THE UNMUTUAL PRISONER ARTICLE ARCHIVE
Measure of the Man
by Mark O'Brien
Though often regarded as one of the greatest TV series ever made, with a still devoted fan-base, Patrick McGoohan's The Prisoner has had a checkered history. Its first run began in 1967, but then, largely due to its supposed incomprehensibility, it received only rare repeat runs. In recent years, however, it appears to have found a home on the Sci-Fi Channel, where the whole series has been shown several times. In a TV world dominated by American series in which the action is paused every ten minutes or so for a recap of what's happened so far, it is hardly surprising that a show which expects its audience to think for themselves should be so treated.
As one would expect in any great work of fiction, there are themes which recur throughout the series. For instance, and whatever else one reads into The Prisoner, the struggle for identity in the face of an overwhelming power, willing to go to any lengths to force conformity, must surely be central. Fifteen out of the seventeen episodes open with the following dialogue:
No.6: Where am I?
No.2: In the Village.
No.6: What do you want?
No.6: Who's side are you on?
No.2: That would be telling. We want information. Information. Information.
No.6: You won't get it.
No.2: By hook or by crook, we will.
No.6: Who are you?
No.2: The new Number 2.
No.6: Who is Number 1?
No.2: You are Number 6.
No.6: (Shouting, while punching the sky) I am not a number. I am a free man!
Though the above dialogue does not open the first episode, 36½ minutes into it the new No.2 concludes a conversation between himself and the Prisoner by saying: "Good day, Number 6." McGoohan's character turns and asks: "Number what?" To which he's informed: "6. For official purposes everyone has a number. Yours is Number 6." Differing slightly from the opening sequence dialogue, No.6 replies: "I'm not a number; I'm a person."
The Prisoner is alienated, at odds with his environment. Those who run the Village - if in fact they are identifiable - see him only as a commodity to do with as they please to obtain the information they desire. Having been divested of his identity, designated only by a number, he strives to maintain his individuality.
But why does this - allegedly incomprehensible - story of one man's struggle continue to attract the attention and why has it had such an influence upon popular culture? (For the interested, go to Wikipedia.) This question may be answered by asking another. Why is the Prisoner given the number 6?
On the DVD commentary for episode one, over the conversation referred to above, in which No.2 calls McGoohan's character No.6 for the first time, Bernie Williams (Production Manager) and Tony Sloman (Film Librarian) consider this question, suggesting it may be a nod in the direction of an episode of another show called William Tell, in which a then unknown Michael Caine plays a character referred to only as 6; or it may just be that 6 is easier to say than 4 or 5.
This seems rather an inadequate explanation for a show so dependent on allegory and symbolism. And numbers have long held great significance in many cultures around the world.
In an interview conducted by Warner Troyer in March 1977, responding to a questioner asking about possible religious symbolism in the final episode of the series, McGoohan answers:
"No, I had never any religious inspiration for that whatsoever. I was just trying to make it dramatically feasible. Certainly the temptation with the guy putting me up on the throne and all this stuff, ah...it's Lucifer time. But I never thought at that moment. Maybe somewhere in the back of my mind it was there..." [My emphasis]
However, it is known that as a young man, McGoohan had hoped to become a Catholic priest. It is not unreasonable to assume, therefore, that he was somewhat familiar with the Bible and that it was on the sixth day that God created man, saying, "Let us make man in our image."
Further, God is the three-in-one: God the Father created the Heavens and the Earth in six days, resting on the seventh. God the Son gave his life for the salvation of fallen humanity and God the Holy Spirit inspires us to strive to live in imitation of Christ.
Being in the image of God, man, too, shares in this three-in-one nature: his god-like nature is expressed in his ability to control the natural world and create an environment to his liking; his Christ-nature is expressed through his altruism, even to the extent of giving his life for others; the Spirit being an expression through the arts and other media of the mystical quality of life.
But man is also two - male and female or 3 + 3, for, though equal, the sexes are distinct and so different. Of course, two 3s added together obtain 6, the number of Man or Humanity.
And, if that wasn't enough, after dealing with the Law of God in the first five books, the sixth book of the Bible is Joshua, the first of the History books. As God is outside history this can only be yet another example of 6 being of Man rather than God.
So, maybe somewhere at the back of his mind, McGoohan was aware that giving his character the number 6 was of great significance. And it would certainly shed some light on the shows continuing popularity, for, being concerned with the very nature of man/humanity, it has something to say to its audience, whether they watched it originally in 1967 or for the first time in the Noughties.
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