"We're run by the Pentagon, we're run by Madison Avenue, we're run by television, and as long as we accept those things and don't revolt we'll have to go along with the stream to the eventual avalanche.... As long as we go out and buy stuff, we're at their mercy… We all live in a little Village. Your Village may be different from other people's Villages, but we are all prisoners."— Patrick McGoohan
First broadcast in Great Britain 50 years ago, The Prisoner—a dystopian television series described as "James Bond meets George Orwell filtered through Franz Kafka"—confronted societal themes that are still relevant today: the rise of a police state, the freedom of the individual, round-the-clock surveillance, the corruption of government, totalitarianism, weaponization, group think, mass marketing, and the tendency of humankind to meekly accept their lot in life as a prisoner in a prison of their own making.
Perhaps the best visual debate ever on individuality and freedom, The Prisoner (17 episodes in all) centers around a British secret agent who abruptly resigns only to find himself imprisoned, monitored by militarized drones, and interrogated in a mysterious, self-contained, cosmopolitan, seemingly tranquil retirement community known only as the Village. The Village is an idyllic setting with parks and green fields, recreational activities and even a butler.
While luxurious and resort-like, the Village is a virtual prison disguised as a seaside paradise: its inhabitants have no true freedom, they cannot leave the Village, they are under constant surveillance, their movements are tracked by surveillance drones, and they are stripped of their individuality and identified only by numbers.
The series' protagonist, played by Patrick McGoohan, is Number Six.
Number Two, the Village administrator, acts as an agent for the unseen and all-powerful Number One, whose identity is not revealed until the final episode.
"I am not a number. I am a free man," was the mantra chanted on each episode of The Prisoner, which was largely written and directed by McGoohan.
In the opening episode ("The Arrival"), Number Six meets Number Two, who explains to him that he is in The Village because information stored "inside" his head has made him too valuable to be allowed to roam free "outside."
Throughout the series, Number Six is subjected to interrogation tactics, torture, hallucinogenic drugs, identity theft, mind control, dream manipulation, and various forms of social indoctrination and physical coercion in order to "persuade" him to comply, give up, give in and subjugate himself to the will of the powers-that-be.
Number Six refuses to comply.
In every episode, Number Six resists the Village's indoctrination methods, struggles to maintain his own identity, and attempts to escape his captors. "I will not make any deals with you," he pointedly remarks to Number Two. "I've resigned. I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own."
Yet no matter how far Number Six manages to get in his efforts to escape, it's never far enough.
Watched by surveillance cameras and other devices, Number Six's getaways are continuously thwarted by ominous white balloon-like spheres known as "rovers." Still, he refuses to give up. "Unlike me," he says to his fellow prisoners, "many of you have accepted the situation of your imprisonment, and will die here like rotten cabbages."
Number Six's escapes become a surreal exercise in futility, each episode an unfunny, unsettling Groundhog's Day that builds to the same frustrating denouement: there is no escape.
As journalist Scott Thill concludes for Wired, "Rebellion always comes at a price. During the acclaimed run of The Prisoner, Number Six is tortured, battered and even body-snatched: In the episode 'Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling,' his mind is transplanted to another man's body. Number Six repeatedly escapes The Village only to be returned to it in the end, trapped like an animal, overcome by a restless energy he cannot expend, and betrayed by nearly everyone around him."
The series is a chilling lesson about how difficult it is to gain one's freedom in a society in which prison walls are disguised within the trappings of technological and scientific progress, national security and so-called democracy.
As Thill noted when McGoohan died in 2009, "The Prisoner was an allegory of the individual, aiming to find peace and freedom in a dystopia masquerading as a utopia."