THE UNMUTUAL PRISONER ARTICLE ARCHIVE
"THE PRISONER VS THE PANOPTICON", By Stephen Gallacher
Every episode opens with the same fragmented sequence, a sequence saturated with the disjointed and implicit terror of a familiar nightmare:
'Where am I?'
'In The Village.'
'What do you want?'
'Who are you?'
'I am Number Two.'
'Who is Number One?'
'You are Number Six.'
'I am not a number! I am a free man!!'
In the classic television series The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan plays a nameless man who resigns suddenly from a top-level secret job. Before he can leave the country, he is abducted, waking up in a fantastic village. He is unable to find out where he is, or who has kidnapped him. All he knows is that they claim to want 'information'.
The Village is a complete community -- everything is accounted for. It is the ultimate welfare state -- the perfect home for those prepared to cede their individuality and liberty. It is Panopticism taken to its technological extreme. Everyone is surveilled, videotaped, bugged,betrayed.
In The Village, everyone is known by a number -- the Prisoner, as we have seen, is designated as Number Six. The Village is run by a large, infallible infrastructure, under the supervision - but not the control - of Number Two, whose task it is to find the answer to one question -- why Number Six resigned. Or so we are led to believe. The Prisoner's goal is to keep the answer from his mysterious minders, to find the identity of the menacing and unseen Number One, and above all to escape.
Or so we are led to believe.
In each episode, Number
Six and the Village battle for power. Sometimes one side wins, and sometimes
the other side wins. But no one ever wins for long. The battle, seemingly endless
and epic to those of us who are old enough to have watched the series every
week when it was first on TV, actually only went on for 17 episodes. There is
a continuing controversy about what 'order' the episodes 'should' be viewed
in (the production sequence is known not to match the original UK broadcast
sequence, for instance), and most viewers were disoriented by the non-linear
and frankly surreal aspects of the series. The Prisoner was full of bizarre
and memorable features - the fairytale Village, canopied penny-farthing bicycle,
piped blazers and
striped capes, golf umbrellas and numbered badges, Mini-Moke taxis and the huge white 'Rover' balloons.
The series makes the viewer work - which, for many of us, is a large part of its enduring worth. In the ensuing 35 years, there has been nothing on the tube to compare with it.Patrick McGoohan created The Prisoner after the international success of his immensely popular spy show 'Danger Man' (release in the US as 'Secret Agent'). To get a sense of what McGoohan gave up in order to devote himself to The Prisoner, one must imagine if Sean Connery, on top of his game as James Bond and free to write his own ticket, chose to suddenly start adapting Franz Kafka to the small screen.
The series asks more questions than it answers. Why is Number Six being held? Why did he resign? Who is Number Six? Who are his jailers? Who is Number One? The village is seemingly administered by Number Two, whose identity changes from episode to episode (often the same Number two reappears in subsequent episodes without explanation).
Fans have been slammed over the years for paying the same amount of navel-gazing attention to a TV program as traditional academics would to a postmodernist tome. Fans have their get-togethers and newsletters and 'Prisoner-based fiction' offerings and bitter listserv wars over minutiae of meaning (think Trekkies, except not as geeky and without the Spock ears). Still, to the complaint, 'Catch a grip, it's only a TV program', many contemporary thinkers (Baudrillard comes to mind, for one) would say that this is precisely why it must be taken seriously.
TELEVISION AS TEXT:
It is a genuine mystery: how did this television series, which was aptly described at the time as a 'puzzling failure', mutate into something so complex? How did it take on such a life of its own? In order to answer this mystery, we must consider the possibility of treating The Prisoner as a 'text'.
As arguably the most 'literary' of television endeavors, The Prisoner can be - indeed, must be - confronted and interrogated as a text. Can one over-read a given text? If so, what does it mean to over-read it? Will we unpack layers of mean that contain, as Goethe said of one of his own writings, more meaning than the author himself knew? The Prisoner, taken as a literary artifact, contains strata of significance that the series' creator and star, Patrick McGoohan, never imagined - and never intended. The text literally contains more content than was written into it.
One of the more fruitful 'reads' of The Prisoner is as an exemplar of radical Panopticism. Our nameless protagonist is drugged and transported to The Village, where he is confined, disciplined, occasionally interrogated. Yet there is something strangely tentative about the discipline and control which The Village attempts to impose on Number Six. It is almost as though the interrogators feel that Number Six must be somehow complicit - that Number Six is, in some obscure sense, in control of his own nature as an object of discipline and surveillance.
Prisons are merely the visible embodiment of a broader, all-encompassing 'power', the principles of which are defined in Bentham's 'Panopticon' and evolved by Foucault. In The Village, surveillance is both visible and unverifiable. Number Six never knows at any given moment if he is being watched, but he may always be under surveillance. This is the principle of Panopticism deployed in a Village-wide scale.
Other than the unacceptable option of submission to the discipline of The Village, there is only one course of action available to Number Six: escape. In the very first episode ('Arrival'), he stumbles across the Village old people's home, a clear signal that he and every other prisoner in The Village is here 'for the duration'. The Village is similar to the detention center at Guantanamo, only with more sumptuous living spaces. Number Six attempts his first escape in this very first episode - without success. He is issued conformist Village wardrobe and forced to wear his ID badge with just '6' on it. He goes to the Green Dome (the center of The Village as well as the hub of the Panopticon apparatus) to force a confrontation with his captors, only to discover that Number Two - who he met upon his arrival -- has been replaced ( something which recurs in almost every episode, always without explanation or any indication of surprise on anyone's part).
Number Six is (understandably) obsessed with the project of escape. At a craft show in 'Chimes of Big Ben', Number Six presents his work called 'Escape'. It wins first prize. He seems to escape in 'Many Happy Returns', making his way back to HQ, where he organizes an expedition to find the elusive Village. He spots it from the air, but the pilot is revealed to be a minion of The Village. Number Six is ejected, and drifts on his parachute, slowly back down to The Village. Our protagonist isn't going anywhere, it would seem.
A second major subtext
of The Prisoner (which synchronizes on several levels with the subtext of escape)
is the idea of Number Six as Other. Number Six is excluded from the discourse
of the Village. Why? Is he mad? Criminal? A sexual deviant? Perhaps all of the
above, and more. Number Six clearly and persistently poses a threat, and that
threat is 'not so much the crime committed (at least in isolation) but the potentiality
of danger that lies hidden in an individual and which is manifested in his observed
everyday conduct. The prison
functions in this as an apparatus of knowledge' (Foucault 126). Like the rebellious chess Rook in 'Checkmate', Number Six exhibits the 'cult of the individual', which simply cannot be allowed to stand in The Village. Yet, the warders will not - or can not - let him leave. From the point of view of The Village, Number Six is considered as a 'rebel', 'reactionary', and 'Unmutual' (the most heinous crime of all). 'The suspect, as such, always deserved a certain punishment; one could not be the object of suspicion and be completely innocent' (Foucault 42).
The most striking characteristic
of Number Six's ordeal is that it seems primarily intended to simply regulate
his body. They don't particularly want him to believe anything; they simply
want to contain his body. Their claims that 'we want information' ring hollow;
they really don't make any credible efforts to obtain any information. There
are the occasional odd interludes of torture, but one senses that the interrogator's
heart really isn't in it. Number Six breaks up the regime of normalcy. Repeatedly,
and with bitter gusto. Why don't
they kill him? Or at least, put his body under some more draconian form of control?
His position in the Village is perhaps not quite what it seems. We are given a premonition of this in 'Checkmate' when the eccentric Village inhabitant applies his empathic 'sixth sense' on Number Six, claiming that he can tell prisoners from warders because warders display a secret arrogance. The eccentric denounces Number Six as one of the warders. Is the eccentric simply mad, or is his insight based, on some level, in fact?
Foucault would argue that there are no bare facts, simply power relations. The dominant power structure gets to define the facts. In effect, 'to the victor go the spoils.' Knowledge is controlled in The Village through mechanisms of power. Everywhere you find knowledge, there you will also find power. Though imprisoned, Number Six is powerful and in control because he has the knowledge - ostensibly the knowledge of why he resigned.
The village is a prison, but it is also something from which Number Six is voluntarily excluded: a discourse, which enables behaviors that Number Six is unable or unwilling to perform. One realizes that he suspects, correctly, that to do so would invalidate his power.
Number Six realizes what
none of the other inhabitants of The Village realize: that surveillance is a
two way street. This is explored throughout the series by means of the constant
salutation 'Be Seeing You', which courtesy prescribes as the thing to say when
taking one's leave of another prisoner. Form the thumb and
forefinger into a circle; look through the tube thus created (the lens of a camera, perhaps?), and toss off one's hand in a salute while chirping 'Be Seeing You' with manufactured congeniality.
Number Six throws it back at them, bitterly, angrily, from between pinched lips. When he performs the gesture and spits out the words, he turns 'Be Seeing You' into a threat. You may be watching me, he seems to say --- but I'm watching you, as well. And biding my time.
I AM NUMBER TWO:
Number Two gives every appearance of being the administrator of the Panoptic apparatus, as well as the on-site delegate for the elusive Number One. Yet Number Two's primary function is that of an observer, and the constant, obsessive object of his observation is Number Six. Number Two is really a function rather than a person, changing in every episode (and once during 3 episodes).
The power structure of The Village, personified by Number Two, seems geared towards forcing Number Six to 'make his honorable amends'. Yet there is something almost tentative in the ongoing interrogation. One senses that Number Two is, on one level, not particularly interested in results. Number Two is, in computer terms, 'interrupt-driven'; he awaits detailed work direction from Number One, who is unseen but instantly aware of every twist and turn in the interrogative project. Number Two is a classic example of 'supervisors, perpetually supervised' (Foucault 47). Underneath his veneer as interrogator and master, Number Two is fundamentally a researcher. 'The investigation, the exercise of common reason, lays aside the old inquisitorial model and adopts the much more subtle model (doubly validated by science and common sense) of empirical research' (Foucault 97).
It is important to keep
in mind that The Village, like the Panopticon, 'was also a laboratory; it could
be used as a machine to carry out experiments, to alter behavior, to train or
correct individuals. To experiment with medicines and monitor their effects.
To try out different punishments on prisoners, according to their crimes
and characters, and to seek the most effective ones' (Foucault 203). Regardless of the actual content and practice of the various 'science experiments' inflicted by the various Number Twos on Number Six, we begin to notice that, as the series 'evolves', Number Six seems almost in cahoots with Number Two. Number Six seems to be somehow complicit in his own imprisonment.
This possible complicity
becomes more and more obvious, once one knows to be on the look-out for it.
The episode 'Living in Harmony' deploys a key element, one carefully hidden
in most of the other episodes but present as a subtext. The episode opens with
a Western parody of the normal pre-titles resignation scene. Riding out of town,
the ex-sheriff is dragged by a mob into a town called 'Harmony'. He tries several
escape attempts, but he cannot get away. The town judge wants him to be the
new Sheriff - but the man refuses. This theme resonates through the series -
the powers that be in the Village want Number Six to do something, something
involving stepping up to some responsibility. Number Six refuses, avoids. His
efforts to do so become more heroic, more frantic. Things continue to slip into
... what? Dementia? Dadaism? Some sort of neo-Freudian thing? In 'Once Upon
a Time' we see Foucault's proposition that the prison structure can be deployed
in all aspects of modernity when we see Number Two morph into Number Six's father,
then his teacher, coach, employer, judge, officer, and prison guard. Number
Six plays the parts of the son, student, athlete, employee, accused, soldier,
and prisoner. After this mythic rewind/replay of power relationships,
Number Two drops dead at Number Six's feet. 'The rule was that if the accused 'held out' and did not confess, the magistrate was forced to drop the charges. The tortured man had then won.'
A door slides open and a Supervisor enters the room.
'What do you desire?'
'I'll take you.'
As 'Fall Out', the final episode of the series, begins, Number Six has won.
YOU ARE NUMBER SIX:
The final episode of The Prisoner is difficult to describe, even more difficult to unpack. But we need to do it, because the final episode, more than all that has come before, validates our Foucauldian read of this text.
As 'Fall Out' begins,
we are in a sort of surreal courtroom. There is a judge, who gives a long speech
to the effect that all the inhabitants of The Village are 'gathered together
in a state of democratic crisis' and that 'Number Six has survived the ultimate
test and will therefore no longer be called by a number.' This speech
is followed by an interlude of strange Absurdist theatre that puts one in mind of Number Two's advice in 'Dance of the Dead': 'if you insist on living in a dream, you may be taken for mad.' Indeed.
Number Six is given traveler's checks, his passport, and the keys to his London flat. He attempts to address the throng in the courtroom, but he is drowned out by their inane chanting of 'I, I, I' (or could it perhaps be 'Eye, Eye, Eye'?).
Things happen quickly now.
Number Six climbs a circular metal staircase and at the top finds himself in a room full of globes, presided over by a masked and hooded figure wearing the 'Number One'. Number Six rushes over to him and rips off his mask. Under the mask, Number One wears another mask, a monkey mask. ('I've made a monkey out of you', perhaps?). Furious, Number Six rips off the monkey mask, and is confronted with his own face. His own laughing face.
So it is not until the last seconds of the last episode that we encounter the true nature of the regimen imposed on Number Six. It is only then that we discover, to our shock (but not really to our surprise) precisely how 'all-seeing' The Village's Panopticon really is.
We are now in a position to deploy an alternative - and more productive - read of the dialog in that dreamlike opening sequence. To the question 'Who is Number One?' the response 'You are Number Six' is really 'You are, Number Six.'
The prisoner and the jailer
are one and the same. This bitter vision of our entire internal landscape as
'The Village' is what we arrive at after all of our protagonist's struggles
and heroics. As the Village saying goes, 'Questions are a burden to others.
Answers, a prison for oneself.' Finding the answer to his screamed question,
'Who is Number One???' reveals a prison inescapable. In a construct where every
person is constantly and completely surveilled, Number Six's parting words -
'Be seeing you!' - can now be fully
understood as both a promise of revenge and a cry of despair.
The Prisoner is 'an account of individuality, the passage from the epic to the novel, from the noble deed to the secret singularity, from long exiles to the internal search, from childhood, from combats, to phantasies.' The last episode ends in a phantasy, a dream sequence. The Prisoner's little life is rounded by a sleep.
So, at the end of it, does Number Six imprison himself? Do we all?
Works Cited: Alt.tv.prisoner - credit to the many insightful posts to this newsgroup that have fed into this essay. The fault for any failures to give credit where it is due lies completely with me. Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.
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