Prisoners of Our Own Design

Number Six promised so much: why did he fail to deliver?

Having just watched every episode of The Prisoner for the first time since 1968, I can’t escape asking an obvious question; and it’s not, “Who is Number One?” but, “Why do so many great TV series fall at the final hurdle?”

Patrick McGoohan’s iconic Cold War thriller is the ultimate example of building an audience’s expectations to fever pitch, only to dash them at the end like a missed penalty in a cup final; but it is far from being alone. Westworld is a recent case in point, missing the ball entirely in season three.

To be fair, The Prisoner was a very ambitious project. The premise was brilliant (a secret village dedicated to imprisoning and breaking those from both sides who know too much). It posed intriguing riddles over 17 episodes, drawing us in with the promise of answers. Mixing in the latest developments in surveillance and brain washing was clever but less challenging than simultaneously posing fundamental questions about individualism versus conformity. Making it also work as a surrealist plunge into our deepest psyche was a real stretch; and bringing it all together at the end, in a way that answered the riddles it had posed, was evidently too tall an order even for a near-genius like McGoohan.

Sadly, he over-steered on the surrealism so hard that he missed the goal, notoriously failing to deliver an ending that was satisfying not just in the surrealist realm but also in the real world. We have a word for that: it’s called a copout. Back in 1968, the public were enraged because he broke the implicit contract he had with them, to deliver an ending that justified the emotional and intellectual capital they had invested in trying to solve the riddle.

This doesn’t mean that you have to explain everything. Sometimes it’s better to leave the mystery unsolved. Think of Picnic at Hanging Rock. Generations of fans have gone nuts trying to work out what happened, which is a perfect result for the author. But you see, she did actually know the answer. She had not only a surrealist solution that (in my opinion) is a load of bollocks, but also a complete, real-world solution (you can Google them both). As with any good Whodunnit, the solution existed and informed the whole story, with the clues left there for the reader to find, if they looked hard enough.

McGoohan didn’t do this. He admitted as much to Lew Grade, the then head of the production company, which is one of the reasons they cut the series short.

In the case of Westworld, the issue is more basic: the writers lost sight of what the series was about. They wandered off into a confused futuristic action movie that was all image and no substance. They should have focused on the key issues that Michael Crichton raised in the original book. What makes us human? How is a human different from an AI? How would natural and artificial humans relate if they were equal? And if AI advances beyond us, what would that relationship become? I so hope that Series 4 gets back on track.

Back in The Village, I feel the need to answer the questions that were left unsatisfied back in ’68. I’m doing this just for me, so if you like it that’s great and if you don’t, I don’t really care; but by all means let me know.

Question 1: where is The Village? It’s not in the UK but in either southern Portugal, the coast of Andalusia, or Morocco. This is made clear when The Prisoner flies over it in the episode “Many Happy Returns”; and by the route they take back to London after they escape. They drop off “The Youth” on the A20 in Kent, which is the main route to London from the Channel Ports, which they must have come through after driving back across Spain and France.

Question 2: Who is Number One? I don’t mean in the surrealist realm, where it’s The Prisoner himself, but in the real world. In my version, it’s literally a number: a telephone number. Or more precisely, the operator of a bank of telephones, who passes on directives from the agencies that control the village.

Question 3: Who runs The Village? To understand this, we have to go back to its origins, which are hinted at by the writers’ inspirations. In particular, a luxury estate in Scotland where senior Nazi officers were held during WW2. It was riddled with listening devices, so that key information could be extracted from their unguarded conversations.

The POW camp that became The Village was located in one of three places that were geopolitically ideal for the purpose. At this time both Portugal and Spain were neutral countries, whose fascist regimes were tolerated by the Allies, whilst Morocco was semi-independent but under their arms-length control.

As WW2 ended and the Cold War began, the facility is retained to hold and debrief people from all backgrounds who have important information and are considered a security risk. Only a handful of people in British Intelligence know about it, plus a few in the host country. It is supported by a black budget, disguised as a convalescence facility for those with psychological disorders.

Information gleaned from the residents is found to be valuable not only to British Intelligence but also to both their allies and foes. Horse trading of information and even agents starts to take place. The Village becomes a useful place to send, debrief and assess agents who have been exchanged.

At some point around 1950, the Head of the British intelligence services dies suddenly, without having briefed a successor. The senior surviving officer who knows about The Village realises that only a handful of others share the secret, most of them his subordinates. He passes it off to the new chief as a low-level facility and begins to secure off-the-books expansion of its budget.

With its management unfettered, The Village starts to trade far more widely in information; and to offer “retirement” and interrogation services to foreign agencies. As revenues increase, so do the number of players participating. Many from behind the Iron Curtain are suborned by corruption and they conceal what is really going on from their superiors, just as the British have done. It is a European affair: no hint of American participation ever surfaces in the series.

When any lawful intelligence operative becomes suspicious, they are kidnapped and incarcerated in The Village. By the 1960s (the era of Philby, Burgess and Maclean), nearly half of the senior British intelligence staff are involved; yet they have to be careful within HQ in London because the man at the top and several of their senior colleagues are not party to the game.

At this point, The Prisoner is brought to The Village and interrogated by a succession of managers known as Number Two, drawn from the various national agencies that, knowingly or not, have agents who participate in funding, supplying and running the operation.

Question 4: What happens after The Prisoner escapes? Well, that’s where the mystery continues, into a new series that I do hope will be made, some day.

What of my original question: why do so many great TV series disappoint at the end? Sometimes the producers are simply in too much of a rush, which is mostly down to finance. Sometimes it’s a loss of nerve, like the footballer who misses the last penalty in the cup final. Occasionally, as with Game of Thrones, it’s because new writers lack the talent of the originator. But most often, as with The Prisoner, it’s the result of promising a solution to an intriguing riddle, without actually having one. For those of us who plunge into writing stories without having worked out the ending, that should provide a salutary lesson.