerated pace.

Like the automatons of Orwell’s 1984, our glazed eyes have melted into the television screen. Recent statistics indicate that young people in the United States are voluntarily becoming illiterate. Recent statistics bear this out. For example, the reading scores of fourth graders have not "budged off dreadful" over the past decade. In fact, the United States ranked last among industrialized nations in the literacy of 16- to 25-year-old high school graduates who did not go on to further education in contrast to thirty years ago when the country led the way in education.

If people cannot read, or if they simply will not, the safeguard of a democracy–an educated and informed citizenry–is in peril. The importance of an educated citizenry, as envisioned by the architects of the American scheme of government, including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and others, is that they have the intellectual wherewithal to recognize and challenge the inevitable corruption of government. Without education, the people become pawns in the hands of unscrupulous government bureaucrats.


Have we become pawns manipulated by a government-entertainment complex? This was the question debated in seventeen episodes of The Prisoner, the British television series that baffled and confused a generation and still intrigues viewers today.

Regarded by many as the finest dramatic television series ever broadcast, The Prisoner first aired in Great Britain thirty-five years ago. The subsequent summer of 1968, a summer of dissidence and unrest, sixteen of the seventeen episodes were broadcast in the United States (and reprised in the summer of 1969). The strength of this enigmatic series rode on the heels of Patrick McGoohan, who had built a reputation as the spy John Drake in the Danger Man series (1960-1966)–aka Secret Agent in the United States. After tiring of the Drake role, McGoohan immediately fell headlong into The Prisoner as he wrote, directed and otherwise hovered over the series.

The themes of The Prisoner are still relevant today–the freedom of the individual, the perversion of science and the nature of man–and they in part account for the series’ cult following. The Prisoner also spawned Six of One (The Prisoner Appreciation Society). The group has 50,000 members worldwide and consists of a variety of people who believe they gain empowerment and meaning in analyzing the series. The series’ continuing popularity stems from its release on video (and now DVD).

Now with Steven Paul Davies’ The Prisoner Handbook (Boxtree/Trafalgar Square, 2002), we have one of the best textual studies of The Prisoner and what it may mean. Indeed, as Davies writes, "The fact that the series is allegorical where there isn’t a key ‘message’ suggests that it allows itself to be worked on by the viewers. It invites interpretation."

"I am not a number. I am a free man," was the mantra chanted on each episode of The Prisoner. Perhaps the best visual debate ever on individuality and freedom, the story centers around McGoohan, a man who finds himself living in a mysterious, self-contained, cosmopolitan community known as The Village. The Village’s inhabitants are known merely by numbers, and McGoohan is Number 6.

In the opening episode ("The Arrival"), Number 6 meets Number 2, who explains to him that he is in The Village because information stored in his head has made him too valuable "outside." Number 6 chooses not to give in to Village authorities but to begin a journey to maintain his own identity. "I will not make any deals with you," he pointedly remarks to Number 2. "I’ve resigned. I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own." Thus, Number 6 remains a prisoner, although his captivity is spent in an idyllic setting with parks and green fields, recreational activities and even a butler.

Number 6, however, seeks to preserve his individuality as a "free man" as he tries to escape from The Village or learn the identity of Number 1, the person presumed to run The Village. But Number 6 is watched continually by cameras and other devices, and his escapes are thwarted by ominous white balloon-like spheres known as "rovers." In the final episode ("Fall Out"), Number 6 overcomes his overseers and discovers that he was Number 1 all along.

Although esoteric, The Prisoner was McGoohan’s vehicle for translating some very definite viewpoints to the screen. As he stated in a 1982 interview:

It was about the most evil human being, human essence, and that is ourselves. It is within each of us. That is the most dangerous thing on the Earth, what is within us. So, therefore, that is what I made Number 1–oneself–an image of oneself which he was trying to beat.

McGoohan’s theology–he’s referred to as a "devout Roman Catholic" by one cast member–may explain one theme that was subconsciously represented in the series. The internal "evil" human essence to which he refers is commonly known in Judeo-Christian thinking as original sin, the impulse that allegedly causes all human beings to manifest destructive tendencies. The most pernicious element of this evil essence is the domination and annihilation of individuality and freedom, which are essential to human nature. Thus, initially the struggle for freedom is against oneself.

McGoohan’s theology obviously influenced how some themes were portrayed in The Prisoner. For example, he avoided overt violence and sexuality throughout the series. In a 1976 interview, McGoohan remarked: "I abhor violence and cheap sex … we need moral heroes. Every real hero since Jesus Christ has been moral."

Fundamentally, however, The Prisoner is an epistemological exercise that focuses on the concept of reality, both in the subjective and objective sense–that is, can we really know anything about anything? Is reality a mere social construct? Since society creates any knowledge that people may possess, does this mean that human beings are simply products of the given social setting from which they are manufactured? As Davies notes, "Thinking for yourself is not necessarily thinking by yourself." And as Number 2 warns Number 6 in the episode entitled "Once upon a Time":

Society is the place where people exist together. That is civilization. The lone wolf belongs to the wilderness. You must not grow up to be a lone wolf.

Therefore, the ultimate goal of those in power is conformity to the constructs of society. This means both figuratively and literally eliminating the lone wolf, the individual. Modern psychiatry defines "normality" as conformity. This "measuring of the human psyche by psychologists," as Davies puts it, has seriously affected how we live our lives and how we view nonconformists. Media representations of "normality" have become the criteria that society uses to evaluate its members. The concept of normality has become subjective as our views have changed to meet societal demands. The individual, as the term was once defined, is becoming passé. As McGoohan commented in 1968:

At this moment individuals are being drained of their personalities and being brainwashed into slaves. The inquisition of the mind by psychiatrists is far worse than the assault on the body of torturers.

In a media-dominated age in which the lines between entertainment, politics and news reporting are blurred, it is extremely difficult to distinguish fact from fiction. Moreover, the struggle to remain "oneself in a society increasingly obsessed with conformity to mass consumerism," writes Davies in The Prisoner Handbook, means that superficiality and image trump truth and the individual. The result is the group mind and the tyranny of mob-think.

Huxley clearly saw that people would come to love entertainment and trivia, and that those would destroy their capacity to think and eventually annihilate any freedom we may possess. Humanity’s bent toward distractions–that is, the bread and circuses of entertainment–leads them to sell their collective souls for one more voyeuristic peek into a celebrity’s life. Indeed, our society is one in which people’s love of entertainment and trivia, according to Davies, has "destroyed their capacity to think and takes away their freedom."

McGoohan was quoted as saying that "freedom is a myth." When we think of freedom, what exactly are we talking about? After all, none of us is free to choose when and where we are born, what sex we are, who our parents are and so on. As we reflect on the question of freedom, we see that there is very little freedom at all. We are so bombarded with images, dictates, rules and punishments and stamped with numbers from the day we are born that it is a wonder we ever ponder a concept such as freedom. "We’re all pawns," notes a character in Episode One, in a game that cruelly plays itself out for most of us. In essence, this means that the only hope for true freedom is to break the chains of destiny in an attempt at some momentary individualistic moment, something few ever experience.

In the end, we are all prisoners of our own mind, in fact, it is in the mind that prisons are created for us. And in the lockdown of political correctness, it becomes extremely difficult to speak or act individually without being ostracized. Thus, so often we are forced to retreat inwardly into our minds, a place without bars from which we cannot escape, and into the world of video games and the Internet. That’s why The Prisoner’s existential experience of continually questioning everything, including ourselves, is so vital to any concept of individuality. It is only within this existential questioning that there is hope for what we may call freedom.

The fact that The Prisoner even attempts to raise such questions is astounding. It is against the meltdown of the modern mind that The Prisoner stands, and it is this background that gives it increasing relevance.

Patrick McGoohan created The Prisoner during the so-called Summer of Love. McGoohan could see that the times were changing, and he believed he could contribute to the cultural revolution. The amazing optimism of the time wound down to a near nihilistic pessimism within several years and dovetailed into the Nixonian era. Society had not really changed after all. In an interview in 1996, McGoohan admitted:

I suppose the crazy thing that I did fitted into that era to a certain degree, and, you know, there were some rather wonderful things happening with the youth and if only the youth had a leader I think that we would have had a great revolution which might have changed the face of the earth for a while, but they didn’t have a leader.

McGoohan’s ambivalence about the era and his uncanny ability to anticipate its collapse is reflected in the surrealism of the final episode. Number 6 emerges from The Village into the center of London. The Village, then, is the present reality. In an earlier episode ("The Chimes of Big Ben"), when Number 6 believes he has escaped to a Secret Service office in London, he asks his superior: "I risked my life … to come back here, home, because I thought it was different … it is, isn’t it? Isn’t it different?"

Thus Number 6 did not escape, and he had no freedom. In fact, McGoohan himself became a prisoner of his own success. "The Prisoner was radically different," writes Davies. "But the audience reaction got out of hand. McGoohan was forced to leave the country after he tired of people accosting him in the streets." He fled to Switzerland and eventually to the United States. We are all, thus, more or less Villagers, to some extent.

The saving grace of The Prisoner lies in McGoohan’s belief in the dignity and worth of people. That tiny spark of divinity that has been inlaid in our conscience enables us from time to time to recognize the superficiality of the world around us. It is true that we are all numbered. We are surrounded by police, neighbors and relatives who watch and inform on us and by cameras and pervasive technology. But we can choose to fight the stranglehold of conformity and occasionally express our individuality. Even though we are all prisoners, we can resist oppression and chant, "I am not a number. I am a free man!" Maybe, just maybe, the magic will work.