“DEAD TO THE WORLD” By Gareth Thomas

I know that much has been said about "Dance of the Dead" and that much of what I have to say will be familiar to fans of the series. This article is not meant to be a definitive interpretation, nor an authoritative reading of Anthony Skene’s thoughts. It is my own personal understanding of "Dance of the Dead", drawing on some old "In The Village" articles. I shall suggest a unified narrative and message into which the familiar set pieces might fit. This is not intended to diminish the surrealism and fragmentation of the episode and its dream-like world, but rather to see it all in a particular light.

Dead Man Walking

If "Dance of the Dead" is about anything, it is about the need for the Prisoner to be ‘won over’ to the Village. The opening scene shows how the methods of scientific violence are ineffective against deeply ingrained resistance. Number 2 must wage a psychological war against the Prisoner’s identity. She must put him to death – a theme signposted by the corpse, the demise of Dutton, the scenes at night, the black cat, the long black pause before the final credits, and (in the original script) a chilling burial scene.

Such ‘death’ may be seen metaphorically as the loss of character and autonomy seen in the Villagers. According to writer Anthony Skene, the central issue is more one of ‘chains and freedom’ than one of ‘life and death’ (ITV 7, P20). The Prisoner is expected to join the ranks of the living dead who conform to Village rules and sham democracy while being manipulated by the corrupt power and science working behind it: ‘It’s the rules. Of the people, for the people, by the people.’ Rosemary Camilleri (ITV 11, P19) noted the prominence of machinery in "Dance of the Dead" and how it provides a metaphor for the mechanised life of the Villagers:

Prisoner: Who’s saying that, you or the computer?
Don’t behave like a human being; it might just confuse people.

Sometimes the machines seem to take on as much life as the people (Rover, the Town Hall force field, the radio and the telex).

There is also the death of the Prisoner in a literal sense. The Village authorities amend the details on the corpse so that, to the world at large, ‘it’s you who’s died in an accident at sea’. This coheres with George Markstein’s original view of the Village, in which the inmates were publicly thought to have died. Of course, the corpse is also a metaphorical expression of the spiritual death waiting for the Prisoner.

However, metaphorical and literal death alone does not provide all the answers. Only when seen at an existential level will the development of the episode make sense. The Prisoner defines his individuality and resistance to the authorities in terms of an emotional and psychological attachment to life beyond the Village: ‘everything is elsewhere’. He hates the blind conformity and corrupt power and takes comfort in the fact that he is a product of another world. Most importantly, he is newly arrived – a point stressed to the post man and to Dutton. In terms of his self-awareness, the Prisoner still hasn’t resigned himself to his predicament in the Village.

It is this existential commitment to the outside world which gives him strength of character and stubborn resistance, and it is this link which Number 2 intends to replace:

Number 2: This is your world. I am your world.

The Prisoner is to be convinced that he is ‘mad’ to hold onto an outside world ‘which you only dream about’. His cottage is to be made for him ‘the only place he can ever go’. When he has recognised subjectively his inescapable existence as a member of the Village, then he will truly be ‘dead’ to the world, and Number 2 will expect him to talk.

The Episode

It is, of course, important to see how all this works in practise. However, the debate about the extent to which Number 2 manipulates events is relatively unimportant to our understanding of the Prisoner’s development. The purpose of the first part of "Dance of the Dead" – the scenes up to and including the escape attempt – is to make both Prisoner and viewer continually aware of the presence of the Village. This explains the sound of London traffic heard by the Prisoner in the original script as he gets up in the morning. He is for a brief moment back in his town house before the Village beyond the balcony reasserts itself with depressing reality.

Indeed, it is a full picture of Village life which trespasses upon the Prisoner’s sense of identity that day. He is faced with the blind, characterless conformity of the girls in red and the slogans chanted by his observer. There is the shallow maid and the empty talk of rules and democracy. Furthermore, the Prisoner encounters the power and technology of the authorities. Number 2 watches him sleep and shave, and then there is the intervention of Rover and a force field around the Town Hall. The Prisoner’s position in the Village is emphasised to him by the deliveries of the postman and the flowers man. In short, the Prisoner is faced with his inescapable predicament as Number 6 with all aspects of Village life impressed upon his self-awareness.

The result of this experience is that the Prisoner’s existential identification with the outside world comes increasingly under pressure. Arising out of this development is the claustrophobic restlessness which accompanies the arrival of night and a bedtime drink. Against the background of a whining sound track and Number 2 urging him to ‘sleep, sleep, sleep’, the Prisoner’s frustration is seen as he attempts to suffocate the television and flees his cottage via the balcony. His longing for freedom – now made desperate by the experience of the day – has prompted the spontaneous escape bid. As he comes to acknowledge the futility of his actions and collapses on the beach, the Prisoner’s link with the outside world is stretched almost to breaking point. It is now vulnerably open to manipulation during the next part of the episode.

Indeed, the second stage of "Dance of the Dead" sees the Village take advantage of the Prisoner’s desperate existential bid for other-world status. The authorities provide him with a number of outlets for his aspirations – tangible connections with the outside world. There is Dutton (a name among numbers) who calls to mind the Prisoner’s occupation and home (‘how’s London?’), there is the radio and its mysterious message, there is his own tuxedo (‘I’m still myself’), and above all there is the corpse and the Prisoner’s use of it for communicating. All these things come to objectify the otherwise invisible existential connection with the outside world. In desperation, the Prisoner bases his hopes upon them.

Now, if Number 2 destroys the things around which the Prisoner’s rebellious existence is focused, then she will have won him over and his death will have been achieved. Sure enough, the corpse – on which so much depended – is found not only in the morgue, but also ready to carry news of the Prisoner’s death to the outside world. From this moment on, he is ‘already dead… locked up in the long box in that little room’.

The radio is confiscated and used as the excuse for the Prisoner’s trial, at which he is sentenced to death. By giving him his own suit to wear, the Village ensures that it is his worldly persona which faces death at the hands of the mob. The whole episode has been moving towards this carnival moment, when the Village is seen at its very worst. The revellers dance out their mechanical conformity, while absolute power (Caesar, Elizabeth, Napoleon) lurks behind a populist facade (‘we sentence in the name of the people’). It is of this that Number 2 would like the Prisoner to be a ‘model citizen’.

Having drawn out and made tangible the basis of the Prisoner’s existential strength, Number 2 can put him to death. Dutton – himself to be killed – is the perfect touch. In that brilliant moment, character witness and personification of the Prisoner’s other-worldly existence appears as a brain-dead fool. Indeed, the existential dimension is made explicit. Dutton predicted not that he would die, but that he would ‘cease to exist’. Likewise, the Prisoner wears his own suit not because he is dead, but ‘perhaps because you don’t exist’.


The screened ending is literally a deux ex machina conclusion – as it stands, it makes little sense. Death should have been complete as the Prisoner descends in the morgue (surely symbolic). He is in no position to show the initiative which gains him access to the special room and the telex. The Prisoner’s ‘you’ll never win’ is ambiguous and inconsistent with the general movement of the episode. It is only with the original ending that "Dance of the Dead" makes sense, and I summarise here a section from Dave Barrie’s article (ITV 3, P19):

Confronting Number 6 in the telex room, Number 2 says: ‘A man can only die once. And you’re already dead, aren’t you? In our little room’. Led to the girl observer, Number 6 says: ‘i’ll never give in… Being dead does have its advantages’. He then smashes the telex. The script reads: ‘Turning to the girl he asks: ‘Shall we dance?’ They leave Number 2 surrounded by the broken parts of the telex. They return to the ballroom where a hectic formation dance is in full swing. They join in. They dance as if the devil is playing. Continuing the music faster and faster. The Village is brightly illuminated. No-one about. Pull back so the sea comes between us and it, until the Village is only a glow in the darkness of the night. END CREDITS.’

This time the Prisoner’s death is complete – hence the act of mechanical conformity as he finally joins in the dancing. Number 6 has accepted his existence in Village society and his death to the world. The last shot, with the sea between Village and viewer, emphasises the Prisoner’s detachment from life outside

One may reasonably ask why ‘being dead does have its advantages?’ How is resistance to be continued in this new state? However, this death offers rebirth, and there is a light shining in the darkness. The Prisoner would have come to terms with his imprisonment and the society so infuriating and inescapable in the early parts of the episode. He cannot openly compete with the might of Village machinery and security. Belligerence will help him beat neither Number 1 nor the administration. Denial is impractical and anarchy is not an option.

It is better to fight from within and beat the authorities at their own game. Although this is difficult and dangerous, he might conform materially and acknowledge his problem psychologically without losing true independence of mind:

Radio: If our torment is to end, if liberty is to be restored, we must grasp the nettle even though it makes our hands bleed.

Number 6 had to give up his dream of the outside world and get real.

This, then, is the main concern of "Dance of the Dead". However, there are others, including domination by women (Number 2, the observer, the maid, the supervisor and even the cat) .It would be difficult for a masculine character like the Prisoner to submit to female rule (‘never trust a women’). In 1967, "Dance of the Dead" exposed – as it does today – the insecurities and fears men apparently have about the feminist threat. The screened ending says it all – beaten by a woman who knows she’s won in a man’s world: ‘how very unfortunate for you, old chap’. Female power and shrewdness is another thing with which the Prisoner must come to terms.

Then there is the political issue – what Dave Barrie called a ‘powerful statement on tolerance and an eloquent plea for individual rights’ (ITV 3, P25). The Prisoner is described as a ‘wicked man’ for having ‘different values’. Number 2’s empty explanation ‘it’s the rules’ suggests the death of reason to authoritarianism. The contrived gaiety of the carnival contrasts with the ruthlessness of the administration’s execution orders. The impression of abusive power and science (personified by the nightmarish doctor) operating behind a democratic facade is perhaps even more convincing than in "Free For All".

This corrupt and mechanistic society is certainly worth fighting against (smashing the telex). The issue is one of means rather than ends. The Village can only be defeated if the Prisoner gives up the excesses and indulgences of his individuality – the message of the series itself. By conforming at one level, he frees himself at a deeper level. He must accept his predicament and root himself firmly in the real world – not some fantasy. The ‘dance of the dead’ is really a dance of release and more secure personal strength to fight another day.

I believe Patrick McGoohan created the series not only that we should debate the meaning of the episodes, but also that we might discuss the issues raised. Therefore, I put this question to readers: can the individual live successfully in his own dream world, or is some conformity (material and psychological) necessary for real strength of character and independence of mind?

Click here to return to the Unmutual Article Archive

Click here to return to the Unmutual Home Page