Letting the Audience Decide: The Prisoner (TV Showcase #30)

There’s alot to be said for British television, and considering how far behind they were of the American TV industry in the 1950s and 60s, it’s really quite incredible what they were able to do with the limited resources that they had. I watched this show on recommendation from an older Scottish gentleman that I know, and I  wasn’t expecting much after seeing the low episode count. However, the show turned out to be fantastic, and its methods of storytelling fairly blew my mind. That’s why this time I’m going to talk about “The Prisoner”. 

“The Prisoner” began airing in 1967 and ran for 17 hour-long episodes, ending in 1968. The show’s plot is ambiguous, and as it’s part of the discussion this time, I’ll talk about it down below. The show starred Patrick McGoohan of “Secret Agent” as the only main character, whose name is never revealed. Interestingly of note, the theme music was composed by Ron Grainer, the theme composer of “Doctor Who”, so if you wanted to find out what Grainer’s main kind of music sounded like, “The Prisoner” theme would be a good place to look.

The really interesting thing about “The Prisoner” is that it offered the audience a chance to fill in main plot points on their own, giving the story way more meaning than if it had been explained right from the start. Let me give an example. The facts of the series are that the main character quits his job, and after he gets home, he’s knocked unconscious by a mysterious group of people, and when he wakes up, he’s in a completely new place. This place is called the Village, and it’s completely cut off from the rest of the world. The man is given the identification number of six, so the audience only knows him by Number Six. Number Two is the acting head of the Village, and he/she tries to trick Number Six into revealing important information. However, Number Six always outsmarts Number Two, and Number Two mysteriously disappears, to be replaced by a new Number Two.

The audience must fill in who Number Six is, what his job was, where the Village is, who Number One is, who in the Village Number Six can trust, whether or not his ordeal is due to his quitting his job, why he quit his job, and other items of plot. I personally assume that Number Six was a spy who was asked to do something unethical and quit his job. Then an enemy spy organisation captured him and took him to the Village until he gave away secrets, the most important of which is why he quit his job. I may be completely incorrect, but that’s the fun of it. And since the majority of the show takes place without dialogue, the audience is also left to guess what Number Six is thinking. It’s an incredible example of storytelling.

Number Six often tries to escape from the Village, but he never gets far, so almost all of the show takes place inside of the Village. And despite the limited set, the story continues to be interesting.

Now, to be fair, the show was incredibly strange most of the time, which also contributes to the “fill in the blank” effect, and the ending was a bit rushed, compensating for its lack of story with alot of special effects and new props. Even McGoohan, who wrote the finale, admitted that he wasn’t really sure what the ending was supposed to mean. But while the ending could have been better, the show itself was very enjoyable.

“The Prisoner” was a fantastic example of storytelling by using lack of details to let the audience tell the story, and I’ve never seen another show do it quite so well. What do you think?

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