Numbered Man – An Analysis of The Prisoner (1967)

Oppositional and defiant. No. 6

Oppositional and defiant. No. 6 “fights the system.”

By: Jay Dyer

1960s spy fiction is some of my favorite fiction.  Developing its own unique aesthetic, from Bond to The Saint to Harry Palmer, the vivid, flamboyant style of both the spies and their cinema incarnations created an iconic pop phenomena that survives still (as 007 is still going strong).  Everyone knows 007, but few are aware of the more philosophical, science fiction based British cult show, The Prisoner starring Patrick McGoohan.  McGoohan not only starred in the show, but is also the series’ co-creator, following his successful Danger Man series, and reportedly passed over the role of Bond in Dr. No and The Saint due to moral qualms with 007’s ethics (McGoohan was a professing Roman Catholic).  Regardless, The Prisoner remains one of the most fascinating presentations of the dark side of international espionage, combining the esoteric, philosophical, geopolitical and the fantastical, as well as functioning as a critique of the most foundational assumptions of modern, “progressive” man.  For this, it most certainly warrants an analysis.

Mysteriously resigning from the British Secret Intelligence Service, “No. 6” finds himself drugged and kidnapped before he is even able to pack his bags and skip town.  Waking in a mock version of his own London apartment, 6 discovers himself transplanted to an idyllic self-contained, prison-like Disney-looking village, where former spies and agents are “retired.”  Unaware of his location, The Village in real life is actually Portmeirion, North Wales, which is a curiously out-of-place Italian-style village rumored to be visited by the Royal Family, as the village is now owned by the Clough-Williams Ellis Trust connected with the Crown.

This is worth noting, because the metanarrative aspects emerge with the Crown (the head of the SIS) being associated with Portmeirion, and the SIS in the film secreting 6 away to the Village for his imprisonment.  This connection is further driven home by the fact that the series based its story on an actual “retirement home” for British Spies, the Invair Lodge “cooler” according to George Markstein’s book, which claims such notions were so infinitely “deep state” they could only be told in fiction.  Markstein was also the script editor for The Prisoner, and his close connections to the security establishment suggest the same type of intelligence-scripting I have highlighted elsewhere.

Back to the story.  No. 6 quickly discovers the Village is a strictly communal, statist system in which unknown “wardens” hide amongst the docile, passive population, under complete control by No. 2, the antagonistic would-be handler of 6.  Number 2’s that fail to psychologically break 6 are inevitably replaced, and new forms of psychological manipulation, mind control and MKULRA-style de-programming and re-programming strategies are continually applied.  Each episode features some conspiracy on the part of the shadow establishment, ruling from atop the Village in their panopticon surveillance dome, over the completely managed social order.  Like 1984, all actions are video taped and recorded for review by No. 2 and his technocratic bureaucrats to determine 6’s reason for resignation.  Did he defect? Was he brainwashed? Was he involved in something illegal?

6 finds his psyche split into an alter, under intense mind control.

6 finds his psyche split into an alter, under intense mind control.

In the first few episodes, 6 is tempted with standard fare in the espionage world – honeypots, swallows, emotional manipulation, and mind control, none of which take effect.  Seeking escape, 6 continually eludes the manipulative strategies of the various 2’s, yet every escape attempt from the island is frustrated.  Supernaturally apprehended by the eerily cheesy “rovers,” the lava lamp spherical orbs emerge from the abyss to ever-foil 6’s escape, returning him to his mimicked apartment the next morning.  “What do you want?” 6 demands.  “We want information!” 2 replies with a hearty cackle, never divulging Number 1’s identity.  6’s resilience appears at first to be a noble image of the individualistic rebel, the lone wolf who stands for his own identity against the dastardly designs of the statist collective.  However, we will see by the end of the series and from McGoohan’s rare interview, that is not the case – the critique runs much deeper.

Worth mentioning in the early episodes is the presence of numerous technologies of social control and manipulation far ahead of their time.  Prescient, as most science fiction tends to be, references to fMRI machines that can read brainwaves, mind-wiping technologies and drugs reported to be had by DARPA in our time, and techniques for the manipulation of archetypes through psychoanalysis, and global brain style super computers that tabulate predictive algorithms to manipulate and control 6 are rife in the series.  Ultimately, the Village represents the modern world en toto, and McGoohan has identified the series’ famous bicycle logo as symbolic of man’s illusory belief in “technological progress,” which actually leads to his increasing enslavement.

Under the All-Seeing Eye of the Village.

Under the All-Seeing Eye of the Village.

The Village is the world under the control of a scientific dictatorship with total NSA-style-meets-Brave New World surveillance, creating a virtual prison planet predicted in Bentham’s panopticon.  Indeed, in conversations between 6 and 2, 2 identifies the Village as the Global Village, subject to a false dialectic in which the “two sides” of the Cold War coin are a manipulated dialectic.  This is elucidated symbolically when 6 is hauled before a kangaroo court under No. 2, himself sitting beneath an All-Seeing Eye. In this context, the eye signifies both surveillance and perhaps the control of the farcical legal system by secret societies.  Unaware of his violations, the Kafka-esque trials throughout the series result in “guilty” verdicts based on “democracy” and “public opinion,” laughably determined for the community by the technocratic oligarchy that controls the Village.

In Episode 3, “Free for All,” Cold War dialectics are evident in 6’s plot to spark a democratic revolution.  As can be expected, the “666!” revolution was entirely the plan of 2 all along.  In this context, chants of “666!” are not accidental – the beast of humanistic statism mentioned in John’s Apocalypse has “666” standing for the “number of a man,” an antichrist, or a numerological image of Babel style world state, where a shadow elite sways a complete collective like a head steers a body (the body of the Hobbesian Leviathan beast).  Always, despite his exemplary fire to spark a revolution in the minds of men, 6 discovers his free individual plan to be co-opted by the establishment.  Since the collective and democratic revolutions proved fraudulent, perhaps the new revolution could be that of the great man, the true individual – or is this also a ruse?

“The whole earth as the village.”

The next several episodes feature 6 as subject to altered personalities in the vein of Dr. Estabrooks’ MKULTRA work, hypnosis, and mass Village mind control through television signals.  Again, revelation of the method emerges in 1967, revealing the means by which highly sophisticated mind control occurs in our day through television flicker rates which lull brainwaves into an alpha state, the lowest, most suggestible arena of brain activity.  The “General” behind this manipulation, as I mentioned, is actually an A.I. supercomputer of sorts, ultimately outsmarted by 6’s cunning question, “Why?” which a programmed computer can never process.  “Why?” will become the great secret to the series, where in the finale episode, when achieving his throne as the new king, the great individual, 6 begins to question his former interlocutors, “Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?” to which they can never give an adequate response.

Total NSA surveillance.

Total NSA panopticon. Note the stellar and astronomical symbology on the dome of the surveillance grid.

Death is mentioned consistently through the series, which I read in multiple ways.  Is 6 dead, and is the Village a form of afterlife where 6 must suffer a kind of purgatory or final judgment?  In my estimation the solution is both – 6 is dead, and not only his death the secret of the series, as representative of modern man, and man as the great, libertarian individual, he is “dead.”  In Buddhism, the broken cup signifies death (the cup is already broken) and numerous times in the series, cups are broken, often by 6.  That 6 is dead is also shown by the supernatural elements of the Village which emerge in rare intervals, such as the rovers, “dem bones,” the emergence of long-dead historical figures like Napoleon, time freezing, and the memorable episode 7, dance of the dead, where 2 reveals to 6 the body in the morgue is “You.”  As the mob seeks to murder 6, 2 informs him, “They don’t know you’re already dead.”  Long speculated, the meaning is, as I said, twofold.  6 is dead, and so is the revolutionary modern man, who since the time of the French Revolution has believed himself to be “free from oppression” under liberte, egalite, fraternite!

Ultimately the death thesis is demonstrated in the allegorical episode, “The Girl Who Was Death,” where 6 traverses Europe seeking a mysterious German femme fatale who provokes war based around political assassinations.  In the end, Death is a daughter of the Frankish-Napoleonic power, the very power that has dominated Albion since the Norman invasion.  Could the series be hinting at the very thesis my friend and historian James Kelley has proposed, following the work of Fr. John Romanides, that the subjugation and decline of Europe is the result of the Frankish model of enslavement?  It is possible, as the Merovingian line seems to have gained a large amount of power over the last millennium.  The episode is oddly presented as a “fairy tale” that 6 tells to a bunch of children, that only children would believe the thesis that London’s enemies are going to create the ultimate terror threat of the bomb almighty.  Is 6 saying only foolish children believe such childish, contrived global crises?

Truth revealed: No. 6 is No. 1.

Truth revealed: No. 6 is No. 1.

The “false flag” thesis is supported by episode 10, “It’s Your Funeral” (also supporting the death thesis), where 6 is set up to be framed for the assassination of 2.  Ultimately a plot of 2 himself against a new No. 2, the bomb plot is entirely contrived.  As all the episodes, 6 is able to out Psy Op the Psy Op masters themselves, which early on give the viewers hints as the real identity of the elusive. unknown No. 1 to whom all the Village is subject.  As the series comes to an astonishing close, 6 is brought underground into his deepest subconscious where he regresses to a childlike state under the original No. 2’s mind control psychoanalysis.  Like the SIS-connected Tavistock Institute, the Village functions as the scientistic mechanism for converting the world into a gigantic test tube for the manipulation of the latest behavioral conditioning perfected through psychological warfare operations that originated in the world of espionage and warfare.

Regressing 6 to his earliest years, 2 remains unable to extract the ultimate reason for 6’s resignation.  The complicated finale depicts a 6 victorious over No. 2, now the greatest “individual” and the first successful “revolutionary.”  As 6 is enthroned, he sits in judgment on the rest of the Village, including all dualities and binary oppositions – judging the anarchists and the pacifists, the radicals and the conservatives.  The big reveal is that No. 1 is No. 6, a truth revealed in the opening of each episode, where 2’s response to 6’s question as to the identity of No. 1 is always met with an ambiguous reply that could be read in two ways – “You are number 6,” or “You are, number 6.”  Colin Cleary accurately explains the series’ anti-modern, anti-individualist stance as follows in his essay:

"The Girl Who Was Death."

“The Girl Who Was Death.”

“In short, The Prisoner attacks modernity on the following grounds:

  1. Modernity rests upon a materialistic metaphysics (all is matter), and champions materialism as a way of life (the focus on material comfort and satisfaction).
  2. Modernity is spiritually empty (again, no church in the Village); it must deny or destroy what is higher in man.
  3. Modernity destroys culture, tradition, and ethnic and national identity in the name of “progress” (called “multiculturalism” and “globalization” today). It is significant that we do not know where the Village is, for modern people are really “nowhere.” As Nietzsche’s “Madman” said, “Where are we headed? Are we not endlessly plunging—backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions? Is there an up and a down anymore? Do we not wander as if through an endless nothingness? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Hasn’t it grown colder?” (The Gay Science).
  4. Modernity promises only trivial freedoms (e.g., the freedom to shop) while suppressing freedom of thought, freedom of religion, freedom of association.
  5. Modernity involves the belief that nature (including human nature) is infinitely malleable, open to the endless manipulation and “improvement” of science. In a 1977 interview with Canadian journalist Warner Troyer, McGoohan said, “I think we’re progressing too fast. I think that we should pull back and consolidate the things that we’ve discovered.”
  6. Modernity systematically suppresses ideals that rise above material concerns: ideals like honor, and dignity, and loyalty (the Village is filled with traitors).
  7. Modernity preaches a contradictory ethos of collectivism, and “looking out for No. 1.”
  8. Modernity banishes the sacred, and profanes all through oppressive levity, irony, and irreverence (masking cynicism).
  9. Modernity places physical security and comfort above the freedom to be self-determining, to be let alone, and to take risks.
  10. Modernity fills the emptiness in people’s lives with noise (the TV and radio you can’t turn off). Silence might start people thinking, which could make them unhappy.

In addition to the hostility to religion, the Village also seems to be hostile to marriage, sex, and procreation. It is not clear whether there are any married couples in the Village. Sex is probably forbidden. No children are seen until “The Girl Who Was Death,” and those children are depicted as living in a kind of barracks. There is a touch of Plato’s Republic in The Prisoner.”

In the final analysis, The Prisoner is about modern man as a dead man.  In his final revolution, the revolution of the solitary, atomized individual unit, there is no “Why?” for this man to be the free individual he imagines himself to be.  He is just as much a prisoner of the dialectic as the collective he opposes, as he has no other higher aims than himself.  When he is enthroned as king, his final revolution results in the launching of a revolution that destroys The Village and launches an ICBM that will presumably destroy London.  Having overcome all his inner demons and the prison of his conscience (that is, the Village and its rovers are 6 grappling with his conscience in the afterlife), and realizing his worst enemy is not the system, the people, or the world, but himself, 6 returns to his old life as No. 1.

In fact, the address to 6’s apartment was always “No. 1.”  In like manner, modernity’s “revolution” in the global village, is the revolution of a meaningless numerological quantification where being “No. 1” means nothing more than being No. 2 or No. 86 in a world divested of any meaning beyond the individual’s competing ego desires.  While The Prisoner is a treatise against the collective, it is also a warning to unfettered, meaningless individualism.  McGoohan foresaw the coming age of dystopian control where all of us would be tracked by a numerological cipher, under the “wandering stars” of the stellar luminaries that emblazon the heavens of the surveillance dome of the Village.  In biblical symbology, the celestial luminaries are guided by angelic intelligences, or Watchers that correspond to earthly potentates.  In the Village, the control grid of the Watchers is primarily technological and scientific, where man has been converted into a generic number in a long set of numbers, as if he were himself a cipher to be decoded and programmed.

“Numerology…we’re all becoming ciphers.” -Patrick McGoohan

20 thoughts on “Numbered Man – An Analysis of The Prisoner (1967)

  1. Well, sir, I bought the full collection of The Prisoner on DVD a year or so ago. I have saved that collection for a period of intense viewing. Your essay inspires me to that end, along with wife, who has become interested. Your essay will further motivate her, I feel sure.

    Your hypothesis that the “collective vs. individual” remains unresolved I shall test. I may have misread your conclusion, I admit, which seems equivocal. FULL DISCLOSURE: After watching each and every episode of The Prisoner in the US decades ago, I MISSED THE FINAL EPISODE for reasons today I cannot recall!!

    So, thank you for this essay, Jay, wonderful.

  2. I love this show, it’s very special. I love the fact that the opening sequence tells you everything you need to know about the series. Never been a show like this before or since, it was really ahead of it’s time. Thanks for analyzing it.

  3. Wow, brilliant piece. I remember watching The Prisoner and the philosophical discussions held afterwards on SF KQED with my family and having family discussions following each episode. How far we have fallen in so short a time.

    It occurs to me that the rainbow flag has six colors. It is an inverted rainbow, leaving out indigo, which corresponds to the third eye chakra. The inversion perverts the chakra order (and the physical manifestation of the rainbow), placing red, the Muladhara or root chakra, at the head where the third eye (wisdom) should be. These people know what they’re doing.

  4. when the show came to Canada in the 60s via PBS – I would put all on hold to view -no time switching – no VCR – it was like a religious rite for me. Indeed nothing since has gone so far from the box of MSM it is difficult to imagine the courage or imagination for another – but we can hope – I did enjoy a couple of other shows – “nowhere man” from the 90s and currently a new show “Wayward Pines”.

  5. Pingback: Reality’s Rogue Nation: Mission Impossible 5 Analysis | Jay's Analysis

  6. Pingback: The Prisoner | manwithoutqualities

  7. The interview (despite all the bad haircuts) is well worth watching from beginning to end. I grew up in the UK when the Prisoner was on the ‘telly’, but never saw an episode (past my bedtime). But the show was a landmark and discussed widely. It added to the vernacular: “I am not a number” was something kids used to say on the school playground. The end of the interview made me laugh – I’ve travelled, worked and lived around the world looking for something different and for freedom from ‘the man’. Yet I’ve found myself sitting back behind a desk in a BPO providing services to the financial services industry – the irony isn’t lost on me. In the end though, if you can see the irony, you’ve won the battle…I tell myself.

    Thanks!

  8. I watched the series in New York when was first broadcast late night on WCBS. And later when PBS WNET-13 broadcast it could you do analysis of it against the AMC version in the future.

  9. I think you’ve misinterpreted n°6’s “death”. I believe it’s the symbolic death of the initiate.
    6 resigns because he’s been admitted into the secret society that rules the secret service – the “matter of conscience” he refers to when asked about his resignation.
    That’s why he’s in fact n°1 – as much as any other member of the secret society.

  10. Pingback: How the individual was broken by the modern world |

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