Saturday, January 17, 2009

Be Seeing You
It got lost this week amidst pre-inauguration hysteria, the admittedly amazing plane in the Hudson River story, and even the demise of fellow TV icon Ricardo Montalban, but I can't let the passing of actor Patrick McGoohan go unremarked-upon here.

McGoohan played Number Six in the legendary late-'60s TV show The Prisoner, which he also essentially co-created and executive-produced. McGoohan's character is a British secret agent who, after abruptly resigning his post, is abducted and brought to a community known only as The Village, on an island that seems to be off all known maps, populated by "people who know too much." He spends the duration of the series trying both to escape back to London and to resist the efforts of a rotating group of Village administrators--all known as "Number Two"--to determine why he resigned. Like many of the best television series--Twin Peaks and Arrested Development, to name two--The Prisoner ran short and burned hot: only 17 episodes were made. But its cultural influence was no less for its short duration, and it had an enormous impact on my outlook when I first saw it in late-night PBS reruns as a teenager some twenty-odd years ago. Its core theme, that every person must struggle to keep his autonomy and even his sanity in the face of ceaseless efforts to grind away both, keeps the show fresh more than forty years after it was committed to tape. Among the many subsequent shows and films influenced by The Prisoner is Battlestar Galactica, which named its first revealed Cylon character Number Six as an homage to the earlier show. (At this writing, btw, I have not seen the season 4.5 premiere of Battlestar--no spoilers, please.)

The Prisoner was as original, iconoclastic, occasionally frustrating and consistently compelling as its star. McGoohan had both Irish and American antecedents--he was born in Queens--and a unique moral perspective that I suspect annoyed the hell out of more libertine show business types. Legend has it that he was originally offered the role of James Bond when Ian Fleming's series was adapted to film, but turned it down out of distaste for the promiscuous sex and gratuitous violence of the Bond stories. He certainly didn't crave the spotlight: McGoohan's two most prominent appearances in the last 15 years of his life were as the villainous King Edward in "Braveheart"--he and Mel Gibson were close friends, and it was rumored for years that Gibson might star in a film remake of "The Prisoner--and a mid-period "Simpsons" episode in which Homer becomes a muckraking internet journalist and is sentenced to The Island, a hardly-at-all-disguised takeoff of the Village from "The Prisoner," where he meets McGoohan's Number Six (who, in the story, was exiled not for resigning from an intelligence service but for inventing the bottomless peanut bag).

With AMC set to air a mini-series reboot of "The Prisoner" later this year, here's hoping both that it lives up to the remarkably high standard McGoohan set and that it redirects some attention toward the life and career of this visionary artist.


Feral said...

I am not a number. I am a free man.

He was a true original who refused to conform in an industry that demands it. He could have been richer and more famous, but chose to remain an extreme rarity in the TV medium; a true original.

For an entire generation and more, finding one's self in foreign circumstances and strange settings will first and forever conjure the thought, "what is this, The Prisoner?".

No small feat, that.

David said...

Check out the second YouTube clip in the last link of this post. It's him explaining the series finale. Sort of.