The Prisoner: Failure Is The Only Option

the prisoner free-for-all

What do we want? Information. You won’t get it…oh, you know the drill. Few TV series have provoked so much debate, interest, and even downright outrage as Patrick McGoohan’s  The Prisoner (for he did indeed orchestrate almost every detail of the show)  in 1967. A paean to liberty, a Rand-ian blueprint, metaphysical exploration of the soul – The Prisoner confounded as many people as Lost in it’s day, and still does. McGoohan himself later stated:

“The series was conceived to make it appear that our hero was striving to be “completely free”, “utterly himself”. Too much of that and society would be overrun by rampant extremists and there would be anarchy. The intention was satirical. Be as free as possible within our situation, but the war is with Number One. I had the chance to do something as nutty as I did. A chance that might only come once in a lifetime. If I was an idiot, so be it.” 

What follows is a contemporaneous humorous essay by acclaimed science fiction author Isaac Asimov, taken from a 1968 issue of TV Guide.

  “I’ve resigned. I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own. I resign.”

In the first program, our hero (he was called “The prisoner”, I noted, which is an odd name; it would sound better if they used his full name and called him Theodore Prisoner, I think) resigned from the British secret service. I wasn’t worried; he was going to be a double agent.

Then he got captured, but I wasn’t worried. He would escape. I kept looking at my watch and chuckling. In ten minutes he would escape; now only in five minutes, four minutes, three minutes. I was overwhelmed at the ingenuity of the writers, for he had only one minute left and there was no sign of an escape yet.


He didn’t escape. You won’t believe me, but he didn’t I was thunderstruck!

Could it be a two-parter? Surely he would escape next week?

He didn’t escape. The bad guys had these huge spheres that-oh well, he didn’t escape.

The next week he didn’t escape either. Week after week he didn’t escape. To be sure, he won some minor skirmishes. For instance, he never told them why he left the secret service.

But we, the audience, never found out either. We never found out anything. We never found out where the place was where Theodore prisoner was being held prisoner, or who ran it, or why it was it was run, or who everybody else was, or why they wanted to know why he resigned, or anything.

the prisoner village map

Failure, failure, failure! Thodore P. failed. He never got out. We failed. We never understood.

I took the matter up with my young daughter, who is 13 and highly regarded throughout her junior high school for her keen perception. “How do you explain it?” I asked.

Well,” she said thoughtfully, “I think that Mr McGoohan is trying to portray the plight of modern man trapped in a conventional society that he is incapable of altering and yet from which he cannot escape. The Number 2 villain changes each week, as do many of his fellow prisoners, to show that although society superficially alters as different men come into power, it remains always a prison for individuality, as is indicated by the fact that the protagonist does not even have a name but is known only as The prisoner. It means-“

But I sighed and walked away. poor child! She is bright for her age, but lacks the necessary sophistication to grasp the deeper meanings. She too, had failed-

And, I believe, it was then that I grasped the point. Failure! That was the key!

(Unfortunately part 3 of In Search Of The prisoner will not embed – click on from the video above)

What is so noble about success? How many people can be successful? To be successful, you must work and slave and even then, you may not make it. how few are succesul; how many aren’t!

To preach a drive for success is to preach human inequality and that is undemocratic!

In a blinding flash, the words of a tender and touching ballad came to me:

It takes a million dollars to be a millionaire,

But a pauper can be poor without a cent!

That was it. We can’t all succeed, but we can all fail, and in this common, universal failure we can find the brotherhood of man we all seek, the true equality at last. The old shibboleths are gone. Let us, all of us together, with Patrick McGoohan showing us the way, backtrack to failure. let us shamble along the leaden road to obscurity, heads sunk low. Let us all of us together, aspire to the depths, grasp for the ground, hitch our wagon to a rock, and look the other way when opportunity knocks.

the prisoner penny farthing

Is it any wonder that  The Prisoner proved a tremendously popular programme? Surely you wouldn’t have thought so. Can you think of a single confusing, obscure novel that has become famous? or a single piece of poetry of this type? A single play? Artistic production?

Well then, The Prisoner can’t have become popular because it was obscure and confusing. It must be popular because it cracks the old undemocratic folly of success for the few; because it points the way to comfortable attainment of failure for everybody.

My young daughter, when I enthusiastically explained this to her, pointed out that if I were to write this thesis in the form of an article and sell it, I would be cutting myself off from humanity by being successful.

I had to smile faintly at her naivete. Poor dear! She was obviously too young to see that I had passed on to the next stage: I was even failing to achieve failure, and that was the ultimate failure of all.

Be seeing you.




Originally posted 2014-10-19 16:47:04. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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