Some Comments on “The Prisoner”

by Ralph Dumain

feedback 1

I appreciate all the research that has gone into the series—unearthing of production schedules, teleplays, the Alternate Chimes [of Big Ben] and other background information needed to understand the final product. But I am somewhat disappointed by the treatment of the deeper issues raised by The Prisoner.

The author of the article in the Colour Special about the college course materials used by OECA and Arizona State University completely bungles his topic. The article "Free for Nothing" in Number Six issue 11 is completely obtuse to the obvious issues about the nature of power, the ability of one individual to command a whole system, and the reality of free choice which Free for All so astutely raises.

"Alcoholic Anonymous" goes out of its way to prove a far-fetched and essentially trivial point. Steven Maher would have done better to concentrate on the role of alcohol in society, as a social lubricant, a supposed release from inhibition, and a common social denominator etc. Clearly, the pre-election scene in Free for All where No. 6 is led (in a brainwashed state) to a clandestine pub where he encounters a purportedly drunk No. 2 is a commentary on the illusory escape provided by alcohol [and pubs] from a guilty conscience and an oppressive society. The "escape" is just another part of the system.

William Molloy's stubborn shallowness ("Whose side are you on?" same issue) in refusing to accept The Prisoner as anything more than meaningless entertainment is insufferable. The Prisoner does not interest me as a form of cultism, escapism, fantasy, or self-indulgence (a la "Star Trek") but as a serious exploration of the nature of power, manipulation, technocratic sadism, depersonalization, identity and freedom.

In Fall Out, No. 2, No. 6, and No. 48 dance in the motorized cell to the tune of "Dem Bones" [as the truck races to or through London]. A typically constipated middle-class Briton turns on his car radio and hears "Dem bones dem bones gonna walk around." Clearly this is intended as a call to the viewers to wake up from their death-like existence—their mechanised, one-dimensional, tranquillised and brainwashed state of unfreedom. The aforementioned bourgeois Englishman did not understand what was going on. Evidently, neither did the British audience. That the viewers could be baffled and annoyed by something so obvious as Fall Out just shows how mentally and spiritually dead people have become. I am disappointed that even Prisoner devotees could be so blind. I hope the conservative undercurrent I detect in the pages of Number Six is not representative of the society as a whole.

[Published in Number Six, no. 14, Winter 1988, p. 21, minus bracketed passages.]


When I joined Six of One, I was afraid there was nothing original left I could say about The Prisoner, but after reviewing my issues of Number Six from 1987 and 1988, I see that the field of philosophical interpretation has only begun to be dealt with seriously. A lot of print has been spent on questions that are either diversionary or contradict the material essence of the sociopolitical organization No. 6 confronts, such as: Was No. 6 really a plant in the village. Was he really No.1 all along (not just at the end)? Did No. 6 dream the whole thing? Was he an alcoholic? Was he maladjusted, [perhaps wrongheaded in insisting on his own way,] etc.?

Added to this foolishness are two serious but questionable right-wing interpretations of The Prisoner which were conspicuous last year: (1) the Christian interpretation, (2) the "libertarian" view of the crypto-fascist writer Ayn Rand.

Now I would not put it past McGoohan, given his background, to hold the second view as well as having been inspired by the first. But we can't go on McGoohan's subjective views (known or imputed) alone; we have to rely on the textual evidence itself -- that is, proceed from the concrete to the abstract.

McGoohan's greatness is that he transcended his own abundant egotism. Working from his unconscious and from his intuitive, spontaneous grasp of the Prisoner scenario, he (and his writers, of course) created a meaningful fictional world which must be analysed based on the ideas that are concretely embedded in it.

Thank God or material circumstance that McGoohan seized the opportunity and wrested the content of the series from the [cretinous] superficiality of Lew Grade and George Markstein—both commercial opportunists and [blind, blind,] blind as bats. McGoohan had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to beat such people at their own game. [(Darren Nesbit is also a pea-brain, judging by the interview in no. 14.)] And what a redeeming thing McGoohan did, following the contemptible cold-war propaganda of Danger Man / Secret Agent.

[(In his day, Willam Blake sniped at his patrons of the arts who would destroy the revolutionary content of art were they capable of understanding it. With one hand they flatter and promote, with the other co-opt and destroy.)]

Of course, there is an inherent ambiguity in The Prisoner. The social-fascist scenario which it presents can be analysed from a left or a right-wing perspective, just as the Village's real-world parallels have come under attack from both the left and right over the last half-century.

Let us hope that Six of One can tolerate such discussion and is not anti-working-class as some fear (see John Somers's letter in issue 15, page 27 and Kenneth Bishton's letter in issue 14, page 23). I would like to elaborate on this in the future and place The Prisoner in its social and literary context. Articles have already appeared relating The Prisoner to literary predecessors: Zamyatin, Orwell and Kafka. I intend to pursue this direction myself and wish to discuss Plato, Blake and Shelley for starters.

[Note: Passages from my ms not appearing in the published article are enclosed in brackets. This piece was published under the above title in the "feedback"column of Number Six, issue 20, summer 1989. p. 10.]


I cannot refrain from reacting to the pretentious gasbag Dave Packwood ("It's all in the text", issue 21 [p. 25]). For someone who claims that there is nothing outside the text (an asinine doctrine if ever there was one), Mr. Packwood did not bother to read with any care what I actually wrote (issue 20).

Most of the polysyllabic abstract words that he tosses around are not used either meaningfully or grammatically, and his name-dropping (Derrida, Trotsky) does not help to bolster his incoherent argument. Showing off requires little intellectual talent.

It is amply evident [in all my articles in Number Six] that I do not believe in treating either McGoohan or the series as the object of any kind of cult or fetishism. I have always treated the series in a critical way, and my remarks about anti-working-class bias prove my interest in serious discussion and in using an "ideological tool" such as The Prisoner in an intelligent way—i.e. as an intellectual and educational tool, which is the only use it has.

I would never advocate that Six of One become affiliated with Amnesty International or any other organisation or cause, even if all the members of Six of One shared that same political orientation.

I never advocated Neo-Platonism (neither did Blake in spite of dubious claims to the contrary) or transcendentalism. McGoohan transcends his own ego only in a very specific way. Because he thinks concretely as an artist does, the abstract ideas of the series are deducible from its specifics, not the other way round. McGoohan's unconscious symbolic reasoning transcends the body of beliefs that he consciously holds. Even on a conscious level, he argues for individual autonomy and freedom of thought, though he is a devout Catholic.

[Published in Number Six, no. 25, autumn 1990, p. 12, minus bracketed passages.]

feedback 4

The Prisoner is once again being shown on American network TV, although it is not always shown at the hour it is supposed to be, and the opening and closing sequences are badly butchered.

I saw the episode A Change of Mind for the first time in 20 years. I cannot be the first person to notice the obvious fact that, whatever else is being criticised, this episode is a[n obvious] satire on Maoism. However, like George Orwell, this episode combines elements of various social systems and criticises them all in the way they break down the integrity of the individual.

The idea of surgically removing aggression, a typically mechanistic and bureaucratic concept which overlooks the dialectical inseparability of positive and negative as well as the necessity of the aggressive impulse for self-defence [(especially against oppression)].

Attempting to remove the obstinacy of the individual (even though it can only mask it) while doing nothing to check the aggressiveness and "unmutuality" of the ruling order and its administrators, is a manifestation not [only] of Maoist China but of the abuses of psychiatry for political purposes practised in our own society.

[Published in Number Six, no. 25, autumn 1990, p. 25, minus bracketed passages.]

Articles compiled, edited, uploaded 21 October 2001.
© 1988-2001 Ralph Dumain

Convergence on The Prisoner: From Leon Trotsky to George Orwell and Beyond
by Ralph Dumain

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