‘The Prisoner’

Still baffling, maddening and fascinating after all these years

By Craig Henderson

In the spring of 1968, CBS announced it would be running a summer replacement series acquired, as so many 1960s summer replacement series were, from Britain’s ITC production company. This one, as the network described it, was about a secret agent who resigned from his job, then found himself virtually imprisoned in a quaint village which he was never allowed to leave because he knew too much.

It sounded mildly intriguing, but a new spy show in 1968 was no big deal. There had been a few dozen in the previous three years. But when The Prisoner premiered on June 1 absolutely no one was prepared for a show so far beyond the realm of anything ever seen on weekly television. Was it another spy show? Science fiction? The blackest of comedies? A heartfelt, allegorical protest against the dehumanizing trends of life in the modern western world? A political manifesto masquerading as demented fantasy?

At various times it was all and none of the above. A mere 17 episodes were produced — and nearly half of those stretched the show’s concept past its breaking point. But the fact that the meaning of The Prisoner is still debated after more than 30 years — and that all 17 episodes are getting a big home video re-release on DVD — speaks for the show’s status as a pop-cultural touchstone. The Prisoner was parodied as recently as this current TV season on an episode of The Simpsons.


Popular British actor Patrick McGoohan was the driving force behind The Prisoner. He was known to American audiences for his role in the Walt Disney film “The Three Lives of Thomasina” and to viewers of Disney’s Sunday night TV show as “The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh.” Legend has it he turned down the starring role in the James Bond films. In his first TV series, Danger Man, McGoohan played a NATO undercover agent named John Drake. Drake returned as a British spy in the far superior, extremely popular hour-long version of Danger Man that played on CBS under the title Secret Agent.

Plans for a third season of Secret Agent ended abruptly in 1966 when McGoohan convinced the owner of ITC, legendary British impresario Sir Lew Grade, to let him try a new series based on his own concept. McGoohan became not only the star of The Prisoner but also its executive producer and frequently the writer and director, and he used the series to express his strongly held beliefs about the encroachment of politics and technology on individual freedom.

"I think we're being imprisoned and engulfed by a scientific and materialistic world," McGoohan told TV Guide when The Prisoner debuted in America. "We're at the mercy of gadgetry and gimmicks ... computers have everything worked out for us ... I want to know, how free are we?"

Every week in a ritual opening sequence we see McGoohan as a British agent (whose name is never revealed) storm into his London headquarters and angrily resign. He returns home to pack for a holiday only to be gassed into unconsciousness. Following the commercial break, the ritual picks up under the episode’s credits. The agent awakens in what seems to be his house, but outside the window is a seaside village of diversely styled, faintly Mediterranean shops and cottages.

“Where am I?” snarls our hero.

“In The Village,” comes the haughty reply.

“What do you want?”


“Whose side are you on?”

“That would be telling. We want information. Information. Information.”

The former agent finds himself imprisoned in this Orwellian Land of Oz, under constant surveillance, both human and electronic, and labeled Number 6 in this community where no one has a name, only a number. He’s free to roam The Village, but no one passes its borders. The brutal guards see to that, and anyone slipping by them will surely be stopped and probably killed by the show’s most fanciful concept and most memorable image, the huge white balloon known as Rover that rolls and bounces menacingly through The Village.

What followed every week was often a satisfyingly clever battle of wits between Number 6 and his captors, led by The Village administrator, Number 2. The ultimate authority, Number 1, was never revealed. Number 2 is replaced almost every week after failing to extract the reasons for Number 6’s resignation. Number 6 retains his secrets and his individuality in the face of increasingly fantastic mental and physical onslaughts. But he never really wins. He never escapes. He may thwart Number 2’s immediate schemes, but he’s often left beaten and betrayed at the end of the episode. CBS would not schedule the show during the regular TV season because its programmers thought viewers could not accept a protagonist who essentially failed every week. Even Richard Kimble escaped at the end of every episode of The Fugitive.

British viewers were baffled but intrigued by the show — and ultimately outraged when the final episode failed to explain anything in a coherent manner. (Where is The Village, which side runs it, who is Number 1? Never mind, said McGoohan, it was all an allegory anyway.) The American reaction was much the same, but the show drew so much comment that CBS ran it again in the summer of 1969. In the 1970s it turned up occasionally on independent stations, running with other ITC adventure shows. By the 80s it had taken on enough cachet to appear on many Public Television stations (usually the same stations that ran Doctor Who and The Avengers).


No matter how many times you’ve seen The Prisoner, you have never seen it with this clarity. The picture is almost startlingly crisp and detailed. The Prisoner was — for 1967 television — almost avant garde in its editing, sound, music, use of color and visual effects. All are displayed to the fullest in these outstanding DVDs.

As an additional point of interest, the episodes are not being released on video in the usual broadcast order. The “true” order of episodes has been a long-running debate among Prisoner fans. This alternate order finally was blessed by Six of One, The Prisoner Appreciation Society (the largest international Prisoner fan group and A&E Entertainment's consultant on the video release). And surprisingly, watching the series in this order does seem to create a more logical progression of events through various episodes.

The bad news — and you knew there had to be bad news — is that A&E’s pricing structure for The Prisoner is quite simply a rip-off. All of A&E’s television series releases on DVD have been three episodes on a disk, two disks per boxed set, so you get six episodes for the set’s $40 list price. That’s stiff enough considering disks could easily hold four episodes.

At a mere 17 episodes (actually 18 since A&E includes the much hyped “alternate version” of “The Chimes of Big Ben” — alternate because it has early theme music and closing titles that were dropped before the series aired), the entire Prisoner series would go on three of A&E’s standard sets. But A&E has decided it can squeeze more money out of Prisoner devotees, so each Prisoner disk contains only two episodes, yet still costs $40 per set. Disk 5 in set 3, in fact, has only one episode. It also contains a 30-minute interview with series production manager Bernard Williams — certainly a feature worth seeing, but not at these prices.

At this writing, A&E has released four sets of The Prisoner, which contain 15 of the 18 episodes. A fifth set with the final three episodes will complete the series. Two hundred bucks for 17 episodes of a TV show, even a show as extraordinary as The Prisoner, is a rip-off. In England, where video is generally higher priced than in the United States, one boxed set of DVDs containing all 18 episodes sells for 60 pounds — $85 at the current rate of exchange, less than half what A&E is charging. (Of course, there's no point in ordering the British set because European Region 2 DVDs won’t play on American Region 1 players, an entirely different rip-off.)

Also beware of episodes in set 2 with defective soundtracks. The first pressings of “The Chimes of Big Ben” on disk 3 and “The General” on disk 4 have an amazing audio problem that makes it sound as if a jetliner is flying through some scenes. This extraordinary lapse in DVD quality control has not been explained, but A&E is well aware of the problem and will exchange disks if you find this defect in your copies. The bad disks should have been withdrawn by now but fan circles indicate some of them are still floating around.

The Prisoner disks have some “DVD Extras” but with the exception of the Williams interview they’re kind of silly. An “Interactive Map of The Village” is actually a map of The Village that doesn’t fit on the TV screen, so you scan side to side or up and down to see all of it — hardly “interactive.” The opening and closing title sequences also are included as extras — without titles, just the visuals and theme music.

By far the most interesting bonus material is the "scenes from next week's show" trailers that haven't been seen since the CBS run.

The funniest feature is titled “Foreign File Cabinet,” which you might think is some obscure and fascinating material on the show from other countries. It’s actually many, many versions of the shot in the opening titles of the file cabinet card that reads “resigned” — endless repeats of this five-second shot made for foreign distribution showing the word “resigned” in French, then in German, then in Turkish, then in Japanese, etc., etc., etc., etc.

Would Number 6 be amused by such anal retentive tedium?

The Prisoner

From A&E Entertainment



Color, original television aspect ratio (1.33:1),

keep case in cardboard box set

Special Features

Original broadcast trailers

Interview with series production

manager Bernard Williams

Production stills

Trivia questions

Map of The Village

Original promotion materials

Scene selection

SRP: $39.95 per two-disk set

Released October 2000