It seems to be a case of received wisdom that the genesis of The Prisoner begins in Danger Man. Certainly off-screen that seems to be the case, but there’s nothing to tie it explicitly to the former programme. A man has an argument with his superiors, hands in his resignation and is overpowered by sources unknown. When he awakes he finds himself in a stylised version of an English country village on the seaside. And that’s it. It’s as much as we learn in this opening episode; though there are clues as to the nature of his captors they are ambiguous and seem deliberately confusing.
What is noticeable is the Prisoner’s reaction to his imprisonment. Barring his initial bemusement he wastes no time in pursuing freedom or, failing that, answers. He cares not for comfort, shows little interest in details not relevant to his ultimate goal, expends no energy or thought to nothing not central to his escape and is bloody-minded in pursuit of freedom.
His growing frustration is palpable, and we share his unease and growing angst at his inability to escape the confines of the village. Even his captors seem to recognise that he is likely to pose a singular challenge.
What do they want? Where is this place? Who are they? None of it matters, nor will it ever, we sense. Imprisonment is the only reality, no matter how pleasant or comfortable. Escape is the only matter at hand, no matter what means.
The Prisoner is the ultimate economy of storytelling. He wants to escape. That is the only narrative; that is his only concern. For a TV landscape of oddballs and eccentrics whose intellect, swagger and curiosity are paramount – The Doctor, Steed, Adam Adamant, Jason King, Simon Templar – this is shocking in its starkness and simplicity.
Six may be urbane, intelligent, resourceful and well-mannered, but not of it matters while he is trapped in the village; against the effortless power of Number Two or the mindless, unknowable inescapability of the Rover. Only his physicality, his cunning matter here and may prove to be of some use to him.
Alas, they are not. There’s a real tension in sensing Number Six’s growing angst at the prospect of being trapped in the village; a desperation borne of horror at the closing walls of this most delightful, most gentle of prisons.
Skillful direction and a quite startling performance from McGoohan make The Prisoner so powerful, but so too do the resolute normality of everyone else involved. This is their reality; it’s normal for them. But what is this place?
The question is nagging, gnawing. Will we tune in next week, seeking the same answers Number Six strives for? Certainly we will. Because everyone’s a little trapped, a little confined, a little panicky that they recognise the physical and metaphysical limitations of their reality.
Our own are not marked with mountains and sea, but they may as well be.