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The Prisoner of the Mind

John W. Whitehead | March 29 2006

“At this moment individuals are being drained of their personalities and being brainwashed into slaves.”—Patrick McGoohan

“I am not a number, I am a free man” was the mantra chanted by Number 6 in every episode of The Prisoner—the British television series that intrigued a generation. Regarded by many as the finest dramatic series ever broadcast, The Prisoner is especially relevant in today’s advertisement-driven, image-preoccupied, television-saturated, frenetically hustling consumer society that is propelled by post-9/11 paranoia and fear and dominated by government scare tactics.

The Prisoner, the brainchild of British actor Patrick McGoohan, first aired in Great Britain almost four decades ago. The subsequent summer, 1968—the summer of dissidence and unrest—all seventeen episodes were broadcast in the United States (and reprised in the summer of 1969). The Prisoner gained a cult following and has now been released on DVD.

The intriguing story centers on a former high level government operative (McGoohan) who is drugged and kidnapped and wakes up in a mysterious, self-contained, cosmopolitan community known only as The Village. The Village’s inhabitants are referred to merely as numbers, and McGoohan was Number 6. In the opening episode (“The Arrival”), Number 6 meets Number 2, who explains to him that he is now in The Village because the information stored in his head has made him too valuable “outside.” Thus, Number 6 is a prisoner, although his prison is an idyllic setting with parks, green fields, recreational activities and even a butler.

Number 6, however, seeks to preserve his individuality as a “free man” as he either tries to escape from the village or learn the identity of Number 1, the person presumed to run The Village. But Number 6 is watched continuously by cameras and other devices, and his escapes are thwarted by ominous white balloon-like spheres known as “rovers.”

What was the meaning of The Prisoner? As McGoohan stated in a 1982 interview:

It was about the most evil human being, human essence, and that is ourselves. It is within each of us. That is the most dangerous thing on the Earth, what is within us. So, therefore, that is what I made Number 1—oneself—an image of oneself which he was trying to beat.

The battle for McGoohan, therefore, was to maintain individuality and freedom in the face of humanity’s destructive tendencies. Thus, the struggle for freedom is against oneself.

The Prisoner challenges our concept of reality and asks whether we can really know anything about anything. Is reality a mere social construct? Since society creates any knowledge which we may possess, does this mean that all we consist of is simply a product of the given social setting from which we are manufactured? Indeed, thinking for yourself is not necessarily thinking by yourself. As Number 2 warns Number 6 in the episode entitled “Once Upon a Time”:

Society is the place where people exist together. That is civilization. The lone wolf belongs to the wilderness. You must not grow up to be a lone wolf.

Therefore, the ultimate goal of those in power is conformity to the constructs of society. Individualism is not welcome. This means both figuratively and literally eliminating the lone wolf.

The Prisoner stands against the lockdown and meltdown of the modern mind, which gives it increasing relevancy. It is in the mind that prisons are created for us. That’s why The Prisoner is an existential experience in continual questioning of everything around us, as well as ourselves. And it is only in this existential questioning that the one hope for freedom exists.

McGoohan’s anti-utopian vision is, in essence, a fatalistic trip where we are all prisoners of our minds. Thus, we are our own jailers. Our innate fears thwart attempts at any lasting freedom. McGoohan, in fact, was quoted as saying that freedom is a “myth.”

The surrealistic non-realism of the final episode has Number 6 emerging from The Village into the center of London. For some, this meant that The Village is actually present reality. In an earlier episode (“The Chimes of Big Ben”), when Number 6 believes he has escaped to a Secret Service office in London, he asks his superior: “I risked my life…to come back here, home, because I thought it was different…it is, isn’t it? Isn’t it different?”

In our tyrannically politically correct, fear-tinged society, we are all villagers. And we are increasingly becoming sheep-like. More and more, we are being bought for a price—bread and circuses. Our society is one in which people’s love of entertainment and trivia, as Steven Paul Davies writes in The Prisoner Handbook, has “destroyed their capacity to think and taken away their freedom.”

The saving grace of The Prisoner, and thus its importance, lies in McGoohan’s belief in the dignity and worth of people. That tiny spark of divinity that has been inlaid in our conscience enables us from time to time to recognize the superficiality of the world around us. It is true that we are all numbered. We are surrounded by police, neighbors who watch and inform on us, cameras and a pervasive technology, but we can will ourselves to fight the stranglehold of conformity and express our individuality. And even though we are all prisoners, we can raise our fists against oppression and scream, “I am not a number, I am a free man!”

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