The Prisoner is the only show cool enough to have been referenced by both Iron Maiden and The Simpsons (pre-loss of relevance). Possibly the first truly surreal show (if by that you mean being completely and utterly disorienting), it's a towering piece of television whose influence can be seen in shows like Lost, The Sopranos, and Battlestar Galactica - all because it ruthlessly exploited its viewers’ expectations of what a television series should be.
The show’s star, Patrick McGoohan, perhaps unintentionally put all this in motion years before The Prisoner aired by starring in a fairly standard spy series called Danger Man*. McGoohan’s character, John Drake, was a secret agent in the mold of a far-less-rakish James Bond -- hyper-competent, tech savvy, and occasionally at odds with the particulars of his mission. Danger Man ran for four successful seasons over eight years.
As Danger Man’s fourth season was running, McGoohan had an idea for a kind of extension for the John Drake character: Drake would resign from his position, experience an abduction, and be sent to a resort-like prison camp. McGoohan had sat on the idea for several years, but the end of Danger Man gave him an opportunity to expand on his idea. Far from being a single episode or a multi-episode storyline, it’d be a full-fledged series.
When The Prisoner aired in 1968, it set itself apart as a different breed of show right from the opening credits. McGoohan, playing an unnamed character with more than a passing resemblance to John Drake, is seen driving towards the Houses of Parliament. He storms in, harangues an official, and submits what appears to be his resignation. On his way back to his apartment, a he’s trailed by a man in a hearse, who knocks him out with sleeping gas as he’s trying to pack his things. When he wakes up, he’s on a mysterious island (later to be known as The Village. A star itself in its own right, The Village’s extended dinner party aesthetic, penny-farthing bicycles, and the gigantic white balloon which serves as an infallible prison guard are instantly recognizable) where he has the following exchange with a figure in darkness:
Prisoner: Where am I?
Number Two: In the village.
Prisoner: What do you want?
Prisoner: Whose side are you on?
Two: That would be telling.... We want information...information...information!
Prisoner: You won't get it!
Two: By hook or by crook, we will.
Prisoner: Who are you?
Two: The new Number Two.
Prisoner: Who is Number One?
Two: You are Number Six.
Prisoner: I am not a number; I am a free man!
Number Two’s mocking laughter closes the credits. “Secret Agent Man” it is not.
It's not really clear whether Number Six is John Drake, or if he's an original character. The officials of his prison know the most minute details of his life, down to how many cubes of sugar he tends to take with his coffee, but they neglect to mention his name -- it’s secondary to the far more important task of determining why he resigned. Characters emerge as important, then disappear. Others die, and are later seen alive and well. Number Six never quite knows who to trust--and, consequently, trusts no one. His captors may be the enemy, or his own country, or an unknown third party, but one imagines he’d resist them with the same stubbornness regardless of allegiance.
Set as it was at the height of the Cold War, a few scant years after the Cuban Missile Crisis starkly revealed to the world just how antagonistic the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union could be, The Prisoner’s distrust of authority and idealization of individualism must have been striking to its audience. Here they had the dashing and heroic John Drake, a character whose loyalty to the West was beyond question, suddenly thrust into the role of a man who was resolutely on his own side--a representative of the establishment as an embodiment of the counterculture. The Prisoner placed the freedom of the individual and his right to his own privacy and ideals as absolutes.
Audiences were clearly ready for something along The Prisoner’s lines--it became the kind of event television that’s rarely seen today. Even after its controversial finale -- which, in the interest of keeping you watching, we will not spoil [even though it's pretty much impossible to describe anyway - ed], except to say that it’s the perfect capstone for a series that prided itself on surrealism--its influence on television lingered. Every show with a mystery that refuses to be solved, or a character who takes a philosophical stand, or that gives the audience what it needs rather than what it wants, owes a debt to The Prisoner.
*American fans may recognize Danger Man’s theme song, “Secret Agent Man”, from Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls. It was a cover done by Blues Traveler. Obviously.
Joe DeMartino is a Connecticut-based writer who grew up wanting to be Ted Williams, but you would not BELIEVE how hard it is to hit a baseball, so he gave that up because he writes words OK. He talks about exploding suns, video games, karaoke, and other cool shit at his blog. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org and tweeted at @thetoycannon. He writes about sports elsewhere. The sports sells better.