Who is The Prisoner in 21st Century?

Patrick McGoohan as Number 6

Disclaimer: The article follows the episode order “6 of 1” followed by 6 of 1 The Prisoner Appreciation Society.

The Prisoner, released in 1967, more than 50 years ago, is a show that provided us with an idea of what the future could look like. Created by Patrick McGoohan, the show explores several themes such as liberty, privacy, social conformity, individualism.

Over the course of 17 episodes, The Prisoner follows an ex-agent (McGoohan), who after resigning from the secret service is captured and kept in The Village. Throughout the series, the motive of the captors is to know everything about McGoogan’s resignation and therefore he is subject to constant interrogation by Number 2 (who keeps on changing). The audience is never told what The Village is, or who Number 1 is, or the real reasons behind this eerie aura that surrounds The Village. The motive for Number 6 in the show is straightforward—how to get out of The Village, and finding who is in charge.

The character soon to be known as Number Six resigns from his post in the opening creidts of The Prisoner.

With each episode, we discover a new theme or a related theme that describes a characteristic of The Village or the citizens of The Village. The villagers are nameless and have numbers assigned to them. Patrick McGoohan is Number 6. A constant theme though is that if you are in The Village, you are continuously being monitored and observed by cameras, televisions, people—everyone is looking at you.

In The Prisoner, Number 6 is constantly under surveillance by the Village authorities, his every action is being seen to understand why he resigned. He is also being watched to make sure that his individualistic idea of liberty is not passed on to the villagers. But it is not just him who is being watched here, it is all the villagers, everyone is kept under surveillance to make sure nobody tries to do something which is against what the leaders of the Village want.

Basically, the leaders want to make sure that every villager conforms to the norms of the society. Number 6, being the main symbolism for liberty of individuals, is always seen a threat to the Village. His constant diverging from the norms to make individual decisions is always seen as a problem by the leaders of the Village and is somewhat as it would be in an Orwellian Surveillance State.

In the 21st century, people have expressed their concerns about surveillance, data, and privacy. The use of surveillance is extremely common today. The 24-hour watch on our actions is something that we have signed ourselves up for in this digital age. We have cameras around us, our location being tracked, our buying preferences being saved, our eating habits being noted, out internet history being sold. Be it the State, through its many institutions that keep an eye on us or extract information, or be it social media companies like Facebook, Instagram, etc. who are selling our data for their benefit, is someone keeping an eye on us all the time? As the famous line from The Prisoner conveys—“Be seeing you.”

The motive of both institutions, be it the State or the Zuckerbergs, is the same: to convert people either into ideal citizens or ideal consumers. An ideal citizen for a government would be someone who does not question the ideas, the policies, the leaders of the institutions. The government wants citizens that have a blind faith in them and do not think critically. Whereas an ideal consumer for corporations, weirdly, has the same characteristics. An ideal consumer has brand loyalty, someone who is willing to pay for the product without thinking about it or considering other alternatives in the market. But how does an institution achieve this? How does a person become an ideal citizen or consumer?

The usual idea that is floated to answer this question is brainwashing the person to believe in the institution. But what is brainwashing, and how is it done? Brainwashing is not a thing which is achieved in a moment. It is a practice that has been going on for years. Since we share our data to with these institutions, they know what our preferences are, and they feed us exactly the information we would like to hear about them. This slowly starts to impact our opinions to the extent that we start to see them with a very non-critical lens. It generates an inherent bias we have for them. But at the end we are just someone who is just another vote and just another number in their sales.

The constant attempt in The Prisoner by the leaders of the Village by saying to Patrick McGoohan “You’re Number 6” can be thought of as a brainwashing tool—the continuous reinforcement of a fact on someone.

The Village is already at a stage where the villagers have become ideal citizens for the leaders of the village. This is the extreme, exaggerated state to get a point across. But there are striking similarities.

The numbers given to the villagers can be paralleled to how we are living in the 21st century with digital surveillance by all the social media we are surrounded by. Like the name being taken away from McGoohan in the show by referring to him as Number 6 constantly, we are similarly reduced to our usernames on social media, for these companies. The Prisoner even gives us an Uber-like service, just quicker, but it is there so that the authorities can keep a track on Number 6. There are also other services like the restaurants which serve food instantaneously, which could also be interpreted as a nod to our society’s need for instant gratification. It is true that our society is not exactly the same as portrayed, but these are still some key considerations that could help make an argument at a micro level.

The Village is shown to be a democratic place with elections as in the episode “Free For All”—various galas being held, the existence of government institutions, hospitals, media houses, and a democratically elected leadership. Although behind the scenes, Number 2 the leader is only answerable to Number 1. The Prisoner not just portrays a hollow democracy, but also portrays dictatorships in some episodes. A dictatorship is characterized by the lack of democratic processes like elections, almost negligible political pluralism, and the inability of the citizens to choose their leaders. In Dance of the Dead the conversation, extracted below, between Number 6 and Number 2 explains how the Village is against the principles of democracy.

Number 6: Your administration is effective. Though you’ve no opposition

Number 2: An irritation we’ve dispensed with. Even best friends agree democracy is remarkably inefficient

This portrays how the Village does not believe in this concept of Democracy. The leaders of the Village are not concerned with having an opposition, which is at the very essence of a democracy. However, I would say the Village is a hollow democracy. The difference between the two is a thin line.

A hollow democracy or a hollow state is a State where all institutions and democratic processes exist but do not have any effect because real decisions are made by the ones upon whom we have no control over. The State will have all the standard structures of governance but most likely would be heavily corrupted in favour of global MNCs and wealthy individuals. Number 2 is just a puppet to Number 1.

Throughout the season, we see how Number 2 keeps changing whereas Number 1 is the same. Number 2 is replaced as soon as they fail to succeed in what Number 1 tells them to do. Similarly, Number 2 is like the political leader in our society who keeps on changing with elections and at the end of their terms. But Number 1 are these corporations which still remain in power and use their influence on the likes of Number 2.

More on the hollow state of democracy shown in the series can be seen in “Free for All.” Number 6 stands for elections against Number 2. The whole episode focuses on Number 6’s campaign. This episode beautifully explains the time we are living in. The episode gives Number 6 an illusion of freedom, by allowing him to stand for the elections and giving him the ability to lead the Village even though the real power lies with Number 1. Further one more thing to observe here is Number 6 after winning the elections would become Number 2. This portrays how are identities today are non-permanent and rooted in number and community but not one’s own individual capacity. We are someone of someone or someone in something, but what Number 6 strives to achieve and what we should too is who are we as an individual.

Similarly, in the 21st century, in the context of the American society, many people think the Politcal Leader has the power—the government seems like a democracy from outside with all institutions existing and functioning—but if we dig a bit deeper, we realize that the real power lies with corporations, the military, the media houses. The essence of democracy is, as Lincoln said, a government of the people, for the people, and by the people. A democracy works for the benefit of its citizens and prioritizes them over anything.

What is happening currently is that the MNCs and the big tech corporations are being prioritized over the majority of people that live in the society. The institutions that were built for the betterment of its people are corroded with red tape and corruption. The fact that our leaders are actually playing second fiddle or are taking their orders from the big corporations could be seen as a very attack at democracy itself.

We have lobbyists that influence the decisions of legislators that we thought we had chosen and are there for our benefit. But why do these corporations have control over them? What do they have? This is because they own ‘information’ which equivalent to a currency in present times. We all are given an illusion of freedom, thinking we are making informed choices, but the informed choices always depend on the information which is being regulated by these corporations and the surveillance State. A good example of this could be the use of social media during the 2016 elections in the United States. Facebook has gone on record to say that Russian influences had targeted campaigns against left-leaning citizens with publishing fake news.

Number 6 tries to escape this illusion by asking questions about the Village, questions about who Number 1 is, he tries to question everything like how we have started questioning almost everything that is shown to us. This is because society is beginning to become more and more individualistic. This questioning of everything is a result of the misinformation we have been exposed to and is reaction by the people to it. The questioning is a good thing. It shows how we are trying to think critically about the stuff we read. But this is still a limited a minority of people. The majority of them are still on their path to become the ideal citizens as explained above. The questioning is also coming from how our society is gradually moving towards individualism over collectivism. Individualism naturally leads to everyone looking out for themselves, which means there are less chances of a collective opinion. Therefore, there are no single decisions for a community, rather everyone in the community is making a decision for themselves.

This ties back to the finale that shows Number 1 as Number 6. The episode reveals the identity of Number 1 for a very brief moment. The viewers in that brief moment see Patrick McGoohan (Number 6) as Number 1. The same was explained by Patrick McGoohan in an interview as signifying that “the most dangerous thing on earth is what is within us,” meaning only a person at his individual level can control his own actions. How at the ultimate level it is you who has the liberty. While questioning people, governments, and ideas like Number 6 we are too trying to represent our own individual liberty in our own small way. Most of these questions reach a dead end similar to Number 6’s fate in finding answers about the Village. Even when he does finally find who Number 1 is, the viewers see him as Number 6. The show is trying to symbolize that even if we find answers, are we ever truly free from ourselves, our own biases, pre-conceived notions, and if not is the whole project of questioning everything worth it?

The mainstream phrase associated with the internet and the digital age is “Now the World is a Village”. It is indeed true, but “the Village” in the phrase has started to resemble McGoohan’s imagination of a surveillance society. The speed with which information travelled in The Village is analogous to how the information is spread now within seconds. This is again shown in the show, when Number 6 answers to an interview by saying “no comments” but the published version that puts everything out of context is what is seen by the villagers, and it is that which they believe. This is more relevant in a post-truth context where our opinions are more important than real facts, and the value of truth is eroded.

Therefore, The Prisoner poses very present questions, the most important one being the relationship that is shared between an individual and the state, and the individual and the community. The relationship we share with the state by allowing them to keep an eye on us 24/7 in exchange of our inherent right to liberty is indeed a tricky one. This exchange contradicts Nozick‘s theory of liberty according to which a person, with their own free will, can never exchange their liberty as it is so inherent to them.

Does that mean in the current world we agreed to this exchange because of the influence that the State holds over us? Should a Democratic State hold this influence upon us or should it be other way around? Did we voluntarily agree to this exchange? Did we have an option?

These are some questions that are asked The Prisoner. Number 6 for the whole duration of the show fights for his right to liberty and his right of not conforming to the norms that are followed by the Community around him.

A masterpiece by McGoohan and cult show, The Prisoner is a must-watch now more than ever to understand the life we are living, and the trade we have made with giving away our liberty to be regulated by the State.

As McGoohan said in 1977: “Freedom is a myth. There’s no final conclusion to it”.

Be seeing you.

Written by Namit Halakhandi

Namit is a sports lawyer, sports enthusiast, and graphic designer. His passion for pop culture perfectly blends with his ability to keep up every discussion possible.

David Lynch supremacy.

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