60s’ #47: ‘The Prisoner’

Every Saturday, The Savvy Screener’s Boomer Box is counting down “The 50 Greatest Television Episodes of the 1960s,” in reverse chronological order, as researched and written by Todd M. Pence.

#47: The Prisoner: ‘Arrival’

The Prisoner, Arrival
(Source: Wikipedia)

The summer of 1968 presented American television viewers with a novel and unique program — an import which had originally aired in Britain the previous year.

The Prisoner, which ran on CBS, was the brainchild of actor Patrick McGoohan. McGoohan was coming off a successful TV run as superspy John Drake in Danger Man (aka Secret Agent). At first blush, The Prisoner would seem to be familiar territory, but the tone and format of the show was actually drastically different.

The Prisoner was, quite simply, one of the most surreal and enigmatic series of its time…and even today. The show drew upon literary influences such as Franz Kafka’s The Trial, Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, and George Orwell’s 1984. Viewers and critics alike didn’t know what to make of the series during its initial showing, but it has stood the test of time as a true cult classic.

Patrick McGoohan, The Prisoner, Arrival, Stephanie Randall
(Patrick McGoohan and Stephanie Randall in ‘The Prisoner’: ‘Arrival.’ Source: IMDb)

McGoohan plays an unnamed secret agent who abruptly resigns from his job. Immediately upon returning home he is incapacitated by knockout gas piped into his flat by unknown assailants. He awakes to find himself in a strange place known only as “the Village,”  a seemingly idyllic resort community. He soon learns that the place is a remote island where former government workers — deemed to have too much knowledge to be allowed to return to public life — are kept captive.

He is given the designation “Number Six.” All the residents — just like prison inmates — are identified by numbers, not proper names. Number Six is introduced to the apparent ruler of the Village, Number Two. Number Two evidences a keen interest in obtaining the reason for Number Six’s resignation.

The driving force behind the series’ 17 episodes are: Number Six’s efforts to escape to the outside world; his resistance to his captors’ attempts to break him; his captors’ desire to learn the reasons for his resignation (motivated more by a need for psychological dominance than for knowledge, akin to O’Brien in 1984 conditioning Winston Smith to miscount the number of fingers he is holding up); and his attempt to ascertain the identity of the unseen “Number One” who is the true head honcho of the Village.

The Prisoner, Arrival
‘(The Prisoner’: allegory or action show? Source: IMDb)

So much has been written about The Prisoner that the true scope of the show cannot be done justice in a brief recap such as this one. The Prisoner was not a perfect series. Its biggest issue was not being able to decide whether it wanted to be a symbolic allegory or a straightforward action show (a dichotomy which reflected the behind-the-scenes struggles between McGoohan and producer George Markstein).

Also, the show was often too obtuse for its own good, never more so than in the deliberately incomprehensible series finale, “Fall Out,” which I’m convinced was McGoohan yanking the chain of those fans he felt over-analyzed the show. Nonetheless The Prisoner remains a groundbreaking and seminal television series unlike any before or since.

In choosing the best and most representative episode of this series, there are several fine candidates, and I’m sure devotees of The Prisoner will all chime in with their favorites. But there’s really no need to look any farther than “Arrival,” the episode which introduced U.S. audiences to the world of the Village on June 1, 1968.

You can watch “Arrival” with an Amazon Prime subscription, or free on Archive.org, Pluto TV, Shout Factory TV, Tubi or right here:

While perhaps not as intricate or nuanced as later episodes, it works as a standalone segment with all the elements present that would define the series and establish its place in pop culture history.

Be seeing you.

(Top photo source: IMDb)

About Todd M. Pence

Todd M Pence has been an amateur historian and scholar of American television for the past 35 years. “The 50 Greatest Television Episodes of the 1960” is the product of decades of research, not just in active viewing but in extensive combing of newspaper and magazine archives to read the original reviews of programs at the time they aired. He has also reached out to fellow television researchers to get their opinions. Pence maintains that the decade of the 1960's constituted the zenith of American primetime television drama, and that we will probably never see its like again. His purpose in compiling this list was to preserve this history and to spotlight many exceptional programs which have been forgotten and consigned to the dustbin of history. Pence holds a BA in Journalism from West Virginia University and has worked for the past 20 years in the Fairfax (Virginia) County Public School system

View All Articles

Leave a Comment